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Hope for the PhDs

Everyone knows the difficulty faced by the humanist with an advanced degree seeking a job in today's world. Each of us in this season will be watching, perhaps with ill-concealed apprehension, as a talented young person with a PhD in English, history, or languages makes his (or her) way into the jungle of reality. This friend will have gone through many years of training at a favorite university, keeping faithful vigils by the fonts of classical knowledge, mastering the secrets of concentration, research, writing, and disciplined thought. What does he find, now that his degree is at last safely in hand?

Too often he finds that nobody wants to employ him. He had supposed in his happier anticipations that he would find a job in academia, prolonging his long tutelage to the muses and at the same time providing a blessed chance to communicate his knowledge to others. But not until the 1990s or so, when the flock of professors who received tenure in the 1960s is retiring, will he begin to find openings of that kind. The 1990s seem a long way off. He might in the meanwhile occupy himself by driving a taxi or waiting on tables in a restaurant - poor substitutes for the dreams of glory that once he harbored.

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Princeton University, where I have been privileged to be spending some time, is giving serious thought to the problems and has come up with some stimulating ideas. President Bowen devoted his recent annual report to the declining opportunities for employment in academic work, and more recently the graduate school has joined with the Office of Career Services for a crowded evening of discussion. If the university world cannot supply jobs to PhDs, it was suggested , perhaps industry and commerce can. It is a somewhat startling and even heretical idea. Not long ago it was to escape these very arenas that students betook themselves to the cloister where the liberal arts could be pursued. An earlier president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, envisaged an ''ideal place of learning,'' where ''calm science'' was seated, ''recluse, ascetic, like a nun''; and literature, ''walking within her open doors, in quiet chambers, with men of olden times, storied walls abut her, and calm voices infinitely sweet. . . .'' Are the devotees of these muses now prepared to take their chances on the open field of battle?

It seems they are. The director of career services, Minnie Reed, evoked an enthusiastic response when she told the graduate students, now somberly awaiting their degrees, that opportunities are open to them in such fields as finance and management. She tells of one graduate student in politics who became a private detective: ''his research skills were essential for that line of work.'' The CIA has seized upon others - heaven help them! Research and communication capabilities are ''directly translatable,'' Reed assures the soon-to-be PhDs, and with a little retraining the graduate students, instead of lording it over a classroom, can be at home in the marts of trade.

I like the idea, I must confess. If I were hiring an office manager it would please me to think he might be an expert on Milton and could at any moment compose an ode or a sonnet. I would be reassured, besides, by trusting him to have a knowledge of human nature, a sense of life's victories and defeats, which the liberal arts at their best develop in a man or woman. Ms. Reed points out that a Princetonian holding a PhD has a special attraction for the job market - an argument I would not altogether deny, even though a Yale man myself. From whatever grove of academe, I would simply say, a liberal education is a better preparation for the tasks of life than many a more specialized training.

It must, however, be a true grove - where the values of life have been thoughtfuly cultivated and the skills of the mind and the imagination have been laboriously won. A graduate degree attained just for the sake of the degree is not a valid passport to employment in any field. Like other empty honors, like every meaningless and cheaply won badge, it should properly condemn its holder to wanderings in an outer dark. But let those who have worked faithfully take hope. The world will not neglect them. There is a place for all who have wrestled with ultimate problems and toiled in the night hours to reach an elusive ideal. They may even do better than to get a job as a private detective!

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