Everyday Sociology Blog: Who You Are: Work, Education, and Identity

Everyday Sociology Blog: Who You Are: Work, Education, and Identity
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Karen Sternheimer

The phrase “I am a Ph.D.” always seems weird to me. One can to earn Ph.D. or keep Ph.D., but up to to be Ph.D. shows that there is no separation between self, education and work.

Earn a Ph.D. refers to advanced studies and experience in the field that can only realistically be achieved if one is deeply interested in the subject of one’s study. And earning this degree can lead to new modes of identity: the change of title of Mr./Mrs. to Dr. and in most cases “Professor”. These changes in identity are related to the career opportunities that an advanced degree can provide. This career path can lead to economic mobility and new peer groups that shape our sense of self and identity.

Although I earned Ph.D. and having experienced the advantages and privileges of a career through my work (often with flexible hours, intellectual enrichment, and great autonomy) in my daily life, I am not a “Ph.D. student.” That is, it is not the core of my identity. As role theory reminds us, each of us plays a number of social roles, each with expectations and responsibilities.

My role as a professor brings a lot of responsibility and expectations about my behavior. To name a few:

  • I am expected to behave professionally with colleagues and students;
  • I am expected to be patient with those who are not always professional;
  • I need to mask feelings of frustration, annoyance or annoyance with colleagues and students;
  • I need to maintain a constant enthusiasm for my course content during each class;
  • I am expected to help students whose abilities may not be sufficient to succeed in college;
  • I am expected to listen to students share their personal struggles and maintain their privacy while helping them connect to resources for emotional support;

These expectations can be exhausting, especially the last one. By the end of the semester and the end of the school year, I definitely need a break from “being” a professor, as the busyness of the school year can crowd out other identities. Because this work identity can be so all-encompassing, a non-work identity is prioritized as much as possible during breaks. Some people only know me as a person at the gym who may not even have a job for all they know. Others may be shocked to learn that my spouse hasn’t read most of my publications, and I’m fine with that.

“What are you doing?” is such a common question in the U.S. that a Google search for the question returns over 21 billion links, many with ideas for the answer (and over 7 billion links come from searches for “why not ask what do you do?”) It’s easy to ask the question that one could talk about assuming that one’s work is the most important aspect of one’s identity.

When I answer this question, other questions I often get are “what is sociology?” or “what is your major?” and I find myself going into work mode or a professor identity when I’d rather not be working. (I can imagine it’s much worse for people with MD who may be asked for health advice or a diagnosis.)

Many years ago, Chris Rock’s “Kill the Messenger” special had a segment on education and work versus career. A career is part of a person’s identity when time passes too quickly, probably because the job is so attractive. Jobs, on the other hand, are not part of a person’s identity; it’s just something a person does to make money and time passes too slowly. He jokes about working in a restaurant kitchen and deciding not to check the time for two hours. When he did, only fifteen minutes had passed.

In his signature abrupt delivery style, Rock (obscenely) reminds people with careers to stop talking about their jobs and special projects related to people with “jobs.” People in jobs, probably with lower pay, less personal interests and lower status, are tired of hearing how exciting and interesting other people’s work can be.

To me, being a sociologist means always having a sociological imagination, thinking critically about the world around me, which is different for me than being a professor. It means asking why and thinking about the social context.

As a sociologist, it’s interesting to think about how work and education are so closely tied to identity and status, especially in the US. The question “what do you do” can be particularly off-putting. other countries, even economically advanced (Reader’s Summary ranks it among the 12 rudest questions they ask abroad).

Using your sociological imagination, why do you think identity is so closely tied to work and education, especially in the US?

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