Benjamin Franklin, in a 1779 letter to a friend in France:

When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one. I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.

This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.

As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.

This should be mandatory reading – preferably re-read to the point of memorization – for anyone thinking about starting a Ph.D. program.

38 thoughts on “THE WHISTLE”

  • Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes again. And please consider that my stipend was half what political science students received and only 95% of my out of state tuition was waived. Hello Stafford Loans, here is my anus, make yourself at home.

  • As a young child, I asked a much older cousin who was in grad school what PhD. stood for.

    "Piled Higher and Deeper" was her reply.

    I think now she was referring to the debt load.

    That being said, you still entertain the readers of this blog with your well reasoned if frighteningly expensive education.

  • What HoosierPoli said. I'm addicted to academics or I wouldn't be here, but it would not be worth it if I were paying out-of-pocket.

    This should be mandatory reading for anyone applying to a private university for undergrad, too.

  • This story could serve as a cautionary tale about going to law school as well. But in this story you pay 10 times what the whistle is worth and then realize on your way home that you don't even like blowing the whistle, that it sounds like a dying bird of prey, that it annoys you and all around you and so you then sue the toy store owner for compensatory damages because your useless legal education at least taught you that children cannot legally be bound by contracts with adults.

  • Grumpygradstudent says:

    Another analogy might be helpful too. If you are climbing up a mountain, be careful, because you may get to a point where you have to reach the top before you can climb back down.

    If you have been out of the workforce for 2 or 3 years trying to get a Ph.D., you damn well better go ahead and finish it. Try explaining a giant employment gap to a potential employer.

    BTW, even if you are getting a stipend for your Ph.D., you still have to factor in opportunity costs. If you could make 45k at a normal job and get 15k per year as a stipend, that's an opportunity cost of 30k per year, for 5-7 years.

    And that's ON TOP of the preposterous debt load I have from my master's! That actually the part I really regret. If I finish this degree (and goddamnit, I will finish), i'll have upwards of 100k in debt to pay back.

    I make poor life choices! yay!

  • But on the plus side…

    …yeah, no, I got nothing. It boils down to this: If we could have done something, *anything* else, we would/should have. But we couldn't. The game isn't worth the candle, objectively, but for some of us, only the candle will do. That doesn't make the game any less bitter an experience.

  • I agreed with you upon finishing… but five years out, I can say without reservation that it was worth every penny, sweat, and tear.

  • Several times I have thought about how nice it would be to be "Dr. Chili." I have long since given up on the idea, though, and for just the reasons you state.

  • Mrs. Chili: the "Dr." title wears out its perceived charm in a hurry. The debt isn't worth it, the feeling that you've been grifted by the U system isn't worth it, and the lost opportunity costs are not worth it. When ~200 or so post hole diggers are scrapping for the same TT job, year after year, the reality starts to set in.

  • But I don't like whistles. Cymbals, now. Nobody ever paid too much for a set of cymbals (especially if they're a gift to somebody else's kids)

  • You have to do something with your life and getting a PhD isn't a bad thing. But the University Inc. bubble is the next big thing going to pop, so I'm not counting on academia as a long-term career.

  • anotherbozo says:

    Fortunately the MFA was the terminal degree for fine arts when I came up the pike, not expensive with the available fellowships. NYU offered a doctorate in visual arts–as distinct from art history–years later, and I investigated, toying with the idea that it might be the key to respect at the benighted college that employed me. But NYU was just in it for the money, its requirements laughable, something on the order of a mediocre research paper and a show, though a friend got the degree and later chaired a department in the boonies. Some institutions relate to doctorates, some to celebrity and charm ("have you met our wacko artist?"), but for the arts at the college level, there is strength only in numbers, in large, well-established departments that make up fortresses against the bias. I for one believe in a full college education for would-be artists, as opposed to the glorified trade school alternative.

    Tangential to today's blog, Paul Krugman yesterday was arguing that even the B.A. is making questionable economic sense for a lot of students:

  • I completed 170 hours of graduate work, but no Ph.D. Along the way, I discovered my true vocation–college librarian–and lived happily ever after.

  • Just to share with the others here:

    I'm finishing my masters on a teaching assistantship that pays me for teaching and I also get a certain percentage of my tuition waived. I'm still paying out of pocket and our family will be in the hole somewhat by the time I graduate. I did it on the cheap and I'm still paying for my graduate education – I love teaching and I love academia, but I could not in good conscience to my family rationalize going into the Ph.D. program at what I am making now.

  • I'm aware of the opportunity cost – and in Computer Sciences the opportunity cost is actually far higher, because I GTFO'd last year with my Masters and started at $60k. Plus bonus, plus raise. And it blew.

    For me, in order to do the kind of interesting shit that I actually *want* to do, I need that PhD. If you have a BS or MS, you get coding work. I suck at coding, I hate coding, and so do all of the other people in the PhD program – or we wouldn't be here. The way to get out of coding and to the really awesome stuff is to get a PhD. And so we slog.

  • Monkey Business says:

    @Hobbes: They really only gave you $60k for an MS in CompSci? That's some shitty shit. I was making $50k right out of school for that. Then I went over to security consulting and whatnot.

  • @Hobbes: @Monkey's right; nowadays an MS in CS is worth a minimum of $75k starting salary. Many employers also count time spent in a Ph.D. program (if you're a research assistant) as work experience. I know a few CompSci. Ph.D. students who get full tuition remission and make stipends that break $35k. I've heard stories that, with negotiation, many CS programs will match Ph.D. stipends with competing starting salaries in industry. If you graduate quickly, the opportunity cost isn't very much for Computer Scientists (many R&D labs and defense contractors have a salary/promotion cap for non-Ph.D. researchers).

  • @ Hobbes – I've got to back up the group here. Unless you live in Mississippi or Kansas, you're being vastly underpaid.

    Time to get out to one of the coasts.

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    Considering the number of Indian or Chinese computer scientists these days who are happy to be paid in a fish head and a bowl of rice every day, I really doubt that the $75k figure is correct anymore. That's what it was back in 1999 from what I recall.

  • @displaced capitalist – I just hired a database engineer for $185K. She is experienced but a trained computer scientist can still pull down some cash in the US.

  • Dear God, I am so very glad to have bailed after one year in a Masters program in Geology. Now I do wrench twiddling at a major research institution and make more than some post-docs. Life is strange.

  • Where were y'all's personal counselors?

    It became clear back before hippies roamed the earth that it made no economic sense to get an advanced degree on your own peso – and that was in freakin' Engineering, much less Art History.

    The route most people w/ sense took back in the day was to get the Corporation to pay for your advanced education. There wasn't even a period of indentured servitude associated with it.

    Before y'all blew up the health care biz, it probably made some sense to go into a couple hundred $K of debt to be a high dollar doc, but no more.


  • Weird…I thought this post was going to be about paying $499 for an iPad 2 in order to show off how the user can read a magazine, play video games in early 1990 resolution (1024×768), and check the weather.

    Those people should read this as well.

  • @displaced capitalist: I can't tell you how many companies I know that have given up on the outsourcing thing thanks to one-too-many failed projects, language barriers, and timezone differences. Except for the most mechanical of projects, the overhead of managing an overseas development team largely outweighs the benefits of low labor costs. There's a huge demand for talented CS people in the US right now:

  • HoosierPoli says:

    The thing with opportunity cost is that these days there aren't too many opportunities you're missing out on.

  • Jacob Davies says:

    "I suck at coding, I hate coding, and so do all of the other people in the PhD program – or we wouldn't be here. The way to get out of coding and to the really awesome stuff is to get a PhD. And so we slog."

    And, see, that is why people who actually work in software for a living tend to regard people with advanced CS degrees with extreme suspicion.

  • @Displaced Capitalist: "Considering the number of Indian or Chinese computer scientists these days who are happy to be paid in a fish head and a bowl of rice every day"

    WTF? Your comment is offensive.

    @Hobbes: Are you sure you aren't accidentally getting your PhD in Computer Science Studies? Sounds like you picked the wrong school. And the wrong career. People who can code are in demand all over the place. I know this because I am scouring the job boards in non-related fields.

  • I used to say that going to graduate school was like jumping out of an airplane, where you have a backpack but you don't know if it contains a parachute or a brick. Fortunately mine contained a parachute and I am living happily ever after. But I was damn lucky it turned out this way.

  • my area of study within CS was large system software development.
    what i learned is that i don't want to code.
    design it, maybe. actually write the code? mmm, no.
    so i'm an operating systems engineer.
    pays reasonably well.
    i telecommute and live on the coast.
    on an island.

    the Indians i work with all make what i do and it ain't fish heads.

  • Should of went into the trades. A union electrician pulls down 75k plus benefits. I would almost have thirty years in by now……..

  • An abbreviated sad tale of woe and sorrow:
    In the death throes at the bitter end of my terminal degree (MFA), my committee chair became ill and died with Adult Onset Leukemia, lost my main source of employment and got divorced. gpa was 3.6 and 86 hours when 60 were needed. I fought a two year war of attrition with a reconstituted committee to get final MFA project approved (all that remained, at that point.) Committee even went as far as approving a final film only to retract approval six month later. two years into war, I was press against the time limit to graduate and basically force to resign from the program.
    Soooo 90K and 7 years slurped down the drain.

    I got an education. I list myself as ABD….

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