March 20, 2023

Who are You: Work, Education, and Identity

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

The phrase “I am a Ph.D.” always strikes me as odd. One might earn a Ph.D. or hold a Ph.D., but to be a Ph.D. suggests that there is no separation between the self, education, and work.

Earning a Ph.D. connotes an extended study and expertise into a field, one that can only realistically be achieved if one has a great deal of personal interest in their topic of study. And earning this degree can create new identity pathways: a title change from Mr./Ms. to Dr., and in many cases “Professor.” These identity changes are linked with career opportunities that an advanced degree might bring. This career path might bring upward economic mobility and new peer groups, both of which shape our sense of self and identity.

Although I earned a Ph.D. and experience career benefits and privileges in my daily life as a result of my job (often with flexible hours, intellectual enrichment, and a great deal of autonomy), I am not “a Ph.D.” That is, it is not the core of my identity. As role theory reminds us, we each hold many social roles, each with expectations and responsibilities.

My role as 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 might not always act professionally;
  • I need to mask feelings of frustration, irritation, or annoyance with colleagues and students;
  • I need to maintain a consistent level of enthusiasm for the content of my courses during every class;
  • I am expected to help students whose abilities might not be sufficient to succeed at the collegiate level;
  • I am expected to listen as students share their personal difficulties and maintain their privacy while helping to connect them to resources for emotional support;

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

“What do you do?” is such a common question in the U.S. that a Google search of the question brings up more than 21 billion links, many with ideas on how to answer (and more than 7 billion links come up when you search “why not to ask what do you do?”). It is an easy question to ask to make small talk, presuming that someone’s work is central to their identity.

When I answer this question, the next questions I often get are “what is sociology?” or “what is your area of specialty?” and I find myself going into work mode or professor identity when I’d rather be off the clock. (I can imagine this is much worse for people with MDs, who might get asked for health advice or a diagnosis.)

Years ago, Chris Rock’s special “Kill the Messenger” had a segment about education and jobs compared with careers. Careers are part of one’s identity, where time goes by too quickly, presumably because the work is so engaging. Jobs, on the other hand, are not part of one’s identity; they are just something one does to earn money, and time goes by all too slowly. He jokes about working in the kitchen of a restaurant and deciding not to check the time for two hours. When he did, only fifteen minutes had gone by.

In his trademark abrupt delivery style, Rock (profanely) reminds people with careers to stop talking about their work and special projects around people with “jobs.” People with jobs, presumably with lower pay, less personal interest, and lower status, are tired of hearing about how interesting and exciting other people’s work might be.

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

As such, as a sociologist, it is fascinating to think about how and the way in which work and education are connected so closely with identity and status, particularly in the U.S. The “what do you do” question can be particularly off-putting in other countries, even economically advanced ones (Reader’s Digest ranks this among their top 12 rude questions to ask overseas).

Using your sociological imagination, why do you think identity is so closely bound with work and education, particularly in the U.S.?


My work seems to take up most of the day

Now, I am a teacher and I love my job.

From a sociological perspective, there are many factors that contribute to the fact that work and education are closely linked to personal identity, especially in the US.

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