Over 5,000 Ph.D. graduates work as janitors – Why?



In 2010 the US Bureau of Labor Statistics published a depressing chart which revealed that there were no less than 17 million Americans whose level of employment was below their level of education. The data showed that there were roughly 37,000 hotel front desk clerks who had earned a college degree, along 50,000 electricians more than 18,000 parking lot attendants.

The data is surprising, and seems to lend credibility to the increasingly popular theory that everyone going to college is almost equivalent to no one going to college because it doesn’t separate the smarter students from the dumber. Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University and author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Muchsaid as much when these numbers were first released:

As more and more try to attend colleges, either college degrees will be watered down (something already happening I suspect) or drop-out rates will rise.


The relentless claims of the Obama administration and others that having more college graduates is necessary for continued economic leadership is incompatible with this view. Putting issues of student abilities aside, the growing disconnect between labor market realities and the propaganda of higher-education apologists is causing more and more people to graduate and take menial jobs or no job at all. This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.

It’s at that 5,057 janitors, though, where Vedder takes his argument one step too far.

The numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics only track the professions people with certain degrees went into – not why. To assert that all of these people are involuntarily under-employed is probably true but it would be wrong to assume that such a generalization holds up when you’re discussing the Ph.D. graduates.

Time for another generalization: the average person Ph.D. is smarter and has a better work ethic than their friend with a bachelor’s degree. Graduate students in many if not all fields are required to study under a specific professor with a very select group of peers. Meaning that – when they finally graduate – they can not only list that Ph.D. on the resume, but have probably networked their way into enough situations to at least have a whiff at an attractive job offer.

With that said, the number of Ph.D. recipients relying on food stamps more than tripled to 33,655 in the years between 2007 and 2010. Those with master’s degrees also took a hit during the economic downturn, nearly tripling in the same three years to 293,029.

Still, smart people tend to think differently than the rest of us. The world wasn’t designed by them or for them, as journalist Mike Sager found out when he spent time with four of the smartest people in the process of researching an article for Esquire. One of those four was Christopher Michael Langan who used his 195 IQ to get a job as a construction worker and Park Service firefighter.

“It ain’t easy being green,” Chris likes to say, resigned yet undiscouraged–the cocky, perverse, somewhat defensive assuredness of a person who has always been the smartest in any group, perhaps the loneliest, too. The distribution of IQs through the population forms a bell curve, with the very smartest on one side, the severely disabled on the other. The IQ of the average human is about 100. The IQ of the average college graduate is about 120. IQs like Chris’s exist among us at a rate of roughly one in one hundred million. In a world designed for average, folks like Chris don’t always fit very well. Forty-two years old, he pulls down $6,000 a year. He lives in a tiny, cluttered one-room cabin overlooking a field of heavy machinery in Eastport, Long Island–a short drive from the tony Hamptons–which he shares with his cat, Ramona, and his 1985 shovelhead Harley-Davidson, parked near the sink in his kitchen.

In many cases it’s probably a matter of choice. It’s perfectly feasible for someone to spend years studying one topic and then simply deciding to walk away. Many Ph.D. students graduate from school with little to no debt by taking advantage of fellowships and assistantships that dole out stipends to students in lieu of tuition. A purported ex-banker with a degree in Computational in Astrophysics simplified that mindset in a post on Quora:

 1) There is the FU number.  It’s the amount of money you have to have in the bank to say “FU” to your boss.  If you run the numbers you’ll find that even small amounts of income drastically reduce the “FU” number.


2) One thing that gets missed is that with a Ph.D. in the sciences you *can* be a janitor.  Most people that go to medical school or law school end up with tremendous debt, so they *can’t* do any random job.  The nice thing about getting a physics Ph.D., is that you can get your Ph.D. and then become a beach bum, since you have little/no debt.


3) I’ve known people that have worked as janitors, and they say it’s an easy job.  You get paid eight hours of wages for work that usually only takes two or three, and you spend the rest of the night just chatting.  You work in the middle of the night so your manager isn’t going to be looking over your shoulder, and as long as everything is clean the next morning, no one cares how many hours you “really” worked. 


4) You can do janitorial work and theoretical physics at the same time.  You are pushing a broom, you can think about quantum field theory.  This is *not* true for a lot of other jobs.  You can’t think about QFT while taking orders at McDonalds, selling shoes, flipping burgers, or driving a cab.  If the janitor has a blank vacant look, no one cares, whereas being absent-minded while dealing with hot cooking oil or customers can get you fired or cause a fire.


5) And what’s the negative.  Janitors have low social status.  Well so what?  I’ve got a Ph.D.


Update: There’s a really interesting discussion taking place on Reddit right now (March 10) about this post, including some ideas I wish I could’ve included in this article. See that link for further reading and different perspectives on this topic.


Related Reading: Genius Problems