Career planning and education: Master’s degrees piling higher and deeper?

Last Sunday’s Education Life supplement to the New York Times featured a cluster of articles on graduate school options, including a piece by Laura Pappano asking whether the master’s degree has become the new bachelor’s degree in view of rising credential requirements for job applicants:

William Klein’s story may sound familiar to his fellow graduates. After earning his bachelor’s in history from the College at Brockport, he found himself living in his parents’ Buffalo home, working the same $7.25-an-hour waiter job he had in high school.

It wasn’t that there weren’t other jobs out there. It’s that they all seemed to want more education.

The article goes on to describe how master’s degree programs are proliferating as individuals opt to make themselves more marketable. It also quotes critics of this trend, noting that while colleges and employers benefit greatly from these degree programs, the costs are shouldered by individuals who go deeper into debt or raid their savings.

More and more credentialing

Every few generations, the credential bar to good jobs is raised a notch. Fifty years ago, a high school diploma was considered the threshold educational qualification for paving one’s way into the job market and even the nation’s burgeoning middle class. By the late 1970s, some college and ideally a bachelor’s degree became that ticket. Today, it’s apparent that many employers are looking for some postgraduate education.

This is not a hard and fast rule. Plenty of folks without degrees manage to secure good jobs and build successful careers. After all, let’s face it, the skills required in many good jobs do not overlap with the lion’s share of courses that comprise a typical undergraduate degree program.

Ka-ching

As Pappano’s article acknowledges, the truth of the matter is that master’s degree programs are money makers for universities. The schools claim to be addressing market demands, but it’s not clear to me that employers actually need all the skills and knowledge covered in many of these vocationally-oriented master’s degrees. Instead, the degree becomes a convenient proxy for ability, a way of sorting wheat from chaff, however inaccurately.

Reputation, cost, convenience, fit, and licensure

If you are going to pursue an advanced degree, consider:

1. The reputation of the program and the school in terms of getting interviews and securing the jobs that interest you;

2. The overall cost of the program, with special emphasis on student debt;

3. The convenience of pursuing the degree, including the impact on your daily & weekly schedule and the possibility of distance learning options;

4. Whether the specific curriculum of the program fits your learning needs and interests; and,

5. Whether the program is required to meet licensing requirements of some sort (e.g., counseling and mental health positions), or simply enhances your overall profile.

IMO

I’ve made a career of higher education, and I’m a lifelong learning junkie. If I didn’t have to work and had the money to be a permanent student, there are a half dozen master’s degree programs I’d love to pursue, one after the other.

However, I am very wary of this proliferation of master’s degree options, both residential and online. Some are creative, useful, high quality programs. Others are just add-ons designed to create income streams at a time when schools are desperate for funds. Among the latter include a fair number that add only modest punch to your resume.

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In a subsequent post, I’ll be writing about certificate programs, which can be a less expensive, more time efficient path to a new career.

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This is the first of a series of posts over the next couple of weeks on career planning and further education.

Apocalypse tomorrow: The debt ceiling crisis and Social Security

The immediate crisis facing Washington D.C. is a looming August 2 deadline concerning the national debt ceiling. If Congress does not authorize an increase in the national debt, the federal government will be unable to pay out on its obligations and essentially will go into default and enter shutdown mode.

This will affect, among other things, the ability of the government to pay Social Security benefits to retirees and the disabled, and to meet its payroll obligations to federal workers.

The inability to reach a budget agreement is being labeled by many in the press as a bipartisan failure.

While many of Washington’s failures indeed are bipartisan, in this instance we have Democrats willing to cut public benefit programs way beyond what popular opinion actually supports, while Republicans are barely moving an inch on their insistence that these programs be slashed through the bone. Hardly anyone is talking about even modest tax increases on the most fortunate.

So, to the extent that the Democrats aren’t willing to capitulate completely and the Republicans aren’t willing to move much at all, you could call this a bipartisan failure to negotiate and engage in compromise.

But more accurately, the field of play right now — despite a Democratic Senate (if barely) and a Democratic President (ditto) — is clearly to the right of center. The Republicans, who often manage to outflank the Dems even when they are in the minority, are flexing muscles rippling from the 2010 midterm elections, while the Democrats act like they’re afraid of getting sand kicked in their faces.

Regardless, in the midst of all the political posturing and cowering, we’re ignoring the bigger picture here, and what’s being put on the table is scary.

It’s about (in part, at least) Social Security

Have you noticed there’s not a lot of detail in the news coverage of this situation about program and spending specifics? The (justifiable) concerns about a government shutdown and default and the aftershocks it would create on Main Street and Wall Street have obscured any national discussion about what’s at stake beyond keeping the lights on.

But make no mistake about it: One of the biggest items on the table is Social Security, even though the program has enough money to fully fund benefits for some 20 years, without raising the payroll tax or reducing scheduled benefits. President Obama, in one of his invertebrate moments, is open to “compromise” on Social Security, meaning he’s willing to negotiate over reductions in benefits.

D.C. and Social Security in 2011

Picture an America where millions of Baby Boomers are hurtling towards their retirement years. Stung by the market meltdown of the Great Recession, their own spending and buying habits, and persistent, high unemployment rates, very few are on a safe path towards building retirement savings sufficient to allow the kind of retirement they anticipated in some hazy mind’s eye. Some are now responding to this realization by devoting larger portions of their paychecks to their 401ks, IRAs, and savings accounts — assuming they are gainfully employed, that is.

For many Boomers, it means that Social Security will be a significant, perhaps primary, source of retirement age income. I say “retirement age” because it’s not clear they’ll be able to retire.

The folks in D.C. — GOP and Dems alike — know this, but we’re not hearing much about the long-term, because that’s not how the Beltway works. They also know that raising the income cap on Social Security payroll taxes would do wonders toward ensuring the long-term solvency of the program, without any reduction in anticipated benefits to individuals. Nevertheless, asking people earning more money — you know, those who are responsible for a disproportionate share of campaign contributions — to add a bit more to the public coffers is out of the question.

Meanwhile, in America’s heartland, some of the folks who are joining the clamor towards “belt-tightening” have no idea that they are endangering a major source of their eventual retirement age income.

D.C. and Social Security in 2021

Picture an America where millions of Baby Boomers now have hurtled into their retirement years. Even those who engaged in frenzied savings at middle age to build up 401ks, IRAs, and savings accounts fell short of what they really needed to save, because the game of saving for retirement strongly favors those who started young and managed to invest presciently in our casino economy.

Those assessing their retirement readiness find that Social Security benefits are a lot less than they anticipated. Many, justifiably fearful of running out of money in retirement, decide to stay at their jobs later. Accordingly, older workers are remaining in the labor force way beyond traditional retirement age. Younger folks trying to break into the job market find that there’s not a lot of room for them, in part because workers at the senior level aren’t leaving.

Meanwhile, a small percentage of older Americans — those who managed to save and invest well while benefiting from a tax structure rigged to their advantage — will retire in relative peace and comfort.

That’s America in 10 years. And 20 years, for that matter. Cuts to Social Security benefits today will only make the situation worse.

America, breathe easy

My guess is that the immediate crisis will be averted, that we’ll see some sort of budget “compromise,” and that everyone will breathe easier knowing the government won’t be closing its doors.

Having dodged that bullet, we’ll continue to ignore the bigger challenges facing us in the not-too-distant future.

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Related posts

The humane way to fix Social Security

The press discovers the coming Boomer retirement crisis

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck

Why so many managers are mediocre or bad: They weren’t promoted because they are good leaders

This has been a recurring observation, repeated by different individuals in different circles, in person and online: So many people who are in positions of authority were put there for reasons other than their leadership ability.

Good at this, but not necessarily at that

They may have been named to the job because they were very good at what they did: A managing partner of a law firm who was a first-rate trial lawyer. A nurse supervisor who was an excellent ER nurse. A dean who was an inspiring professor.  A foreperson who was a highly productive shop floor worker. A coach who was a standout player.

Unfortunately, what they did well often has little to do with the skill set needed in their new leadership positions. Many of these folks crash and burn, or simply bumble along, because they were ill-prepared for the job ahead and didn’t quite understand the human side of their new responsibilities.

No threat to the puppet masters

Others may have been promoted because the folks who put them there didn’t want a good leader. Instead, they sought a feckless crony, puppet, or weakling they knew they could control. As writer William Deresiewicz said in his superb speech about leaders and leadership to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole.

(Go here for the full speech and here for my blog post commenting on it.)

Leadership 101 training

For those who have the personal qualities to be effective leaders but lack the background and experience, leadership and management training programs emphasizing the so-called “soft skills” would help sensitize them to the human aspects of their jobs.

In fact, it’s arguable that basic management training should be part of all professional degree programs, such as medicine, education, law, and business. This initial exposure can be augmented by continuing education offerings for those elevated to leadership positions.

Nevertheless, if someone plainly lacks the personal qualities to be a good leader (e.g., the crony, puppet, or weakling), then all the training in the world likely won’t make much of a difference. That person will fold like an accordion when it’s time to make a tough, principled decision.

In any event, until promotions to leadership and management positions are based upon, duh, leadership and management skills, too many organizations will fall well short of reaching their potential and building an engaged, high-morale workforce.

“All leaders of the independent labor unions in protective custody”

“Alle Führer der frein Gewerkschaften in Schutzhaft”

This was the headline in the May 2, 1933 edition of the Berliner Börsen-Courier, a progressive newspaper in Berlin.

According to an exhibit in Berlin’s Topography of Terror museum and research center, the newspaper was reporting on “the nationwide occupation of labor union headquarters by the SA [Hitler’s brownshirts] and SS [Hitler’s elite guard and fighting force] and the arrest of all leading union activists.”

Hitler and his fellow sadistic thugs knew that to control the rank-and-file, you had to destroy any semblance of an independent labor movement.

Think about it.

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After participating in the Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Berlin, I was able to visit the Topography of Terror museum and research center, which helps to preserve the painful history of the Nazi era. Located on the grounds of the “central institutions of Nazi persecution and terror” and abutted by remaining portions of the Berlin Wall, it is well worth your time if you find yourself visiting the city.

Can an apology prevent an employment lawsuit?

Can an apology dissuade someone from filing a lawsuit against his or her employer?

Based on countless employment disputes I’ve been familiar with, I believe the answer is a resounding “yes.” However, the apology must be a genuine one and, in appropriate instances, include efforts to repair the harm.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what that means.

4 elements of an apology

At the Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health held last week in Berlin, Dr. Monica Broome, director of the University of Miami medical school’s new communications skills center, set out the four elements of an effective apology:

First, acknowledge the wrongful behavior.

Second, explain what occurred, without excusing it.

Third, express genuine remorse.

Fourth, attempt to fix the situation or provide reparations.

Words alone may not be sufficient

In the case of dignitary offenses of a less severe nature, such as milder forms of sexual harassment, an honest expression of acknowledgment and remorse may be sufficient to bring the situation to closure.

However, with more serious transgressions, Broome’s fourth element — compensation or relief — may be necessary to make the apology complete.

Don’t add insult to injury

In any event, lines like “I’m sorry if you feel bad” or “We acknowledge your perception that you were treated badly” only make the situation worse. Pseudo-apologies pour gasoline onto bad feelings.

Legal implications

Of course, the legal implications of an apology that meets Broome’s definition are considerable. In effect, Broome recommends that in cases where wrongful conduct has occurred, the offending party must expressly acknowledge it, accept responsibility, and hold itself accountable.

In legal language, that’s called an admission, and many employers (and their lawyers) are loathe to do so, fearful that the worker will use it against them in litigation. In addition, some employers do not want to appear weak, fearing it will open litigation floodgates — or at least throngs of threatened lawsuits attempting to squeeze a quick, if unwarranted, settlement.

Small risk, huge reward

I think those fears are overstated in the vast majority of situations. Most workers do not want to sue their employers or their former employers or to casually threaten legal process, because they have some idea of what it might entail. (In fact, it’s fair to say that a substantial number of workers who have valid claims against current or former employers choose not to file for that very reason.)

Indeed, once it gets around the building that management has the integrity to admit its mistakes, including wrongful behavior toward employees, its street cred will skyrocket among the rank-and-file.

In short, real apologies can go a long way toward making the workplace less litigious and creating mutual respect among employers and employees. But it takes a high-quality, confident employer to embrace such a philosophy and practice. The bad ones, I’m afraid, will continue to find themselves in court, defending claims that should’ve been settled many moons ago.

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This post embodies the underlying values of therapeutic jurisprudence (examining how the law and legal practice can promote psychologically healthy outcomes) and of restorative justice (examining the needs of the parties and the importance of responsibility). These schools of thought carry great potential significance for modern employment relations.

Remembering a gentle visionary who imagined a better legal profession

Bruce Winick, a University of Miami law professor and co-founder of the therapeutic jurisprudence movement, passed away last year after a battle with cancer. His life and work were discussed at a program dedicated to his memory at the Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, held this week in Berlin.

Therapeutic jurisprudence, or “TJ,” was co-founded by Bruce and fellow law professor David Wexler (now at the University of Puerto Rico) to prompt a deeper examination of the law’s therapeutic or anti-therapeutic qualities. In essence, TJ asks us to consider this question: How can the law, legal profession, and legal practice promote psychologically healthy outcomes?

The Berlin session was devoted to remembering Bruce and his voluminous body of work, made all the more impressive by the fact that he lost most of his vision as an adult. My fond image of Bruce comes from academic conference sessions, during which he would alternately listen intently and briefly nap, while regularly petting his guide dog, Bruno. He reveled in the give-and-take of those discussions and had a keen knack for offering insightful questions and comments.

Even as his health deteriorated from cancer, Bruce worked furiously to complete a book manuscript on what he called the “re-imagined lawyer,” acknowledging the crisis of heart in the legal profession today and examining how the law and legal practice can be changed for the better. He didn’t quite finish the book, but colleagues associated with the Therapeutic Jurisprudence Center that he founded at Miami are committed to bringing it to publication.

I have a special appreciation for Bruce and David Wexler, because two years ago they gave me such a warm welcome to the TJ community, and I became fast friends with both. Reluctant to ally myself with more narrowly defined theoretical or ideological frameworks in my legal scholarship, I did not find a comfortable intellectual home for my work until I belatedly discovered therapeutic jurisprudence. Since then, TJ has become a very meaningful and important association for me.

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The University of Miami’s law school has a web page dedicated to Bruce, here.

For previous blog posts on therapeutic jurisprudence, go here.

Two of my recent law review articles have been built around a TJ theme:

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010)

Employment Law as if People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace (Florida Coastal Law Review, 2010).

Dignity amidst horrific indignity: A job shoveling s**t in the Łódź Ghetto

In the Łódź Ghetto of German-occupied Poland during the Second World War, Harold Bursztajn’s father could’ve received extra protections and privileges by agreeing to serve on the ghetto’s Jewish police force, which the Nazis used to control the local populace. Because he didn’t want to become so directly complicit with his oppressors, he declined.

Instead of receiving special treatment to keep his neighbors in line, the elder Bursztajn was put to work as a “fecalist,” a person who collected their droppings. Fecalists were given no protective clothing, no masks, and no gloves, and many had to work without shoes.

It is difficult to imagine how abominably dirty and disgusting the job must have been. Because they reeked with the smell of their work, the fecalists became the untouchables (or at least the “unapproachables”) of the ghetto.

Why this job?

The job was not meant solely to demean. You see, none of the thousands of apartments in the Łódź Ghetto had indoor plumbing, and there was no public sewage system to speak of. Risk of infectious diseases ran rampant. However, because Łódź was a manufacturing city that provided forced labor to fuel the Nazi war machine, keeping these people alive — at least until they had nothing left to give — was a high priority.

Thus emerged a perverse convergence of interests. The Jews wanted to survive, and the Nazis needed their labor. Out of nothing, a public health system emerged. At presumably the lowest rung of this system came the folks whose job was to remove the mounds of human waste that posed the threat of deadly disease.

How they made a difference

The fecalists may have stank, but they used this to their advantage: The Germans, too, gave them wide berth, which meant that they could smuggle information and small amounts of supplies without fear of being searched.

And, lest we forget, their work saved lives — however temporarily in view of the eventual fates of ghetto residents. Fatalities from infectious diseases dropped precipitously once this improvised public health system took shape, and the fecalists became part of the first line of defense by providing more sanitary living conditions for those in the ghetto.

A remarkable panel

This summary does not come close to adequately conveying the fascinating depth of this story and others that were part of a gripping panel on health care, medical ethics, and public health in the German-occupied Jewish ghettos, presented at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, hosted this week by Berlin’s Humboldt University.

The story of the fecalists came from Dr. Harold Bursztajn of the Harvard Medical School, co-founder of its Program in Psychiatry & the Law. He shared it with passion, animation, and even humor. The only time he became visibly upset is when he recounted how his father saved a woman from being transported to the east to face almost certain death at an extermination camp. The father argued that she also was a fecalist and thus served too valuable a role to send away.

The woman, pulled off the train minutes before it was scheduled to depart, was Harold’s mother.

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Thank you to Harold Bursztajn and to his fellow panelists — Tessa Chelouche (Israel), Geoffrey Brahmer (Boston), and Jacob Holzer (Boston) — for their excellent presentations. This blog post could’ve gone on for pages, and I plan to write again about another of the presentations.

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Go here for more about the history of the Łódź Ghetto.

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