On Ambition. In Praise of Privilege. A Struggling Post

Epigraph 1: “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
— Mark Twain
Epigraph 2: Islamic Workplace
Note on Epigraph 2: Ambition is actually not about ego.


I am truly ambitious and this disconcerts people. They would also like me to be less confident. It is a gender issue. (I should just want to be happy, and happiness is the renunciation of ambition.)

I still feel guilty about having gone to graduate school — it betrayed the family, I should have become a pianist and married someone to take care of me — and I feel guilty about wanting to work in a less meek venue than academia. I am still angry about the shaming and belittling I quailed to when I wanted to move into law. Yet professor and lawyer were both good career ideas for me. Now I have come up at last with a concrete way to move into my third career idea, which is investigative journalism: apply for a job with Al-Jazeera (I am not kidding, look at their jobs board, I recommend it to everyone).

I know that one likely response to this idea will be to say how can I do that. Too dangerous and too wild. I disagree. I note that is also what people said when I went to graduate school, and onto the academic job market, and when I took the LSAT. Do you not notice a pattern? In any case these are my three favorite career ideas, that use skills I have now: a certain kind of professor, a certain kind of lawyer, and a certain kind of journalist. Not just any kind of position in one of these fields, but an interesting position in any of them.

There were also two career paths I was talked out of long ago, but that I still like: agricultural economics and food policy, for which I would have needed and also enjoyed acquiring a general economics background, and Near Eastern Studies. I do not have time now to get the education(s) these would require, but especially looking back I am delighted just knowing I came up with them.


The present post is a reaction to a comment on this post. I reacted as I did in part because I think graduate students and others who are quitting really do deserve congratulations, not derision or shaming, but mostly because I appreciate the critical insights some of the writers I refer to in that post have on academia. I also reacted as I did because as we know, my key issue is guilt about having done the PhD. I resent the idea that because I have a PhD, I must stay in academia at any cost. I am tired of explaining to non academics that having a PhD in the humanities does not help one to “control one’s career.”

A good PhD gives massive amounts of expertise and training, much more than the MA. But with markets being what they are, it also eliminates control over your career. This is why so many academics are unhappy, I really think: they are not in a position to make adult decisions. They may have “flexibility,” but when that flexibility is accompanied with a lack of autonomy and resources, it amounts to a vacuum, which is a very different thing.

On the question of doing a PhD for the sake of the prestige it can give, I would say one does a PhD not for the sake of the prestige, but for the sake of the privilege — or as they say at graduation, the privileges — it affords. The privilege of a really high quality, high level education. The skills that gives, and which never fade. The things you get to see, the people you get to meet, the places you get to go, to which you gain connections that last forever. These are tangible privileges and they lie far beyond the scope of mere prestige.

I do understand about prestige and all things being equal, I am in favor of garnering as much of it as possible. If you are going to get advanced degrees, you should get the highest you can, from the most respected institution you can. But prestige is still nothing but a side effect, and it is never sufficient on its own.


When I explain to non lawyers where I would go to law school, if I went, they rarely understand why. If I went here in state, I would go to the cheapest school. None of the more expensive schools in state offer programs different enough from the program at the cheapest school to make me want to increase my debt load. The cheapest school may have secret charms, and it is respectable and respected. I could then do an LLM in an area where I would actually work.

The places I really want to go are “prestigious,” yes, but I am not interested in them for the prestige. I am interested in them for the privileges they offer: specialized programs in areas I want to study, locations in the cities where I would want to practice.

What people have to say on these matters, however, is contradictory. They think I should want to attend one of the more expensive schools in state, for the comparative prestige. At the same time, they think I should not want to attend one of my first choice schools, because “I would only want to go there for the prestige factor, and I need to realize that all accredited schools award legitimate degrees and prepare people for the bar.”

Note their (not my) fixation on prestige: I should want it, and I should pay for it. At the same time I should not want the advantages of a truly privileged school. Note their evasion of concrete questions like actual program content, relative advantage of locations. Note their emphasis on image over content, or in the terms of this post, on prestige over privilege.

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5 Responses to On Ambition. In Praise of Privilege. A Struggling Post

  1. Z says:

    (So all of this, really, is about how I am still trying to recover from my parents, how they were against everything but European history and music performance, and how destructive they were. How I still feel that I owe them, and cannot take any risk because of the fear they might feel. How I lack confidence financially, such that I feel I must have good relations with them in case anything happens, and how that means to me that I must stay in a line of work that is acceptable to them no matter how non lucrative. How this is true only in the phantasmagorical world: it’s not true I need them financially, and it’s not true they couldn’t survive emotionally if I weren’t in the humanities. But it’s what they tried really hard to teach me early on, and it did stick.)

    (I think the majors and lines of work my father thought I should go into and wouldn’t support were the ones I actually wanted. But he refused to say so because his aunt paid for me to go to college, and he had to get back at us for that somehow.)

  2. Hattie says:

    You absolutely MUST follow your bliss!!!

  3. Hattie says:

    Even I was superambitious at your age. You can use that to get what you want for the coming years. Go go go!

  4. Z says:

    Part of this though is not dis-enjoying the present as much as I do … you know how I go around pursued by that (internalized) Whiteman! He is all the exhortations I received …

  5. Z says:

    What I am thinking is, the way in which my parents and then also that therapy criticized and discouraged EVERYTHING but dependency, art, music, ballroom dancing, and so on … and also the marriage and children that the dependency, art, music, and ballroom dancing were supposed to lead to. One was supposed to be in a state of suspended animation, performing nicely at school and those things, forever, and if one did not it HURT them all so much. I have never gotten over this because of the guilt tripping over the PhD, as we know ad infinitum, but even more important is their idea that I couldn’t do anything … couldn’t work, couldn’t handle going away to college, wouldn’t make good grades, couldn’t go to a large college, wouldn’t make it through graduate school, wouldn’t get a job, wouldn’t make it as a professor, and also SHOULDN’T — cool people DON’T, or if they do they do it PROTESTING and SNEERING, and they also do it without effort.

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