Is There a Doctorate in the House?

Karen Renner, Ph.D., and I decided we had to discuss the cover of this week’s New Yorker.

The May 24th, 2010 issue features a cartoon of a youngish man hanging his framed doctorate diploma on the wall of what is clearly the room he’s had since childhood. An older couple, whose lined faces and worried expressions show their trepidation at Dr. Tim moving back, capture our attention as well.

We know the young man’s name is Tim because there are signs saying “Tim’s Room” and “Keep Out” on the door, which are, of course, exactly what you’d expect to find on the door of a kid’s room.

You would not expect to find these signs on the door of a recent Ph.D. I guess that’s the funny part.

The young man looks like an extra from an Archie cartoon. He’s hanging his diploma on a nail banged into the wall over his bookcase. Next to the Ph.D. we see a scotch-taped award for being “Student of the Week,” a third-place ribbon for some undefined achievement, and a fourth-place award for golf, and a spelling trophy, a book on baseball, and a book on math.

Tim doesn’t look very grown up. He’s got his graduation cap with its doctoral tassel in a cardboard box on the floor. It’s a little lower in the image than a red toy car, the globe, the poster of the rock band on the wall, and the model airplane hanging from the ceiling. A book on baseball stands tall on the first shelf, and a book on math stands below it. Next to the books are board games and an old baseball.

Why did the folk at The New Yorker and the distinguished artist, Daniel Clowes, decide that creating this image—called “The Boomerang Generation”—would be a humorous and relevant depiction of contemporary life? After all, this is not just a wacky, off-the-top-of-the-head illustration by some neophyte. This is the cover of  The New Yorker—may we all please have a moment of silence—created by an Academy-Award nominated author, screenwriter, and cartoonist. In other words, this was drawn by A Man Who Knows What’s Going On published as a cover by The Magazine Purportedly Read By Intelligent and Educated People.

So this morning I’m looking at the cover with Karen Renner, a recent UConn Ph.D who is incredibly grateful for her one-year, temporary teaching position, and we decided that what’s going on with the cover is the following:

1. People who are “student of the week”—not of the month or the year, you’ll notice, but just of the week—are now getting Ph.D’s. Hahaha?

2. The Ph.D. seems to be of equal importance to the third place ribbon and the fourth-place trophy, but slightly less important than the poster of someone playing an electric guitar. Tee hee?

3. It’s no longer simply undergraduates who can’t find work who return home to the single beds of their early youth, but folks who have completed the most rigorous, disciplined programs that academia has to offer.  Whoo-hoo!

4. The boy in the picture literally has his eyes closed. He’s wearing a rather smug smile although there’s no glee or pride in it. He’s not looking toward his parents with appreciation or pride or embarrassment. It’s not even that the degree is the achievement, but that he’s simply mounting the diploma on the wall the way he would put up yet another third-place ribbon, that’s important.There’s a hammer on the floor next to his feet, implying that he just pounded the nail in. He’s not even using a proper picture hanger. Like everything else, he’s doing it half-assed. He didn’t hang up his jacket. His luggage is one of those weird glorified backpacks with a handle on it. He’s got a toy car on top of his bookcase because he probably doesn’t have a real one parked in the driveway. He’ll probably just use his parents’ second car, if they have one. Giggle, giggle.

5. Ph.D.’s are kids, no matter what their age, and want to go home to Ma and Pa. They aren’t grown-ups. What a knee-slapper.

Here’s the problem: Those who get their Ph.D.’s are not, for the most part, complacently moving back into their parents’ homes, pleased with themselves for having one more thing to hang on their walls. Only wealthy people returning to school to get a Ph.D. are doing it for the fun of it. As we know, everyone else works really hard. Even those graduate students who we accuse of not working really hard aren’t doing it because they want to get just another piece of paper. They’re certainly not doing it so that they can move back to their old neighborhood and be in exactly the same position that they were before they started.

What Karen and I are wondering are if the implications of the cartoon are, “Ho, ho, now everyone is coming home after college, even graduate students.” 

We wonder whether the implication is that Ph.D.’s are worth as much as third-place ribbons—and are as easy to obtain.

We’re being oversensitive, sure, but I would like to see a character putting a medical degree on the wall. I’m sure there are doctors and lawyers who are still living at home. Somehow, the Ph.D. is being treated as merely a keepsake, like a sea shell from a trip to the beach or a poster from a rock concert.

And so, because I’m being oversensitive, I’m going to resort to the fourth-grade taunt I was taught to make when someone made a joke at my expense: “You’re just jealous.”

I bet there are a lot of readers of The New Yorker who wouldn’t mind having a framed, earned, hard-won doctorate hanging on their wall.

Wherever that wall might be.

Return to Top