Sociology versus Journalism?

Take a look at this article, copied from a 'quality' daily newspaper in Britain, and displayed prominently on the noticeboard outside my office for all our students to read (although I don't know if any of them actually did read it). I hope no-one minds if I borrow it. Read through the piece and then we'll get nice (nasty?) and (excessively?) critical about it....

When it's all Tutu much
Getting a 2:2 or even a third class 
degree isn't the end of the world

Isabel Choat [the Guardian October 30th 1999]

In today’s increasingly competitive job market, the pressure to get a good degree from a good university that will lead to a good job can seem enormous So if you were one of the 30,000 or so students who graduated with a third, or even a  “Desmond Tutu” this summer, it is quite possible that you are still waking up in a cold sweat, fretting over your future, with your parents’ stern words (you’ll never get a job now blah, blah, blah) ringing in your ears 

Well, the good news is you may be fretting unnecessarily. Of the 195,910 graduates tracked by the Higher Education Statistics Agency last year, 15,526 graduated with a first, and of those 7,344 were in paid employment six months later — fewer, in fact than those who came away with a third where the comparative numbers are 14,475  and 8,069. Admittedly these figures are skewed by the fact that a significant number (5,108) of graduates with first class honours take up a post-graduate course. 

Nevertheless, it shows that all is not lost. On the contrary, says Martin Thorne president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services “Getting a third can prove to be a very sound basis for career planning”, he says [sic].

“It can lead people to examine much more thoroughly why they are interested in a particular field more so than someone who sailed through university and approached their career choice more superficially.

“Employers are interested in a lot more than degree class. Personal motivation, transferable skills and enthusiasm are all factors in the selection process and someone with a first cannot assume that their degree is an automatic ticket to a high-flying career”

Robert Sternberg, professor of psychology at Yale University puts it more bluntly “Everyone knows people who are academically brilliant but who are losers.” -

What’s more, he has the data to prove it. According to Sternberg research shows that IQ accounts for surprisingly little when it comes to job performance In fact, it counts for a measly 10% 

People who do very well at university tend to be high in analytical intelligence, but it is practical and creative intelligence that will help you shine in the workplace.

“People high in practical intelligence are those who are alert to their environment In the workplace that means being aware of who’s getting promoted and who is getting the raises and why

“It is also people who know how to draw on past experiences and understand what’s relevant and what’s not to their current situation,” says Sternberg, who was in the UK this week discussing these theories at the Institute of Personnel and Development’s conference

‘While there are still employers who specify a degree classification, often as a means of whittling down vast numbers of CVs, there are plenty that don’t Of the 4,500 jobs advertised in Prospect magazine for example, only 25% stipulated a 2 1 or above while 60% required a degree but gave no classification. Employers in retail, catering and the media, in particular, place equal importance on competencies and inter-personal skills as they do on academic achievement, and sometimes they rate the former more highly.

“Most employers with a range of opportunities would not necessarily give a hard and fast cut-off. There is no doubt that there are plenty of opportunities for anyone with a degree, no matter what level” says Hugh Smith, chairman of the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

Simon Blackwood scraped by with a 2:2. “I was really lazy. I always handed in work late. I was actually in line for a third;’ he admits. The result may not have been a shock, but it still left him with a dilemma — what to do next.

“If I had got a better degree I probably would have gone for one of the big blue chip firms;’ he says. Instead, he got a job as a waiter while he tried to work out his next move.

But two and a half years later he is working for an IT recruitment firm, bringing home up to £100,000 a year with commission, and about to head up a new division within the company. “I love this job. It’s a really young company — my managing director is just 31. Most people here have degrees but it is not important at this company.”

Blackwood is just one of thousands who don’t let academic results get in the way of success. If, after all this, you are still in despair, take some advice from a scientist.

“Things that in the short run seem important are often not in the long run” says Sternberg.

“Once you get into the job market, employers shouldn’t care very much about your degree result, and if they do... well, you probably don’t want to work for them anyhow”

Dos and Don’ts
  • Don’t despair. Getting a third does not mean certain failure. On the contrary, you may be better suited to the workplace than someone with a first class -honours degree
  • Accentuate the positive. You may not be Einstein but emphasise the qualities you do have that are important in the -jobs market, such as personal and communication skills.
  • Don’t settle for a job just because you think you deserve nothing better.
  • Listen to constructive criticism from your careers adviser or prospective employer to find out your weaknesses -- and then address them.


NB the piece also featured stock photographs of Einstein and of Desmond Tutu, both printed across two columns. The Einstein picture was captioned 'Wise guy? Einstein failed his electrical engineering exams first time round'. The Tutu picture was captioned 'Got a Desmond? Practical and creative intelligence will help you shine'

OK -- what did you think? Were you persuaded by any of the arguments and if so, which ones? Did you have any doubts about any of the arguments and if so which ones? Let's have a go at dispelling any rosy glow you miught have felt as you read this, shall we? Sorry, but it is my job...

1. Let's look at the 'facts' in the piece. It is good (and pretty unusual) to find any, and some of them look pretty respectable -- the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency is well-accepted, and we can usually trust their data. They aren't entirely fool-proof, though, and some problems are acknowledged in the article itself -- the big one is that most of the graduates with Firsts who were not employed were not exactly unemployed either (about 5 out of 7 were staying on to do post-grad courses, in fact). What were those who had got Thirds but no work doing? What were the other 2 thousand -odd people with Firsts doing as well, for that matter. What does it actually mean to be 'not in paid employment' ? Is measuring the numbers of those in paid employment six months after graduation a good measure of the benefits of various kinds of degree classification? Would it be different if we counted those in 'real', secure full-time employment, or even in suitable 'graduate employment'? Should we wait longer than six months to ask people what they are doing, to get a better idea of their actual main careers? Or is six months too long a wait as it is (remember that more people will be uncontactable the longer we wait) What is 'a job' for  that matter? (which we will pursue below)

2.Let's have a look at some of the arguments, especially those advanced by the 'experts' or the 'scientist'. 'Experts' are usually signified in the media by the use of their titles (or sometimes by a stock picture of them posing in front of rows of books or outside universities). Three experts are quoted here -- Thorne, Sternberg and Smith. There is also a 'witness', Simon Blackwood, whose personal experience is cited. There are also people referred to whose expertise is to be doubted explicitly -- parents, who offer 'stern words' rendered as 'blah, blah, blah', i.e. as incoherent and worthless babblings. By contrast, Sternberg's views are especially valuable it seems -- he is a professor at Yale, visting the UK to discuss 'his theories' at a prestigious conference. He 'has the data to prove' his views. Choat gives him the last word -- ' are still in despair, take some advice from a scientist' 

3. What are Sternberg's theories and data though? (as rendered here, that is -- I have no idea what his scholarly work is like, except I am confident it is impeccable, and he is quite likely to be as sceptical of his treatment by the press as I shall be). He suggests that we all know 'people who are academically brilliant but who are losers' -- but this is hardly a 'theory', more a commonplace, surely. If it is a rendition of a theory, I should like to know what evidence he is actually citing for the typicality of this 'knowledge', and how he is defining rather non-academic terms like 'losers', especially. Sternberg says, apparently, that 'research shows that IQ accounts for surprisingly little when it comes to job performance. In fact it counts for a measly 10%'. This looks more like an actual 'theory', but it is one that would need some debate before we could just accept it. Is IQ measured by the same sort of test as those which lead to degree classifications? Sternberg implies that it is, possibly since both measure 'analytical intelligence' -- so there are lots of assumptions here? (see my file for an alternative view that degree classifications measure 'cultural capital', for example). Presumably, there are some data somewhere that have recorded IQ scores and 'job performance', and established a low correlation between the two -- but which IQ tests were used and how was 'job performance' measured? Which jobs were examined? Which other variables were researched and how were they controlled? Surely we would need to know before we committed ourselves too eagerly to Sternberg's reported views?  

Sternberg may be offering a clue to what he means by 'job performance' in the sections which follow. Apparently it is to do with 'practical intelligence' - being 'alert to [your] environment...being aware of who's getting promoted and who is getting the raises and why...draw[ing] on past experiences and understand[ing] what's relevant and what's not to their current situation'. However, this is a mixed definition again. Some elements are very broad and seem to describe any human activity (being alert to the environment, drawing on past experiences and so on). Others also seem pretty limited as descriptions of 'job performance' -- getting promoted and getting raises. What of just being good at your job defined differently, as achieving your objectives, performing your tasks effiicently, or maybe just not actually harming anyone? The assumption here is that companies are entirely rational and reward with promotion and raises only those who have some definite quality of job performance. The whole thing could easily become quite circular if this quality were the same as the equally  mysterious 'practical intelligence' (I am being a bit disingenuous here, of course, since I am aware of work on 'practical intelligence' that does define it quite separately -- but we don't know how Sternberg defines it in this piece so we can at least ask).  

Sternberg's contribution ends with some more conventional wisdom -- look to the long term (blimey -- just like my dad, one of those despised 'parents', used to say, well, when he wasn't saying 'blah blah blah'). His last comment seems pretty tactical:  'Employers shouldn't care very much about your degree result' [my emphasis] No doubt-- but do they? And, to rescue himself (or Choat?) from any criticism (?) 'if they do..well, you probably don't want to work for them anyhow' -- (so don't worry your little head about any contradictions AND/OR, they aren't proper or desirable employers so this wouldn't invalidate what I have just said).

4. The other experts have their say -- and they have their values too (nothing wrong with that, of course, but we need to note them). Martin Thorne seems to think that 'a sound basis for career planning' is what is valuable, and a more superficial choice is less valuable. I wonder if he and the other experts had such a nice career plan themselves, or is this advice (as is so often the case I fear) really aimed at other folk, usually those less intelligent and capable than ourselves, dozy people who need to jolly well plan their lives better? Having this planning need not be correlated with degree classification, it seems (but this is pretty tentative). Some sort of long-term well-planned job satisfaction seems to be his ideal, then, not just promotion and getting raises? Or as well?. He and Hugh Smith also tell us of their opinions about what 'employers' want (so some pretty large generalisations are inevitable here?). Martin Thorne insists that employers want more than degree class, so that even someone with a First cannot automatically expect a 'high-flying career'. It is very hard to see how this might comfort those who did not even attain a First, though, surely? He does not seem to be supporting the view that employers would accept these other factors instead of a 'good degree'. Choat's own material, cited just ahead of his contribution, is also a little vague -- some employers, especially in retail catering and the media place 'equal importance on competencies and interpersonal skills' my emphasis -- and are these competencies and skills the same as 'practical intelligence'?)... and  'sometimes [my emphasis] they rate the former more highly'. Is this strong evidence though?  

Hugh Smith is more encouraging, saying there are plenty of opportunities [equal opportunities?] for 'anyone with a degree, no matter what level' -- but he is also cautious in using terms like 'Most employers with a range of opportunities [not all employers then?] would not necessarily give a hard and fast cut-off' [not in all circumstances then and not right away?]. There is still a hint that the 'range of opportunities' might be wider for those with a 'better degree'?

5. Other views are summarised but not attributed. Choat tells us that some employers do specify a degree classification but there are 'plenty that don't', and cites as some sort of evidence a survey of job advertisements in one magazine (an undated edition at that). 60% of those advertisements 'gave no classification' -- but we do not know, of course, if, nevertheless, the selection committee, even for those jobs, continued to use degree classification 'as a means of whittling down vast numbers of CVs' . This is a pretty weak piece of evidence, in other words -- we would really need to know how many of those successfully interviewed had their degree classification taken into account AND how important this was, compared to other factors (like social class, gender, ethnicity, age, appearance -- all of which themselves inter-relate with degree success as well as job success in the UK).

6. This point emerges in the testimony of the one succecss story cited in the piece -- Simon Blackwood. Simon has had a rather mysterious career, hasn't he? His first job was as a waiter (is this the sort of job, incidentally, that rewards 'practical intelligence'?), and then, two and a half years later, he seems to have a nicer and better-paid job. Has the passage of two and a half years diluted in any way the effects of his degree classification (and NB a 2:2 is still a 'good' degree in the UK)? More sharply, does the main argument of the piece, that degree class is not very important, require a wait [sorry] of two and a half years before it takes effect? What happened in between? How did he get that nicer job exactly? Was he formally interviewed after a job advertisement, for example? What additional skills or experience did he acquire and how did this 'add to' or 'compensate for' his 2:2? To be really sceptical, we don't even know how 'good' his new job actually is -- is his salary made up entirely of commission, for example? Is he securely employed or will he be back on the market after a few months? Are there any occupational stresses involved? 

How typical is Simon anyway? If one person 'makes it'  like this, can we assume we all can? Choat seems to think so, that it is all down to determination, or following the 'dos and don'ts' -- can one case-study support this? 
The other evidence and this testimony also contradict themselves. Simon did not seem to have a 'sound basis for career planning' as recommended by Martin Thorne, for example. He seems to have contradicted the third 'don't' in his first choice of job at least. We know nothing about his 'practical intelligence' (or his IQ) and their effects. He himself says that having a young boss in a young company seems to make the difference -- but there is no advice to pick such a company in the 'dos and don'ts' though. 

7. Can we convict this piece of mainifesting any sort of ideology? Well, it certainly seems to have some strong and rather politically loaded value-commitments (which is what we might think of at first in terms of 'ideology'). There is a clear view that the value of degrees should be judged in terms of how 'useful' they are for getting a job later -- and marxists would want to see this as very apologetic and timid, of course, aimed at turning out docile little workers eager to just contribute to the aims of a capitalist enterprise and never question them. Any fan of Bowles and Gintis would see this as a straightforward 'reproduction' view of education, and they would seize eagerly on the emphasis on 'social skills' as a classic case of how education is supposed to produce a docile 'personality'. Any Althusserians might be interested in the ways in which 'individuals' are defined or 'hailed' in this piece, and how it offers the same old promise -- only submit ( to the lunacies of the market, the whims of employers or the latest 'research') and ye shall be free (or anyway employed). As a slight twist, I suppose, punters are urged to free themselves from the 'hailing' mechanisms of their parents, only to submit immediately to those far more 'rational' ones of universities, employers and psychologists --talk about the 'simultaneous liberation and eclipse of individual freedom' ( not Althusser but someone he probably read -- Horkheimer). 

I suppose I ought to mention Gramsci as well, although I am not sure what a gramscian would want to add to the Althusserian line (as ever!!), except to stress the significant absence of 'crisis', 'struggle', themes of 'accommodation/ resistance' deeply coded in the account of Simon Blackwood or whatever. Anyone who knows the gramscian (Althusserian?) classic Policing the Crisis... might want to trace through the ways in which 'dominant ideology' gets 'nested' inside the conventions of newspaper journalists in telling this sort of story. We might see Choat as trying her best merely to be engaging and 'practical', to write a light and useful piece dfor the readers she 'knows', but in the process going overboard to support uncritically the existing employment practices and exaggerated demands of employers, and the apologetic 'ego-adjustment' psychology that supports them, innocently reproducing these as if they were just 'the reality'. 

Still on gramscians, I suppose there are notions of  'the nation' as a 'simple unity', and how the divisions are concealed, omitted or 'magically resolved' Perhaps it would go like this --

OK we all begin as equal and universal in 'the university', but then somehow, God knows how, certainly nothing to do with cultural capital or anything, we get streamed and stratified at the end, but then we get another chance to be equal again at the moment of entering paid work or by using our magical qualities of different types of intelligence -- and no-one talks about how work goes on to divide us thereafter, since work is a marvellous zone where people like Simon can get on by sheer individual something or other.

Or there are some implications for personal identity and the potentially contradictory ways this is dealt with by education systems and labour markets (as in the person with a First who was also a loser). Determined gramscians might want to remember what Gramsci meant by an 'organic intellectual' as a contrast to this sad account of how we should all sell our knowledge to the nearest employer, whether that be a genetic engineer, nuclear plant or armaments manufacturer?  

Any who have read a little further into the Althusserian project might want to try some of his other work on ideology too, as a contrast to proper 'science' -- ideology as a circular structure that just repeats the little banalities of 'what everyone knows', first as an opinion, then as 'research' and so on. On this theme, you might like to consider Marx's remarks about 'political economy' or Hegelian philososphy (eg in the Grundrisse) as operating with dodgy 'surface' concepts which are then connected in some trivial way to produce an account of the world -- it's not entirely wrong, it's even got a grain of sense in it now and then -- but it is nowhere near understanding what really goes on because it cannot close with the real factors that generate labour markets, such as why work is so deskilled and why promotion and success are so tied up with some sort of low cunning that keeps an eye open for the main chance while greasing up to the boss with your 'communication skills'. 

Then there is feminism, of course. Choat is silent about gender, as if it were not a factor in success ( at university and in the job market). Universal categories like 'IQ' or 'practical intelligence' might rightly be suspected of reflecting male values, while the concept '[workplace] personal skills' could well raise suspicions about the type of femininity that bosses require in their female workers. Once more, there would be a suspicious silence about the real micropolitical factors required to cope in an organization as a woman ( like being expected to cope with a family, not appearing to be too bright, letting males 'discover' your ideas, fitting one of the stereotypes [motherly or up for it], turning a blind eye and deaf ear to jokey laddish sexism, choking back the desire to get nasty when bosses question you carefully about your fertility and family plans -- and so on). If a female had been chosen as a witness instead of the egregious Simon -- what might we have learned? There is usually far more in the real-life experience of the average working woman than in all your strange abstractions of pop occupational psychology, Horatio!

Final comments

I am sure there are lots of other points to make once you get your teeth into it. It is probably very unfair to insist on the same standards for journalistic pieces as for sociological arguments, of course, and it would be quite wrong to see press reporting of views like Sternberg's or Thorne's as representing their academic work. This was a light-hearted piece, and we shouldn't really be wasting our conceptual sledge-hammers on this little nut? Journalists mean no harm, largely, I am sure, and they certainly write in a more interesting and entertaining way than most academics. No-one wants nothing but academic analyses either. But it can sometimes help to cut your analytic teeth on a plump target.

Of course, we haven't exhausted the analysis of this piece even now. What of its use, for example? I mentioned that I found it pinned on a student noticeboard -- for what purpose, though? To console those who had not got a 'good degree'? To take off some of the pressure students exert on their tutors if they don't get 'good grades'? As material for an exercise like the one we have just been through?

And what did students actually make of it? Were they sceptical from the beginning or did they find it persuasive? Were they consoled? Did they snort derisively at the obvious 'ideology'? Were their fears laid to rest? Did they feel they had been conned and cooled out from protesting about low grades or failed promises on employability?

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