The False Promise of Credentials

September 19, 2019

Do letters after a name mean anything?

There’s an individual on the fringes of my life-not quite a friend or relative, but with enough mutual contacts that I regularly hear what she’s up to. Professionally speaking (and in other ways), she’s a mess. A study in poor planning and decision-making, she’s probably had, lost, or prematurely left, half a dozen jobs in 2019 alone.

And yet: While I haven’t personally looked over her resume, if even a bit of effort was invested in the thing, she’s got the credentials for it to look worthy of any one of the jobs she’s had. Probably even better ones, job-market permitting. She’s got a graduate degree from a quality school, for instance, and a background of volunteer work. Probably some academic honors or awards. Meanwhile, any employer who likes her credentials and thus takes her on is hiring a ticking time-bomb of ineptitude and unreliability.

She’s far from the only one I’ve seen, although she is a more blatant example than most. I’ve encountered folks from many walks of life with bundles of degrees, honorifics, and other feathers in their caps, all looking wonderful on paper who are absolute disasters in the positions they’ve managed to attain. And sometimes maintain, for years and years. I’d go so far as to say there are a shocking number of people out there who have no business working at the jobs they do.

All of which has gotten me good and cynical when I hear about these credentials. To me, even a PhD from a high-end university is no longer all that impressive on its own. It’s become clear to me that, in many fields, all you have to do is spend enough money (or accumulate enough debt) and commit enough time, and eventually you’ll have letters after your name that imply you’re to be taken seriously. The more abbreviated degrees and titles I see someone list after their name, the less impressed I get by their alphabet-soup. I recall that one of the worst radiologists I ever met placed great emphasis his status as an FABR, as opposed to us mere DABR commoners.

This also goes for previous work experience. It seems that, once one has made it into the executive world, one has the keys to washrooms everywhere. It doesn’t matter if one was CEO of a series of companies that all went under-given the choice between him and a bunch of capable folks who haven’t had a C-suite title yet, businesses will fall all over themselves to recruit the guy who’s been CEO before, however horribly he did in the post.

Radiology group-leadership is evidently no exception. A guy in my neck of the woods has run a group whose MO is to gobble up hospital-contracts whenever possible, whether or not he has enough rads to provide adequate coverage. Then, he scrambles to recruit in order to be able to cover his commitments. Over a course of years, his group gets bigger and bigger-until one day it doesn’t quite manage to live up to expectation, and implodes. Then, months or years later, he does it all over-and the very same hospitals he previously failed to service contract with him again, rather than signing with a new group. It seems a bad track-record is preferable to no record at all.

Which brings me around to the other side of this coin: Worthwhile individuals don’t always have a great background on paper. This is just common sense, really; every truly-capable person, at some point, had not yet accomplished anything that could be written on a CV or resume. Within them, nevertheless, were seeds of greatness. Wouldn’t it be nice to start working with them so those seeds sprouted while they were on your team? And, of course, to make working with you a good enough experience that they were inclined to stick around, such that their rising star lifted the rest of the team with it?

Not long ago, I dealt with a radgroup that had done exactly this. Their Director of Operations had started out as something like a secretary, boasting only a high-school diploma. But she was reliable, industrious, and had good ideas. The leadership took note of this and soon promoted her.

They could have been hidebound about it, insisting that she get some degree or another first. Or dismissed out of hand the notion of promoting her, instead recruiting some outsider with a stronger resume. Many businesses would have-and likely as not would wind up with someone nowhere near as stellar as she turned out to be. Maybe even a ticking time-bomb, dressed up in impressive-sounding credentials.