THE AMBULANCE CAME screaming in the night recently for a man I know. After four days of tests, the diagnois -- tension -- was not surprising. The man had received his doctoral degree 2 1/2 years ago but has spent most of the time since looking for a job. "Being unemployed is like death," he says.

America is a society of credentials. We place emphasis on having them and we are conditioned to expect them to bring us employment and status. But now we're finding we have more people with credentials than we have status or jobs to bestow. And the human effect can be an ego crushed as if it came into direct conflict with a steamroller.

While the most glaring cases of disappearing jobs and dried-up markets in Washington today are among Democratic officeholders, close behind among the educated unemployed are probably middle-aged academics in the field of education.

The man diagnosed as having tension had never been jobless a day in his life until Rutgers University awarded him that advanced degree in education. So far, he's received more than 400 letters of rejection. For one administrative job at the University of the District of Columbia, he called to ask what weaknesses he had. None in particular, he was told, except that he had to compete against 933 other candidates for the same position.

The American emphasis on credentials isn't all negative. Poor people and minorities, who rarely had inherited wealth and position, counted on access to those things they could achieve on their own, and credentials were their mechanism for upward mobility.

But this overeducated educator -- call him Doctor Ed -- is in a shrinking field at a time of retrenchment. Declining enrollments demand fewer teachers, fewer professors to train them, fewer schools and fewer education administrators. If he were in chemistry or accounting or public management, he wouldn't have this problem.

This man is not alone in having worked hard to land in a depressed field with an advanced degree. But there are special historical reasons that make his fear level go up.

When Doctor Ed was growing up in the 1940s and early 1950s in a tiny town in North Carolina, the only professional jobs most blacks could aspire to were as teachers, doctors, undertakers and lawyers, and lacking the services of clairvoyant guidance counselors, they largely prepared themselves for these professions. As Doctor Ed explained, "We knew we could find work in the segregated school system." He was one of nine children of a laborer and lucky to be going to school at all.He enrolled at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., in the mid-1950s. He was a high school teacher, bandmaster and coach in North Carolina public schools from 1959 until 1965.

The 1960s were a growth time in education. The baby boom children were inflating school enrollments, and educators were in demand. Schools of education were the first to admit blacks for advanced degrees and they were more flexible in taking people who'd been out of school for several years. Doctor Ed went to school part time like many other educators, enrolling East Carolina Stae University and later in Newark State College, where he eventually earned a masters degree in 1969. The doctorate of education degree isn't as prestigious as the PhD, but it was a credential that promised advancement and so, for several years, from 1971 to 1978, while he held a variety of jobs, Doctor Ed doggedly pursued the degree.

He got the degree as the population ws becoming older and the country no longer needed so many professional educators to serve a youth clientele. This isn't exactly a new phenomenon. We've known for several years now that a record number of people with advanced degrees were out of jobs. Still, some degrees will get you a job more quickly than others. But 400 letters of rejection? He's beginning to get desperate.

His degree supposedly qualifies him to be a chancellor. But the responses he's received from across the country tell him the same thing: he hasn't had any "hands-on" expereince. Doctor Ed contends he's had a lot of experience that nobody is considering. He's worked in administration and supervision in "minority student" programs at several colleges and large state universities, which isn't considered "hands on." Like minority-related positions in some industries and government, these positions carry a stigma and are not considered "legitimate." The implication is that you're hired not for your expertise or administrative skill, but to deal with minorities. Eyeing a program with suspicion if it deals with minorities and ignoring the fact that such jobs often cut across a broad range of problems in the academic setting is a racist assumption. Ironically, it's a stereotype some black institutions buy as well.

Have some of Doctor Ed's problems been of his own making? Has he gone about the business of job hunting all wrong? Richard Bolles, author of "What Color is Your Parachute?" told me the answer might lie in the kind of job hunting he has done. Bolles' strategy is for the job hunter to determine the skills he most enjoys, figure out where he'd like to use them, then devise a technique of approaching employers based on clues he got from steps one and two.

While he's pondering this new truth, Doctor Ed says he'll take any job. "I just want to work and take care of my family," he says. "As soon as I get a job, I'm going to have a little party for my wife for all the sacrifices she made for me to get my doctorate. I've never even drunk a glass of wine to it so far. It doesn't mean anything."