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Essay on alternative careers for Ph.D.s

'Plan B' and Bob Dylan
May 16, 2012

Stepping off the traditional Ph.D. career path can make one hypersensitive. A recent dialogue in The University of Chicago Magazine about modifying graduate curriculum in Ph.D. departments in history to accommodate a nonacademic trajectory (or Plan B) led me think about how Ph.D.s  are actually trained, and how that training is used to build new knowledge. This dialogue was a reaction to a statement in the fall by the president of American Historical Association about removing the stigma of "Plan B" from a nonacademic career path.

In the article, a variety of opinions were voiced about modifying the traditional curriculum, but it was one scholar’s assertion that the pursuit of knowledge lay totally with the professoriate as traditionally defined that struck me hardest. The presumption that those of us following Plan B know less and are less likely to make any contributions to this undefined well of knowledge seems the most damning and least accurate of all the assumptions about Ph.D.s found out of their natural habit. With more than half of new Ph.D.s as reported by the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, going to non-academic positions, it is well worth addressing this presumption head on.

It would be easy to escape into a series of exceptionalist anecdotes about all of the scientific contributions made by researchers in the government, private industry or nonprofits, but Albert Einstein’s time as a patent clerk can only be trotted out so many times. The argument that the well of true knowledge only flows behind the protective walls of universities, though, rests on a medieval view of both the professoriate and knowledge. In my highly stylized view of academic history, universities protected the Enlightenment from the Inquisition and other atrocities. Scientific thought needed some pretty stout defense in a world explained fully by a powerful God. Many would argue that the barbarians remain at the gates, but frankly I think we have won the war. The various assaults including McCarthyism, Creationism, and the attacks from politicians who hang onto a medieval view of the world play on the historical anxieties of scientists but really don’t pose the same sustained threat. And even if the barbarians are real and not imagined, the walls of universities have been repeatedly breached and no longer offer the protection they once did.

If the imagined scholar laboring away over a wooden desk in an ivy-covered building surrounded by like-minded professors  creating new and powerful ideas no longer exists, why is the production of knowledge still viewed as a province of the professoriate? The equally specious premise of such an argument is that only professors can have the independence of mind to think freely and without constraint. Those of us on Plan B, conversely, "owe our souls to the company store." Anyone who can maintain this view has not yet received reviews back from a grant panel or journal. Little pieces of our souls, regardless of who collects their due, get sold for our ideas to move forward. The generation of knowledge is a negotiation of competing ideas.

In the world I inhabit, filled with people who work on surveys, most of the new knowledge about better ways to measure the world gets generated by a negotiated consensus among academics, government scientists who work on the major government surveys, and research scientists in survey organizations such as mine. The abstraction process occurs as we collectively try to solve the important problem of how to reconstruct some truth about the world by continuously refining and calibrating our instruments. The only difference really between those inside and outside academe proper is that those of us on the outside must go about the tasks a bit more collaboratively.

Therein lay the real value of adding some additional content about nonacademic work to Ph.D. programs. It isn’t to save Ph.D. programs from extinction because their graduates cannot get academic jobs, or to make getting Plan B jobs easier. It is to teach graduate students the skills necessary to move knowledge forward in different environments. The skills learned in graduate school are invaluable, but the traditional approach to teaching them makes it much harder to apply outside the professorial role. Context matters. Knowledge produced collaboratively has enormous value, thus, we have to begin to teach our most learned how to work together to get there.  

Bob Dylan was right:  

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.


The trick is to retain your independence of mind as you serve.  Fortunately, that can be done in almost any environment and can be taught to those who move between them.    
 
 
 

Bio

Felicia B. LeClere is a principal research scientist in the Public Health Department of NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects. She has 20 years of experience in survey design and practice, with particular interest in data dissemination and the support of scientific research through the development of scientific infrastructure.

 

 

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