Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Study What You Love!

Dean Dad has a really interesting post up reflecting on what those of us who pursued Ph.D.s have internalized as measures of success and why these standards are just plain silly and out of date. He writes:

My words of wisdom, such as they are: go ahead and break the rules. There isn't much payoff in playing by them anymore, and they certainly don't make sense intrinsically. Cross disciplinary boundaries; blog; select topics that are interesting to you; have a kid; have a life; move into and out of administration; contradict or ignore your advisor when he's wrong. The old rules about what you're supposed to do were developed in a world that doesn't exist anymore, and that isn't coming back.
I wanted to riff off his post and think about how this applies to undergraduates as well. This issue really hits me not only because I am a "failure" by standards of my research program, since all Ph.D.'s at Stony Brook were counted as successful iff they landed jobs as research universities. I remember, vividly, graphs and charts that we were forced to look at that demonstrated what choices were likely to land us the coveted research position. The suggestions were certain topics in Philosophy and working with certain faculty. I, of course, totally ignored that advice. Luckily, way before I entered graduate school, an undergraduate professor of mine told me about his difficulty finding a tenure track job after graduating from Northwestern because he had chosen to write on Nietzsche. When I asked him why he picked this topic if it hurt his job chances, he responded, "well, if you are going to spend the rest of your life researching and writing about something, it better be something that interests you."

Though I believe his intention was to dissuade me from going to graduate school as well as to not pick a topic that people don't respect, I drew the opposite lesson. I was going to pursue what I loved to do and study and write about exactly what interested me. I was told multiple times in graduate school, usually by feminist mentors, that I would never get a job in Philosophy doing what I was doing. However, years later, I realize that what they meant was I would never get a job at a research college doing what I was doing. I would end up a "teacher."

Thank god for my blunders. I am now witnessing my husband suffer from the same bullshit. He pursued exactly what he loved as a graduate student, took on a curiosity driven topic without direct application to things like Cancer research, where all the grant money opportunities are. He worked at a very prestigious research institute that encouraged him to take on his high risk research project--high risk because he was not working with a model organism and asking pure science questions. If he lucked out, he could get NIH funding to continue. Lucking out meant that he would discover how his pure science interests would have applications and that he could turn his organism into a model organism. While I would argue that his work demonstrated that he had succeeded on both fronts, his colleagues were less smitten. He went on the job market last year and with the exception of one mediocre research institution, the folks really interested in him were liberal arts colleges (I was not surprised because one of his greatest strengths is creative teaching). When the elite research institute got wind that he had interviewed at liberal arts colleges, they terminated his position since "clearly he was no longer serious about research and so why should they invest any more resources in him."

What is disturbing about this story is that the mission of the institute is to ask pure questions, to educate the public about science, and inspire young children to enter science. But, mission statements are often fluff or outdated. Now Za finds himself in a pickle. The research world doesn't want to take the risk of hiring him since his work would be hard to fund in traditional ways. The teaching college world thinks he is too much of a researcher. It seems that hiring committees don't have a lot of vision, nor are they willing to take risks on a idiosyncratic, creative thinker. Higher ed is pretty risk averse overall.

Given that one's chances for success seem so limited in "traditional ways" if you don't study topics deemed important to funding agencies or considered important by top research programs, it seems crazy to follow Dean Dad's advice. Yet, I believe he is right. And, I believe that my undergraduate professor--albeit not his intention to advise me this way--was right. You should study topics that really interest you, that you get excited about, and that you want to spend your life studying. To do so is to take enormous risks with your employability. But, what is the trade off? If you take the safe route, try to predict what is in vogue, who is the best professor to work with, or what is most likely to get funding, then you might as well just pursue any job.

If you aren't going to follow your passion, which I believe is what makes us really good at what we do, then it seems that what motivates you are things that you can get in much greater doses outside of academia: status and wealth.

How does this apply to undergraduates? I think that the most important thing that undergraduates need to do is take classes that interest them. So many of them choose classes based on who is an easy grader, how much work is involved, how will this help future vocation, etc. The effect of choosing classes this way is that you are never psyched about your education. It becomes totally perfunctory. School is an annoying rite of passage on the way to status or just plain economic security.

As I typed the last sentence, it occured to me that for many people taking courses or a course of study that insures economic security might be a rational and wise choice. But of course, it is a wise choice only so long as the profession you choose is wanted. When economic conditions change, you might find yourself back in school retraining.

For those students not pursuing purely the vocational route, pursuing what excites you is worthwhile. School ceases to be a chore and becomes a delight. I stopped counting how many times former students have emailed me to say that they missed college, were reading voraciously, and kicked themselves for not taking more interesting classes. Of course, taking classes that interests you is immensely risky. You are not styling yourself to be what others want. Instead, you are becoming an independent, creative, risk-taking thinker. You will have to carve your own niche, and that might meant working harder to find the right vocation. But, in the long run, you will be doing what doesn't feel like work, but what gets you excited every morning.

That is my measure for success, despite the advice of my graduate program.

What do the rest of you think?