Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Exceptional trivia

I've recently supervised my first graduate student in completing her Ph.D. Like most people who finish a doctoral degree, she went out on the academic market to find a job. In fact, in my opinion, she did quite well and got offers from some very good schools. In the end, she turned them all down.

I struggled with making sense of this. We always tell our graduate students to think hard about starting a Ph.D.: they have to be sure this is something they like and want to pursue because it requires an awful lot of work. And when we say "this is something they like it want to pursue" the "this" in that phrase is academia.

Before the job market got into full swing, my student mentioned that she wasn't sure if she wanted an academic job. I told her not to turn down the jobs she hadn’t been offered yet and encouraged her to go through the interviewing process. In the end, she wanted more to her life and what academia could give. This is not to say that academics have empty lives. I think of my life is quite full; I'm an academic, a father, a husband, a musician, and a lot of other things. In fact I think it's my job as an academic which permits me the freedom to pursue my other avocations.

That said, most academics are really, as a friend of mine once said, "purveyors of exceptional trivia." I don't see any of my colleagues making discoveries in their research the truly benefit the world. See, I'm in the "soft" sciences where a lot of what goes on as research is oftentimes clever model building in order to support an opinion. The research that does have an impact on people's daily lives is that research which, unfortunately, is looked down upon but most of us in the profession. These are the short policy briefs that point out in a straightforward way that, say, disability benefits have not kept up with inflation. These pieces are somewhat looked down upon because they don't involve a clever model or use sophisticated mathematics. Rather they use the simple tools of the trade to make a point.

These pieces make their point in such a clear way that they are actually read by policymakers who didn't realize that, say, disability benefits haven't kept up with inflation and therefore raise disability benefits. The end result of this research is that the well-being of people receiving disability benefits is improved. I have a hard time believing that the more "academic" research on the buffalo hunt, Canadian military history, or what were the reasons behind extending the franchise in the 19th century will have as important benefits. (And yes, I've researched one of those topics.)

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