I decided to do a PhD in public policy for multiple reasons. The primary reason is that it's a personality thing. Throughout my childhood I had this naive belief that I could hide my true personality from the cool lacrosse-playing skirt-wearing popular kids and become immediately assimilated into society. As a more grounded and realistic adult, I gave up on my futile attempt to cover my true identity and showed the world that I am simply a nice, sensitive, neurotic, shy, and somewhat passive person - all the personality traits of your friendly neighborhood hedge fund manager. Naturally, due to my super-aggressive and innate ability to laugh at All the Jokes, I gave up my truly promising career to be the next great JP Morgan executive. It was a tough decision but you only have one life to live.
It's not easy being a non-aggressive and unfathomably ambitious Asian woman in this world. (Insert glass-bamboo ceiling metaphor and/or Peanuts strip). I want to help people, change something, do something meaningful, and not to mention learn how to be more concrete with my goals. The PhD was simply a tool to do bigger and greater things as an expert of my field. Instead of working my way up the corporate ladder, I chose a route that signals to everyone in this world that I threw away a substantial chunk of my potentially robust youth filled with EDM and financial stability in order to be good at a field that systematically and methodically understands how society works and ways in which it can improve.
My perspective on the potential of academia to help change society may be again, a bit naive. During my time here at Duke, I came across quite a few individuals who believe that academia is useless. Their statements did not offend me insomuch as they puzzled me. Why the bad rep? The main arguments are that firstly, academics are stuck in their Ivory towers disconnected from real-world practitioners; and secondly, policy recommendations that come from numbers that academics crunch do not show the whole story and are often manipulated to game the journal publication system. The power of "statistically significant impact" and singular "experts" to influence policy is viewed as dangerous and almost deceiving.
I am a guppy (or for my fellow millenials, that fish pokemon that turns into that bigger fish pokemon) in the ocean of academia, so I can't even speak from the perspective of a "real" academic. But if it is the case that academics do not positively impact society, my intuition tells me that there are two broad solutions that might push academia towards the right direction. The first is more practical, and I believe is gaining more traction among academics. One of our professors at the Sanford School, Dr. Liz Ananat, made everyone in our Causal Inference class swear by oath that while quantitative methods are important, all social science researchers should also conduct qualitative methods. Every statistical outcome in a journal article should be backed up with a qualitative understanding of what is actually happening on the ground. Numbers are nothing without a comprehensive and compelling story. And the only way to understand how an event impacts a group of human beings is to actually talk to them.
The second solution involves a switch in attitude. I do not believe that people who hold PhDs are substantially smarter than the rest of the population*. Academics do not have all the answers and clearly do not have a monopoly on creativity. But they do hold some positive traits: grit (which is so hot right now), dedication, good intentions, and the patience to approach a problem thoughtfully and with precision. There must be a way to put academics to good use for society. I think it starts with collaborating on an equal platform with all interested parties, from grass-roots activists to policymakers, and most importantly, a touch of humility. Academics that stray away from the "I am an expert, you should listen to me because of my robust evidence" attitude towards a more "Hi I'm John, I'm here to help and just want to learn more about you" attitude may be more effective at identifying the right problems to work on. More policymakers and organization leaders may be willing to work with these individuals. With more collaboration and better problems to work on, academics can more effectively leverage their tools and knowledge to contribute to social change.
These potential solutions are easily said than done and most definitely not comprehensive. They might also not be the right solutions. They are just the most obvious points of improvement to me at this point of my PhD. I am also only really speaking about academics who are social scientists. As a naive idealist who just wants people to like each other and work together, I continue to wonder what kind of practical changes could happen to make academics more humble (in reality and to the public eye) and just a tiny bit more useful to the real world. Again, to all my fellow academic and non-academic millenials who only understand pop references to Disney Original Movies: We're all in this together…(dreams, stars, etc. etc.)
*Disclaimer: This statement was not backed up by any study, quantitative or qualitative.
Warning: being smart may not be an objective personality trait.
FYI: substantially is not a precise term.
(Thank you to my MPP friends and DChan for providing me with the material for this blog entry.)