Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The PhD Education Process: socializing young women and men how not to make a difference.

In late September, I participated in a unique gathering of scholar-practitioners, called the Balaton Group.  Named after a large fresh water lake in Hungary, this 30 year old community comprises two generations of women and men for whom seeking solutions to challenges of “sustainable development” has been a major priority.  The contributions of many are widely recognized as having made a significant difference towards improving the human condition.  
This,  year’s gathering, which celebrated a sustainable development classic, The Limits to Growth, targeted the question “how can scholar-practitioners make the results of their work accessible so that it will make a difference.”  Among the most important take aways were that effective interventions are often collaborative, begin with awareness of client needs, use language that target-audiences can understand and are presented in venues - including on-line venues - that potential change-agents frequently access.
Those admitted to Ph.D. programs, especially nationally ranked Ph.D. programs are among society’s most intellectually gifted. They seek to develop research proficiency, make “contributions to knowledge,” win an academic “union card” and, often, pursue a vocation as “teacher-scholar.”   However many of those seeking degrees in subject matter areas relevant to public policy are also motivated by a high ideals and the desire to have their work improve the human condition.
What makes me sad is the degree to which much of doctoral education seems uniquely crafted to destroy such motivations and the skill sets necessary to realize them. At breakfast, one morning, the editor of a leading public-policy oriented journal and I were bemoaning this and focusing on the problem starkly.   Students are socialized to believe that the best work is individually authored,  that the language they use should be didactic rather than accessible, that publication venues should be academic journals and books from academic presses that are read by few. If they are seeking competitive academic positions, they are warned that the draconian academic tenure process requires this.
In my experience some gifted, highly motivated young scholars survive this process with their idealism and talents reasonably intact. Ph.D. studies and dissertation writing have, in fact enhanced their ability to contribute (or at least not eroded it).
But many do not.   
(Dormgrandpop was Director of Doctoral Studies at American University's School of International Service for nine years.

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