[Salon/Lingua Franca] Applying a PhD to Business

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Fri, 2 Apr 1999 17:05:28 -0800

[I'm impressed. She's still enough of a PhD to use phronesis in a=20
sentence, and that blows me away, at least :-)
I clipped this piece because it's a wee bit inspirational, and also=20
to remind one how insular academe can be -- who *hasn't* read Hamel=20
or Drucker or W$J -- but of course not, it would get in the way of=20
'evil capitalism' studies.
The true commendation for clipping this article, though, is her=20
defense of how business/social nets work. FoRK is very much such a=20
'community of practice'.

Schmoozing is Life.
Rohit ]

SALON | March 29, 1999=20
Jennifer Stone Gonzalez received her Ph.D. in 1993. She is the author=20
of "The 21st Century Intranet." She now lives in Vermont

=46our steps to succeeding outside the ivory tower
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The ivory tower is crumbling. The shortage of tenure-track jobs (once=20
thought temporary) now stretches into the future. Morale, according=20
to recent studies, is plummeting among those who do have jobs. And an=20
army of underpaid, overworked adjunct professors is giving a forlorn=20
new definition to the term "the life of the mind." Yet peer pressure=20
not to leave the academy remains intense. For the young scholar,=20
leaving is almost always taken as a sign of some sort of personal=20
failure. The best and brightest stay, goes the prevailing wisdom,=20
others wash out.

Having left five years ago, I no longer believe that generalization=20
to be at all useful -- or true. There are very good reasons to leave,=20
and mine were compelling. The toughest questions I faced, outside the=20
academy, were what my Ph.D. and all my academic experience counted=20
for. Would all those years of reading tomes with tiny print, teaching=20
students to construct a thesis and all that academic ass-kissing=20
count for anything in the "real world" of business?

At first, having a doctorate proved to be an albatross. Out on the=20
streets, my new one-page r=E9sum=E9 in hand, I appeared to be=20
overqualified for every job possibly open to me. I looked where I=20
thought my skills in analysis and critical thinking might be put to=20
good use -- in marketing, public relations, government, public=20
policy, print journalism, cable television and corporate=20
communications. Potential employers couldn't see how my academic=20
expertise transferred to the "real world." It didn't help that I=20
carried around a vague sense of guilt about somehow disappointing my=20
graduate school mentors, people who, in fact, had neither the=20
connections nor the desire to help me find employment in the=20
non-academic world.

In the business world, you succeed through networking, since the most=20
important information flows through people, not texts. Having hung=20
around almost exclusively with other academics for a decade, I had to=20
create a non-academic network from scratch. After many phone calls=20
and informational interviews, I eventually met an executive in a=20
telecommunications company who offered me an internship, which seemed=20
to be the best place for a person with a humanities Ph.D., but very=20
limited "real world" experience.

Happily, the corporate internship turned into a full-time position in=20
a fast-growing technology-related area, which turned into an=20
opportunity to write a technology and business book. My path through=20
corporate America has allowed me to create a fluid, unique career of=20
my own design. Paradoxically, the more I succeeded "out there," the=20
more value my Ph.D. seemed to take on in the eyes of other people.

To do well, I had to put my Ph.D. and all its attendant ideology=20
aside. Gradually, I figured out how to communicate with new=20
co-workers, and let them see my skills on their terms. My corporate=20
colleagues liked having me on projects because I could help "drive to=20
the goal line." I was "problem-solution oriented,"=20
"audience-centered" and "customer-focused." For them, my extensive=20
reading of critical theory and cultural studies was irrelevant.=20
Everything I had done to pay my dues in graduate school appeared=20
unnecessary and insignificant -- except for one crucial fact: I had=20
spent several years thinking hard, exercising my mind into a taut=20
little muscle.

But don't be deceived. For all intents and purposes you have to start=20
again, learning an entirely new language and set of rules. Rule one=20
is to avoid being perceived as "too academic." The quiet reserve,=20
polite phrasings and contemplative stance cultivated in the academic=20
world are, in the business world, signs of indecision and lack of=20
interest. The norms in the business world are gregariousness,=20
assertiveness, talkativeness, engagement. My first project leader saw=20
my hesitation and told me, "Go ahead. Get into the fray!" It was=20
ironic. In graduate school, a junior faculty member who had wanted to=20
put me in my place publicly criticized me for doing exactly that. Two=20
weeks into my internship, I had to reverse once more.

Rule two: Remember that in the business world, people who are=20
successful have learned how to sell, persuade, sell and persuade=20
endlessly. You have to quickly anticipate resistance and to actively=20
campaign for your ideas.

Though at times I longed to do so, I could not retreat to the=20
sanctity of an office, write papers and submit a stack to the next=20
conference. Nor could I speak to a group -- as I once did to my=20
students and my professors did to me -- as if I possessed superior=20
intellectual acumen and authority. People in business practice a mode=20
of communication that is actually much more diplomatic, democratic=20
and dialectical than what is generally practiced in the academic=20
world. And I must confess, doing it well is very hard work.

My former dissertation advisor had warned me that by taking a=20
corporate job, I was not only leaving the world of ideas, I was going=20
into "an intellectual desert filled with morally inferior, greedy=20
buffoons." OK, so he is naturally prone to grandiloquence. Yet=20
virtually everything in my doctoral program had prepared me to=20
believe that this would be true. We had spent yards of time=20
embroidering the contours of capitalist modernity.

Once outside of academe, I discovered that the business "cultural=20
lifeworld" is vastly more self-conscious and self-critical than=20
critical theorists imagine. People such as Peter Drucker, Peter=20
Senge, George Gilder, Geoffrey Moore and Tom Peters would not be able=20
to become bestselling authors if this were not the case. Business=20
executives are taken to task by insiders like Paul Hawken and Jack=20
Stack, and by business school professors/working consultants like=20
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Gary Hamel and Dorothy Leonard-Barton. I added=20
tomes written by and for people in the business world to the academic=20
books on my bookshelves. Although I once taught organizational=20
communication, I had no prior awareness that this extensive body of=20
internal critique even existed. Which brings me to rule three: Search=20
out and educate yourself on the interesting thinkers in your new=20
field. They probably exist, but none of your academic friends may=20
have heard of them.

Texts, however, are just not as central to the business world as they=20
are in the academic world. Rule four: Most of what you learn in=20
business comes from informal dialogue, whether in person, on the=20
phone or via e-mail. This is one reason why people in the business=20
world work so hard to establish interpersonal alliances, networks and=20
"communities of practice" across organizations. [FoRK!] People in the=20
business world read so they can cull information for use in=20
conversations that fuel this exchange of learning and solve practical=20
problems. You read the Wall Street Journal so that you can converse=20
and critique the Wall Street Journal. This gives you a common=20
vocabulary when you return to your work.

I'm grateful to those who taught me the ropes (and the unspoken=20
rules), because corporate work can be a tough gig. There is less room=20
in the margins for waste and duplication of effort. The contingent=20
nature of reality is all too evident in the marketplace, with=20
ever-changing consumer tastes, regulatory revisions, stock analysts'=20
mood swings and rapid technology obsolesce all conspiring to keep=20
things interesting. So, you try to monitor the environment, keeping a=20
close watch on the forces of change. In discussions, you try to=20
support your arguments with solid evidence. Your data rarely stand=20
alone. Nor do they stand uncontested for much longer than a=20

While academics may scoff, the business world is the thinker's Mount=20
Everest. The business world offers one of the most intense and most=20
dynamic continuous learning environments available. It is also the=20
hub, the epicenter, of change, where new developments in physics,=20
computer programming, mathematics, law, animation, music and=20
manufacturing all converge. The business world is also a place where=20
the dialectic of idealism and materialism is on prominent, constant=20
display. It can be a ruthless, inhumane environment.=CA Because of the=20
fast pace and intense pressure to satisfy customers, people often=20
rush through decisions before they can look at other options or=20
reflect on the potential consequences of their actions. The business=20
world obviously needs more good thinkers.

=46or these reasons, I'm now convinced that people who teach --=20
especially professors in the humanities -- have both a moral and=20
ethical obligation to talk about how their course content and=20
assignments relate to the "real world." It's astonishing that some=20
professors still defend their assignments with claims like "This will=20
help you become a critical thinker, understand a variety of=20
perspectives and thus allow you to flourish as a human being." Let's=20
get real. Our technology-driven, globally wired economy is in=20
hyperdrive, and all the old rules for survival and success are being=20

The academy must do a better job of getting students prepared for=20
such a world by conversing with them about what is actually taking=20
place in that world. But professors who regularly leave their=20
academic comfort zones and extend the scholar's footprint outside the=20
academy are still exceptions in the ivory tower.

Most professors have a contrived relationship with their students=20
based on the fallacy that students and professors actually need each=20
other. This fiction, which is beginning to tear at the seams and=20
unravel, is sustained only by the current economy. But stand in the=20
middle of a corporate merger, acquisition or downsizing initiative=20
(all which tend to happen very quickly) and you'll see that=20
everything once stable and predictable in our economy is beginning to=20
free fall. Undergraduates are sensing this change, via the=20
experiences of their parents -- many of whom are exhibiting anxiety=20
about the economy indirectly through concerns about their kids'=20
future career success. Meanwhile, my former colleagues complain ever=20
more voraciously about their undergraduates' ennui, unable to=20
comprehend its source.

Unfortunately, the academic world fosters such bizarre rites of=20
monastic insularity that most professors can only speculate and guess=20
-- usually in some exaggerated fashion -- how to construct meaningful=20
connections, create relevant examples and inspire enthusiasm for=20
their courses. Until academic careerists face their isolation,=20
they'll never know what they don't know. Nor can they imagine=20
different, better kinds of conversations with their students.

There is a huge, gaping divide between most of the academic world and=20
the business world. It is largely self-defined, dangerous and=20
unnecessary. Aristotle believed that to understand ourselves we must=20
understand the world. The desire to know develops in context. The=20
world in which students will try to find meaningful work is a much=20
more exciting, challenging and epistemologically uncertain=20
environment than most academic careerists can even begin to imagine.

The academic world is in need of more phronesis, or practical wisdom,=20
possessed by the heretics who have crossed the chasm while attempting=20
to carry the scholar's torch in the heat of marketplace battle. What=20
we are learning as stealth intellectuals at work in non-academic jobs=20
could potentially be used to make the academy much stronger. Spies in=20
the house of work, potential comrades in arms, we can show academics=20
how to reconnect and, thus, can show them how to survive. First,=20
however, they should give us much more credit for the intelligence=20
demonstrated by our leaving in the first place.