January 2008 Newsletter, Vol. 37, No.1

Alternative Realities

David AttisPh.D. in hand, David Attis jumped out of the academic pool and into the corporate sea . After eight years “out there” he reports back on how graduates in the history of science can make a life for themselves (and use their academic skills).

I always planned to become an academic. Since my sixth-grade report on Jean-Paul Sartre, all of my heroes have been intellectuals. I went straight from college to graduate school without a second thought. What else would I possibly do – get a job? Soon I was hard at work on the most important aspects of becoming a professor – exaggerating the small personal quirks that my students would one day imitate, watching impatiently for the elbows on my jackets to wear through so that I might cover them with patches, and reading the Chronicle of Higher Education for the latest gossip about superstar academics as if it were US Weekly.

And then just before completing my dissertation, I had a crisis of faith. Perhaps it was the result of spending a year alone in a library eight time zones away from my fiancée. Perhaps it was the impending brutality of the academic job market. Perhaps it was the fact that nearing 30 years old I was still a student, living on a stipend and falling deeper into debt, while my less academically inclined friends were now moving into the ranks of middle management, earning respectable salaries and buying homes. I decided to try my luck at what academics refer to as “alternative careers” and everyone else just refers to as “careers.”

It was a turning point – not only because I questioned what had been central to my identity for well over a decade, but also because I knew there would be no going back. It’s hard enough to keep up with a discipline when you are engaged in full time teaching and research, but it’s impossible to do so in your spare time.

I had no idea what I wanted to do or even what I might be capable of doing. How many companies are looking for a historian of 19th-century mathematics? How many organizations need someone who has mastered the book cataloging system at Cambridge University? My faculty advisors were encouraging for the most part, but they had spent their entire professional lives in academia. Like the people who sent off Christopher Columbus, all they could do was to say, “Best of luck, watch out for the monsters!”

Thankfully the year was 1999, before the dot-com bubble burst. There simply were not enough MBAs to go around, and investment banks, consulting firms and other highflying companies were hiring Ph.D.s (the “bottom of the barrel” in their eyes) because they had no other options. I chose management consulting because it didn’t seem quite as much a sell out as investment banking. At least it had concrete business problems that needed solving. Presumably someone (a real someone, not just an investor) would be better off because of the work I would do. The consulting firms that I interviewed with didn’t seem to care that I had never worked in an office or solved an actual business problem. They just wanted to know my SAT scores and to verify that I could bluff my way through a case interview. And so a few months later I was advising the CEOs of major global corporations on what new products to launch, how to expand into global markets, and the best way to implement a new supply chain management system.

Since then I’ve had a number of different jobs. I moved from the general consulting practice at A.T. Kearney into their Global Business Policy Council, a unit that writes reports on globalization, foreign direct investment and the major trends impacting global business (“globaloney” as we liked to call it). Then I defected to the non-profit world and joined a non-partisan think tank called the Council on Competitiveness, working primarily on science and technology policy. I’m proud to say that President Bush recently signed into law legislation that we promoted – as a 501(c)(3) we don’t lobby, we “educate” – doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation over the next few years. So you have me to thank when you get your checks from the NSF. Recently I started a new position at the Advisory Board Company, which is launching a new higher education consulting practice. So I may soon be exercising my management acumen on a college or university near you. I am happy to say that in my career outside of the academic world I have found intellectually challenging and interesting work, stimulating colleagues, and ideas that matter. I spend most of my time on research, writing and presenting my work to different audiences – not so different from life in a university in some ways.

There are many things that I miss about the academic life – the freedom to pursue the questions that most interest me, the time to investigate new ideas with a focus and depth that simply would not be tolerated outside of academe, and the camaraderie of a community of scholars engaged in the joint search for knowledge. But I don’t miss the flip side of all of these – the lingering sense of irrelevance, the obsession with minutiae, the personal isolation, the incestuousness of disciplinary politics, not to mention the rootlessness of the peripatetic academic life. I am envious of my friends from graduate school who have become successful academics (though often at a personal cost I simply could not accept), and I still fantasize about turning my dissertation on the history of mathematics in Ireland into an international bestseller (before someone else beats me to it).

So in an effort to be useful, I offer below a few lessons that I have learned in my “alternative” career. I hope that they may inspire a few graduate students toiling away in basements or perhaps help a few academics to better understand the perspectives of those poor souls banished from the groves of academe.

It’s all about getting things done
Outside academia it’s not about what you know, or even who you know, it’s about what you can get done. Being able to solve a problem is more important than understanding it, and the first is not necessarily dependent on the second. That’s why the most successful people in business (and politics) are rarely those with the highest SAT scores or the longest bibliographies. You may not agree with what they do, but they do get things done.
On a related note, I have found that having left the world of academia, working with academic experts is a real pain. When you’re trying to solve a problem – in business or in policy – you need to go to the experts. But they have little interest in actually solving a problem. They live for problems. Their favorite activity is to “problematize.” They want to find more avenues for investigation while you want (need) to close them off and come to a quick conclusion. Like consumers of dental hygiene products, most consumers of ideas want something that they can use right now to get a job done – prove a point, win an argument, entertain an audience, get a soundbite, pass a bill, or seal a deal. Experts, those standard bearers of truth and objectivity, are often as much an obstacle to this as a help.

Market your skills, not your expertise
No one cares that you have a Ph.D. (or M.A.) in the history of science. Outside of universities and museums no one is desperately in need of an historian of science. Your entire world doesn’t even appear on most people’s radar screens. Frankly, most people don’t see the value of what you do. (Once, after describing my research on the history of mathematics, I had a Stanford law student ask me, “Why are you allowed to do that?”) I’m not suggesting a public-service campaign (“The History of Science – Making America Stronger Every Day”) but rather finding ways to demonstrate your skills to potential employers.

What employers care about are what historians of science like to call “tacit knowledge” – skills like research, writing, or communicating technical ideas. They think that most scientists are smarter than they are – so you’re best off if you can convince them that you understand science, but unlike the stereotypical egghead scientist you can actually communicate with real people. Historians of science become the bridge between the two cultures (i.e., the R&D division and the marketing department). As the president of the Council on Competitiveness likes to say, “We need engineers who think like artists and artists who think like engineers.” Feel free to use that in your interview.

There’s no “I” in collaboration
In graduate school I learned that all texts are socially constructed. Since then I have learned that this process occurs not just in the subtle and covert ways that historians of science delight in uncovering, but in straightforward, concrete ways. Any business or policy report is the product of many hands and the outcome of a convoluted process of negotiation and often vociferous personal conflict. At first it felt very strange to me to give up ownership of a document, to allow others to insert their opinions and syntax and to leave intact phrases that pained my ear but had to be preserved to pacify a colleague. In graduate school, my work was my own.

Since I left academia, rather than writing essays or articles or books, I’ve created talking points, marketing brochures, PowerPoint presentations, and speeches, generally under someone else’s name or no name at all. This kind of work is messy, frustrating, and full of compromises. It rarely produces bold new ideas or sparkling prose, but it does produce language that people can agree on and get behind.

People trust numbers
Eighty-six percent of Americans will believe any statistic that you tell them. Actually I just made that up, but it sounds like it could be true. It has that quality of “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert would say. Every historian of science now knows from a variety of great works on quantification and objectivity that statistical and quantitative arguments are highly compelling and often highly misleading. One thing that I’ve found is that even the most blatantly false statistics rarely get questioned (as long as they are delivered with an air of absolute authority). In academia, the knowledge that someone else is out there waiting to make a career out of catching your error keeps people honest. In a world of information overload and 10-second soundbites, truth is often secondary to effectiveness. From corporate boardrooms to the halls of Congress, people are happy to regurgitate canned statistics that have little basis in fact, as long as they sound compelling and support their argument. Historians of science are well positioned to play this game. Who better understands how a fact is created? It’s just a matter of making the switch from detached observer to engaged participant (and turning off that nagging feeling that you’re becoming part of the problem).


The value of the history of science translated into the language of corporate lobbyists.


Everyone is “interested”

We hear a lot these days about the evils of commercialization and the insidious role that multinational corporations, lobbyists and “corporate-backed think tanks” are playing in the destruction of politics, civil society, the university, etc. But corporations aren’t (all) evil. After all, Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil.” (And if you can’t trust Google, how will undergraduates ever complete their research papers?) The sociology of science taught me that everyone has interests, even those paragons of purity, the scientists. Frankly, most of the lobbyists that I have worked with over the past few years represent universities and scientific societies. Every national interest is someone’s special interest (and vice versa). The only way to increase federal spending on basic research (which just about everyone – with the possible exception of the Heritage Foundation – agrees is in the national interest) is to play the game as it currently exists. I wouldn’t be surprised if some small portion of your membership dues to HSS go to support lobbying on behalf of that most special of interests, the history of science. (“Making America Stronger Every Day,” remember.)
The academic world tends to define itself in contrast to the world around it – idealistic, disinterested, pure. That’s part of why it is so hard to leave academia for the world of business and politics, and why it is almost impossible to return. Yet we know that academics have always been engaged with business and politics. (Even Thales cornered the market on olive presses in expectation of a good harvest. Who’s to say he wouldn’t be a hedge fund manager today?) We watch with glee as our subjects build institutions, navigate the political system, or even get rich. Probably no other discipline is as well positioned to help people make sense of the changing nexus of science, technology, commerce and politics. And yet few people outside of the discipline read any of that great work. Maybe we need Galileo’s Guide to Social Networking, Kelvin’s Course on Commercialization, or Einstein’s Public Relations for Dummies. The lessons that I learned from the history of science are both practical and profound. It’s a shame that more people (like that Stanford law student) just don’t get it.

David Attis is a Senior Consultant at the Advisory Board Company in Washington, DC, where he does best-practices research for higher education institutions. Having made the leap from the ivory tower and survived, he is willing to offer sage advice to others contemplating a similar act of defenestration. He can be reached at david.attis@gmail.com.

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