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Who's driving us down this road?
On the challenge of finding people looking for answers to long problems
America's higher educational system is reasonably good at channeling a lot of high-achieving young people into professions where quick thinking is highly valued. Lots of smart students find themselves pointed towards professions like medicine and the law, where professionals like emergency-room physicians and trial lawyers are required to think quickly on their feet.
■ One of the things our system is much poorer at doing is channeling high-performance thinkers into solving long problems -- challenges that aren't solvable on a short timeline, but that require sustained, long-range, expert attention. Find a good student who doesn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer (or some similar profession), and there's a non-trivial chance that their college professors and other advisors are directing them towards a research-type degree. Yet, as has been widely noted, is the job market for tenure-track Ph.D.'s has crumbled to the point where only a small handful of doctoral-level scientists end up in tenure-track academic roles. Many end up in the private sector -- which can be great -- but it isn't immediately obvious that the academic training is really matching the desired occupational outcomes efficiently.
■ Even where job security isn't a problem, the drive to take high-achieving individuals and place them into ever-tightening areas of focus often results in people who are profoundly expert at an extremely narrow field of inquiry come up but who are reluctant to have anything to say outside of their immediate authority. This tends to reflect a general deference to other individuals who may be even more expert in that particular narrow field -- but as much as that can reflect professional courtesy, it can also become a hindrance to having well-informed conversations about important public issues.
■ This can be hazardous if it takes talent and attention away from long-term problems and issues that need multidisciplinary thinking. We have lots of people who are extremely good at laser-like focus on very narrow areas, but in many cases, our big problems need broad-based thinkers who can synthesize imperfect information and remain comfortable with the resulting uncertainty.
■ The field of education has responded to this gap with the development of the educational doctorate, a degree frequently awarded based upon "action research" -- a practice that rewards live experimentation on real-world applications rather than laboratory-style testing. Whether other fields will find themselves open to the same kind of practical doctorates remains to be seen, but one can imagine fields like economics or technology where engaged practitioners may be able to advance the state of the art without a Ph.D.-like focus on theory.
■ Evolution in the way that advanced degrees are granted wouldn't necessarily result in placing more attention on long problems. That requires a reward mechanism -- some way to pay for it. But as problems seem to emerge and grow at relatively faster paces than they did in the past, it's essential to find ways to think even farther ahead. Surprises will always emerge, but if we really do think that the pace of change has accelerated, then thinking about systematic ways of looking farther down the road isn't a luxury; it's a necessity.