My wife is currently in the middle of her MBA studies and deeply immersed in case studies describing the strategic choices that were made in the recent past by big-name companies. As I understand it, once they got past basic courses that taught them the core language of business, much of their education comes from directly discussing what (un)successful businesses did, and what the people in charge were thinking as they did those things.
Which gets me thinking – why did I have no courses, as part of my electrical engineering and computer science education, that formally trained me in these skills?
Now, let me a bit more precise about what I am saying. Most good schools do have case studies in their standard curriculum – people study how famous compilers and operating systems are designed, people get a glimpse of architectural choices made by the big semiconductor companies, etc. However, these kinds of technical things are the “easy” bits. As a recently minted PhD and young faculty member, the most uncertain parts of my job involve choices about strategic directions – what problems should I go after? how should I sell my effort to raise funding? how should I pace myself? If you look closely, a lot of these questions have the same basic flavour as those faced by young entrepreneurs and business leaders. However, my PhD program had no formal mechanism for training me on this.
I was fortunate to get a good bit of informal training. My advisor, who had just completed a term as Chair of the department, helped me understand how the scientific process works behind the scenes. My department ran a special course (to be taken the year before graduation) aimed at informaing us of how the academic recruitment process really works, etc. Even so, for many of the hard decisions I am having to make, it would have helped to have more perspective.
To give a concrete example from the business domain – I was just reading the Christmas edition of The Economist (catching up on some readings while recovering from a bout of flu). They had articles on everything from the Florida property boom of the 1920s to the protectionist regulations during the ensuing depression – and lessons from those events for today’s economic climate. If you were a young business leader reading all this, it would provide invaluable perspective. And this is the sort of perspective that MBAs get from their case studies.
Scientists make many similar choices, and can learn from a reasoned understanding of history in similar ways. It can be nearly lethal for a young academic to bite off more than (s)he can chew in the first few years – resulting in a lack of immediate tangible results and unnecessary loss of credibility. At the same time, not being ambitious enough defeats the whole point of the job. Yet, I don’t remember a single formal mechanism by which I was told how scientists of previous generations had managed such choices. The only stories that trickle down are popular media articles about the ‘gods’, who can’t easily be emulated by mere mortals. Hearing about these unlikely stories does more to distort than clarify the issues I am raising.
The undesirable side effect of this state of affairs, as I see it, is that most people seem to end up emulating 1-3 professors who were most influential in their PhD education and just follow through on their vision during the early years. Wouldn’t things be much more interesting if young academics were trained on strategic thinking, and trained to take well informed risks, in the same way as young business leaders?