The Value of Learning Backward

In an 18 March Washington Post article, "You're the Dr.," Linton Weeks wrote, "Look around--PhDs are everywhere. There?s Dr. Laura Schlessinger. There?s Dr. Ruth Westheimer. ... And there, in the midst of March madness, is ESPN college basketball analyst Dr. Jack Ramsay." Is this finding such a surprise? More importantly, are latent expectations of scholars and their mission making this remarkable?

In the sciences, Ph.D. career choices are more diverse, but more clearly delineated. For instance, 75% of Georgia Tech?s Ph.D. graduates in 2001 sought R&D positions in the industrial sector. This trend provides greater pressure for tenure-track scientists and engineers to move away from "nontechnical" and "soft" pursuits. Although exploring multidisciplinary perspectives and ideas is the foundation of critical thinking, the sciences in contrast rarely encourage it. Consequently, students of engineering and sciences are educated in the absence of traditionally "academic" exercises, and ultimately, they have few connections to society in general. However, individual passion and constructivist learning are beginning to be accepted and promoted.

Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, the authors of So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide to Career-Changing for MAs and PhDs, list other graduate degree holders who debunked the ivory tower and ventured onto the road less taken. Consider chemical engineering Ph.D. Tom Magliozzi, better known as one half of the dynamic, problem-solving mechanic duo of NPR?s "Car Talk." Despite or because of his teaching experiences, Magliozzi emerged as a radio personality by embracing his "New Theory of Learning," based on the principal of "learning backward." That is, learning is about fixing the problems that are important to you and acquiring the skills and resources you need to solve them.

Learning backward happens every day and should be recognized as an integral skill of functional professionals and citizens. Graduate programs that are recognizing this have developed courses and programs to prepare students for lives after their theses or dissertations; lives in which the capacity to fix problems is a critical survival skill.

We accepted one such program?s challenge to become greater than the sum of our degree-earned parts--to become in the program?s parlance "citizen-scholars." In one of many courses offered through the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Program at the University of Texas, our learning was driven by our interests and had an impact from our academic training.

Training Citizen Scholars

Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) is a university-wide program at the University of Texas, Austin. Through 16 cross-disciplinary courses and internships, community-based synergy groups, nine doctoral and masters portfolio programs, a consulting service, a Preparing Future Faculty program, and a variety of workshops, IE provides graduate students opportunities to discover how to use their expertise to make a meaningful and lasting difference in their discipline and in the community--that is, to become citizen-scholars.

Here are several personal accounts to show what we mean by learning backward:

Dyron Hamlin, a master?s student in chemical engineering, conducted a mold project with a historical institute that sought to broaden its expertise on book preservation. Hamlin?s project not only included scientific analysis, but also instructional training on indoor air quality based on his findings. Hamlin confided that, "The wonder of the class for me was how it changed the way I look at myself and the contribution that I can make." Olivia Primanis, senior book conservator at the institute, expressed her appreciation, "With [Dyron?s] information, we are able to tailor our work procedures and equipment to reduce mold exposure for conservators, library staff, and patrons."

R. Scott Evans, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, pursued a curriculum reform project that integrated project management and communication skills into an engineering course. The project reconciled Evans?s textbook-driven education with his engineering training, satisfying both his intellectual and applied interests. The course demonstrated to Evans "the connections and collaboration engineers can pursue within academe, or society at large, on issues not typically considered the province of engineering."

Molecular biology doctoral student Nan Yan designed a project for an e-learning course on antibody modification techniques for biotech and pharmaceutical firms wishing to improve their online learning resources. The experience encouraged Yan to leave the lab and teach nonmolecular biology specialists. He claimed, "It challenged me to present a molecular biology concept that even a general audience can understand and in a format that is educationally applicable."

Although being trained to be researchers and scientists, grad students are often unfamiliar with how to negotiate their understanding within interdisciplinary arenas. A recent mechanical engineering doctoral graduate, Mitch Pryor, reexamined the teaching of science through this approach. Observing a history professor who integrated storytelling in his teaching led Pryor to conclude that teaching science should "focus on developing a scientific literacy in a student" and move beyond the fundamentals of scientific fact alone.

Although the skills we learn in grad school are not uniquely suited to academe, recognizing and adapting them to environments other than university classrooms is too often regarded as the road less taken. In echoing the goals of the IE program, these accounts reveal that graduate students can successfully leverage scientific, academic experience as citizen-scholar entrepreneurs, writers, and teachers.

Yet the illusion prevails that graduate students are selling themselves out by pursuing nonuniversity or nontechnical careers. Venturing into the context of complimentary disciplines should not be misconceived as graduate students snubbing the very institutions that confer their degrees. On the contrary, citizen-scholars seek broader venues where we can use our interests and education to make a difference in our lives, our disciplines, and in our communities.

As the recent story in The Washington Post suggests, finding Ph.D.?s throughout the postacademic world is hardly a headline story, but a natural choice for those who aspire to have an impact. Consider the open secret that learning occurs everywhere--not just in classrooms--and throughout life. Although learning backward should be a cornerstone of academia, it?s more powerful when the boardroom is a classroom and members of the board are students. Then students can individually recognize their charge within the Web spaces of the Internet, the halls of Congress, and the streets of any community, where their skills can be disseminated in the best lecture hall of all: society at large.

The authors are pursing their doctoral degrees at the University of Texas, Austin. Chu is working in linguistic anthropology, while Evans is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering.

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