At the end of 2018, I was on a panel about graduate school. While I enjoyed providing guidance to these potential future graduate school applicants, I was left with a nagging feeling that I had not sufficiently addressed one comment that arose in the discussion. When one attendee asked about the choice between an academic and a non-academic career post-PhD, several of my co-panelists commented that they chose a non-academic career because they wanted to “make a contribution.” At the time, my response focused on the influence academics have through teaching by contributing to how young people view the world around them and how it works. But after the panel, I had a lingering distaste in my mouth about the notion that academic research does not “make a contribution.”
Now in my panelists’ defense, non-academic researchers, particularly those at policy research organizations, often have more direct access to practitioners and politicians than academics for a couple of reasons. Policy research organizations have reputations and a following, which makes it easier to get their policy briefs and reports into the hands of policy makers and researchers even if the individual researchers on a particular project do not have connections to those people and organizations. These organizations also often have departments that specialize in research dissemination to get their reports and briefs to organizations and politicians who are interested in the policy issues they study.
In contrast, academics have four options when it comes to reaching practitioners and politicians. 1) They can target their work to journals that are read by practitioners and politicians. 2) They can communicate with journalists to get their research covered in mainstream news outlets like the New York Times. 3) They can network with practitioners and politicians to distribute their research to potentially interested individuals. 4) They can work directly with non-profits or other organizations for their research project. It is often a more time consuming process for an academic to reach these audiences, but it does happen. William Julius Wilson, a prominent Professor of Sociology who studies poverty and race, is well known among practitioners and politicians alike despite not being a non-academic researcher. So even though it might take work, it is not impossible.
But the part of the conversation that got to me is that doing research that is read by practitioners and politicians is not the only way to “contribute” as a researcher. In fact, there are three ways that academics contribute from within the academy. First is related to what happens in the classroom, which is arguably half the job. Formulating and teaching a class of 20 somethings is shaping how they think, how they see the world, and ultimately what they choose to do with their lives. Most practitioners and most politicians are college-educated, so it seems to me that Ph.D.s who choose an academic career are influencing practitioners and politicians.
Second, academic research is often what is taught in undergraduate classrooms, particularly in the social sciences. So as an academic researcher publishing in peer-reviewed journals, I have a chance to inform the next generation of college-educated Americans. At a time when the college-educated population is growing and includes an increasingly diverse population, this is a powerful motivation for me as a woman of color studying issues of race, urbanism, and inequality. I get to influence the narrative about how the next generation understands issues like gentrification and the racial wealth gap.
Finally, many social scientists work with organizations to do their research. While this work is often overlooked in the acknowledgement of service in the university (and even in the way we think of what constitutes “public sociology”), it is an integral way in which academics who remain within the institute of higher ed contribute to the broader society. Now, not all of this work is done well, but the same could be said about policy research. The goal here is to not impose on the community, but to listen to the community, hear what they need, and leverage our research skills to help them get that regardless of whether this is done by a professor or a policy researcher. That doesn’t always happen. But when it does, it is a contribution.
While their contributions manifest in different ways, academics both within and outside of academia contribute to society. Both types of contribution are needed to try to make this world a better place.