A Few Thoughts for Aspiring Scholars
I just spent a terrific few days out in Denver with AEI's Ed Policy Academy. We had twenty promising doctoral students from a slew of disciplines and institutions out, along with some of my favorite scholars and thought leaders. A pretty good way to spend four days, if you get the chance. One of the topics that came up repeatedly, as intended, was the relationship of researchers to policy and advocacy. For my broader take on all that, see my Harvard Ed Press book When Research Matters. In the moment, though, I found myself repeating several points that I often make to young scholars trying to find their way forward.
For what it's worth, I thought I'd offer up a few quick thoughts on how I encourage aspiring scholars to think about their training and the work. Let's keep it brief and simple -- it is a summer Friday.
One, academics understandably enjoy and cherish academe. In many cases, it's all they've ever known. They value certain things and abide by certain norms. Just because you're training to be a researcher doesn't mean that you need to accept that baggage as a given. Helpful on that score is getting out and talking to folks in various edu-roles outside the academy, mingling with your peers from other disciplines and institutions, and pushing yourself to not take your chair's views as uncontested wisdom.
Two, researchers have incentives to get their hands on clean data that somebody else has already collected. Hence the love affair with federal data sets, test scores, and the rest. The problem is that these data are often limited when it comes to asking and answering the most interesting questions about how the world works. Don't be chased by methodological convention or disciplinary pressure into abandoning the questions you care about.
Three, young researchers can get so lost in the journals and disciplinary scholarship that it starts to look like everything that can be written has already been written. That couldn't be further from the truth. A wonderful antidote is to talk to principals, superintendents, state officials, advocates, or legislators, all of whom will make clear that they feel like they've got almost none of the knowledge they actually need.
Four, it's okay to have a point of view. The fact is, no matter how hard one may try to be "objective" or to cloak one's perspective in jargon, your questions, analyses, and conclusions will be colored by how you see the world. That's okay. In fact, that's what makes things interesting, and what can yield meaningful intellectual diversity. But the key is to be honest and transparent about your thinking, and to use methodological discipline to help readers and listeners distinguish what you think from what you claim to know.
Five, remember that there are lots of people in the world whose job is to smooth over differences of opinion, obfuscate, and otherwise deal in the cloudy language of aspiration. That's what elected officials, civic leaders, advocates, and bureaucrats are for. We don't need researchers who can come up with ways to put a pleasing face on their pet cause; we need researchers (inside the academy and out) who challenge both their allies and their opponents. Rather than finding a way to package the merits of school choice, small schools, extended learning time, PLCs, alternative licensure, or anything else, we need researchers who turn a bright light on convention, ask the unpleasant questions, and embrace the annoying task of pointing out inconsistencies and uncertainties.