“In government you have to be careful what you tell people to do because they might leak it to the press. In business you have to be careful what you tell people to do because they might actually do it. And in academia, you’re just not supposed to tell people what to do!” – George Schultz
While at Purdue I attended a discussion between Mitch Daniels and George Schultz (a former professor of economics, business executive, and U.S. Cabinet member). When he said what I’ve quoted above as exactly as my memory allows, I was incredibly excited by my prospects. I had just been admitted to Purdue’s Economics Ph.D. program, and was looking forward to spending a career not being told what to do.
After a year of solving increasingly complicated and abstract math problems, and writing next to nothing, my goals changed. The problem with an environment in which you aren’t told what to do, is that you’re not really evaluated by what you DO. My thesis was entitled “An Attempt at Valuing Fringe Benefits”. The word attempt is key here. Most employers offer compensation in forms other than money (such as tuition reimbursement, or health insurance), and I developed a method to determine the dollar value that employees place on these fringe benefits. However, the method I devised consistently stated that dental insurance has a negative value (implying employees would be willing to pay their employer to stop offering dental insurance). This is either absurd, or means that people really hate the dentist. I suspect the former, but nonetheless I received an “A” for the work.
This is not to say that the environment of largely unconstrained inquiry provided in an academic setting is not useful. The founding papers of hyperbolic geometry were published by Janos Bolyai and Nikolai Lobachevsky circa 1830. Hyperbolic geometry is the geometric system that arises when one uses all the rules of Euclidean geometry except the parallel postulate. To grossly simplify, parallel lines can intersect in hyperbolic geometry. Hyperbolic geometry remained an abstract, “non-realistic” field of mathematics until Einstein’s work on special relativity in the early 1900’s theorized that space-time actually behaves according to the rules of hyperbolic geometry, not Euclidean geometry. Then in 1936, patent US2062538 was filed for the Cathode Ray Tube, a device that was a necessary part of old televisions, and a device that required hyperbolic geometry to create. Since then, hyperbolic geometry (through Einstein’s theories of relativity) has become necessary to the implementation of satellites, GPS technology, and our understanding of electromagnets.
Hyperbolic geometry is my favorite example of the usefulness of the academic institution. It was a mathematical system that was thought to be practically useless for 200 years before it was used to actually create a new technology which improved people’s lives. Had these mathematicians not had the ability to pursue what at the time looked like fruitless endeavors, we would quite possibly still be using road maps, rather than getting directions through our smartphone GPS.
Nonetheless, I am not content to take it on faith that my work will be useful after my death if not during my lifetime. I’ve been back at This Old Farm for only two weeks now, and though I’m still learning the ropes I’m excited to have already identified things which could potentially benefit not only our customers but also my fellow coworkers. It’s an excellent change of pace for me to be focusing now on what I can do, rather than what I can think up.
I’m also very excited to have the opportunity to write regularly again! Graduate school taught me that I enjoy teaching, I enjoy writing (much more when done casually, rather than the usually dry tone of research articles), and that I need to see my work have an impact on people to be proud of it. I’m quite confident I can put these desires to good use here at This Old Farm.