Help me become a public intellectual
February 11, 2011 1:22 AM   Subscribe

I may know what I want to do with my life. Yay! But how the heck do I get there?

I think that I want to be the kind of professor who writes popular books, consults with industry and governments, and so forth (as opposed to the kind that is well-known in academia for theory).

I know this is frowned upon in academia, but I would much rather be a professor who writes books for the public, does public speaking, etc. than a spectacularly good researcher of minutiae. I can do the minutiae, but that's not what gets me excited.

Here are some of my role models in a variety of fields (the field is less important to this question than what they have done with their careers): Parag Khanna, danah boyd, Michael Porter, Dan Ariely, etc. I know that some of these people are not respected by "serious" scholars, but that's not what I'm going for.

I've just started graduate school at an elite university and feel like I have an opportunity to start shaping my career this way, but I'm not sure how to do it. I've followed the careers of these people, but I can't really get an idea of how to get from here to there. What kinds of topics do you choose for a thesis? How do you spend your time, etc.?

I'm a good writer, public speaker, etc. I know that this type of popular/academic success is at the end of a long, long professional road -- but I want to start working towards it.

- What should I be doing now if this is my goal?
- What personal
- How do I start figuring out what people like this have done to be successful?
- Help! :)
posted by metametababe to Work & Money (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: crap -- that second one should be "What personal qualities should I start developing?"
posted by metametababe at 1:23 AM on February 11, 2011

Ask one of those people you look up to; they could probably give you the best advice. If you're an elite student and have one or two good, clear questions, they'd probably be happy to answer an email. Maybe don't tell them they're 'not respected by "serious" scholars' though. There's a Tim Ferriss article about this.

My guess is that if you want to write/consult for the public, then start doing that now. Write articles and give talks where you can now, even if just for other students, do well, and move up to more respected and influential publications/venues/customers. But, check out other resources for general "how do you spend your time in grad school" advice for managing research/classes/etc.
posted by sninctown at 2:28 AM on February 11, 2011

Why don't you write to some of the people you see as role models and ask them these questions? If they are known for engaging with the public, I imagine they are happy to get emails/letters and are likely to respond.

Incidentally, I (an academic myself) don't get the impression that academic writers of popular books are "frowned upon". Some academics are jealous of them, because they can actually make money, their books sell, and people are interested in their work, whereas the rest of us are lucky if five people read anything we write. And some popular writers just synthesise other people's research for the general public rather than producing original research of their own. That will understandably irk people, because they might feel their research is being dumbed down, misappropriated or misrepresented. But I think that's a minority response, and if you do popular books well, you will hopefully have few of these reactions.
posted by lollusc at 2:28 AM on February 11, 2011

If this is what you love to do, make sure everyone knows it. Not only the people who you think should know this, but also friends, family and neighbours. You can never predict whose network will come in handy. It's always nice if people talk about what they're passionate about. Word will spread, and when people need someone to speak or write about science in a popular way, your name will pop up.
You could start a blog where you write about things that interest you. It will sharpen your writing skills and may be picked up.
But my guess is that most people got where they are by 'accident': they loved doing what they do, where publicly passionate about it, and word spread.
posted by charles kaapjes at 2:46 AM on February 11, 2011

Step one: become a tenured professor. This will require you to complete a terminal degree in your field, publish, network at conferences, do great at interviews, and be lucky enough to land a tenure track position. And then, spend 6 years being a "good" tenure track professor at your institution. (Colleges and universities vary in what they are specifically looking for when offering tenure.) At a minimum, you will need to serve on committees that actually accomplish something, publish in the refereed journals of your field, and teach with some effectiveness.

Step two: become a public intellectual. (This seems to be the focus of your questions. However, it is at cross purposes with step one. All of that time spent promoting yourself, writing popular non-fiction, and doing public appearances speaking on you topic is time that will be taken away from your doctoral course work, your dissertation research, your dissertation writing, and your quest for tenure.)

My advise is to focus your energies, for now, on step one, which is a daunting task. Once you have achieved most of step one - say 3 years into your tenure track position - then you can begin to focus on step two.
posted by hworth at 4:45 AM on February 11, 2011

Get a blog and write extremely well on topics you are extremely well-versed in. Write a book in your spare time. Take fame garnered & notoriety from blog and newly written book on topic you are extremely well-versed in to get publisher interested. After getting published, start your job search. Once established at a school, use blog & new academic credentials to secure a columnist spot in a Hip and/or Trendy magazine/larger blog/newspaper/etc. Use this column to gain more recognition, which should help book sales in a positive feedback loop, at least until the groupies and the coke come along.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:02 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hworth is right to some extent, but there are certainly things you can be doing even now, and the main one in my opinion is choosing research topics that will be of interest to the general public. That usually means broader rather than narrower, and empirical rather than theoretical. The details will depend on your field. You need to get good at picking topics that your field thinks are important, but that the general public is interested in too. The two don't always overlap, but sometimes they do. And the unintended bonus is that grant-funding agencies also really like projects that fall at that intersection, since the public gets unhappy when government funding goes to projects that the "man/woman on the street" can't see the point of.
posted by lollusc at 5:03 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am an academic who writes for the public -- not books, but articles in national newpapers and magazines. I have lots to say about this but let me boil it down to a few things.

1. First, write for free. I started like this: when I was in graduate school, I wrote some book reviews for free for a small publication in Boston. With those clips I started getting some paid work for the Boston Phoenix, and with those clips I was able to get an assignment for the Globe. You may need to ask people who are younger than your heroes, just because the publishing world has changed so much so fast. Alternative weeklies are just a trace of their former selves, and certainly their coverage of intellectual/scientific topics has shrunk to nothing. Nowadays, I would imagine that running a really good blog and otherwise making your writing available online would be the place to start.

2. Your two goals are not in opposition. The difference between a public scientist (the word "intellectual" scares me a little) and a science journalist is that the scientist has the deep context that comes only from knowing how things work all the way down. And you get this from what might seem at first like minutiae, but what are actually the stuff of which the world is made. I'm sure there are lots of minutiae in danah boyd's thesis, and in Dan Ariely's dozens of academic papers!

3. You are already doing one of the most important things you can do, which is acquiring a Ph.D. from a top institution. Editors like credentials. And why not? You're asking them to pay you to write with authority about your field. Editors can tell whether you're a good writer, and whether what you have to say is interesting -- but why should they believe that what you say is correct? As hworth says, what you really want -- both for your research life and your writing life -- is a tenured position at a good university. That's hard, but you know that.

4. It doesn't matter, for this purpose, what you write your thesis on. Or rather -- you have to write your thesis on something you care about deeply, maybe even obsessively. Writing a thesis is just too hard to do it otherwise. And if you care about the topic that deeply, and you're a good writer, there's a good chance you can write well about it for the general public. (Unless you are a mathematician, like me.) Is the topic something you find fascinating, but you think the general public doesn't care about? Well, there you go -- you are the only person in the world who has the knowledge and ability to explain to the world why it's so interesting. E.O. Wilson cared about ants. Thanks to him, lots of people care about ants!

This is already too long so I'll stop here. Happy to continue by mail. It would help to know what your field is.
posted by escabeche at 5:58 AM on February 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'd second a lot of what is said here (tenure, write for free), but I'd add two small things:
1) take your writing seriously. Most of us don't have the luxury of an academic life so aim to make the writing a joy for us, not dumbing it done, but prizing clarity over academic nonspeak. This should go for all of your language -your students will thank you for this as well.
2) you're at an elite university so you need to build internal barriers against becoming a sycophant to power or a simple populizer of received wisdoms. A public intellectual isn't afraid to interrogate or explode the powerful or accepted. There's a big difference between the courageous and the pundit. Take that seriously.
posted by history is a weapon at 6:15 AM on February 11, 2011

I've just started graduate school at an elite university and feel like I have an opportunity to start shaping my career this way, but I'm not sure how to do it. I've followed the careers of these people, but I can't really get an idea of how to get from here to there. What kinds of topics do you choose for a thesis? How do you spend your time, etc.?

Nthing that, really, you're still at a point where what you need to do is what everyone in grad school needs to do. You need to get the PhD, you need to become an expert in your field, and you need to get a tenured position.

But, here's the important part:

You need to seriously, earnestly, fully, and deeply love your field. You need to wake up in the morning with a feeling of absolute joy that you get to write on the topic you've chosen. You need to feel giddy when you think about your research. You need to have an unyielding enthusiasm for what you do, because it's that enthusiasm that will help you be interesting and relevant to "the masses." If you don't love what you do, no one else will. If you see your research as just a means to an end, you won't be good at explaining it or expressing it as valuable.

So, when you're choosing a thesis topic, make sure it's something that you find absolutely fascinating and meaningful and worthwhile and all-around AWESOME. Make sure it's something that you think everyone in the world really would be better off knowing about, so it's a valuable mission for you to set about teaching them. Feel, breathe, and live your topic.

And if you discover that you can't do that, that there is no particular thesis topic that just sings to you in that important way... Then, well, you've got a problem; you'll have to reconsider your plans.
posted by meese at 6:35 AM on February 11, 2011

Echoing what others have been saying, take your work seriously. Dedicate time and effort in mastering and cultivating your skills. When you do, others start to respect and not write you off. Also, a little faith works wonders. Not of the religious kind but of mankind.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 6:53 AM on February 11, 2011

I had a friend in graduate school who took this track and has became a quite popular "public intellectual." He now makes a quite nice living writing books that appeal to both academic and popular readers, giving talks, writing articles, and getting a very sweet series of year- and mutiyear-long visiting appointments in think tanks, academic departments, and research centers. I see him in magazines like the New Yorker and the Atlantic all the time -- sometimes he has a short piece in there, and sometimes the article is about him.

He got there by:

* Kicking ass in graduate school, including getting a series of prestigious fellowships that paid him to travel, do research, and go to conferences to meet important people.

* Taking his writing very, very seriously, and always writing with an eye for an audience, which is not how most academic writing is done.

* Being charismatic. I don't know if there is a way to fake this or learn this, but without it you aren't going to make it.

* Blogging, including both his own blog and contributing to popular blogs.

* Conferences, both academic and ones like TED or Davos or the World Social Forum. The space where academic meets publishing meets popular is very, very small; everyone knows each other and either you are in or you are out, as far as I can tell. He used charm and raw ability to become an insider, so he gets first dibs on a lot of opportunities. I mean, when someone needs an Op-Ed contributor for a major newspaper or a visiting fellow for their new think tank on a tropical island, they don't just start calling random people out of the phone book.

I'm sure there are other paths, but that's how the one person I've watched has done it. It's a ton of work, and you'll never have the academic cred of someone who stayed fully within the system. On the other hand, you can earn a lot more, you travel more, and there are honest-to-God groupies, if that appeals to you.
posted by Forktine at 7:53 AM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I may know what I want to do with my life.

I hate to rain on this parade, but you've outlined "who you want to be" here, not "what you want to do". That part's simple, and amounts to "be a good communicator and have some character", as far as I can tell.

As for "what you want to do", though, you've given us nothing. What do you care about enough to dedicate your life to learning about it and communicating that knowledge to others?
posted by mhoye at 7:58 AM on February 11, 2011

Your two goals are not in opposition.

While it sounds like escabeche is far more knowledgeable about this issue than I, as someone on the tenure track relatively enmeshed with the issues of getting tenure in the current academic environment I would like to politely risk disagreeing with this. Writing for the public will not get you tenure, or even count much towards it, in any field that I have any contact with, and unless you are one a few very rare people, the time spent on this would probably substantially hurt your case. At best, it would possibly help your teaching portfolio (by meshing with development of general-interest classes). There are people (and I've encountered some, though I can't think of any pre-tenure) who can juggle popular writing and academic writing, but statistically speaking, you aren't one. Some answerers have implied this by suggesting that you get tenure at a university first, but I want to come right out and say it -- in the short term I do think your goals are in opposition.
posted by advil at 8:20 AM on February 11, 2011

(And by "short term", keep in mind that I mean the next 10-15 years.)
posted by advil at 8:21 AM on February 11, 2011

I agree with some of the above comments that this kind of popular writing isn't frowned upon in all, or maybe most, areas of academia. In fact, in psychology it's often lauded because it's a way to "give psychology away" to the general public. You don't get to be a Dan Ariely (who is definitely respected) by starting off with the popular books -- you get to write the popular books because you already wrote all this and so you're seen as having somewhat of a handle on the field. It's similar for Dan Gilbert, Phil Zimbardo, etc. What the people who make this transition do seem to have, though, is a lot of charisma and the ability to see connections between their fields and others.

If you didn't want to go the route of becoming the big person in an area before getting to the book, I'd think something like science writing (or a comparable area in other fields) might be more ideal. Someone like Malcolm Gladwell has gathered a following within social science by admitting to love the field and then discussing what others have studied.
posted by bizzyb at 4:40 PM on February 11, 2011

I'd play your disdain for the 'minutia' of research close to the vest. You'll need to build academic cred if you ever want tenure, and since peer-review is conducted by, uh, your peers, letting them know that you don't have a lot of respect for what they do is unlikely to sit well with them.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:40 PM on February 11, 2011

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