Developing Intellectual Entrepreneurship

The Scientist
15[5]:1, Mar 5, 2001

For grad students, communication is a basis for success
by Kate Devine

Doctoral programs do not adequately prepare students for the future. So says the recent study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, "At Cross Purposes: What the Experiences of Today's Doctoral Students Reveal about Doctoral Education."1 To solve this problem the University of Texas, which produces the largest number of Ph.D.s annually, established a professional development program. Initiated in 1997, the mission of the University of Texas at Austin Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program is to help students realize the value of their expertise, discover their disciplinary identity, and become successful academic professionals. This program offers 16 cross-disciplinary, for-credit graduate-level classes on topics such as academic and professional writing, communication, pedagogy, consulting, ethics, technology, and entrepreneurship. In the past three years, over 1,000 students from 87 disciplines enrolled in these classes.

Richard CherwitzRick Cherwitz, associate dean in the office of the vice president and dean of graduate studies, and professor, communication studies and rhetoric and composition, is the program creator and director. He uses the term, intellectual entrepreneurship, to describe academic life to others outside of the academy. "The successful academic creates a body of work that distinguishes that same scholar from the others by reputation, much as a brand name or particular product distinguishes a category of goods. There is risk taking and there is creation. But I make no immediate association with capitalism, because an entrepreneur is simply one who undertakes some project and bears the risk." He asserts that an artist or film producer could be an entrepreneur, not just the small businessman. Risk taking by an academic, he continues, could be within the scientific lab, within the concert hall, or in the pages of a manuscript.

According to Cherwitz, who has spent 25 years studying the relationship between communication and knowledge, "Communication is more than a vehicle for transmitting what we know--it also affects what we know." He believes graduate programs should strive to make students better versed in communication skills. Cherwitz says when he became an associate dean of graduate studies five years ago, he verified what he had sensed for many years as a faculty member. By talking to faculty and students, he confirmed, "Graduate students need assistance both in demystifying the academic professional world in order to succeed, and in appreciating the enormous value they have both inside and outside of their disciplines." Thomas J. Darwin, Coordinator of and faculty member in the graduate school intellectual entrepreneurship program, agrees, citing life science grad students as an example. "Even if [life science grad students] know they are in important fields, they are focused on what is immediately in front of them, whether it is dissertation work, work in a lab, or other pressing aspects of graduate life. In this vein, one of the most important functions of the program is to help grad students fully appreciate the value they can bring to many different enterprises both inside and outside the academy."

People who earn doctorates are more than scholars; they are "citizen-scholars", says Cherwitz. "Everyone has an obligation to make a difference in the world," he expounds. "Whether one is a scientist or a humanist, our teaching and research are at least implicitly guided by a desire to solve problems, take actions, and promote change." To be a citizen-scholar is to care enough about one's research to make sure that it is done well and to make sure its has the greatest potential impact, he adds. "One of the most important things for any academic to do, but especially scientists, is to be able to bring their expertise to bear meaningfully and forcefully on broader social problems, and importantly, to be able to communicate this to a general audience," Darwin points out. He notes that scientists must be able to engage the public about important scientific and policy issues and show the public that scientists are not one-dimensional "lab rats." Instead they are highly intelligent, thoughtful people who have much to say about many different issues beyond science. "Some of our most important public intellectuals have been scientists. It seems, however, to be more and more difficult for scientists to be public intellectuals at precisely the moment that we need them most," he observes. "Thus, these classes are designed to help students develop their opinions, competencies, and expertise in ways that can have an impact, and give them the specific skills to enable them to have that impact whether it's in writing, communicating, consulting, or other classes."

The best measurement of program success is the fact that every semester since 1997 courses are over-subscribed, with many students enrolling based on the recommendation of prior students. Given the newness of the program, no other formal measurement of success is currently available, reports Cherwitz, although a fair amount of anecdotal evidence from students exists. They tell how the classes have helped them in many ways such as how to publish, get grants, work on research projects, teach more effectively, and interview successfully. He stresses, however, "Over time we need to be careful NOT just to measure the success of the program in terms of job placement as the IE program involves more than employment--it's about producing successful academic professionals who own their education and remain passionate about what they do." The program will expand within the coming year to link graduate students and faculty with members of the public and private sectors. The intent is to build upon the current program by creating spaces--both geographically and metaphorically-- where intellectual entrepreneurs from inside and outside the University can gather to discover, create, solve problems, and promote change.

picture of Thomas Darwin"This program is premised on a strong belief in the power of the interaction between different perspectives on any given problem," remarks Darwin. "Complex problems require teamwork and coordination and innovative thinking from different perspectives," he continues. "The metaphor I use here is that we are after harmony rather than unity. The goal is not all people have the exact same vision, but several different visions coordinated and harmonized into one whole that is much greater than the parts, and infinitely more adaptable and powerful. An orchestra or ensemble is great not because it is all the same instrument, but precisely because it is different instruments brought together in their different interpretations of the same piece."