Is academic experience inferior to “work” experience?

I can’t believe arguing with people on Twitter would lead me to produce more blog posts. I might as well re-label this column as “Summary of Things I Argued on Twitter Today”.

Anyway, this musing is brought to you by this thread by @ernabila_ . In the post, the OP (original poster) posted a screencap of a LinkedIn post by Ann Ping Saw, who told a story about an (ex)employee who begged them for a job, but after a few months, quit to pursue a Master’s.

As I inferred from @ernabila_’s interpretation of Ann’s story, she basically states two assumptions. The first, pursuing further studies is an escape mechanism. The second, pursuing further studies, while still lacking experience, with the aim of going into academia “is a waste of time”. As for the first assumption, I do not feel the need to address it as it involves very personal reasons that I feel should be left to, well, personal judgment. I do not presume to understand anybody’s struggles. Even if anyone is indeed pursuing further study as an escape mechanism, it’s their choice.

As the title of this musing makes evident, I will be mustering a counter-argument against the second assumption. My basic line of argument is this: it is not a waste of time.

First, we need to clarify the idea of “experience”. What constitutes experience? And what type of experience are we talking about? In the original post, I am inclined to understand “experience” as it is used in the corporate context; simply, work experience. This is the type of experience (or skills, the definition is quite loose) which someone is said to possess or acquire by working in an office environment or any “work” environment which involves contact with peers, clients, and superiors. Work experience can be broadly (for analytic purposes) classified into four distinct categories: obedience (where you follow your superior’s orders), initiative (where you come up with your own ideas; intrapersonal skills), networking (where you socialize with peers regardless of affiliation; interpersonal skills), and service (where you serve clients).

These experiences are often acquired through day-to-day routine: your boss emails you something, you work on it, you send it back (hopefully before the deadline, but there’s a thing called “strategic procrastination”), they review it (scathingly) then send it back to you.

This is the “real world” as our teachers have warned us about; life outside the Ivory Tower is an endless cycle of satisfying your workmates and superiors. This is the type of experience glorified by employers.

Let me then juxtapose this with academic experience. Using the same analytical categories, I may also paint a picture of academic life, especially in a world where neoliberal dogma has penetrated all aspects of life. Academics, especially graduate students, have to some extent be obedient to their bureaucratic supervisors and professors. Professors are also expected to fulfill Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as publication output and teaching hours. Academics also need to show a lot of initiative; to show to their peers and professors that they can come up with robust and novel arguments in verbal or written form. Often times, this is in the form of self-directed or externally-directed research projects. Professors have to be able to manage their own resources i.e. begging for grants, managing said grant money, managing research assistants, and managing publications. Academic networking takes the form of conferences or informal coffee sessions between professors and students. Do not underestimate academic networking; we absolutely need to know who’s who in our increasingly esoteric fields of study lest we miss up on publication opportunities (but more importantly, we know who to cite). Finally, service. Professors are expected to “serve” their “clients” (students) by teaching, counselling, and even handing out recommendation letters. They are also expected to serve the wider community by conducting research, which may lead to breakthroughs both positive and negative.

Given this illustration, it would seem the corporate world has striking similarities with the corporate world. Academic experience should, then, be valued equally to “work” experience. In other words, any experience is experience. This conclusion, sadly, disregards context. Surely, there is a specific context in which one may be considered an “experienced worker” and an “experienced academic”. So, when a student manages a research project, this experience may not be rated equally to someone managing a million-dollar project, but at its very core, isn’t the same “work” being done? If the same work is being done, then why is work experience, acquired in a corporate context, given priority to academic experience, when both are fundamentally similar?

I would like to quickly dismiss a rhetorical tool often employed in this type of debate. “It’s the real world! It’s different from school!” Being in a university also constitutes as participation in “real life” and “real life” as defined in the corporate context is often similar (if not even more rife with drudgery) to life in college. In college, you can fail and drop out. In real life, you get fired.

Moving on to my actual points, I’d love to point out to systemic infiltration of neoliberal dogma in higher education, but that’s too macro in scale and impossible to discuss within 1,000 words or so. Frank Donoghue, Tom Nichols, and Slaughter & Rhodes, among others, do a better job than me. But then neoliberalism is indeed an important factor which cannot be overlooked. I focus particularly on the “workforce-ready” narrative that has infiltrated higher education, which leads to the glorification of “work experience” over “academic experience”. This is also partially where the “theory-practice split” comes in.

What is the “workforce-ready” narrative? Imagine you’re a parent of a young teenager out of high school. Like many Gen X (and soon-to-be Gen Y) parents, you would likely be worried about their future prospects. You would want your kid to land a good job that’s robot-proof and promises a good wage so (a) the kid can live a good life and (b) you, as a parent, get returns on your college tuition you paid. [Digression: already we see the effects of market logic: a child is seen as an investment, not an actual human being with agency.] So, obviously you as a parent would fall for “workforce-ready” gimmicks peddled by the university marketing departments. These usually follow the same theme, likely, “Our curriculum equips your child with skills they need to be ready for work once they graduate!” Variants include mandatory internship programs, a curriculum based on the needs of the industry, or guaranteed job placements within 3 months of graduation. Since you want all the best for young Timmy/Jennifer, you decide to enroll them there with hopes of them being able to progress smoothly into the workforce. For added insurance, you also nudge them to pick a STEM major or Business Administration/Commerce/[insert any study program being hyped by the neoliberal media as being a potentially lucrative field here].

Already, we see the workings of neoliberalism: higher education being dictated by the whims of the market and students being “assembled” to fit the needs of industry.

Additionally, there’s the increasing distinction between theory and practice. The corporate narrative at its most perverse is when they decry higher education teaches too much “theory” and not enough “practice”. A common response from universities is to employ “practitioners”—usually a middle-aged male with decades of experience in corporate who has hit a bump in their career and then decided to get a PhD in Management Science—to teach classes. Teaching methods are also changed to cater to the needs of the industry, who complain traditional modes of learning are antiquated and irrelevant to the real world. The result is flipped classrooms, team-based learning, and case studies where students are supposed to “learn for themselves” while the professor only acts as a “learning facilitator”. Tell me once again how listening to a professor lecture for 2 hours is “not as real” as listening to middle-aged executives drone on about company policy for 5 hours straight, or how arguing with classmates about the direction of Indonesian strategic policy is different from arguing with co-workers about how to create a social media campaign.

Taking all of these factors in mind, students are taught, either consciously or subconsciously, that the only “experience” that matters is anything that directly correlates with the needs of the corporate world. Anything remotely connected to the academic world is considered irrelevant, too full of theory, and old-fashioned [I recently came to know that fountain pens are popular again]. If academic experience is irrelevant to the workforce, why does work experience share the same characteristics as academic experience? If academic experience is too full of theory and not enough practice, isn’t practice also guided by some sort of theory? Neoliberals operate based on principles laid by Hayek and Friedman, whereas corporate management operates on some variant of management theory. The only reason why nobody uses socialist theory (except for Scandinavian countries) and why the teachings of these theories is considered to be “useless” by the industry is because it goes against the very values a corporation stands for.

This paragraph is a response to the second tweet in the thread. Getting a Master’s to pursue a lecturing position is actually a way to start a career. A Master’s is an essential key. Even if you “teach by the book”, it’s a meaningful way to build experience early in your academic career. “Teaching by the book” is only harmful if the book you’re using is from the early 19th century and full of bunk theories that have been discarded by the field (like Classical Realism, Taylorian management, social Darwinism, or the German school of geopolitics). Besides, it is unlikely you will be teaching specific subject-oriented classes in the first year unless your Master’s is in a highly specialized field and you yourself have extensive research experience accumulated in your Bachelor’s years. Also, isn’t a Master’s also a certification of “experience” acknowledged by both the industry and academia? Therefore, to say an additional piece of paper cannot add to your experience is fallacious. Whether it is to run away from problems, that is a territory where we cannot and should not make any value judgements.

In conclusion, let me restate my initial argument: gaining more academic experience is not a waste of time. It is not a waste of time because there is fundamentally no difference between “work” and “academic” experience; the only difference is contextual. In some cases, these experiences are transferable: when a PhD is part of a million-dollar, multi-team research project, they are doing essentially (not contextually) the same work as an employee who is part of a million-dollar advertising campaign. However, due to neoliberal influences, we have come to falsely believe that work experience acquired in a corporate context should be given higher recognition over experience acquired in an academic setting.

Hopefully after this post, we’d see less people looking down on others who decide to quit corporate to pursue further studies. It shouldn’t be that way. I’d like to close this with a twist on an oft-used proverb, “All roads lead to Rome, but everyone’s road is different”. Feel free to interpret that however you want.

Update (4 June 2019): Fixed some typos, added some sentences for clarity. This is what happens when you type late at night.

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