Over Educated and Under Developed For Innovation

This past week I had the true privilege of attending a High Table Dinner with some of the University of Toronto’s future leaders from Trinity College. The guests, some faculty, but mostly students, came from many different disciplines and ranged from first year undergrads to doctoral students who were well on their way in their dissertation studies.

Before, during and after the meal, we had the chance to mingle and chat, and in those discussions I was reminded of how out of sync much of the university system is with those seeking to innovate, but also how much promise there is in the future.

No more was this evident in the conversation that starts of with some variant on the topic “what do you study? teach? do?” As this was a very educated, enthusiastic and curious crowd, my simple answers were not sufficient. “I am a professor in the School of Public Health” was not going to cut it. So, I told people. And they listened. And they asked me a lot of questions. And as I was answering them, the absurdity of much of what I did, have done, and continue to do with my students became more readily apparent.

For example, I spoke of my education and the various degrees and certifications that I had when asked about my career track and background. As I tallied things from my undergraduate degree through to my post-doctoral training, the numbers started to add up, as did the designations, and soon I was faced with a fact that I graduated in GRADE 27.

Some students had no idea that there even were things like “post-docs” and the concept that someone would spend all these years getting a PhD and then feel the need to get further training beyond that seemed unreal. And yet, when I chose to get a post-doc, which I loved doing, I was told that it was soon to be the new standard for education. My colleagues in the basic sciences will often to two post-docs.

Consider that for a minute. We are advocating that young minds spend their most creative years, when they are enthusiastic, energetic, and ready to challenge the system getting entrained in the system, working for others, and being told that — no matter how bright they are — they are not qualified to contribute to the scholarly world in an official capacity. It reminds me of a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, where he quite rightly points to how we (the university system) create a model where everyone is measured against the PhD and basically how far away one becomes from one (more or less).

Once graduated, students have invested so much time, energy, money and opportunity costs into the system, they become beholden to anything that keeps them from losing this potential investment. It rewards them from keeping the status quo alive, even if they don’t like it.

On a personal note, I’ve spent the first few years post-post-doc imagining that, despite my best efforts to see through it, there had to be SOMETHING that I was missing about the way the system functions that, if I just stuck with it, would produce the results of change I wanted. I could really contribute to the greater good, while doing good work within the system that was academia in the form that I knew it to exist. At least, that’s what I thought.

A few years later, I realize much more about how the system is designed to perpetuate itself. As one who trained in complex systems and psychology, none of this should have been a surprise to me, but it was (and sadly, still is). Yet, what I saw in the youth that gathered around the room that night earlier this week was little evidence of this status quo. There were students — two in fact — that had the audacity to take Biochemisty and English. Some who were combining social sciences and the humanities, languages with applied sciences, and professional programs with non-professional-oriented studies. Why? Because they had the opportunity to learn provided through their education at the U of T.

My word to them was to embrace this. The world needs it. Here, as a professional scientist, I hear all the time that we need to innovate, that innovation and social innovation is the way forward. These are words I completely support, yet look beneath the surface and you’ll see that language couched in a way that doesn’t really challenge the system, but rather asks it to make a small change with the hopes that big things will happen. Maybe. But that is making the assumption that the system is designed for innovation in the first place, and the mere fact that in all those 27 years of education I was never once taught how to communicate with any audience other than my peers suggests that the system is more problematic than we think.

The school I teach at trains leaders in public health, yet there are no courses in leadership, which is on par with nearly every other school of its kind (some exceptions of course) in the country and continent. We are expected to engage in detailed, thoughtful knowledge translation when we’re not taught to do anything but our own discipline and taught no skills to communicate beyond it. Few schools offer this. As a faculty, team science or real transdisciplinary or applied or community-based research is considered novel as a side project , but not something that one gets rewarded for and certainly not something that suits a serious researcher.

These young learners have acquired much knowledge and will gain much more as they continue their studies. Hopefully they learn some other lessons along the way and maybe start working to solve these problems earlier, rather than grabbing more degrees towards making them stick.

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