In a recent post about career capital at the Thesis Whisperer, Inger was writing about the idea of taking a craftsperson-like approach to growing “rare and valuable” skills. It’s good advice.
What I am beginning to see in all the people who are genuinely excited about the uncertainty of their PhD future is a commitment to their academic craft – whatever that might be. They talk about writing papers to learn the tricks of academic publishing. They seek out opportunities to teach. They go to conferences and watch other people speak, so they can learn how to be good at presenting. They talk about just loving a technique, or approach to research – after working hard for years and years to master it. The attitude is ‘work the skills, the rest will follow’.
But I did notice that the skills in the post, writing, teaching, presenting, are simultaneously rare and valuable and often completely taken for granted in academia. That is, they’re more like high value commodities. Valuable but not especially rare. And as commodities, if they can be sourced cheaper, they often will be.
If you have a commodity that you’re trying to sell and the price is too low where you are, one option is to travel to where the price for the commodity is higher. This is a sort of arbitrage.
arbitrage (n): the simultaneous buying and selling of securities, currency, or commodities in different markets or in derivative forms in order to take advantage of differing prices for the same asset
That is, commodity skills in academia are often far more rare outside of academia. A commenter on the career skills post, Cristie, makes a similar point.
For example, as a lecturer I was expected to be able to plan 13 weeks of content and activity for 80 students and five or six tutors. I was then expected to be able to stand and deliver the content, manage the students and tutors and all the paperwork and processes associated with them. In academia it is taken for granted that you can do this. Some people are better at it than others but everyone can, more or less, manage.
Those same skills, outside the academy, are truly rare and quite valuable. Outside the academy, there are far fewer people with the skills to do 2-4 hours of public speaking every couple of days for four months. Not many people can break a complex idea into pieces and present them coherently. There are very few people who can get 10-20 people they have just met to follow their instructions for ten minutes let alone two hours.
Even outside your area of subject matter expertise, PhDs and academics have skills that are quite unusual, well developed and, above all, useful outside the academy.
Sometimes skills that are taken for granted in one domain are truly rare and valuable if you engage in a little arbitrage.