More education doesn’t make you less capable, but universities make you think so

Academia has some serious problems.

I give a lot of talks to graduate students on what they can do after graduate school, though the following applies to undergraduates too. Many of them are worried about finding jobs. I grab their attention every time with this question:

When I was getting my PhD in physics, I thought the only fields I could go into were academia to become a professor, industry to work probably on something military-industrial, or wall street. I didn’t want to do any of those. I felt trapped.

You’ve all heard about people who drop out of school, maybe to start a company, and succeed? With more education, shouldn’t you be better prepared than they are? So why do you feel worse prepared and more restricted?

More education shouldn’t make you less capable nor restrict you more.

This perspective nearly always rivets the room. They see that they’re wearing blinders, keeping them from seeing the world beyond what their department knows. I value academic research, but for a school to lead its students to learn less of the world is, in my view, the opposite of education.

Academia often creates this myopia, probably because the professors only know how to do what they did. Starting a couple companies taught me that my extra education was incredibly useful, not restrictive. Learning the value I can bring to the world, including what I learned in graduate school, doesn’t come from facts a professor can tell you. It comes from taking action, risking failure, and reflection.

This is a big reason I switched from lecturing to teaching project-based, experiential learning, because I find it enables students, not traps them. And why I coach by giving exercises that empower my clients to act, especially the ones who feel trapped. I guess I could thank academia because it brings me clients from all its graduates who feel trapped instead of freed by their education, but I’d just as soon they didn’t feel so trapped.

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