My degree wasn’t useless, even in the “wrong” career

Twenty-three years ago, Columbia University awarded me a doctorate in social and organizational psychology.

Given that my career in the last decade has been publishing in the auto industry, with organizational change relegated to a part-time now-and-then status, I’ve sometimes made light of the usefulness of my degree. The other day, though, I started to think about it.

Regardless of whether it was the right degree or career for me, learning about social and organizational psychology did change my life. Even in undergraduate work, under Mel Gary, I learned about the roots of prejudice and discrimination, how they work, and how inevitable they are, which reshaped my attitudes about people and society.

In graduate school, we went through reward systems, motivation, all manner of group dynamics, how change works (or fails), and consulting — all fine background knowledge, and useful at those times when I was called upon in a professional capacity. But two other areas of knowledge stood out.

First, we have research methods, which I mainly learned under Gary Bridge. I took five or six full years of statistics in graduate school, but what I actually have used (and understood) is all from one year of Dr. Bridge’s classes and one year of a then-new stats professor’s classes; the rest was all “stats for math majors,” going into far too much of the mechanics and far too little of the meaning. Gary Bridge taught us about validity and reliability, morals and ethics, and experimental design. From this, I learned, essentially, how we know what’s real and what isn’t, how to detect bad research, how to do good research, — how to push forward the frontiers of knowledge without being taken in by bad or foolish work. Other faculty built on that knowledge; everyone in the program was firmly based in research. We had no armchair theorists, no purely-qualitative work masquerading as science.

Second, there was systems theory, expounded by Warner Burke, Harvey Hornstein, and Mort Deutsch alike; all focused on organizational culture and change. Mort Deutsch was a soft-spoken, quiet, slow-moving man who almost single-handedly saved the lives of hundreds of New York kids per year, by analyzing the problems of shootings and stabbings, discovering the causes, and addressing them directly; school by school, the metal detectors and armed police were withdrawn as he made his mark. His past career had essentially been one theme over and over again: walking into a hot controversy, where one side said “A” and one said “B,” and doing research which showed under what conditions each side was right and wrong.

It turns out systems theory (which I think was actually most directly addressed by Burke and Hornstein) is exactly what you need in the automotive world, where there are interlocking systems — the main ones being production and engineering. Nothing exists in isolation, as Elon Musk is discovering now, having led the creation of a car without much thought given to ease of production. Coincidentally, my grounding in systems theory came at about the same time as the 1990s Chrysler revolution, with engineers changing their designs to make cars cheaper and easier to build and service. There were some rather ingenious changes in those days that brought the assembled price of a car down by thousands of dollars — because the leaders used systems theory rather than learning and forgetting it. My first and best mentor in the auto industry, the skilled engineer and project rescue artist Robert W. Sheaves, pounded on the importance of vehicles as systems, the interdependence of everything from design software to production methods; and the lesson was easy for me, thanks to that “useless” education.

Harvey Hornstein saved my graduate career, but before that I remember him as the man whose final exam was showing parts of a movie (Mary Poppins, in my year) and having us explain everything we’d seen in terms of the classwork — Mary Poppins as organizational change consultant, the methods and the theories. He also showed that even a theory which seemed to have little use or validity could have its place, and helped open my mind to being open-minded, so to speak. Again, organizational culture — the norms and roles and such — was pre-eminent. That fit with my past experiences as a temp, moving from one place to another and observing the differences in how people acted.

Warner Burke taught one class through analysis of popular books (Soul of a New Machine, The Right Stuff, On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors), using what’s often called the Harvard Business School method or case study system — but he did it against the background of research and theory, and explored different possible explanations, something I’ve never seen in other case-study reports (which tend to be self-serving, that is, used for illustration of a previously held notion). Since you can often use different theories to explain the same events, I’m usually not fond of the case study, but Burke — like Hornstein and Deutsch — was firmly grounded in theories backed by valid research… research which all three might list in terms of both strengths and shortcomings.

I fear that, without this grounding, I could easily have become something else — perhaps one of those fearful people who believes Internet scare-stories, has absurd and internally inconsistent politics, demonizing The Enemy and believing anything is okay if it’s done by My Side. I’m at about the age where many are taken over by fear, bitterness, and unreasoning hatred. Six years of work in graduate school (including the master’s degree) taught me enough to avoid that, and to see the flaws in arguments I generally agree with as well as those I don’t. It’s probably stopped me from identifying far too closely with my social groups and becoming one of those who “drank the Kool-Aid.” It may not have made me popular, but it’s made me wiser.

And who knows? Now that I’ve finally left Allpar, maybe I’ll be able to find a more direct use for that sheet of ersatz sheepskin.

Disclaimer: All my classes were at Teachers College. I paid my tuition to Teachers College. Teachers College was not, however, authorized to hand out PhDs, so it turned out that I had actually been going to Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences without realizing it. These are the legal fictions that provide some amusement now and then.

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