Critical Thinking vs. Critical "Doing"

Since originally posting here about my career in university advancement, I’ve made a number of new hires. Not one goes by that I don’t think about how to advise people like me, folks who may be exiting the academic highway and applying to jobs in fundraising, a field growing by some 9% a year. What advice might I give?

Let’s assume that you have a PhD but no formal experience in fundraising or alumni relations, and are wondering how to market yourself to prospective employers.  Many will say that the biggest benefit conferred by the PhD is the ability to think critically, and that critical thinking should be somehow foregrounded as part of the job search. As important as this advice is, foregrounding critical thinking may be incomplete for the purposes of demonstrating transferable skills.

Fields from geometry to symbolic logic will say these endeavors “teach you to think,”about and I have no doubt that doctoral study also imparts the art of mental abstraction. However, critical thinking alone is not a differentiator – and it might not set you apart from the other skilled critical thinkers on the job market today. Maybe there’s a unique kind of critical reasoning that dissertation-writing confers but without that claim unpacked, it’s a bit smug to lean on critical thinking as exclusive to the PhD degree. The particular research methods you used may be applicable to your new domain, but that is a different line of argument.

Of course, the point of the critical thinking argument is to remind today’s impatient audience—bent on career-readiness and tantalized by the felt immediacy of STEM education—that a degree in, say, art history produces more value than subject expertise, however valuable and profound that expertise may be. Indeed, alt-ac job seekers (particularly because so many alt-ac jobs do not relate directly to their subject matter) must demonstrate that their specialized formation delivers generalizable knowledge and skill. And they must do so in a way that confers what is special about such specialized training.

In my view, what is special about the transferable skills gained through doctoral training, is that the PhD produces not only critical thinking but a certain type of critical doing. Advancement shops need people that will analyze a set of donor relationships, create outreach plans, get to know people, and ask them to support the cause. When things go well, critical doers note what went right, and repeat it. When things don’t go well, they seek out the cause and adjust.

Doctorate-holders are the ultimate critical doers, having shepherded their own research through a vetting system that requires the coordination of Han Solo jumping through the closing blast door on the Death Star while dodging Stormtrooper fire. You’ve managed the ultimate project, and you’ve wrangled, cajoled, and persuaded committee members that you deserve their stamp of approval. Moves management is a term that fundraisers use to describe the steps in walking with a prospect along the path toward a new donation. It’s analogous to how many of us have cultivated our advisors and led them toward championing our project. Sometimes, the voyage with your donor requires taking two steps forward, one step back, and one step forward again. Perhaps, on your doctoral journey, you took pains to understand the subject position of a truculent committee member and adjusted your argument in a key way that appealed to her. Use examples like these to market yourself as an action-oriented candidate.

Like many vocations in the “real” world, the field of fundraising requires grit, sticking to a goal despite adversity and failure, often over the course of many years. Early in my career, I had a gift conversation with a major-league baseball president whose team had just won the World Series. I’d been asked by my supervisor to follow up with  him to close a gift, but the baseball president let me know that my enthusiastic nudging was becoming “counterproductive.” Here was a person who negotiates nine-figure ballplayer contracts schooling me on my negotiating style. I made the adjustment, and indeed—in the final hours of the final day of the fiscal year—this gentleman called and made a very generous pledge.

My advice: seek to articulate the Odyssean adventure that is graduate school in ways that go beyond the intellectual nature of the process alone, seeking to identify alignment between the “soft” skills you attained and the entailments of the positions you’re targeting. In so doing, you’ll show a hiring manager that—even if you are new to the field—you understand that field’s demands from all perspectives.

And never forget: what you have done matters. Whether or not the narrow academic marketplace is able to sustain you as a Cassatt or Basquiat expert, you contributed to knowledge. You also undertook a journey that shaped you as a person and as a professional. Never underestimate the formation that happens when the mind wrestles with ideas intractable, when it synthesizes, when it struggles to produce, and when it ultimately encounters success. Yes, what emerges is a critical thinker, but one imbued with the value of staying the course.

Kenna Barrett (1)
Kenna Barrett earned her PhD in English with a specialization in rhetoric and composition from the University of Rhode Island. She’s currently Director of Development for the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.

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