Taking The Scenic Route To A Ph.D. | Eastern North Carolina Now

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    The author of this post is William S. Smith.

    I leapt from the Uber car at LaGuardia, made my way quickly through security, and boarded the US Airways Shuttle to Washington, D.C. I removed my suit jacket, loosened my tie, and took my seat. Pulling my laptop from my leather briefcase, I opened a spreadsheet to review the layout of the corporate affairs division of a large pharmaceutical company. I studied the details, as I would be consulting on how to re-organize the division in order to trim the budget and make the division more effective in meeting its strategic goals.

    When the plane landed, I took Uber again, not to K Street or to Capitol Hill, but to the campus of Catholic University in Northeast Washington. I made my way up the old staircase to the third floor classroom and took my seat next to seven or eight twenty-somethings, mostly in tee shirts and jeans.

    The class began. My focus was no longer on efficient business practices but on classical philosophy, specifically Aristotle's critique of Plato's Forms. I was as engrossed as I had been 25 years earlier-maybe more so.

    After several decades away from academia, I was back pursuing the Ph.D. in political philosophy that I just missed attaining at a much younger age. My decision to return and finish my degree after a rewarding and lucrative career in government and business has met with a variety of reactions: surprise, delight and, yes, envy-but never indifference. Here's my story.

    I graduated from Georgetown University in 1981 with a degree in history. But I left college feeling inadequately educated. Like other "elite" institutions of higher education, Georgetown had abandoned the practice of instructing students in the traditional "canon" of knowledge, so my undergraduate education was a nearly random mish-mash of humanities and social sciences courses.

    The only course that ignited my mind was Jeanne Kirkpatrick's course in political philosophy. We read Adam Smith, Locke, Marx, and Weber, and discussed big ideas. I did not know much at that young age, but I knew that a familiarity with these thinkers, and others like them, was the prerequisite to becoming an educated person.

    So, after graduation, I enrolled on a part-time basis as a graduate student in political philosophy at Catholic University. My first course, "Introduction to Political Philosophy," taught by Claes Ryn, struck me like a thunderbolt. Plato and Aristotle, Burke and Rousseau, Hegel and Marx. I was all-in at Catholic U. I signed up full-time, completed the master's degree, and, eventually, all of the requirements for the Ph.D, save dissertation.

    But then, in 1987 financial issues intervened. During my doctoral course work, I received a stipend to help teach the introductory course in political philosophy to undergraduates. The university's policy at the time, however, was that Ph.D. candidates could not teach, as that may detract from their dissertation. So, when I started my dissertation, I lost my stipend. I needed to find a job, and planned to finish my dissertation in the evening and on weekends.

    A friend who worked on Capitol Hill told me that the House Republican leadership was looking for a domestic policy researcher who could write. I was hired.

    The work was fascinating. My job was to follow House committee legislative action and write briefing papers for the GOP leadership on the issues that were likely to reach the floor of the House. I sat in the back of the room for leadership meetings with Trent Lott, Dick Cheney, and other House Republicans, watching them grapple with the policy and politics of emerging legislation. At one point, I was assigned to work with an obscure, backbench congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich, who was alleging corruption by the then-House Speaker, Jim Wright.

    Given the pace and intensity of my new position, each new semester meant a new leave of absence from my dissertation work. At a certain point, I did not even bother to do that. I had tacitly dropped out of the program.

    My career progressed. I went from the Hill to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush. I returned to the House to staff a committee, and then back to the White House to again work on drug control issues in a more senior position. Because of my Washington experience, I was hired by the GOP Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, to help the state with federal issues such as securing highway funding for the gargantuan "Big Dig" highway project when it was threatened by the new GOP Congress in 1994.

    With the birth of my third child, I joined the private sector as a lobbyist for Pfizer, then the world's largest pharmaceutical company. I moved to their headquarters in New York and managed a large portion of their government relations group, responsible for a multi-million dollar budget and a team of almost 100. Commuting into New York by train from Connecticut, raising three children, the Ph.D. was long forgotten.

    After more than decade at Pfizer, I joined a small consulting firm based in Washington where I advised pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device companies. With young children in school, I decided not to move my family to Washington from Connecticut. Instead, I commuted to DC each week, spending three days in Washington.

    My wife, who had spent a considerable part of her career at Harvard and has great respect for the world of ideas, knew how much I had loved my graduate school experience. She watched me occasionally dip into my old political philosophy books over the years. She raised the possibility of returning to finish my dissertation. I was skeptical. Discounting my reservations, she emailed my former professor, Claes Ryn, who, to my surprise, encouraged us to proceed.

    I was excited but apprehensive about the amount of work I would face. The Dean's office was slightly flabbergasted by my request to return. None of my records were in the computer, as records at the University were not computerized in 1987. We searched old boxes in our cellar in Connecticut to find the fragile carbon copies of my transcript and the letter bestowing my previous doctoral candidacy.

    I understood the University's obligation to ensure that they were upholding the academic standards of a Ph.D., and that I would be required to master the subject matter as well as other candidates for the degree. They also recognized that political philosophy is not a discipline like biology or engineering, that my 25-year hiatus had not made my previously gained knowledge obsolete. Ultimately, the Plato I had read in the 1980s was the same Plato in 2015. Therefore, they agreed with my contention that repeating the entire set of Ph.D. requirements was not warranted.

    We agreed that I would take four additional courses, with several different professors from the department who taught political philosophy in order for each of them to evaluate my knowledge and capabilities, and for me to become current on more recent interpretations of the older thinkers. Understandably, they also required me to sit (again) for the Ph.D. comprehensive examination, a two-day written exam that tests one's comprehensive knowledge of the discipline.

    To my relief, I found that little had changed. The students were smart, mature and interesting, maybe more than I was at their age.

    With two children yet to complete college, I continue to work for a small medical device company. But I carve out two or three hours near the end of each day to read and write. While my caffeine consumption has increased, my intellectual satisfaction has also risen. Completing my coursework and successfully passing my comprehensive exams seemed more satisfying than the first time, as it required greater focus and discipline than it did back then.

    I found the professors, especially those of my age and younger, to be impressively well read and thoughtful. Despite my age and professional experience, I felt very much the student. At the same time, I also felt a certain confidence in the career skills that I had accumulated. I had managed multi-million dollar budgets, negotiated multi-billion-dollar legislation, made more personnel decisions than most department chairs make in a lifetime, and organized and implemented business strategies for nationwide campaigns. The practical world gives lessons my academic superiors may never learn.

    When I complete the Ph.D., I may like to return to university life. I would very much like to teach, but I also see that my professional skill set may be valued in an administrative capacity. The business model of many colleges and universities will be under enormous pressure over the next couple of decades. Wherever it takes me, I hope that the Ph.D. will afford me the opportunity to be once again surrounded by ideas everyday and by people who love them.
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