A Letter to the Millennial PhD Student

From culture of exclusivity to social impact

Dear fellow PhD students:

Congratulations! We made it to summer break at last. We submitted grades and final papers, tidied up those to-do lists, and finally got back to those Netflix shows we had been putting off all semester long.

I am writing this letter as a call to arms, a petition to rise and become the new socially-responsible generation of PhDs. You may remember Nicholas Kristof’s NYT Op-Ed piece some time ago on the wisdom of professors and the need — more so now than ever — to have more public intellectuals on American university campuses. His argument was simple: Faculty (and graduate students alike) are socialized into the “publish or perish” mentality, insofar that we foster a culture that disdains impact and real-world analysis, meanwhile glorifying the overly specialized work that remains far-removed from the general public.

When I first read Kristof’s piece my first year of graduate school, I felt inspired, but also humbled, knowing that that sort of public intellectual presence requires a lifetime of research and debate. So the passing of the baton to us, the rising generation of young PhDs, puts a heavy weight on our shoulders to finally break away from the culture of exclusivity and aim for a wider social impact. But who better than the millennial PhD? Among our other stereotypes, we are a tech savvy and idealistic bunch, who are more likely to challenge hierarchical structures and look for jobs that provide intrinsic meaning.

Let us begin that enterprise today by establishing new trends for future PhD goers and the sine qua non of completing a doctoral program. During our time in graduate school, let us first find ways to bridge our expertise with the interests of the community. No, I am not referring to traditional volunteering, but rather an actual outreach initiative managed by only you and your graduate colleagues. Find a need and a community, make a name for your organization, and share what you have done with the public using social media. And most importantly, make it sustainable. To catalyze change, we need to create a legacy in our graduate programs that will continue after we complete our degrees. This sort of sustainability will provide leadership opportunities to future PhD students that we helped co-create.

Consider one example from Rutgers University. In our department, which researches bilingualism, a few graduate students created an outreach program, titled RUBilingual, whose mission is to promote the cognitive and social benefits of speaking multiple languages. We give workshops to linguistically diverse students and their parents, teachers, administrators, and other community members with an interest in language. Not only does it have a positive effect on the community, but it is also conducive to our own research: It allows us to gain new perspectives, talk about our work in more accessible ways, and generate new ideas.

So to my millennial PhD colleagues, we are all going places. Whether we stay in the academy, or go on to become the future leaders in industry, government, and non-profits, let us establish a new trend that will continue forward. I imagine a future in which all faculty and staff will celebrate students who take on leadership roles in the community. And even leaders on — and off — university campuses will expect from PhD candidates both excellence in research and a clear demonstration of social impact. So rise up, millennial PhDs! Our leadership assignment starts today.


Benjamin Kinsella