Graduate Elizabeth Brown's Address at 2012 PRGS Commencement
Leave No Stone Unturned
Graduates, friends, and colleagues – I’m so proud of you today and all that you have accomplished. I’d like you to reach your arm behind you and give yourself a pat on the back. Go ahead, you deserve it. You earned your PhD. This is a big day to celebrate.
Many of you counted on your family, your friends, and others to support you on the way through. Let’s honor those folks with a round of applause. And if your people weren’t able to join today, then please give an extra round to my husband Hartmann Schoebel, he deserves the support.
I did a little research. It turns out that social science PhD attrition rates are about 25%. So if you’re here I’m guessing that
- Commitment does not frighten you.
- Hard work doesn’t scare you either because if it did you wouldn’t have gotten your dissertation done - That was a lot of work!
- And a third thing. For some reason you kept deciding that something in the PhD experience was worth exchanging for market wages and the other experiences you gave up.
I know you got a skill set. Your quantitative and qualitative skills.
But there is something else, a more critical faculty that comes through the dissertation experience. This skill differentiates you from the other players on the field. It is the skill our employers want. And, with cultivation, this is a skill that is critical for leadership in our time.
I don’t have a pretty name for it. I call it, simply…. discernment.
To me, it is the ability to form a judgment based on a complete analysis of the data. And from there tell a story– because no policy analysis is complete without a way of communicating it to the audience we care about.
So what leads to this skill? After long study, you probably made some independent decisions while conducting your dissertation research. Because that’s what it was about, right? Long study and then a decision. Hmm, that number is weird, that result makes no sense; Or, more concretely, -- am I willing to bet $5000 dollars this code is right?
And, in the end, you decide….I’m going to analyze this way. And here is why. These are the tradeoffs I made.
The moment where you put your training to work and decided which way to go entailed making a judgment.
For me, this involved uncovering and examining each of the things that bothered me. No matter how small. Cleaning the data and graphing it only to realize something is terribly wrong. Why is that line going up? That’s not right. Go back. Again and again. It required vigilance; it required me to leave no stone unturned.
Only after doing this was I confident enough to tell the story.
It takes courage to draw observations from the data that relate to someone’s concerns. After much stone-turning, the broader picture is not always clear.
Discernment requires us to be steadfast. Organizations, people, policymakers will try to distort the data to suit their interests and their needs. We are trained to recognize this and to call it out. To speak truth to power.
We will be challenged in a world where there are many truths and mere truthiness. Where Steven Colbert can say "We're not talking about truth, we're talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist.” And it makes perfect sense. You know exactly what he’s talking about.
You know about that. You can do that, if you want. Consciously or even subconsciously – there are so many choices to make, so many judgments in the process. Lying with numbers is as easy as making a series of tiny judgments and decisions in the process of analysis.
And here, we must learn to check ourselves. There are many things that can cloud our judgment in conducting analysis. Time pressure. Client interest. Personal interest. We study things we care deeply about. Important things, like climate, poverty, war, disease.
So what do we do? No strategy is perfect, but you can ask some fundamental questions. Would my mother approve? Is a good one.
We can look to leaders for a moral compass: What would Jesus do? What would Buddha, Gandhi, Confucius or Mohammed say?
After attempting the first two questions, I usually return to the scientific process for guidance. The moral commitment of the scientist is to leave no stone unturned, this means:
- Relentless pursuit of the answers
- Remaining open to the possibility of being wrong
- Being brave enough to correct the record when we are found wrong
- And, in our world today, this increasingly means working collaboratively with others to conduct scientific study. To improve our methods. To make our stories more complete. There is more data than ever. It is a complicated world.
Open your work to the scrutiny of others. Invite someone with a divergent viewpoint to review your paper. Have colleagues cross check your work. If you are managing others, check what they do. Turn all the stones.
What we have learned about social science is tremendously relevant to decision-making today.
You came to the Pardee RAND Graduate School to learn how to be an agent for change. You have become so very capable and credible in the process. Lead by taking this critical faculty of discernment and applying it wherever you are whether in healthcare, intelligence, international relations, education, or finance. Lead by honing the message, keeping it honest and making it relevant.
Our world calls us to be discerning. To tell the compelling stories—the stories that matter—from the jumbled relationships and ever-accumulating data.
Now go out there and get on with it.