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Selling Skills

TedViagraResized.jpgWe are all products of our times, which is why we go out of date. On the other hand, there are (we like to think) certain eternal verities too. Yet for all their eternity, they also go in and out of fashion.

We have recently enjoyed a lively debate about the importance of fieldwork and undergraduate mapping. And on balance, I think most readers would agree that the pro-fieldwork camp easily won the day.

Fieldwork is part of what makes geology what it is, because ‘the field is the geologist’s laboratory’. We cannot deny that ideas must be tested against reality if we are to be considered ‘scientific’, and the field, in geology, is where we do it. Nevertheless, we must beware falling into the trap of thinking that this is necessarily how we must sell ourselves. It might have worked once, but not now - as PhD student Jonathan Paul points out in Soapbox this month.

When I was choosing geology, the world was very different. We all loved the outdoors, we spent as much time as possible there, we already came equipped with boots and waterproofs. And we were few. This meant we were very much poorer, but on the other hand did not have to repay loans, and (certainly in my case) never gave a thought for what we would be doing ‘afterwards’. Education was its own reward. And because we were our age, and had done our share of Latin, we knew that the essence of ‘education’ was found in its verbal root educare, ‘to lead out’ (of darkness, into light).

This is no longer the general view, either among universities or their students. Both have been suckered, by successive governments, into the notion that universities are places of higher vocational training, chiefly providing grist to the industrial mill. This idea has now gained the status of a self-evident truth, and students - who used to want nothing more than to stick it to the Man for as long as circumstances allowed - now want a secure and well-paid non-manual job, and a pram in the hall.

If universities are serious about recruiting from a new generation of pallid, indoorsy (but more worldly) youth, they have to change the way they sell themselves. But to do this, scientists - with their distressing tendency always to be always truthful and literal – may need to learn subtler selling skills, and let the eternal verities take care of themselves for a bit.


Twitter: @TedNield @Geoscientistmag