Public Intellectual

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This page contains all notes on becoming a Public Intellectual over and above what we put in our career profile. Read the profile first, here.

Profile type

Exploratory

What is this career path?

  • The ‘classic’ public intellectual is an academic who has gained expertise in a field and therefore authority, who is interested in then discussing the broader implications of their work - plus perhaps other unrelated issues relevant to society - with the public
  • But this doesn’t necessarily need to be limited to academics - there are journalists, politicians and activists who might also be considered public intellectuals (eg Naomi Klein, Christopher Hitchens)
  • The key thing is commenting on societal issues or sharing important ideas from a point of (perceived) expertise, and therefore having an influence on ideas in society (hopefully for the better!)
  • Some useful distinctions within types of public intellectuals:
      • Academics vs. non-academics
      • Popularisers of science, who are generally just aiming to make society better informed, vs. people who are trying to push certain ideas or ideologies
      • Those who get people to listen to them by gaining real expertise/being very successful in an area (mostly academia) vs. doing so by saying something controversial that gets them attention (e.g. the four horsemen of the non-apocalypse)
  • The type of audience you have: influencing the general public vs. advising policy and decision makers as an expert
  • Size of audience: trying to influence the general public very broadly, vs a fairly specific niche of people

Uncertainty: does it make sense/is it useful to talk about being a 'public intellectual' as a career path in itself, something to be aimed at directly - or rather a beneficial add-on to other careers like academia?

What does the work involve?

  • If you're going to do this through an academic career path, then obviously everything an academic career path involves, plus some combination of writing and speaking
  • If non-academic, heavier on the writing and speaking, lots of networking perhaps

What are the major stages of this career?

  • Gaining expertise, finding an area where you have novel, interesting and useful things to say. Might mean getting a PhD, might mean going into a specific job (e.g. politics), might mean just doing independent research, thinking, and writing
  • Starting to communicate your ideas and build a public platform: blogging, writing for publications, speaking, etc.

What are the major sub-options within this path?

  • Most obvious/classic route is to become an academic, gain expertise in an area, and then use that to start getting a platform
      • Ideally you'll want to gain expertise in an area that’s relevant to societal issues/or issues a broad range of people are interested in. This is perhaps an argument for political science/philosophy/psychology over harder sciences.
  • Main alternative is to try to get your ideas heard more directly, via some kind of journalism. Here the aim is to establish yourself as an authority more directly than with academic credentials - by just demonstrating that you have useful or novel things to say.
      • Writing a book may be one of the best ways to do this, but you could also write articles or use some other medium - podcasts, TV, radio - to build a reputation.
  • An intermediate possibility might be to get a PhD, and use that to learn whether you are well-suited to doing research and going the academic route or not. At the end of your PhD, you could then decide whether to continue on the academic path or to transition to more direct work in journalism, with the PhD credential to help you (or something entirely different!)
  • Might also be possible to gain expertise in some other profession - e.g. politics, law - and then use this to speak out about things you think are important.
      • Perhaps harder in some ways - credentials aren’t as solid as in academia, fewer incentives to engage with the public, and maybe very difficult to find the time alongside your job.
      • In general it might be good to have more public commentators from different backgrounds.
  • Ways in which not having an academic position might hold you back:
      • Perhaps harder to get the authority to e.g. advise policy
      • Quality of your ideas might matter more initially for getting people to listen to you - but maybe this is good, as you then have more incentive to actually communicate high-quality ideas!

Personal fit

What kind of person should consider this?

  • Need to have or be able to develop clear communication skills - especially the ability to write well, but also ideally to be a good speaker
      • Speaking ability seems slightly less important than writing - there are people with influence who aren’t fantastic speakers, especially some academics. But being able to speak clearly and engagingly is definitely a huge plus.
  • Also ideally need to have an idea you really care about communicating and feel strongly about. Is the idea of being a social activist at least somewhat appealing to you?
  • Generally being a friendly, nice person with good social skills will help with getting an audience
  • There are some downsides you also need to be willing to put up with:
      • Having less of a private/personal life, at least if you get to a certain level
      • Criticism - from the general public, and if you’re in academia possibly from people more senior in your field. Especially if you say controversial things, some people are going to dislike you, so you need to be ok with this.
      • You may struggle to get heard at least initially, so need to be persistent despite this
  • Unfortunately, this may be a more difficult path for women, for a couple of different reasons - we don't think this should stop women thinking about public engagement, and in fact we probably need more female public intellectuals. But it's useful to be aware of in advance.
      • The risks of criticism and abuse are probably worse for women - women with a public profile do seem to get much harsher comments and criticism than men on the whole
      • There's also the possible disadvantage that it's simply more difficult to get authority as a woman
      • Hopefully, though, both of these things will improve gradually!

What do you need to be successful?

  • Some degree of luck is pretty important, especially early on - because there seems to be a rich-get-richer type effect where people who are already well-known will get called upon and listened to more
  • But obviously there’s also an element of making your own luck - looking out for opportunities, grabbing any that come along, reaching out to people, putting yourself out there by e.g. blogging and pitching magazines
  • If you want to be an academic public intellectual, being a successful academic may be the harder part - if you can do that and have pretty good communication skills, you have a decent (>10%) chance of success with the public intellectual part

Career capital

  • General skills you'd develop seem pretty broadly useful, especially good communication skills and networking
  • If you can use this to gain impressive achievements - impressive publications or speaking experience, for example, then career capital from that seems pretty good
  • Is going to depend somewhat on what your first steps are - will likely be either academia, journalism, or politics, so value of career capital is whatever you get from these things (link other profiles?) plus

Common exits

  • If you start out in a career path like academia, journalism, or politics/policy, can then just default to one of these
  • In fact, we recommend that most people don't aim for being a public intellectual directly, and instead see it more as an additional way to have an impact in otherwise high-impact professions, such as doing valuable research. So we certainly wouldn't recommend going into academia with the sole aim of being a public intellectual if you don't actually want to be an academic or think you can do valuable research. But public engagement as a means of impact is a great thing to keep in mind and seek out opportunities for if you're already considering or aiming for an impact in a path like academia for which it's well-suited.

Culture

Exploration value

Role impact

  • There’s the potential to have a very large impact if you can change attitudes on something important to the extent that it changes behaviour or policy
      • e.g. Singer and the animal rights movement/getting people to donate more to global poverty. Goldacre pushing for improvements in medical research and more scepticism generally.
  • But it’s hard to have a large impact on people’s behaviour, especially just by writing articles - people will read things and find them interesting but probably not change much. More of a chance of having a larger impact through a book because people are more engaged, but still difficult.
      • Having a clear call to action - not just ideas, but specific ways in which people can actually change their behaviour - seems very important
      • Ability to spread ideas is going to depend on what’s catchy and interesting to the media
  • There may be an argument for picking out a specific small group of people you think you can have a significant impact on, at least at first - not trying to just change “general public” attitudes
      • For example, Singer focused on a relatively small niche of philosophically-minded people who were likely to be receptive to animal welfare concerns, not the entire world population. Effective altruism has convinced a relatively small proportion of people to really change their lives/behaviour in significant ways.

Job satisfaction

  • Could be very high for the right kind of person - who enjoys thinking about ideas and communicating them, and has something they care deeply about that they want to communicate.
  • One downside is that it's a somewhat unstructured and potentially solitary career path
  • It's also likely to be hard work, require persistence, and be time-consuming - particularly if you're trying to do public engagement on the side of another full-time career like academia.

Alternatives

  • Journalism
  • Academia
  • Other forms of advocacy, such as politics and campaigning

Take action

Learn more

  • Talk to people doing this career path
  • Contact us and we'd be happy to discuss this with you personally and introduce you to relevant people

Next steps

  • Practice and improve your communication skills, especially writing, as much as possible
      • Start a blog and post regularly
      • Get feedback - particularly from people who have experience writing, but also from any readers you have
      • Practice giving talks in any ways you can - in your professional area, find ways to talk to the general public, youtube videos, podcasts?
  • Get a media profile - twitter etc.
  • Get support and feedback, find mentors if possible
  • Try to write for other venues
      • Student newspaper?
      • Once you’ve built up a portfolio and perhaps some low key venues, most publications will accept pitches - start trying, even if your success rate is low once you’ve got a couple of publications it’s much easier to get more
  • Build a network - EA community is good for this as we know some people with journalism experience, so might be able to help you
  • Read - a lot of popular nonfiction - both to get a sense of what good popular communication is like, and to develop a broad interested in a variety of interesting things

Best resources

Remaining issues

Research process

Sources