Now that I’ve been the President of Finnish Athletics (Suomen Urheiluliitto) for two months, one of the questions I’ve faced the most is: “with a business PhD, do the theories you’ve learned really help you in this position?” and my simple answer is: “no.” But, the experiences and tools I acquired from my degrees do. And, here is how and why.
In a privileged country such as Finland - where most of the population is highly educated and everyone has access to quality higher education - it seems that the importance of a formal university degree is inflating consistently. For instance in the sphere of business studies, a common assumption seems to be that the gap between theory and practice has become too widespread, and hence people possessing, for example, a Master or Doctoral degree do not bring additional value to a company. Some might even argue that if universities as institutions didn’t have a historical presence of almost 1000 years, their authority and legitimacy in producing professionals would fall apart drastically.
And how do the recently graduated people respond to such claims? Many, too many in fact, defend with a dull jargon saying: “nothing is as practical than a good theory”, or something equally abstract and uninspiring.
Now, how could the outside world appreciate one’s hard work done at universities, if the students and graduates themselves don’t realize the value of it?
Many of us are too used to reflect on our studies passively through the “what” question, meaning that one pragmatically believes the value of education being embodied in the degree itself. For me, it took a while to realize that the real value of higher education is hidden behind the “why” and “how” questions.
Now let me explain. Yes, I have read some theoretical articles that seem to have little relevance in actual organizational life. Also, I cannot disagree that sometimes even I have questioned the function of universities in our modern societies. However, as my studies proceeded further, I began to genuinely love what I’m doing and understand why this is beneficial for me as an individual, and consequently for the vaster society as well.
The "why" part
Through studies, I was able to constantly intellectually challenge and develop myself. Although the theories I studied might not be perfectly applicable in the “real life”, reading (and writing) them taught me to conceptualize and analyze highly complex causalities and relationships. Moreover, it was never enough just to internalize these new ideas in my own little head, but it was equally important to be able to explain and share the message to others in a coherent and inspiring manner, and apply the findings in various settings. In addition, much of the work was done in teams that were highly diverse in terms of gender, nationality, age, social background, et cetera, which opened my worldview into directions I could have never guessed before. All this became eventually the “why” part of my studies, the reason why I loved to study.
The "how" part
But studying wasn’t always easy. Frankly, I don’t think I could have ever finished my studies without being ambitious, committed, hard-working, persistent, self-managing, and able to simultaneously handle multiple tasks. No-one could! Furthermore, I’m convinced that the single most important skill I first learned and subsequently applied at universities was criticality. Being truly critical and challenging the “truths” of the surrounding world that I had taken for granted throughout my life was not only eye-opening but also a key for creativity.
I have to admit that when first entering the university, my way of perceiving the world was rather black and white. I thought: “X is right, true and good, whereas Y is wrong, false and bad…” because I wasn’t able to understand the culturally bound and socially constructed nature of “truths”. In fact, my last stage of undressing the truths took place at Stanford University where I went from Aalto University to work on the final parts of my doctoral thesis. The professors I worked with began many discussions by highlighting that no research or theory unveils “the truth” but rather creates “a plausible truth”.
They, too, taught me to critically address even the most self-evident arguments I read because, in universities, we cannot assume that scholars, or the visiting business professionals, would or could act in a complete vacuum of values, regardless of whether they are consciously aware of it.
To me, this was the final polishing of the “how” part. Being truly critical and thereby challenging every conventional way of thinking and acting helped me to complete and excel in my studies. And this is pure gold in organizational life as well! The “why” and “how” created by far the most valuable take-away from my studies, and, unlike the degree, they will never face inflation. This is something that applies to all higher education regardless of the field of study, and every student or graduate should proudly highlight this when, for example, seeking for one’s first post-graduate positions – even as a President of an institution serving 70 000 members.
Sami Itani is the President of Finnish Athletics (Suomen Urheiluliitto)