Google leads search for humanities PhD graduates

Stuck in the 'valley of death'? There's always a place at Silicon Valley. Matthew Reisz reports

May 19, 2011

Credit: Getty
Our door is always open: Google bigwigs do not doubt the utility of the humanities to the company's work

Those worried about the value of studying the arts and humanities, particularly at the postgraduate level, take heart: Google wants you.

In a boldly titled talk at a conference at Stanford University last week, Damon Horowitz, director of engineering - and in-house philosopher - at Google, discussed the question of "Why you should quit your technology job and get a humanities PhD".

Dr Horowitz was one of several Silicon Valley executives exploring the theme at the BiblioTech conference, an event that united academics with entrepreneurs and senior managers from some of the world's leading high-tech companies.

For Marissa Mayer, who was the 20th employee taken on by Google and is now its vice-president of consumer products, the situation was clear: "We are going through a period of unbelievable growth and will be hiring about 6,000 people this year - and probably 4,000-5,000 from the humanities or liberal arts."

Companies such as Google were looking for "people who are smart and get things done" from every possible background, she said, yet the humanities had a particular relevance.

Developing user interfaces, for example, was at least as much about knowing how to observe and understand people as about pure technological skill, she added.

Ms Mayer's Stanford BA in symbolic systems, which included philosophy and psychology, had proved as useful as her MBA in computer science to her work at Google, the executive said. Even programming was fundamentally about communication and often came more easily to humanities graduates than mathematicians.

Expertise in the humanities was equally relevant to the "doodles" on the Google homepage, which in recent times have spelled out the firm's name with fragments of Salvador Dali's paintings or dance movements by Martha Graham. These invariably drew on extensive academic research, Ms Mayer said, to ensure their integrity and to determine in which parts of the world it was appropriate to use them.

Irrelevant PhDs? No such thing

Others speakers developed similar themes. For June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, anyone who had studied for a PhD, however seemingly irrelevant the topic, had "learned stamina and focus and how to listen" - and those skills would always be valuable to employers.

As long as PhDs were regarded as essentially academic qualifications, commented another speaker, many people were likely to feel like failures because there were never going to be enough academic jobs, particularly tenure-track ones at elite universities, to go around. Yet the reality was that PhDs offered transferable skills, that many people with doctorates went into business, and that universities needed to acknowledge and celebrate this.

Dr Horowitz drew on his own experience to explain the value of humanities PhDs. Ten years ago, he recalled, he had been "a technologist, with a high-paying technology job, doing cutting-edge artificial intelligence work, and generally living the technotopian good life".

Yet he had come to realise that "the artificial intelligence systems I was building weren't actually that intelligent" and amounted to little more than "a bunch of clever toys".

This led to some major philosophical questions and then a PhD, which Dr Horowitz described as "a personal intellectual transformation" and "a rite of passage to intellectual adulthood".

It had also made him "a better technologist than before".

"There is little you can do that would be a surer path to leaping dramatically forward in your career" than doing a humanities PhD, he continued.

"You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion; and it just so happens, as a by-product, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry. Such is the halo of human flourishing."

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