Follow us on Instagram
Try our daily mini crossword
Play our latest news quiz
Download our new app on iOS/Android!

It takes all types: Service beyond research

Beige colored building with a sign on top, displaying from left to right: The logo of the American Red Cross, the words American Red Cross, then the words Llura Gund Central New Jersey Headquarters and Blood Donation Center
Central New Jersey Headquarters on Alexander
Emily Miller / The Daily Princetonian

“Let’s face it, most research is useless.”

These words were uttered at the American Sociological Association’s annual research meeting last month on a presidential panel entitled “How to Make Sociological Research More Useful.” In fact, sessions on how to make research more applicable to the so-called “real world” dominated my conference schedule.

Thinking through the role research plays in solving society’s problems has been a debate for nearly as long as social science has existed, but for me the question strikes a nerve. While “in the service of humanity” was not the informal motto at my undergrad institution, I have long thought about the best way to use my degree and skills to be a public servant. It was especially salient my senior year, when I was trying to figure my own next steps. I had some vague idea about using my degree to make the world a better place, as cliché as that sounds. The question was how. After weighing different paths, law school, working on the Hill, volunteering, I settled on sticking with research, an activity I did throughout undergrad.

My first job was at a nonprofit that did family and child policy in the suburbs of D.C. I loved this job. One reason was that the research mattered. I attended meetings with federal agencies and foundations. We had a well-regarded Twitter presence. We had conversations nearly every week about how to best bring research to the communities we serve, how to include marginalized voices, how to make people care. In fact, the “research can make a difference” attitude was a big part in why I decided to pursue a PhD.

During my time at Princeton, the link between my research and public service has been less clear than my time in the contract research world. I have done a little bit, but the demands and pressures of being a productive researcher, establishing yourself, and years of COVID and more pressing issues to be solved have frequently superseded my public-facing activities. The question from my senior year returned: How?

When we hear “in service of humanity” we often think of grandiose claims. Princeton, for better or worse, is full of people who have changed the world. What I’ve found in my time as a graduate student at Princeton is that service to humanity is not always through monumental efforts in academia.  Individuals can benefit society through small acts of service. Being in the service of humanity has been in a much quieter and more unassuming way, doing something I have been doing for over a decade: donating blood.

The first time I donated, I was 17 and sitting in a mobile van. There was a plush vampire that watched over me as “Another One Bites the Dust” played in the background. I was told I had “beautiful veins.” I’m a sucker for flattery, so the habit stuck. During undergrad, my friends and I would go to blood drives, down a Nalgene bottle of water, and race to see who could give a pint of whole blood the quickest. In the D.C. suburbs, I would stop by to donate Power Red en route back from the Metro. However, it was my first year when I first donated platelets — something I’ve continued to do.

Last May, I showed up an hour late to my own Residential Graduate Student (RGS) farewell party with two red bandages, marking my eighth donation of the year. I sat down, and questions started coming. Why? Here is my academic answer: Studying mortality and other cheerful topics is a large part of my discipline, so it feels good to do the opposite and, in a small way, provide hope and life. Here is my personal narrative answer: Just this year, a favorite teacher needed platelets from an organ transplant and two friends needed them from birth complications. There is the mundane answer: I created a ritual around my donations. I enjoy watching reality TV, chatting with the phlebotomists about restaurant recs or recipes, and ignoring my gluten intolerance for post-donation Cheez-Its. There is the late-stage grad student existential angst answer: Unlike research, the results from donation are immediate and the product is always in demand.

Being a frequent donor has nothing to do with my skills, hard work, research, or talent. Platelet count is largely genetic. No one — not the Red Cross volunteers who check me in, not the phlebotomists, not patients — cares about my educational pedigree. What seems to be the center of my world just two miles away dissipates. Yet, being a grad student is a large part of why I can be a frequent donor. I can leave for three hours in the middle of the workday without anyone noticing. The University is within walking distance to one of two American Red Cross platelet centers in the entire state of New Jersey.

The question about the public utility of research still percolates. I am not alone: I have participated in two policy-oriented social science cohorts where we have discussed this exact dilemma. I vividly remember one spirited conversation during my fourth year about whether or not we should even fund research. An anthropologist succinctly described it as we seem to have grasped what the problems are and maybe we should just fund the ways to fix them.

I have seen firsthand how research can be an invaluable public service. As part of these cohorts, I have talked to scholars at Princeton and beyond who have written bestsellers that shifted public discourse, testified in front of Congress or the Supreme Court, or righted the record on various injustices. I always left these meetings inflated and inspired. But when asking about how you actually do this public service-oriented work, the answer is always so similar: Wait until you have tenure or acknowledge that it will be mostly unrewarded. Pragmatic advice, but unsatisfying on what to do today. Tenure is a long way away and is far from a guarantee. Doing public-facing research takes practice. It takes years of hard work and a bit of luck.

We are often led to believe, in some sort of Princeton exceptionalism, that we have gleaned something special from our institutions and training, that the best way to be a public servant is directly using these skills and connections. It is our duty. Maybe. But, that can be paralyzing. You don’t have to be an agenda-setter or an expert to be in the service of humanity. You can just show up. You can be boots on the ground for something many people cannot or will not do.

Right now, I have no idea if my research will shape policy in any meaningful way or if I am just writing into the void. I don’t know if I will eventually get tenure and do more public social science, like so many professors that I admire, or if one day I will be invited back to give a talk in the seminars I sat in these past five years. I can work toward all this. In the meantime, I know when I cross Route 1 that someone, somewhere will benefit. For now, that’s something.

Emily Miller is a PhD student in Population Studies and Social Policy originally from western Colorado.

Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect[at]