Some Thoughts on “Alternative Academic Careers”

I’m headed to New Orleans next week for the the annual convention of the International Studies Association (ISA), and while there I’m scheduled to speak on a panel on “alternative academic careers” (Friday at 1:45 PM). To help organize my views on the subject and to share them with people who are curious but can’t attend the panel, I thought I would turn them into a blog post. So:

Let me start with some caveats. I am a white, male U.S. citizen who grew up in a family that wasn’t poor and who married a woman while in grad school. I would prefer to deal in statistics, but on this topic, I can only really speak from experience, and that experience has been conditioned by those personal characteristics. In other words, I know my view is narrow and biased, but on this topic, that view is all I’ve got, so take it for whatever you think it’s worth.

My own career trajectory has been, I think, unusual. I got my Ph.D. from Stanford in the spring of 1997. At the time, I had no academic job offers; I had a spouse who wanted to go to art school; we had two dogs and couldn’t find a place we could afford that would rent to us in the SF Bay Area (this was the leading edge of the dot-com boom); and we both had family in the DC metro area. So, we packed up and moved in with my mother-in-law in Baltimore, and I started looking for work in and around Washington.

It took me a few months to land a job as an analyst in a little branch of a big forensic accounting firm, basically writing short pieces on political risk for a newsletter that went out to the firm’s corporate clients. We moved to the DC suburbs and I did that for about a year until I got a job with a small government contractor that did research projects for the U.S. “intelligence community” and the Department of Defense. After a couple of years of that and the birth of our first son, I decided I needed a change, so I took a job writing book-length research reports on telecom firms and industry segments for a trade-news outfit. At the time, I was also doing some freelance feature writing on whatever I could successfully pitch, and I thought a full-time writing job would help me move faster in that direction.

After a couple of years of that and no serious traction on the writing front, I got a line through one of my dissertation committee members on a part-time consulting thing with a big government contractor, SAIC. I was offered and took that job, which soon evolved into a full-time, salaried position as research director for the Political Instability Task Force. I did that for 10 years, then left it at the end of 2011 to try freelancing as a social scientist. Most of my work time since then has been devoted to the Early Warning Project and the Good Judgment Project, with dribs and drabs on other things and enough free time to write this blog.

So that’s where I’m coming from. Now, here is what I think I’ve learned from those experiences, and from watching and talking to others with similar training who do related things.

First, freelancing—what I’m doing now, and what usually gets fancified as “independent consulting”—is not a realistic option for most social scientists early in their careers, and probably not for most people, period. I would not have landed either of the large assignments I’ve gotten in the past few years without the professional network and reputation I had accumulated over the previous ten. This blog and my activity on social media have helped me expand that network, but nearly all of the paid jobs I’ve done in the past few years have come through those earlier connections. Best I can tell, there are no realistic short cuts to this kind of role.

Think tanks aren’t really an option for new Ph.D.s, either. Most of the jobs in that world are for recent undergraduates or MAs on the one hand and established scholars and practitioners on the other. There are some opportunities for new Ph.Ds looking to do straight-up analysis at places like RAND and the Congressional Research Service, but the niche is tiny, and those jobs will be very hard to land.

That brings me to the segment I know best, namely, government contracting. Budget cuts mean that jobs in that market are scarcer than they were a few years ago, but there are still lots of them. In that world, though, hiring is often linked to specific roles in contracts that have already been awarded. You’re not paid to pursue your own interests or write policy briefs; you’re usually hired to do tasks X and Y on contract Z, with the expectation that you’ll also be able to apply those skills to other, similar contracts after Z runs out. So, to land these jobs, you need to have abilities that can plug into clearly-defined contract tasks, but that also make you a reasonably good risk overall. Nowadays, programming and statistical (“data science”) skills are in demand, but so are others, including fluency in foreign languages and area expertise. If you want to get a feel for what’s valued in that world, spend some time looking at job listings from the big contracting firms—places like Booz Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin, SAIC, and Leidos—and see what they’re asking for.

If you do that, you’ll quickly discover that having a security clearance is a huge plus. If you think you want to do government-contract work, you can give yourself a leg up by finding some way to get that clearance while you’re still in graduate school. If you can’t do that, you might consider looking for work that isn’t your first choice on substance but will lead to a clearance in hopes of making an upward or lateral move later on.

All of that said, it’s important to think carefully about the down sides of a security clearance before you pursue one. A clearance opens some doors, but it closes others, some permanently. The process can take a long time, and it can be uncomfortable. When you get a clearance, you accept some constraints on your speech, and those never entirely fall away, even if you leave that world. The fact that you currently or once held a clearance and worked with agencies that required one will also make a certain impression on some people, and that never fully goes away, either. So it’s worth thinking carefully about those long-term implications before you jump in.

If you do go to work on either side of that fence—for a contractor, or directly for the government—you need to be prepared to work on topics on which you’re not a already an expert. It’s often your analytic skills they’re after, not your topical expertise, so you should be prepared to stretch that way. Maybe you’ll occasionally or eventually work back to your original research interests, maybe you’ll discover new ones, or maybe you’ll get bored or frustrated and restart your job search. In all cases, the process will go better if you’re prepared for any of the above.

Last but not least, if you’re not going into academia, I think it can help to know that your first job after grad school does not make or break your career. I don’t have data to support this claim, but my own experience and my observation of others tells me that nonacademic careers are not nearly as path dependent as academic ones. That can be scarier in some ways, but it’s also potentially liberating. Within the nontrivial constraints of the market, you can keep reinventing yourself, and I happen to think that’s great.

Leave a comment

4 Comments

  1. bustanfirdaus

     /  February 16, 2015

    good job ..

    Reply
  2. Peter Thomas

     /  March 25, 2015

    Informative and helpful post. Shorn of pretension too, which is always a virtue!

    Reply
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