The Duck of Minerva

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So Should Policy Schools Have PhD Programs?

June 18, 2013

So, I teach at a policy school, and though our core pedagogical enterprise is the MA program, we have a small PhD program that is a mix of political science, economics, and maybe a dash of public administration. Though I have not worked closely with that many PhD students, the ones I have worked have been superb. Still, the job market being as it is, it is always tough for graduates of our program, like any other, to land an academic job. The thing I wonder is: Is it harder for PhD graduates of policy schools to get a job compared to those who graduate from disciplinary programs?

Our students have the advantage of being able and indeed interested in jobs in the policy arena. Some have gone on to quite distinguished jobs at think tanks like the Brookings Institution. We also have a fair number of foreign students who go back home to teach at higher education institutions of their home countries. My worry is that those students seeking an academic job are neither fish nor fowl: they aren’t political scientists, economist, historians, etc.  For would-be employers looking at their varied mix of courses, it might be harder for them to understand what our students are and thus putting them at a disadvantage vis a vis more traditionally trained disciplinary programs.It’s not as if public policy is its own academic discipline, really. (Or, is it? I tend to think not, but how do we know when a new discipline has made it and has enough pedigree and coherent intellectual content to be recognized by others as a distinct area of study?)

I wonder if we are doing our students a disservice but not having a second disciplinary home for them so that if they go out on the academic job market, they can legitimately claim: “I’m a graduate of a policy school, but I am a political scientist or an economist or a historian by training, and I’ve got this set of credentials, with this affiliation with a disciplinary department.”  So, I’m interested in the range of experiences that other people have. Is there a program in the country that has figured out this conundrum? For the non-Harvards and Princetons of this world, is there a model that works well?

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.