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A bigger question in the alt-ac debate

November 8, 2019

I had a kind of unique path to my current tenure-track job, straddling the policy-academia divide. So I’ve followed current discussions on “alt-ac” careers with interest, but found something lacking in them. Nathan Paxton’s recent interview with APSA crystallized that; the bigger question is not how to support alt-ac PhDs but how to counsel people before getting PhDs in the first place.

As I’ve discussed, I sort of followed the “alt-ac” approach in the first part of my career. For those who haven’t seen it, “alt-ac” means “alternative academic,” referring to PhDs who pursue jobs outside of higher education. I worked in DC before grad school, and continued working in “policy” jobs during grad school even as I tried to prepare for an academic career. And I worked in research jobs for several years before becoming a professor.

So there was a time I thought I’d end up on the “alt-ac” route. And many people–graduate students and undergrads–have reached out to me to discuss this path. They are often interested in a PhD but don’t necessarily want to teach, and want tips on how to pursue a path similar to me. The problem, as I tell them, is that my path was pretty idiosyncratic, reliant on networking and good luck. There was a good chance that by preparing for both an academic and policy career I may have ended up with neither.

There’s another area where I would struggle to provide guidance to others hoping to follow a path like mine: if I had really wanted to pursue a policy career, I may have been better off avoiding a PhD altogether. I’ve been wary of saying this too emphatically, because I back the idea of supporting “alt-ac” careers for students and don’t want them to feel bad about their choices. So it was helpful to see this sentiment explained by Paxton in his interview.

Here’s the relevant part of his interview:

The PhD trains you to be a research professor on the tenure track. Many of the jobs that you can get outside the academy with a PhD are just as attainable with less education. In my experience of Congress, virtually everyone else doing my job does not have a PhD, and many in Congress see the PhD as something of a liability. (Many mid-to-high-level staff have law degrees or some sort of master’s degree. A considerable number have “only” a bachelor’s.)

It is very possible to get a non-academic job with a PhD. And it is an honorable career choice; you shouldn’t feel bad for doing so, and graduate programs should support students who decide to go this route. But if you are really serious about getting into politics or policy-making, a PhD may not be the best path. An MA in foreign policy, law school, or even business school may be a more direct path.

Yes, PhDs give you expert-level knowledge in a subject, but in the foreign policy world academic expertise is often over-shadowed by hands-on experience in an issue. And for those interested in politics, all the time spent doing field work and writing a dissertation may have been better spent working on campaigns.

When students come to me to say they want to pursue a PhD I tell them about the cohort of young professionals I got to know when I first arrived in DC. Some have spent the past 10+ years working in the government, rising to a high level in the bureaucracy. Others got involved in Obama’s 2008 campaign or worked as staffers on the Hill, and are now relatively prominent voices in the Democratic Party. I focused on my academic expertise, and am a tenure-track professor who occasionally does policy work as an outside expert.

If the third choice is what they want, then a PhD would be good (assuming we talk through the chances of getting a job). If they really want to do 1 or 2, then maybe a PhD isn’t right for them.

So I support the “alt-ac” focus, and I hope it continues. But I also hope it spurs broader conversations as we mentor those interested in PhDs to figure out if it really is the best path to achieve someone’s goals.

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.