Shadow Government

On doctorates, Dan Drezner, and getting ahead in DC…

As a professor at a policy school who previously spent a decade in policy jobs in Washington DC, I’m often asked by students for advice on the best academic and professional routes for breaking into policy work. So I’ve taken particular notice of the ongoing blogosphere debate that my FP colleague and friend Dan Drezner ...


As a professor at a policy school who previously spent a decade in policy jobs in Washington DC, I’m often asked by students for advice on the best academic and professional routes for breaking into policy work. So I’ve taken particular notice of the ongoing blogosphere debate that my FP colleague and friend Dan Drezner has prompted, on the question of who should pursue a Ph.D, and why? Dan has been getting ample attention from our Shadow Government ranks recently; see here and here for the thoughtful exchange between Dan and Phil Levy on prospects for progress on trade liberalization during President Obama’s second term, an exchange prompted in part by me being suckered persuaded by Dan’s original post. [ed. — you are shameless, Inboden, stealing Drezner’s blogging gimmicks like that!]

Of course there are downsides to agreeing with Dan, such as foregoing a chance to win dinner at his expense. But on this question of whether people interested in a Washington policy career should get a Ph.D., I think Drezner has it right: if your main reason for pursuing a Ph.D. is to burnish your résumé for a national security job, then you probably shouldn’t pursue a Ph.D. The doctoral process is simply too long and laborious, and prospects for finishing are too meager, if your motivation is mainly to get those letters after your last name. There are plenty of other pathways to successful policy careers. Rather, as I often tell my students, the single most important factor in determining if you should go for a Ph.D. is if you love the process for its own sake. In other words, if the prospect of spending 5, 6, 7, or more years in relative isolation reading, researching, and writing about a specialized (and often obscure) topic excites you, then you are probably cut out for a doctorate. Whereas if that sounds merely tolerable, or downright unpleasant, then you will be at high risk of being one of those bright and ambitious people Dan describes who start but never finish their doctorate, and face the worst of all worlds of paying high opportunity costs for little reward.

This is not at all to say that a Ph.D. isn’t of use for a policy career. It can be tremendously helpful, for assets you develop such as a deep knowledge base, critical thinking, and writing skills. This is why the foreign policy community has an abundance of Ph.D.s, and why getting a Ph.D. can be very good for a policy career. But there are other ways to develop those assets besides doctoral work, and there are skills and qualities more important than a Ph.D. for succeeding in a policy career. Here are just a few that I have observed and experienced:

Interpersonal skills. Policy accomplishments are rarely a matter of who has the most brilliant idea or the most extensive issue knowledge. The foreign policy world is full of experts with brilliant ideas (as the experts are happy to tell you). Few of those ideas ever get realized. The people that succeed are those who can persuade others, who can build a coalition to support and then implement their ideas, and who can artfully navigate the inevitable roadblocks. Doing this demands strong interpersonal skills, such as being able to read other people, understand their motives and interests, and persuade them to want to support you.

Personality and character. This relates to interpersonal skills, but is more about who you are. Are you the type of person whom others enjoy being around and want to work with? Are you trustworthy, honorable, winsome, and collegial? Unlike academia, which rewards solitary work, most public policy work takes place in groups and teams. Only in rare cases will a person succeed in policy work if they don’t play well with others. Those who get ahead are those who have the types of personality and character that their colleagues find appealing and trustworthy. Be the kind of person whom others want to include in meetings, trust on major projects, and be with during long days and late nights at the office — or extended trips around the globe.

Good writing. A good idea poorly expressed is not better than a bad idea. The policy community in Washington DC still works by "moving paper" — meaning written memos and reports that move up the chain of command for leadership decisions. People with good writing skills thrive; those with poor writing skills rarely survive. Learn to write well, and quickly.

Mentorship. Just about every successful Washington DC foreign policy practitioner I’ve known was the beneficiary of good mentorship. In a town that runs on personal networks, some of the most important but least appreciated relationships are those between mentors and protégés. Seek out multiple mentors whose character you admire and whose professional accomplishments you would like to emulate. Not only will you learn much from them, but you will also have an inside slot on a job working for them next time they get promoted or land a new policy-making position. And once you get started on your career, pay it forward by seeking out opportunities to mentor those younger than you.

Sound judgment. Abundant knowledge and analytic skills are no substitute for wisdom. Good judgment mostly comes from experience, and experience includes learning from mistakes. For young people who want to embark on a policy career, this can sound like an annoying tautology — after all, the main way to get experience is to get hired in the first place, and making mistakes is not the kind of thing that will normally endear you to a new boss. But if you have cultivated the other qualities above — interpersonal skills and character, and finding good mentors — you will be better equipped to develop sound judgment. Yes, often this includes making your own mistakes, but the best of all worlds comes to those who can learn from the mistakes of others, and thus attain the benefits of those lessons without incurring the costs of the mistakes. Two practical ways to do this are to ask your mentors about what they’ve learned from their mistakes, and read history — an abundant record of human folly and its endless lessons.

What does all of this mean for students and young professionals who want a foreign policy career and are considering graduate school? Simply this: pursue the graduate degree that is of most interest to you in its own right. This might mean a terminal master’s program, law school, business school, or yes a Ph.D. I have seen countless examples of people succeed in foreign policy with any of those degrees. Of course there are other relevant factors to consider in selecting a graduate degree program, including financial cost, time and opportunity cost, career placement record, etc. But those factors, while important, will be insufficient to get you through a graduate program if you otherwise find your studies insufferable.

The difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is rarely a matter of degree (pun intended); rather it is a matter of those who cultivate the qualities like those described above. Other qualities could probably be added to this list — I hope some of my fellow Shadow Government contributors might have some thoughts to add?

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