Today I got to visit my alma mater, Rutgers University, where I participated in a panel about non-academic jobs for political scientists (thank you Beth Leech for the invitation!). I spoke about my journey from academia to political consulting and public opinion research & strategy and explained how the world of applied research is different from the Ivory Tower. Here are the 5 points I emphasized in my talk:
Very few people will care you have a PhD: Yes, being a “Dr.” might sound prestigious, but people in applied research really only care about your skills- the fact that you can write a survey, crunch data in SPSS, or write up research results. When you’re on the non-academic job market, emphasizing your skills and what you can do is what will get you hired, not your PhD.
You need skills other than research: Yes, knowing how to write a survey, crunch data, and write about data is step one, but those are just basic qualifications for most jobs. You also need to know how to do other things like project manage, interact with clients, and present projects publicly. It’s ok if you don’t have these skills right away, but expect to learn and develop them quickly on the job if you want to succeed.
“Methodology” takes on a very different meaning in applied research: When I was in grad school, sophisticated, rigorous methodologies were highly privileged and respected. In applied research, no one cares how many post-hoc tests you performed on your model (and you likely won’t even develop a model in the first place). Most public opinion data is analyzed via cross tabs, and telling the story of that data and how it matters is much more important than the process by which you collected or analyzed the data.
Research becomes team-oriented: In grad school, conducting research involved me, myself, and I: I conducted the lit reviews, fielded the survey, and wrote up the results. In the real world, research is conducted via teams, including outside vendors like sample providers and online field houses. You often work with other people to develop the research design and analyze/interpret the results. Doing research on a team is a very different experience than doing work solo, and while there can be frustrations, it can also be rewarding to collaborate with smart people and produce research products you’re proud of.
Networking matters (like, a lot): I think one of the most important ways to succeed in non-academic work is through networking. It’s an uphill battle for grad students since most of their colleagues are in academia, not applied research. So you have to work a lot harder to meet people who followed the career path you can see yourself on. The good news is, many PhDs who ended up in non-academic jobs are more than willing to help you and share their insight, so don’t be afraid to call on them for advice.
In sum, pursuing a non-academic career can be challenging for PhDs, but definitely not impossible. For me, the main reward is that I do meaningful, high-impact research on a daily basis which is well worth the time and effort I spent getting here.
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