…or how to get a job in a Washington foreign policy think tank without a Ph.D.
For the second time in about as many weeks I am going to break with past practice and write from a more personal standpoint, this time about getting a job in a foreign policy think tank in DC. The primary prompt is Dan Drezner’s post on the merits of a Ph.D. (and Joshua Foust’s equally compelling response). But I’m also motivated by the—literally—dozens of phone calls, emails, and social media messages that I receive each month from young people from India, the United States, and elsewhere seeking to break into “The DC Game” (as Foust calls it).
First, what exactly is The Game? Washington DC is by any measure the policy capital of the world. DC and its environs are home to some 550 public policy think tanks working on just about every policy issue imaginable. Washington is also home to a range of U.S. government agencies with truly global interests and activities as well as international organizations such as the World Bank and IMF. It thus attracts an international press corps, lobbyists, private sector consultants and contractors, and global NGOs. It is also the location of several universities that boast public policy schools, often with an international focus or orientation. Think tanks lie at the intersection of these realms—government, academia, business, and the media—and this largely self-pollinating interwoven community engages in shaping various aspects of U.S. and international policy: high politics, security, economic development, trade, human rights, etc. This, in brief, constitutes The Game.
The Game is not strictly speaking a profession. There are no universal practices for how exactly to influence international policy and no academic qualifications or professional certifications that need to be met. It’s the Wild West to academia’s armed forces. On the plus side, these characteristics makes the system somewhat meritocratic: talent and hard work are generally rewarded, as are personal and professional networks (behold the DC Happy Hour). On the downside, there are no fixed paths for how to break in. Here’s perhaps the most common one:
Step 1: Study political science/economics/international relations as an undergraduate. Study/work/intern in another country to gain some international exposure. Learn at least one language in addition to English (now most commonly Chinese, Arabic, or Spanish). Develop a primary regional and/or topical expertise.
Step 2: Complete a graduate degree: an MA, MPA, JD, or even a PhD. Study in DC (probably at a university starting with “George” or “Johns”) or intern there. Identify the policy community you want to break into, and get to know people in it. You will soon find that everyone working in a certain specialized field knows everyone else.
Step 3: After Step 2, or in some instances before it, you will face three options: (1) work on a political campaign, (2) complete that PhD, (3) enter government by working on Capitol Hill, joining the civil or foreign service, or signing up for the military. Option 1 is the fastest but you have to be lucky and work insanely hard for little or no pay. Option 3 takes the longest time, but at least you’re getting paid and learning how government really functions. Important: these options are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Oh, and if your job lets you, write/blog to get your name out there.
Depending on which horse you back, how hard you work, and how much time and effort you invest, you end up somewhere in the Game’s hierarchical pyramid. While you can’t choose how high you go, you can opt to be closer to the powers that be (in government) or farther outside with a higher profile and more freedom (say, at a think tank). The Game is not exclusive to Washington, but really the only exceptions involve people who are already established, work for a prestigious university/Wall Street firm/media company, and, on very rare occasions, are active bloggers or writers. But, as you can tell, Paula Broadwell—military service, Harvard graduate school, non-fiction book, doctoral studies—was playing The Game rather well until things started to go haywire.
The problem with this model is that there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of others doing exactly the same thing. The trick then becomes how to distinguish oneself. My own path did not exactly correspond to this established pattern, in part because I didn’t realise until very late that I wanted to play The Game and also because of personal choices I made. This is how it turned out:
Step 1: I studied history as an undergraduate. Classical history. Really ancient stuff. I also turned out to be terrible at languages. My scholarship didn’t allow me to study abroad, although I partly made up for that by actually being from outside the United States. I was also an undisciplined student, a dilettante.
Step 2.1: I did intern in DC for several months after graduation (unpaid), then a few more (poorly paid). This was really only possible because I lived rent-free with distant relatives. During this time, I applied incessantly for DC jobs with little success. However, this also proved an incredibly useful time to learn how Washington worked: who were the important players, what were the priority issues, etc. DC think tanks have numerous public events every day. Congressional hearings are also open to the public. I attended as many of these events as I could.
Step 2.2: I returned to India, initially because of visa regulations. But I used my time living and working there to learn how Delhi worked, particularly its version of The Game. This proved, in hindsight, a valuable use of my time as it helped me establish connections with the Indian policy community and helped sharpen my field of expertise.
Step 3: Since I wanted to remain an Indian citizen, working for the U.S. government was out of the question, as was campaign work (which, given that I have no political affiliation, was not desirable anyway). I did not want to commit to a Ph.D. nor did I have the academic pedigree for one. Marriage largely ruled out international journalism (if an Iraqi IED didn’t kill me, my wife would). So my only real option when I returned to Washington was to work my way up in the think tank world.
Step 2.3: After working for three years, I went back to grad school full time, while also holding a full time job at a think tank. This was a rough two years, but well worth it. I deliberately took classes in subjects that were only loosely related to my work, as well as extra classes in theory and history to provide a better foundation for research and a familiarity with academic discourse. Telescoping a graduate degree with accumulated work experience helped me move up at work, and my education complemented rather than duplicated my professional development.
In hindsight, there was little I would have done differently, although mine has been a roundabout journey. Here are some lessons I learned from my own experiences and those of countless others I have come to know:
1. Ball. What you study matters less than what you get out of your education. And that is skills: research skills, general knowledge, writing abilities, logic, and second or third languages. Almost everyone in DC has the necessary research and language skills, but writing and general knowledge are surprisingly rare commodities. Moreover, breadth helps more than depth, as it makes you more employable. Few think tanks will hire you just because you know more about the Malaysian rubber industry than anyone else. But someone with a versatile skill-set and a broad understanding of contemporary Southeast Asia is harder to come by. Some specialists with doctorates are thus less successful at The Game; some without doctorates are more so.
2. Hustle. Hard works can more than compensates for luck. Sure, some people are lucky – they know the right people – but hard work also gets you noticed. And that often helps you get to know the right people. I’ve met an incredible number of established experts who have made it not because of anyone they knew, but through sheer determination. Connections may help get a foot in the door through an internship or perhaps a job interview, but not many think tanks will opt to hire someone on that basis alone.
3. Ain’t No Fun (‘Cos Your Homies Won’t Have None). Your job is never going to involve doing only those things you love. Junior research staff at think tanks are generally expected to provide administrative assistance: managing subordinate interns, drafting program budgets, fundraising, organizing events, etc. Senior researchers and program directors spend much of their time raising money, directing research, and managing junior staff. But a willingness and ability to take on these tasks makes one more – not less – employable. The same holds true, if to varying degrees, in other areas: government bureaucracies, editorial work, political campaigns, and the private sector. A strong researcher who can also raise funds, manage resources, organize events, and write reports is an asset for any think tank.
4. Lay Low. Vertical mobility is hard without other experiences or further academic qualifications. This brings us back to the Ph.D. discussion that Drezner started. Even the most highly-qualified younger policy practitioners hit a glass ceiling in the think tank world. The only option is to take on another job in government, the private sector, the media, etc. or go back to school. Joining a think tank at a senior level is really only possible for those with a Ph.D. This is gradually changing, particularly in newer or less-established institutions that tend to favour talent over formal qualifications.
Which leads me to my conclusion on the Drezner debate, one that may appear blindingly obvious. If think tanks, the government, and (dare I say it) academia stop putting so much weight on a Ph.D.—if they stop treating it as a union card that is necessary to move up in The Game—then you’ll get fewer people who will treat is simply as a box to check. This is, in other words, a demand-side problem, not a supply-side one.
Regarding Foust’s suggestion that a Ph.D. constitutes a cost-effective way to rise in The Game, well, I’m not so sure. Five years (the average time needed now for a political science Ph.D.) spent doing meaningful work for an international organization or in the private sector or a government agency could offer greater material benefits, a better Rolodex, and access to top policymakers. Sure, one might have to compensate for the lack of academic experience by familiarizing oneself with the relevant literature and reading recent scholarly articles pertinent to one’s field. The other downsides? Foust rightly points to the mountains of debt that one can accumulate in a terminal masters program. But the number of spots in Ph.D. programs are few and funding is still scarce. Unless one wants to work strictly in academia, there just might be more efficient ways of playing The Game.