I wrote a post last week about getting a PhD when you have a career aim other than being a professor. It generated a lot of interest, which is great! However, I sort of left the last post with “you need some luck to pull this off” so I wanted to follow up in more detail about the career directions one could take. Speaking for myself, I see a lot of ‘Alt Ac’ (‘alterative to academia’) advice that focuses on transitioning social science skills to the private sector, often the tech sector. Much, though not all, of this advice is geared toward social scientists with quant/data science skills. If this isn’t you never fear, there is a whole world of opportunity out there for social scientists who don’t want to work in the private sector, or don’t have quant/data science skills! I’ll discuss think tanks, multilateral/international organizations, and government agencies in this post since I have experience with these.
[Important note: In all these categories of institutions you can do both research and practice, but one will probably take up more of your day. It’s important to think about what skills and experiences you want to bring from your PhD to the non-professor world, whether these skills set you on a path to more research or more practice, and if that path will make you happy.]
Think Tanks: This is the world I’m in. I work at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), which I love. I get to do a unique mix of serious scientific research as well as policy advice and public engagement on development policy.
What will you do at a think tank? It varies hugely, so I’ll offer three stylized categories:
- One category is the ‘public research institute’; this is the category I work in. Examples include institutes like RAND Corporation or Brookings in the U.S. or the Overseas Development Institute in the UK. At these types of think tanks your daily tasks will feel pretty similar to life in a political science or public policy department at a university – writing and possibly doing peer-review grade research, but with themes set by the medium- to long-term interests of policy makers (and no teaching).
- Another category is the private institute. This type of think tank is funded by a private donor or endowment, and often is focused on a particular issue. If you’re really into a specific topic this could be the place for you; keep in mind though that the influence of the funder(s) is often stronger in these places, and there is likely to be advocacy work involved as opposed to the type of research you got used to in a PhD program.
- The third category is a variation on the private institute, and I’ll call it the ‘party institute’. Before you think ‘hell yeah that sounds awesome’ I mean political parties. These run the gamut from being very research oriented to being straight-up political activist organizations. They’re usually funded by either political parties or party organizations, and their thematic activities follow the party line. Compared to the other two categories of think tank, I reckon you’re less likely to need a PhD to work at a party institute.
What are working conditions like in think tanks? Again, it varies a lot. At my institute I’m essentially a public employee and my working conditions are good. Generally, large public research institutes are going to offer working conditions and pay analogous to civil service work. Private institutes are all over the place when it comes to conditions and pay. If you get a job at an institute that is working on orthodox issues that make the world of capital and power happy, you’ll probably be paid quite well (though job security varies). If you’re at a small private institute working to antagonize the interests of capital and power, pay and job security might be less great. Note that prestige and size matter in this calculation: If you’re at a huge world-famous think tank working on issues that irk power and capital, you’ll probably still have good pay and working conditions.
So, how do you get into Think Tank World? If you’re interested in the public research institute type of place, just use your academic CV and apply as if you’re applying to a university research position. You’ll need to demonstrate in your cover letter and interview that you have a grasp on current policy issues, and that you have the ability to talk to policy makers, but a PhD will actually prepare you fairly well for the day-to-day at a place like this. Private institutes vary; if it’s advocacy oriented then you’ll need to network your way in and probably demonstrate knowledge of the entities the think tank wants to influence. Media savvy and having a ‘brand’ help a lot with gaining entree to these types of places. See if your university has a public relations office that offers training on editorial writing, being interviewed by the media, etc. (many do). At party institutes you’ll probably need to be a member of the party or have a demonstrated commitment to their agenda. Again, networking and media savvy are going to be useful when trying to land a job at a place like this.
I would say that if you like the writing and debating aspect of academia but want a job that is more public facing (and doesn’t require you to teach), then a think tank could be for you.
Multilateral/International Organizations: I have experience in this sector with the World Bank and a few UN agencies. Generally speaking, for someone wrapping up a PhD there are two ways into these places: applying to open-call junior professional programs, or networking one’s way into a series of consulting gigs and using those as a steppingstone to a permanent position. I would say a PhD provides a unique space for the latter, either through giving talks at places where your work could be informative or by doing research that gives you the opportunity to embed yourself in these places. Of the three job fields I’ll talk about in this post, I would say getting into multilaterals or international organizations is the toughest because the process can be so convoluted.
The formal way into the UN or World Bank is through the ‘front door’, by applying to junior professional and entry level professional positions along with 10,000 other applicants. I wouldn’t say don’t try to apply directly to positions (I know people who have gotten in this way), but as I mentioned doing a PhD affords you access to networking and relationship building opportunities that can be turned into consulting gigs and potentially into a permanent position. A few things worth keeping in mind about the World Bank and UN: The World Bank is hard to get into, but once you’re in the job security and pay is good. You have to do your job well, but if you do that, you’re fairly secure. The UN is hard to get into, and once you’re in the job security is not great. After you make the jump from consultant to staff (the P-grades) you’ll be applying for a new job internally every few years, which often means moving internationally regularly. This is a recipe for toxicity; I have a number of professional acquaintances who’ve left the UN system because it devolves into an endless grind. A fulfilling career in the UN system is possible, but I would slap a big ‘buyer beware’ sticker on it as a potential career path.
An alternative way to get into these organizations is to join a national government agency first. It’s not a given, but in many cases if you work for a government ministry, there are opportunities to be seconded to international organizations. If you then like working at the organization you’re seconded to, you can try to get your government to fund your secondment as long as possible while networking and applying for permanent positions. The drawback is that when you get a permanent position, you’ll probably have to give up your government position (and the pension benefits you were accruing). This is a long game, and not guaranteed to work, but you’ll at least have good working conditions while you try to pull it off.
This is a career path for someone who likes doing some research (especially at the World Bank) but wants to be more involved on the practice side of things.
Government agencies are great places to work if you have specialized expertise and want to put that to use in a practice-oriented way. Like the other two sectors I talked about above getting into government at a specialized level is hard, however it’s comparatively straight forward. Most governments have standardized application processes for civil service jobs, and you must apply through these (being a political appointee is a different story for another time). There’s generally less networking necessary to get into a mainline government position, but it never hurts to make yourself known to people in the ministries or agencies you’d like to work in. The nature of competition for getting into a specific ministry varies – government agencies have their own cultures, which influence the type of people they aim to recruit. Networking can help you get a sense of the institutional culture and the personalities a ministry is looking for.
As far as working conditions go, civil service jobs are generally secure, and the pay is good. You won’t get rich, but it’s comfortable. Compared to think tanks and international organizations, I’ve also seen a wider range of personality types have happy careers in government. If you’re hard-charging and want to move up the leadership ranks, great, but if you’re more chill and want to just focus on your specialization and do it well there’s space for that too (this observation varies by field and institutional culture of course).
Unless you work at a national science foundation or agency, don’t expect to be doing any scientific work as a civil servant. Government is where you go if you want a more or less clean break from academic culture and want to apply the skills you picked up during your PhD in a practical way.
This is all I can think of in terms of practical advice for making the jump from PhD to non-university and non-professorial work. I hope it’s helpful, and if this is the path you’ve chosen I can say that it’s not the easiest, but can be extremely satisfying once you’ve identified the way you want to go!