James Goldgeier & Tamara Cofman Wittes: Foreign Policy Careers for PhDs

September 6, 2023 / 5 mins read

Through more than thirty interviews with doctoral degree holders, James Goldgeier and Tamara Cofman Wittes offer current doctoral students and PhD holders a look into foreign policy careers outside of academia in their book Foreign Policy Careers for PhDs. Read on for a Q&A with the authors about what can be done to support students looking outside academia; the advantages to having a PhD in the foreign policy field; and how students and PhD holders can launch their search into a nonacademic career path.

What are some reasons as to why a PhD student or graduate might pursue a nonacademic career path?

We don’t look at these types of career choices as “pivoting away from academia,” since in some cases, individuals pursue a PhD never intending to pursue an academic career from the start. And for those PhDs in the social sciences who begin graduate school believing they want to go into academia, there are a range of reasons they might end up pursuing careers outside of academia: maybe their interests changed; perhaps they couldn’t find a tenure-track position generally or in a particular location they desire; or they might start in academia and decide they want to do policy, as was the case with several of our interviewees. There are lots of ways for PhDs to make a difference, whether in academia, outside of it, or in some combination.

You mentioned that you consulted with NGOs and those researching in the field of international public service. Would you say humanitarian work is a large draw to careers in foreign policy?

We spoke to several individuals who have done humanitarian work in the NGO sector. Particularly for those who want to engage in greater activism in the field that builds on their research interests, NGOs can offer lots of opportunity for PhD holders. Academics can be activists, too, but some individuals want to make that activism the focus of their career, and NGOs can provide that opportunity around the world.

What can academic departments do to be better equipped to support doctoral students’ interests in nonacademic career paths?

The most important thing they can do is to be supportive of these choices. Often, particularly at top-ranked programs, the faculty are eager to see their students receive tenure-track positions at R1 universities. That reflects well on the faculty and helps the program’s ranking. But this isn’t about the dissertation supervisor, or about rankings, it’s about the student. Even if the program is supportive of these interests, they need to find people who can advise the students. This is a challenge in programs where the only mentors are faculty who have spent their entire careers in academia. That’s a major reason we wrote the book: to help provide guidance to PhDs interested in foreign policy careers.

In Foreign Policy Careers for PhDs, you mention that PhD students are often socialized into pursuing a tenure-track position for their post-grad career. Why is this so?

Partly it’s the concern of faculty members for their program ranking. But it’s also the fact that what academics do best is train academics. Classes are geared toward the theories and methods that are necessary to succeed in academia. Thus, even if a student starts a program intending to do something other than academia, the classes are geared toward training them to be a future professor. So they often end up believing that non-academic careers are “second-best” outcomes. We wrote this book in part because we vehemently disagree with that perspective. There are a range of great career possibilities, and the fit with the individual’s passions and life choices is what is most important.

Are there ways of balancing a nonacademic career with academic work?

A number of individuals we spoke with for the book who have pursued careers outside of academia try to maintain a connection to the scholarly community by continuing to go to conferences, publishing in academic journals, and/or by teaching as an adjunct professor. And in some cases, they end up later in their careers taking up full-time academic positions as professors of practice, which are available particularly at schools of public policy and international affairs.

What advantages are there to having a PhD when pursuing a career in foreign policy?

It was fascinating to hear how some of our interviewees noted that they didn’t need a PhD for their job, but they believed the PhD made them a better intelligence analyst, or State Department civil servant, journalist, or private sector or NGO employee. They cited the critical thinking and analytical skills they honed in their programs, their ability to ask and answer research questions, methodological training, and/or the cultural expertise that came from extensive fieldwork. It was very interesting to hear how much teaching experience was relevant: that background translated into strong briefing skills.

Are there common trends among PhD students in how they begin translating their academic work and passions into foreign policy careers?

We spoke to more than thirty individuals from a range of disciplines who have pursued careers in the public, non-profit, and private sectors, and if there’s one thing we learned, it’s that there are many different paths. At the end of the book, we note that “there is no single, perfect path to a successful career working in foreign policy (or even on foreign policy)—and, indeed, that embracing serendipity, flexibility, and even failures can help you find a professional role that is true to your passions, values, and personal needs.”