Doing A Policy-Oriented PhD

Steve Saideman has a good, short, thought on why doing a PhD is rarely a good idea for Canadians who want to get into policy work. Specifically, he writes:

In Canada, alas, there is not that much of a market for policy-oriented PhDs. We don’t have much in the way of think tanks, there are only a few govt jobs that either require PhDs or where the PhD gives one an advantage over an MA, and, the govt does not pay someone more if they have a PhD.

I concur that there are few places, including think tanks or civil society organizations, where you’re likely to find a job if you have a policy-related PhD. Moreover, when you do find one it can be challenging, if not impossible, to find promotion opportunities because the organizations tend to be so small.

That said, I do in fact think that doing a policy-related PhD can sometimes be helpful if you stay pretty applied in your outputs while pursuing your degree. In my case, I spent a lot of time during my PhD on many of the same topics that I still focus on, today, and can command a premium in consulting rates and seniority for other positions because I’ve been doing applied policy work for about 15 years now, inclusive of my time in my PhD. I, also, developed a lot of skills in my PhD—and in particular the ability to ask and assess good questions, know how questions or policy issues had been previously answered and to what effect, and a reflexive or historical thinking capacity I lacked previously—that are all helpful soft skills in actually doing policy work. Moreover, being able to study policy and politics, and basically act as an independent agent for the time of my PhD, meant I had a much better sense of what I thought about issues, why, and how to see them put into practice than I would have gained with just a master’s degree.

Does that mean I’d recommend doing a PhD? Well…no. There are huge opportunity costs you incur in doing them and, also, you can narrow you job market searches by appearing both over-educated and under-qualified. The benefits of holding a PhD tend to become more apparent after a few years in a job as opposed to being helpful in netting that first one out of school.

I don’t regret doing a PhD but, if someone is particularly committed to doing one, I think that they should hurl themselves into it with absolute abandon and treat it as a super-intensive 40-65 hour/week job, and be damn sure that you have a lot of non-academic outputs to prove to a future employer that you understand the world and not just academic journals. It’s hard work, which is sometimes rewarding, and there are arguably different (and less unpleasant) ways of getting to a relatively similar end point. But if someone is so motivated by a hard question that they’d be doing the research and thinking about it, regardless of whether they were in a PhD program? Then they might as well go and get the piece of paper while figuring out the answer.

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