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.


If anything, what [Bytes, Bombs and Spies] points out is how little value you can get from traditional political-science terms and concepts. Escalatory ladder makes little sense with a domain where a half-decade of battlefield preparation and pre-placement are required for attacks, where attacks have a more nebulous connection to effect, deniability is a dominant characteristic, and where intelligence gathering and kinetic effect require the same access and where emergent behavior during offensive operations happens far beyond human reaction time.

Dave Aitel, There is no Escalatory Ladder in the Matrix

The debate about cyber-security in political science and international relations has been very visible among policy elites. Policy-makers and their advisers read Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. However, political and social scientists often do not appreciate the technical details of network breaches, or security setups in critical infrastructure and industrial plants.

Most political scientists also lack the technical skills to call out poor- quality company reports or government documents. Instead, too many scholars seem happy to engage in self-referential theoretical debates of little relevance to anybody else – for instance, on the ‘securitisation’ of cyber-security.

Robert M. Lee and Thomas Rid. (2014). “OMG Cyber!: Thirteen Reasons Why Hype Makes for Bad Policy,” The RUSI Journal 169(5).

I cannot overstate how emphatically I agree with this general assessment of political science analyses of digital security issues.


Senate Delivers a Devastating Blow to the Integrity of the Scientific Process at the National Science Foundation — WASHINGTON, March 20, 2013




The amendment places unprecedented restriction on the national research agenda by declaring the political science study of democracy and public policy out of bounds. The amendment allows only political science research that promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States.”

holy shit, that’s disgusting

Practically speaking this will have almost no effect on political science research. The National Science Foundation (the US government agency that manages research funding) is advancing a slippery-slope argument to talk about why their independence has been threatened. But the NSF still ultimately decides where the grants go.

It’s very easy to argue that basically all research of “democracy and public policy” is useful for national security, economic interests, or both. Maybe funding applications will need to include a paragraph explaining why their research is useful for policy applications. But that’s hardly a bad thing, right? Even fundamental-level social science research generally presents a relatively straight line to policy application. And so the NSF can keep on approving whatever ivory-tower projects they like.

So yeah I mean obviously this change is massively suboptimal and deserves to be loudly frowned upon. But in terms of actual research projects losing funding? I’d be surprised if there were any at all.

I think that it’s going to matter how the Senate’s decision is actually implemented. Of course, you’ll see social scientists trying to figure out how their work ‘fits’ the new funding objectives. However, if NSF really gets on board and refuses to fund grants that only have ‘token’ statements for how research meets the new funding objectives then the Senate’s decision could hurt some political scientists.

The decision also establishes a kind of worry amongst some academics that the government could continue to aggressively direct academic study: sure, you can study whatever you want, so long as your work doesn’t depend on federal funds. Some of the Senate’s decision was the result of particular Senators being displeased with the academic work that had been funded; their modification to NSF granting effectively acts as a clear warning to other projects up for NSF funding: if ‘bad’ work that the political paymasters won’t approve of is funded then the paymasters will get very directly involved in matters.