Navigating Beyond Academia: Insights and Advice on the Transition to a Foreign Policy Career for PhDs

In their new book, 'Foreign Policy Careers for PhDs,' authors Jim Goldgeier and Tamara Cofman Wittes provide PhD scholars with a practical guide into the corridors of global influence and decision-making.

Whether out of choice or necessity, many people with doctorates pursue careers outside of the academic world.

In a world where many PhD programs still prioritize their graduate’s pursuit of academic careers, a new book, Foreign Policy Careers for PhDs, opens another door, giving scholars a practical guide into the corridors of global influence and decision-making. In the book, Jim Goldgeier and Tamara Cofman Witte draw on their own experiences and present inspiring interviews with over two dozen practitioners who successfully made the transition to policy work.

Here, Goldgeier shares his perspective on the societal and institutional factors influencing career choices, advantages to a PhD in policy work and what can be done to support the student choosing a non-academic career path.

Foreign Policy Careers for PhDs begins with and builds upon interviews with practitioners who successfully made the transition to policy work. What trends did you find as to why PhD holders may pursue a non-academic career?

There are so many reasons for PhD holders in the social sciences to pursue a non-academic career. We spoke to some individuals who pursued a PhD knowing from the outset they did not want a career in academia, which was the case for my co-author, Tamara Cofman Wittes. And for those PhDs who began graduate school either wanting or at least considering a career as a professor, there were a range of reasons they might have ended up pursuing careers outside of academia. In some cases, their interests changed while they were in school. For others, they couldn’t find a tenure-track position generally or in a particular location they desired. We spoke to several people who started their careers in academia and decided they wanted to do policy. And those who chose to go into the private sector mentioned not only the type of work but the compensation.

In the book, you mention that students are “quickly socialized into the pursuit of a tenure-track position.”  What is the reasoning behind this and what can institutions do to better support students pursuing non-academic career paths?

A major reason faculty members steer their students toward academia is it helps with their program ranking and the recruitment of new students. But it’s also the case 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. Although when I started my graduate program I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to pursue, I was certainly socialized into the idea that I should seek a tenure-track position at a major research university, and that I should consider non-academic jobs as a fallback plan. I’ve been fortunate that a career in academia fit my personality and worked out for me. But in fact, there are a range of great career possibilities, and the fit with the individual’s passions and life choices is what is most important.

In the book, we urge faculty members to be supportive of their students’ choices. Often, particularly at top-ranked programs, the faculty are eager to see their students receive tenure-track positions at major research universities. That reflects well on the faculty and the program. But this isn’t about the dissertation supervisor, or about rankings, it’s about the student. And 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.

What are the advantages of a PhD in policy work?

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, which were important particularly for those who ended up in the intelligence community.

How does Foreign Policy Careers for PhDs distinguish itself from other resources available to PhD students or graduates?

We spoke not only with PhD holders from political science, history, and international relations, but also those with degrees in disciplines like geography, economics, and psychology. And while there are lots of non-academic pursuits for PhDs, our book is focused on foreign policy careers, particularly in the United States. We think some of the lessons we draw and some of the questions we say students should ask themselves are applicable outside the U.S. and will be helpful to students at other levels. But this book really delves deeply into the foreign policy ecosystem in Washington, D.C. So if you want to understand the difference between jobs in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill, or are curious about working in a non-governmental organization and don’t know what those jobs might look like, or are trying to break into the private sector in ways that connect to foreign policy, this book is for you. We cite other great resources for PhD holders who want to pursue careers outside of academia, but this book is designed specifically for those who want to make a difference working in foreign policy. 

As the book mentions, it is fairly common for people to enter into PhD programs unsure of their career path, including “nearly every person” interviewed for this book. What piece of advice or insight from the book do you believe would be particularly valuable to PhD students or graduates considering a foreign policy career?

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.” We lay out four questions that readers should ask themselves to help them think about the career options that make the most sense for them given how they like to work, and I hope people will read the book so they can find out what those questions are!

Jim Goldgeier

Jim Goldgeier

CISAC Visiting Scholar

Tamara Cofman Wittes

Director of Foreign Assistance