Thoughts on Post-PhD Jobs

by Timothy_Liptrot2 min read19th Oct 20218 comments

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Career advising
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Motivation

I'm a PhD student at an American Grad school, studying authoritarian politics. The academic job market has more PhD students than openings in the US. My school does not have a strong placement record. While I'm a stronger-than-average candidate, the probabilty I won't find an appealing professorship is enough to plan for that possibility. Also, having outside options would improve my bargaining position.

This post is about raising my reservation wage as a politics grad student. Half brain storm, half plan.

First, I'll list my most valuable qualifications. Second, I'll list 6 candidate paths as backup jobs. Finally, I'll describe the three questions I need to answer for each one, before I pick my thesis plan.

Qualifications

The good news is that I am exceptionally talented in some fairly uncrowded fields. And will be more legibly talented in them post-post-grad.

  1. Understanding authoritarian politics: I study how dictatorships make policy decisions. I know all the main formal models of autocratic politics; Selectorate theory, Svolik's consolidation model, Guriev and Treisman's information control, et cetera. The literature is actually very helpful because most Americans intuitively understand democracy, but have no idea how dictatorships work. My next paper is about predicting when a leader's sudden death will cause expropriation using institutional characteristics.

  2. A lot of stats. I'm a grad student after all. I code R, Stata and do GIS.

  3. I speak Arabic.

  4. I have past experience in aid project evaluation, and currently consult on aid project development.

  5. Finally, I can tailor my thesis to any career path. This is a real trump card because it offers area expertise that even practitioners don't have time to acquire (like spending a year studying the Saudi stock markets response to marriage announcements). Also, if done correctly a thesis can demonstrate commitment to a career path. A friend entered the American civil service by doing cost-benefit analysis in his thesis.

  6. I can network with decisionmakers in autocracies. It's easier than you would think.

Some career paths

  • International Development: USAID, the World Bank and the IMF often negotiate with autocrats, exchanging financial support for policy changes. I have a paper on their negotiations with Jordanian politicians. The recent scandal notwithstanding, I consider them very effective and in need of my expertise. Also, my colleagues would understand game theory. However, I do not yet understand USAID or the WB's recruiting or the day-to-day aspect of work there.

  • The intelligence services: The fit here by skill is great. They deal with autocracies, they love GIS, they love Arabic. Speaks for itself really.

  • The foreign service: Strong skills fit with the politics, networking and language skills.

  • Political consulting: I did some political consulting work this summer, very enjoyable. Clients seem to value country knowledge highly and care less about stats/causal inference.

  • Political risk consulting: Similar to PC, but focused on how policy choices affect private actors like investors. Also seems super fun, and surprisingly neglected by political scientists. And very data rich area to do a thesis in.

What is to be done?

For each career, I need to answer four questions; Would I like the work, how's the compensation (broadly defined), would they value my background, and what type of research would most appeal to them. Planning informational interviews on all those this year.

Anway, that's the plan for now.

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For each career, I need to answer four questions; Would I like the work, how's the compensation (broadly defined), would they value my background, and what type of research would most appeal to them

It seems to me that the most important question from an impartial perspective for almost any job is either a) how high is the direct impact of the job or b) what do you think of the career capital the job provides in terms of positioning you to do very high impact work in the future.

I certainly could do that. It would drive me toward more crowded fields, particularly development. But competing with lots of other really smart people is playing life on hard mode.

I'm not sure I want to play life on hard mode in my 30's.

I'm confused by this framing. Ought implies can. If you think development (or other fields) is too hard a field for you to join (or alternatively, if it involves large enough costs or risks that you don't want to stomach), you shouldn't join it. 

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't prioritize impact or career capital within the choice set that you do have.

I have been in your position and the job market for a new PhD can be scary and difficult. 

This is especially so when you are not at a school with a top placement record (as you know, HYPS and star candidates can have advisors making calls and setting up offers before the market even starts). It can feel like your life can be very uncertain.

On the other hand, there are many people in a similar position as you and many of them have been very successful and happy in academics and industry.

It is impressive you are thinking ahead and that you deliberately chose an important and relevant subject and are thinking of altruism.

I think I have basic thoughts:

  • For non-star and non-high ranking people, especially if you end up having 3/3 teaching loads (and don’t love teaching), I think your situation favors non-academic positions. In addition to the teaching issue, my guess is that academic success in polisci is very connection and network based, making placement important. Whereas, in “industry”, you can progress in your career and achieve status similar very high candidates, especially if the work is not academic in nature.
  • In EA speak, I think “career capital” should be your goal. As an early grad, your PhD and skills have low direct value. You should choose either a personally interesting or high status/opportunity position. Also, you should generally favor large orgs where you can get exposed to politics, move around or can take management roles (maybe especially managing research). All this points to a non academic placement.

I certainly could do that. It would drive me toward more crowded fields, particularly development. But competing with lots of other really smart people is playing life on hard mode.

I think because of “career capital” concerns, even if only development has value,, it’s possible that being successful in another position for 3-5 years will make you much more effective and you can circle back. Or maybe you will develop unique insight or connections or access to policy that lets you have influence or support development in some other way. Or maybe your skills will stop WW3. 

Overall, it seems implausible that you can be certain you have to choose development now to maximize impact (unless my knowledge or guess is terrible, please correct me). 

I think the above advice is generic—you may already know this if you made an EA forum post. If I am wrong, please just correct me and I hope someone else does too.

Usually what I say is right or something (?) but this is EA and I just got heavily corrected by Linch on what I thought was a plausible idea.
 

Edit: Eh, I saw you posted several times, read 80k hours, etc. I’m pretty sure my message is just noise. Please review and let me know if you think I am wrong, I am interested in learning from you.

Usually what I say is right or something (?) but this is EA and I just got heavily corrected by Linch on what I thought was a plausible idea.

To be clear, I still think what you said there was plausible. I genuinely meant my correction as limited to that subpoint rather than about your comment overall. 

Thanks for the comment, I'm just talking through things and appreciate the feedback.

In EA speak, I think “career capital” should be your goal. As an early grad, your PhD and skills have low direct value. You should choose either a personally interesting or high status/opportunity position.

I actually disagree with this. Firstly, those are actually pretty good skills. But secondly, I don't think PhD's have low direct value. Obviously most people's PhD's have 0 direct value, but that's because people don't select their areas strategically at all.

There's a two-way matching problem here. I would like to exchange a detailed study done well on an issue for a career. And lots of institutions would like to hire someone who has studied their issues for the information and for the signalling value (only a good hire could understand the issue so well). I've already done this with my first paper that got me the consulting gig.

The thing is, few industries are going out looking for PhD students. The WB does, but the CIA, State Department, political risk consultants, none of them are doing that. So you need to input the effort to solve the two-way matching problem by finding them and credibly signaling your value. That's not something most PhD students do at all. But I live in DC, and I'm good at networking so I can do that.

Additionally, everyone is seeking "career capital". The hunt for "career capital" is super crowded and exhausting. Trying to actually do things is easier.

I actually disagree with this...I don't think PhD's have low direct value. Obviously most people's PhD's have 0 direct value, but that's because people don't select their areas strategically at all.

And lots of institutions would like to hire someone who has studied their issues for the information and for the signalling value (only a good hire could understand the issue so well). I've already done this with my first paper that got me the consulting gig.

 

 I meant to say that new PhDs have low direct value, not that PhDs have low direct value. 

Additionally, everyone is seeking "career capital". The hunt for "career capital" is super crowded and exhausting. Trying to actually do things is easier.

I think I may have used career capital wrong? I guess I just meant ability in "getting good", this usually comes from experience?
 

The other thing to note is that Rethink Priorities and other EA research nonprofits may benefit from someone of your skillsets, though of course you may not like or want to work at those places and also hiring is stochastic and you may not be hired by them.