Why I Left a Tenured Job for a Career in Policy

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By Katherine E. Bliss

Shortly after I moved to New England in 1996 to start a job as an assistant professor of history, two colleagues invited me to their house for dinner. A handful of other new or junior faculty members were there, too, and at one point the conversation turned to what each of us might have done had we not found suitable jobs in academe.

Several around the table said they could not imagine doing anything different — that becoming a professor had been their long-held dream.

As my turn to contribute approached, I thought wistfully about a letter I had received from a women’s health organization inviting me to interview for a posting in Chile. My dissertation focused on gender, reformism, and public health in early 20th-century Mexico, and I was interested in how to apply my research to more contemporary debates in other parts of Latin America. I had written to the organization in January, but the interview request came only after I had already accepted the teaching position at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. By then, my classes had been scheduled, movers arranged, and travel plans made, so I brushed aside thoughts of Santiago and focused on preparing to teach at a public university.

That night at dinner, as my mind scrambled to come up with an answer that didn’t paint me as a complete misfit in academe, the conversation luckily moved to other topics, and I didn’t have to confess my professional doubts. But my interest in policy issues was always there, that night and for years after.

When the chance to formally study reproductive-health policy came in the form of a one-year fellowship at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, I eagerly pursued it. A few years later, after I had been tenured at UMass-Amherst, I accepted a fellowship at the U.S. State Department, working on global health issues including HIV/AIDS, polio eradication, and biodefense. After that, the department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs hired me on a year-to-year civil-service consulting contract.

Discovering that I was energized by the work — advancing access to health services globally — I eventually resigned my faculty position. For the next few years I remained at State, before joining a think tank and later developing my own policy consulting practice.

Having spent nearly five years in a U.S. government policy position, and another 10 in policy analysis, I have discovered that there are actually a great number of academics working in policy and that my yearning to apply my historical research to contemporary policy debates did not make me the outlier I thought I was at dinner that night.

Here, then, are five pieces of advice for graduate students, recent Ph.D.s, and even midcareer professors on how to present yourself and your work for a short-term or more permanent shift to the policy world:

In job interviews, frame your academic research interests in policy terms. When I received the midcareer fellowship that placed me, a policy researcher, in a policy-making setting for a year, I had to interview with various government offices at State to find one willing to host me. As I made the rounds, it became clear that I had to adopt a new vocabulary.

My original (and very academic) impulse was to describe my research interests as focused on sexuality in post-revolutionary Mexico, but that didn’t get me very far. Once I learned to explain my work in policy terms — that it was about gender-based violence, internally displaced people in post-conflict settings, health-seeking behavior, and the impact of stigma and discrimination on disease prevalence — I found that office directors better understood my interests and were more open to having me come on board for the year.

Understand that in the policy arena, the fundamental questions are different. In academe, you might ask why something happens, or how it was done before. But the key questions start with what in policy circles: What can be done to prevent or resolve X in the short-to-medium term?

For example, in 2005 the spread of avian influenza in Asia unexpectedly became a focus of the office where I was working. Ever the historian, I naively asked if anyone knew how the department dealt with the flu pandemics in 1918, 1957, and 1968 — only to be met with generally blank stares. A few acknowledged that it might well be interesting to know if the department had actually been engaged on the issue that far back, but the work remained firmly focused on the current crisis and identifying diplomatic tools to build support for a global approach to the problem.

Inventory your transferrable skills. In my case, the fact that I was professionally fluent in Spanish meant that I could play an important role on the sidelines at meetings during which official speeches might be translated but breakaway negotiations were not.

Likewise, my ability — honed in graduate training — to quickly read, analyze, and summarize the key points of a document or stick to a deadline enabled me to keep up with a government work culture built around extraordinarily short response times to draft speeches or memos. And the public-speaking skills I gained as a lecturer and conference presenter gave me the opportunity to travel to Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, and Stuttgart to share information about current health debates with U.S. officials posted in the region.

Maintain a sense of humor. As I moved from scholarship to policy, many of the people I encountered found it curious, even quirky, that I had written a book on prostitution in Mexico. However, they were less open, at least at first, to recognizing that my academic experience in the region gave me insights relevant to current policy debates. During the first few months of my fellowship placement, when I would still get lost in the State Department’s endless hallways, I had more than one older Foreign Service officer ask if I was an intern — this was two years after I had been tenured.

And with its fast pace and occasional high stakes, the policy world is not the most genteel. Each of the two times in my professional life when a boss has screamed at me occurred when I worked at State.

To be fair, I faced my share of challenging interactions with colleagues when I worked in academe, too. Some found my willingness to work for the government distasteful, while others insisted that I had "gone to the dark side" and become a political appointee or a spy — not really understanding the nature of civil-service employment or that not everyone with a security clearance is engaged in intelligence work.

Find a grant to help you move from academe to policy. Such funding is available if you look for it. For instance:

  • The fellowship that placed me at the State Department came from the Council on Foreign Relations, and was aimed at "bridging the gap between study and making of U.S. foreign policy by creating the next generation of scholar practitioners."
  • In the government, I interacted with Ph.D.s (anthropologists, political scientists, psychologists, microbiologists, chemical engineers) who came to policy work via a science-and-technology fellowship program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • For tenured professors in a broad range of scientific disciplines, including engineering, medicine, and agriculture, the Jefferson Science Fellowships, administered by the National Academy of Sciences, offer an opportunity to serve in a government agency for a year and then as a reserve adviser for a few years afterward.

One final factor to consider: Do you want to return to academe after working in policy? The number of people who move in and out of government positions and universities suggests that it’s possible. And yet for me, after five years at State, going back to teaching history full time was not the right step.

Wanting to move on from drafting memos and writing talking points and return to more independent research and analysis, I decided to take a position as a senior fellow at a nonpartisan foreign-policy and security think tank. There I drew on both my academic expertise and government background. More recently, as a consultant, I’ve been able to return to my interest in gender and health in Latin America.

But whether I’m doing long, country-based analyses of health policy or short assessments about the potential for moving a specific piece of global health-related legislation forward, I find that my point of departure is almost always the historical context. In these days of information overload, not everyone wants to understand the deep background to a particular problem, but more often than not, my clients do appreciate knowing what factors helped create the situation in the first place.

Now when I think back to that dinner more than 20 years ago, I find it curious — perplexing even — that I felt so ashamed to confess my interest in federal- and global--policy issues to a group of academics. Part of the problem was that I didn’t realize how many options were out there for people like me. Not only is it relatively easy to move from higher education to the policy world, but doing so may also enhance your contributions to scholarly and policy conversations.

Katherine E. Bliss, a historian of Latin America who left a tenured post at a research university to work in global health policy in Washington, is now a consultant in Texas.

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