Quasi-academic jobs can easily deceive the graduate student who seeks work outside higher education. At first glance, it may appear that a job at a foundation or think tank, for example, exactly mimics the work you have been doing inside academe -- except with better pay, shorter vacations, and, one hopes, less virulent office politics.
Many a Ph.D. has assumed that he or she is a shoo-in for such nonacademic jobs only to find that, despite focusing on common subject matter, the qualities and experiences that foundation and think-tank employers seek may be quite different from the ones acquired in a typical doctoral program.
Scott Keeter, who earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, successfully navigated the transition from an academic job to a quasi-academic career in 2002. After 24 years as a faculty member in political science studying public opinion, political participation, and voting behavior, he joined the Pew Research Center and is now its director of survey research and chief methodologist.
His current post may not seem all that different from his work as a faculty member running a survey-research center at Virginia Commonwealth University. However, obtaining the experience and connections that led to his position at Pew involved a level of networking that few academics practice. And now that he's on the hiring side of the table, he is keenly aware of the skills and experiences that graduate students need to acquire beyond their academic training in order to be strong candidates for these look-alike jobs.
Question: Why did you decide to go to graduate school?
Keeter: I was an undergraduate at Davidson College, a small liberal-arts college that featured good teaching and strong relationships between students and faculty. That experience made me want to be a teacher. My interest in the research side of political science did not develop until later.
Question: How did you obtain your early experience in polling?
Keeter: I had experience with polling as an academic, but it took a couple of lucky breaks to gain practical, hands-on experience in public polling. I had the good fortune to work with the Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University, which was a statewide survey of adults in New Jersey. The second break was that a former Rutgers faculty member was managing NBC's exit-poll operation and hired me to work as an analyst on election night in 1980, something I've continued doing since then.
That work, which involves poring through the mounds of data from the exit polls and very quickly writing stories for the on-air correspondents to read and discuss, introduced me to many senior polling professionals and journalists. It also helped me develop a feel for doing research that would be used not only by academics but by policy makers and journalists.
I subsequently got offered a job at Virginia Commonwealth directing a statewide poll, and later became director of the survey center there. That practical experience led to more consulting work and eventually to an introduction to Andrew Kohut, who is now the president of the Pew Research Center.
Question: Networking appears to be a common theme here. It connected you to NBC and led to your introduction to Pew. Was that intentional? Was it a necessary evil?
Keeter: It really wasn't intentional on my part, at least at first. I just found myself in a place where I met academics doing applied work and who liked to network. But, subsequently, I have made a great effort to network myself. As your readers know, the job-search process in the private and nonprofit sectors is usually quite different from the one used in academe. Jobs are often not as well publicized in the private and nonprofit world, which means that knowing where to look, or having contacts who let you know about opportunities, is more important.
Private and nonprofit organizations also have more flexibility in their hiring decisions, and personal contacts and recommendations may count for more. Those differences make networking more important, both for the employer and for the prospective employee. I certainly don't think of networking as a necessary evil. I really enjoy meeting new people and finding out what they are doing.
Question: What do you enjoy most in your work today?
Keeter: I love the variety of things I get to do. Pew is a very collaborative place —we work closely with others, both senior and junior colleagues, to plan studies, design questionnaires, analyze data, and write reports. I've always enjoyed the challenge of analyzing data to make sense of patterns and relationships, and that is a core activity of survey research. I like the problem solving required with new projects, such as how to design a plan to sample U.S. scientists for a new study. I enjoy dealing with reporters who call to talk about our findings. And I get to do a lot of public speaking, which provides many of the satisfactions of teaching without some of the downsides, such as grading papers. Finally, I enjoy working with younger colleagues, who are learning the craft but also have a lot to teach me.
Question: How is your academic training an asset in your work?
Keeter: The graduate-school experience teaches important content and skills, but it also instills discipline and focus. Those qualities are essential for success in almost any field but very much so in survey research.
Question: Were there any lessons you needed to learn in the early years about working with nonacademic organizations, such as television-news networks or foundations?
Keeter: Although I realize there are always exceptions, in general, there are a couple of things that academic training does not do particularly well. I think graduate students do not get enough opportunity to collaborate in teams, which is a typical work mode outside of academe, and especially in survey research.
And for graduate students in programs focused on academic careers, as opposed to professional ones, there is not enough training in how to write for nonacademic audiences. I had to learn both of those skills on the job.
Another aspect of graduate education that can work against students is that the culture is highly oriented toward academic placements. Some of my colleagues noted that some of their professors discouraged them from pursuing nonacademic jobs. When it came to looking for jobs outside academe, they felt they were on their own. And there was at least a hint that that attitude within the department was motivated by the idea that nonacademic placements didn't count in the U.S. News rankings —even a placement at an institution like Pew.
Question: What qualities or experiences are you looking for when interviewing candidates for jobs at Pew?
Keeter: In addition to many other qualities, we value experience in collaborative settings. We will ask the references of candidates how they take direction, if they can negotiate with others, if they are shirkers, etc. It's important for a candidate to have had some kind of collaborative experience, which can be difficult to obtain as an academic since the dissertation experience itself is an isolating one. And it's even more isolating for top students who have fellowships as they tend to focus on their own work instead of interacting with others through teaching or other projects.
It's also important that candidates be able to work at a faster pace than usually found in the academic world. In applied survey-research settings, we tend to have multiple projects under way at the same time. That's similar to what graduate students experience when taking several classes at the same time, but the variety of activities and the deadlines are significantly different.
Question: What advice would you give current graduate students who are considering working outside academe, either as a complement to a faculty position or as an alternative to one?
Keeter: One suggestion is to get involved in relevant professional associations (in addition to academic associations such as the American Political Science Association). In my field, the key group is Aapor, the American Association for Public Opinion Research. It has a low membership fee for students, and its annual conference is a great place to network and meet people in the industry.
Internships or part-time jobs are also a good way for students to get relevant experience in applied settings and develop a portfolio that can help get them noticed when seeking a consultant job or a full-time job outside of academe. It's also a good way to find out if you will really like the work.