Research-Oriented: Translating a History PhD into a Successful Career at a Think Tank

By Ashton Merck

Think tanks, also known as research institutes, advocacy organizations, and policy centers, are often described as “universities without students.” These organizations run the gamut of political orientations, thematic focus, size, and scope, but most share a common emphasis on research and writing—two core features of doctoral programs in history. Thus, working at a think tank seems like a perfect example of the kind of career outside academia that forward-thinking institutions and professional associations, including the AHA, are increasingly encouraging history PhDs to pursue. Those who attended the panel on “Thinking like a Historian at a Think Tank” at the 2018 AHA annual meeting, however, received far more than a pitch to work for think tanks. Instead, panelists offered refreshingly pragmatic advice for students who want to leverage a PhD in history into a fulfilling career. 

Former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a policy conference at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that employs historians. Wikimedia Commons

Former Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a policy conference at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that employs historians. Wikimedia Commons

The panel was composed of three history PhDs from three very different think tanks: Stephanie Young, from the RAND Corporation; Philip Wolgin, from the Center for American Progress (CAP); and Ted Bromund, from the Heritage Foundation. Brian Balogh, history professor at the University of Virginia, moderated the conversation.

Audience members soon learned that “working at a think tank” meant something slightly different for each panelist. Aside from differences in their political leanings, each think tank has its own institutional culture, which shapes the type of work analysts do on a day-to-day basis. Young explained how RAND analysts join interdisciplinary teams to solve a specific problem for clients. By contrast, Bromund described his activities at the Heritage Foundation as relatively self-directed, with the freedom to choose his own projects and develop his own timeline. Wolgin characterized the Center for American Progress as an “action tank,” in which analysts translate their research into policy advocacy in a short amount of time.

The panelists also reminded the audience of an important distinction between research jobs at think tanks and research in an academic setting: at the “university without students,” there is no tenure. Think tank positions—especially those that are purely research-oriented—remain highly contingent on the availability of funding. In fact, think tank researchers spend part of their time fundraising their salaries, whether through traditional grant writing or by developing and maintaining relationships with donors and foundations.

The panelists observed how historians have some key advantages over social scientists, particularly in their capacity to synthesize large amounts of information and craft narratives. The panelists were, however, forthcoming about the extent to which their graduate work did not prepare them for the work they do now. Not surprisingly, the formalism of academic writing proved of little use when creating a PowerPoint for officials at the Department of Defense. Nor did familiarity with the nuances of historiography provide much guidance in crafting one-page memos to congressional staffers. The panelists concluded that their overall graduate experience could have better prepared them with a few modest adjustments. Young noted that she could have benefited from more experience with collaborative research before coming to RAND; Wolgin had to familiarize himself with other methodological and disciplinary approaches; and Bromund had to shed his graduate-school habits of writing in short, highly productive bursts in order to establish a regular writing routine.

In describing these absences in their own doctoral education, the panelists inadvertently listed most of the AHA’s “Five Skills” for career diversity, which include communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, and intellectual self-confidence. I was also struck by Young’s choice to do an internship in graduate school, prefiguring more recent initiatives to expand internship opportunities for humanists (including the Versatile Humanists program at my institution, Duke University). The experiences the panelists wished they’d had were strikingly well aligned with the kinds of opportunities that are increasingly available to graduate students today. All of this suggests that institutions and professional organizations are generally moving in the right direction to broaden the career prospects of current graduate students.

When asked how they might adapt or modify doctoral education to prepare students for a fuller range of opportunities, the panelists shifted their focus squarely onto the culture of academia. They expressed frustration with the stigma that is still attached to jobs that aren’t located on or adjacent to the tenure track. For them, building relationships, networking, and doing other projects “on the side,” whether in the form of internships, service on nonprofit boards, or public writing, had made the difference in how they arrived at their current position. But while in graduate school, they had to constantly fight back against prevailing sentiments that anything not related to the dissertation was a waste of time.

I chose to attend this panel because I happen to be interested in working at a think tank: that sort of work would be a good fit for my research interests and expertise. Yet I found that a great deal of the panelists’ advice was applicable to almost anyone contemplating their next career move with a PhD in history—including those on the academic job market: Begin by thinking broadly about your work and your intellectual interests; learn to address different kinds of audiences in your writing; build relationships with the communities or organizations that matter to you. Above all, the panelists urged graduate students to aim high. “You should think about compensation. You should care about getting to live in a place where you want to live,” Wolgin implored.

Perhaps like many others in the audience, I went into this panel ready to take down a list of the skills or experiences that might make me more “eligible,” “competitive,” or “prepared” for a job in a think tank. But I quickly discovered that I had it all backward. The panelists didn’t get their jobs because they had the right skills and the perfect resume, or because the perfect job advertisement materialized the afternoon they defended. Instead, they found successful and rewarding careers because they had spent years building networks and participating in communities that ultimately created the right opportunity.

Ashton Merck is a PhD candidate in history at Duke University and tweets @awmerck.

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