K. Sabeel Rahman (PhD, Government) explains why alt-ac PhDs have the perfect set of skills to manage cities in the 21st century.
Cities have been at the forefront of many public policy debates today. In an era of gridlock in Washington, cities have emerged as a preferred space for policy innovation and experimentation, the focal point for everyone from philanthropies—from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foundation to traditional donors like Ford and Open Society—to policymakers alike. Cities are on the front-lines of governance, apparently more pragmatic and tied to direct local impact.
Public service is often raised as an important professional pathway for Ph.Ds. The same holds true at the city level. The scale of the policy agenda facing most cities—particularly in this era of economic inequality, technological change, and challenges of social inclusion, means that most city administrations can use an influx of talented thinkers and problem-solvers. At the same time, these challenges of urban policy offer exciting opportunities for Ph.D graduates.
The standard list of “transferrable” skills for Ph.D graduates applies just as well in the urban policy context: writing and research skills; specific subject matter expertise; the ability to manage long-term research projects, to name a few. But in a policymaking context, Ph.Ds can leverage a number of other skills as well.
First, Ph.Ds can add tremendous value by navigating fields of knowledge quickly to generate policy analysis and help make recommendations. In some ways Ph.D graduates’ ability to navigate the world of academic research and to evaluate empirical claims is more valuable even than their specific subject matter expertise. One’s expertise may or may not always be directly on point for the issues that may come up in a policymaking context. But often, urban policymaking turns on the ability to very quickly scan a new policy domain, identify legitimate and well-grounded claims, locate points of debate, and make a judgment call about what the current state of knowledge on the issue might be. Ph.Ds will have an intuitive ability to quickly scan, distill, and translate fields of knowledge quickly.
Second, Ph.Ds can help translate across silos and facilitate discussions. Most Ph.D graduates come with significant teaching experience. This in turn means that Ph.D graduates are well-suited to translate knowledge and ideas, a “soft” skill that can make a big difference when working with teams, and engaging with other colleagues across organizational divisions.
Finally, the modern city needs more than policy experts. It also increasingly needs people who can think strategically, and collaboratively. Cities face tremendous public policy challenges, often under conditions of scarce financial, human, and other resources at their disposal. They increasingly need staffers who can think creatively and strategically about how to leverage the city’s policy tools—whether “hard” tools like taxes and regulations, or “softer” ones like public relations or coalition-building—to maximum effect. They also need people who can cast a wide net outside of conventional urban policy spaces to draw in ideas and inspiration from other fields creatively. While some Ph.Ds may be more comfortable as focused subject-matter experts, others will be much more comfortable in these more dynamic settings.