What are the differences between a career in the world of policy and a career in the world of academia for early career researchers?
This is the question addressed by Rachel Glennerster, executive director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a post on her Running Randomized Evaluations blog.
“As someone who worked as a policy economist for many years (at the UK Treasury and the International Monetary Fund) before going into research, I am often asked for advice from those trying to decide,” she writes. Summarising this advice online in her blog is “particularly important”, she says, “because many PhD candidates only get input from academic advisors – most of whom have no firsthand experience of working in policy”. That, however, does not always stop them from passing judgement on policy work, she points out.
In the blog, Dr Glennerster has drawn up a list of pros and cons for each career choice. Do you like long deadlines, have self-motivation and enjoy being novel? Then academia could be for you. Prefer short deadlines, teamwork and “being right”? Perhaps you should consider working in policy.
“Policy and academic work are equally intellectually challenging, but in very different ways,” she continues, “and which one is suited to you will depend a lot on your personality.”
One example is that academia “can be a pretty lonely profession”, with papers written “over many years with only intermittent feedback from colleagues”. Dr Glennerster adds: “However, you have a lot of autonomy in terms of what you work on and how you do your work.”
In policy, on the other hand, deadlines are “much shorter”. “I once had to estimate, in twelve hours, the impact of the war in Kosovo lasting another three months on its neighbor’s balance of payments,” she recalls. “In policy you also have a boss, which can be the best or worst thing about your job, depending on the boss.”
The blog draws up a series of contrasts between the two worlds. “Academia rewards findings that are different and unexpected”, for example, whereas in policy “it is more important to be right than novel”. In academia, people “argue a lot about the direction of an effect but very little about the magnitude”, while in policy “it’s the reverse”.
Ultimately, early career researchers need to match their career choice to their personality, Dr Glennerster says. There will still, however, be problems that may prove difficult to overcome. “I was 21 and had been at the UK Treasury a matter of weeks when a small group of us were told, ‘Your job is to slip some common sense past the prime minister without her noticing’,” she recalls. “Now that’s a challenge.”
In a comment on the blog, reader Angela Ambroz says she hopes that “critically examining the incentive structures of academics and policymakers” will lead to greater impact for those working in both areas, while on Twitter, Judith Freedman (@JudithFreedman), professor of taxation law and a fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, points out that she has “not noticed policy makers being more right than academics”.
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