What comes after Plan B?
October 8, 2012 11:29 AM   Subscribe

I’m finishing a Ph.D. in political science. I don’t want an academic career, and I’m having trouble figuring out what to do next. Snowflake details inside.

After graduating from college with a B.A. in government, I spent two years working for a government contractor in the D.C. area. I got bored and wanted something more intellectually stimulating, so I went to grad school to study political philosophy. I knew this was very risky, so I had a backup plan to study quantitative research methods if philosophical study didn’t work out.

Sure enough, I ended up following plan B. To shore up my quantitative creds, I also picked up an M.S. in statistics last May. This summer, I finished writing my dissertation (on how to model social influence) and will graduate this December with a Ph.D. in government.

The problem is that I’m not sure what to do next in terms of a career. From reading various AskMeFi threads, there seems to be two major camps in defining a career: Do what you love, or do what you are good at. First, I don’t have what people call a “passion” or a calling. The closest thing I had to that was political philosophy, and I have decided that will be a hobby from now on. Second, I am not sure what I am good at anymore. My self-esteem crashed and my self-perception warped during grad school; time will heal, I’m sure, but I’m having trouble figuring out what to do right now for job hunting purposes. With these caveats, here’s a summary of who I am and what I can do:

1. I’m the competent person in the office. I can be counted on to get things done, especially if it means learning new software or using available tools in unconventional ways.

2. I’m an INTJ. I’m a woman, but I prefer working with men, especially IT guys, military men, and economists.

1. I like investigating things. I was an investigative reporter in college, and I really like talking to people, digging up numbers and facts, and exposing or reporting about an issue that most people don’t know about. This is also what I like about statistical analysis. But I don’t have a “cause” or a specific area of interest; in general, once I figure out the interesting part of a problem or issue, I lose interest and want to move on. This is not an insurmountable problem; I lost interest in my dissertation about six months into it, but I still managed to finish it.

2. I like working with “magic.” I like using software to get things done, whether it’s making graphs, building a database application, or getting estimates via statistical computing.

3. It is important to me that I become a contributing member of society. This means that I prefer producing something or improving something, rather than advocating a cause or doing research for its own sake.

1. I can do standard statistical analyses. I can run regressions and conduct various statistical tests. I can derive basic estimators. But I don’t have practical experience doing these things.

2. I can explain complex subjects, whether philosophical or statistical.

3. I can make anything look good in Excel and Access. I have a good intuition for what kinds of information to emphasize, and I have (or can easily acquire) the technical skills to do it.

4. I can learn almost anything but only if there is a goal to be accomplished. For example, I have taught myself how to use several types of statistical software because I had to train other people how to use them. I taught myself linear algebra because I needed to provide remedial math lessons to some students. I taught myself VBA and SQL because there were things I needed to do in Excel and Access for work. I am currently learning Python but it’s going slow because I don’t have a more specific goal than learning it.

I am in Houston, TX and don’t plan to move.

What sort of careers should I look into? What kinds of jobs can I realistically get without more education or training?

Help me, AskMeFites! You’re my only hope!
posted by jcatus to Work & Money (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You should look into policy analysis. Houston's a large enough city that there should be at least a few governmental agencies/nonprofits hiring. The exact requirements tend to vary somewhat, but advanced degrees in statistics and government would usually be considered pluses (the only exception I can think of is very heavily sci/tech-oriented organizations, who are sometimes more inclined to look for someone with a sci/tech background, but not always.)
posted by kagredon at 11:38 AM on October 8, 2012

First of all, what do you mean by "academic career"? If you just mean that you don't want to work in the post-secondary academy, that might leave open a promising career in primary and secondary education. There are a ton of private schools around that would die to get someone with your training in the classroom. Of course, the pay is kind of bad, even for Ph.D.s, but it's almost certainly an option.

Second, you've got a Ph.D. in government. Why not work for the government? Like the educational field, there are a ton of state and federal agencies that are looking for people with your type of skills. Unfortunately, Texas does not appear to be immune to the nation's general economic malaise, so hiring may not really be a thing right now, but there's still work out there that needs to be done. It's worth looking into.

Third, as has been mentioned, there are a lot of non-profits and NGOs that do analysis type work who would appreciate someone with your background. In Texas, I see that going mostly in the direction of either state-level analysis or work for the petroleum industry. Most of the national-type policy analysis happens in and around DC and New York, not in Texas, but you've ruled out moving, so getting into the bigger pond is likely to be difficult.
posted by valkyryn at 11:51 AM on October 8, 2012

Have you looked at the government's job site, usajobs.gov? Put in your location and look at the jobs. Also look at the HR websites for your city, county, state govt. and those of local universities.
posted by mareli at 11:52 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some ideas:

FBI investigator
CIA analyst
Homeland Security
Forensic investigator
Insurance fraud investigator
Auditor (financial, security, or other)
Polling company
posted by Dansaman at 11:52 AM on October 8, 2012

Data journalism? Civic startups? Conducting research for a university or nonprofit.. or even a consulting firm? Lots of people LOVE quantitative/computer skills!
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 12:06 PM on October 8, 2012

Congratulations! You, madam, are now a highly numerate analyst with the degrees to prove it.

In addition to the policy stuff above, I'd suggest market research firms -- one of my friends from grad school is now a senior VP for a big market research firm.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:09 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

For philosophical reasons, I'd rather not work for the government. I believe the best thing I can do for my country is to make (or help someone make) a lot of money in the private sector.

@kagredon @valkryrbb - I don't have a "cause" or anything like that so I'm not sure working at a non-profit would be a good fit for me. Furthermore, I don't think I'd fit in with a lot of non-profit organizations since I'm more of a conservative/libertarian.
posted by jcatus at 12:11 PM on October 8, 2012

Aren't these all of the things that an actuarial would do?
posted by halfbuckaroo at 12:41 PM on October 8, 2012

Excluding government and non-profits (though I'm a bit confused by your second point, because certainly there are many non-partisan and conservative NPOs/NGOs--in spite of popular usage, it's not a synonym for "cause") makes things somewhat trickier, but Houston also has a fair amount of private petrochemical and aerospace/weapons companies, which also hire people who can do some policy/economic analysis.
posted by kagredon at 12:50 PM on October 8, 2012

I don't have a "cause" or anything like that so I'm not sure working at a non-profit would be a good fit for me.

You might be surprised. A lot of non-profits have incredibly broad missions and NGOs are not synonymous with "organizations maniacally dedicated to a single goal". Also, there are plenty of conservative/libertarian non-profits and NGOs out there, and those are more likely to be based in Texas than more liberal ones.

I think you really ought to think about trying to get in with the petrochemical companies. The industry is highly regulated, both on the state and federal level, and there will always be a need for high-level analysis at such firms.
posted by valkyryn at 1:06 PM on October 8, 2012

If you're good with numbers you might want to check out an actuarial position. Husbunny is an actuary and he loves it.

You might also look for statistical work. Data Mining Analyst. Energy and Pricing Analyst. In Houston you can work with numbers for the commodities market. Or Texaco, Shell, etc.

MD Anderson is looking for a Statistical Analyst.

Check out these listings for people with your qualifications on Simply Hired.

You don't have to have a passion for what you do. Sometimes its just fun to sit in a cube and crunch numbers all day. I like it. I go home at quitting time too.

Don't discount the government. The benefits are fantastic, and you can set yourself up for a very comfortable life working for the goverment.

I've been in the private sector my whole life. Want to talk about being yanked around?

Don't get all wound around the axle about who you work for. Work for yourself. Go to whatever job is willing to pay you most at any given time. Do only what's in your best interest, without consideration for a corporation. I'm 50, I've learned this the hard way.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:50 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have a "cause" or anything like that so I'm not sure working at a non-profit would be a good fit for me. Furthermore, I don't think I'd fit in with a lot of non-profit organizations since I'm more of a conservative/libertarian.

Conservative/libertarian/right-wing think tanks are non-profits and employ people with your skillset.

But something in actuarial science/finance/Big Data is probably what you're looking for.

I am in Houston, TX and don’t plan to move.

None of us plan to move, but we do it because the right opportunity comes up.
posted by deanc at 1:55 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sometimes its just fun to sit in a cube and crunch numbers all day. I like it. I go home at quitting time too.

@Ruthless Bunny - Yes, this is what I am looking for! Do you mind telling me what you do for a living?

@kagredon @valkyryn - I like the idea of doing high level analysis for a petrochemical company, but after talking with a bunch of people in the energy industry, it's pretty difficult for anyone to get into the energy industry without having prior energy experience, which I don't have. Also, despite being a government major, I don't have any actual experience in policy analysis.

@Dansaman - I really like the idea of being a fraud investigator so I'm researching that kind of job now.

@deanc - I like the idea of going into Big Data. I don't have any experience in working with massive datasets; the work I've been doing is based on survey data with ~1500 observations. Is this a serious handicap?

Also, I've thought about becoming an actuary but I'm so burned out from grad school and the dissertation that I'm not sure I can handle studying for and taking all the necessary exams . . .

Lots of good ideas here - get 'em coming! I really appreciate the responses so far!
posted by jcatus at 2:34 PM on October 8, 2012

None of us plan to move, but we do it because the right opportunity comes up.

I should mention that Mr. jcatus has a three-year commitment to a job in Houston. Sorry for the misunderstanding.
posted by jcatus at 2:36 PM on October 8, 2012

I should note that most of the libertarians I know work for non-profits or government contractors (even the ones not in DC). They clearly don't see it as a moral imposition, so you're fairly likely to find plenty of "your people" in these positions, if that's whom you choose to work for.

despite being a government major, I don't have any actual experience in policy analysis.

Employers don't know that! And in any case, the policy analysts don't have any actual experience in policy analysis, either!

Regarding Big Data, the thing is that few people have experience with Big Data because the field is relatively new, and the need is much larger than the supply of people who've worked with such large data sets, so employers are content people with strong quantitative skills and assume they can figure out the specifics.
posted by deanc at 2:53 PM on October 8, 2012

If you want more experience working with big data, you can get it without having to do it for a job -- OpenStreetMap, Open Knowledge Foundation, Wikimedia, and other open data sources are available, and Hadoop and other bigdata tools are open source.
posted by brainwane at 3:25 PM on October 8, 2012

You also might look at the Texas Education Agency's website, even though they're in Austin. There's plenty of data to be crunched there. I've seen analyst jobs posted there in the past.
posted by tamitang at 3:45 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm in a similar boat - I think that the PhD open doors to much more autonomous positions (but closes a hell of a lot more opportunities), but your MSc/MA work (statistics) might be the real meat of your skillset. I really wish I quit academe after the MSc and never even touched this stupid PhD garbage.

Do you code at all? Perhaps in C++? Coding and statistics looks really in demand right now, at least in bioscience in my neck of the woods, but in general too.

I have a friend with a PhD in physics and a couple of post docs; he's with Deloitte now as a financial analyst. Great thing about the job is that they cross-assign personnel so employees pick up additional skills - sounds like a decent grooming program for both lateral and upwards promotion.

Is there even such a thing equivalent to a "post doc" kind of job in PoliSci? Hopefully, there isn't, but maybe its just called something else (advanced internship?).

As an aside - you talk about being a wiz at Excel and Access. In some fields, graphs (obviously) made in Excel is the equivalent of relying on Comic Sans or Papyrus as the body font for an important official report. However, given the context - Government - it's probably not an issue. Might be within certain industries. The standards for competency may very well differ between government and non-governmental jobs as well as how "public facing" they are, for example, in high-interest/stakes/couture non-profit work.
posted by porpoise at 6:59 PM on October 8, 2012

Do you code at all? Perhaps in C++? Coding and statistics looks really in demand right now, at least in bioscience in my neck of the woods, but in general too.

I'm learning Python, but I can code in [R], SPSS, and Stata. I don't have any formal training, but I have basic programming knowledge.
posted by jcatus at 7:31 PM on October 8, 2012

I'm an analyst in Sales Operations. I extract data from different systems into Excel, then I do some magic with VLOOKUP and Pivot Tables, then I put it together into different Excel spreadsheets.

For some reason there's this sweet spot between, can use a spreadsheet and Excel VBA and I'm in it.

I'll be learning Access and then I'll do that. I'm also a whiz at Salesforce.com, and that factors into it.

Most of what I've learned has been on the job, no formal training for this work specifically, mostly just a willingness to dive in and try.

I had never even used Salesforce.com, but when I interviewed for that job I just said, "they're all pretty much alike, I'm sure I can learn it". How right I was.

Apply for the jobs I linked to on Simply Hired, check out Linked In for similar jobs (I got my job from LinkedIn.)

As for the actuary thing, you only do one exam at a time, and usually one per year or every other year. Yes the study is extensive, but all jobs give you 10 hours per week for it.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:26 AM on October 9, 2012

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