Brookings Fellow Molly Reynolds Shares Thoughts on Working Beyond the Academy

Brookings Fellow Molly Reynolds Shares Thoughts on Working Beyond the Academy

Molly Reynolds is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. She studies Congress, with an emphasis on how congressional rules and procedure affect domestic policy outcomes, and is the author of Exceptions to the Rule: The Politics of Filibuster Limitations in the U.S. Senate. Reynolds received her PhD in political science and public policy from the University of Michigan and her AB in government from Smith College. She has also served as an instructor at George Mason University.


What kind of work do you do at Brookings? What is a typical day like?

Reynolds: In general, about half of my time at Brookings is spent doing work that is pretty similar to the kind of work I would be doing if I was in a tenure-track job somewhere. In the first year and half or so, one of the things I did was turn my dissertation into a book. I still work on article-sized projects. The biggest difference in terms of those kinds of research projects and what I would be doing in a tenure-track job is the audience is different. When I turned the dissertation into a book, for example, it had a couple of formal models that are now totally relegated to an appendix. There’s very little math in the book itself. Because it was published by Brookings Press, it’s written for more of a policy-relevant audience, but it’s still meant to be really interesting to political scientists. The other research projects I do, I tend to approach them and say: “What about this could be interesting for political scientists, how can I answer political science-type questions, and also what’s interesting to a policy audience.”

The other half of my job looks really different than if I was in a tenure-track job and that’s the public facing part of the job. I blog. I talk to reporters. I do public events. I do private events. Because my work is on Congress—congressional rules and procedure, I engage with folks on the Hill who are thinking about these issues, thinking about how to make Congress work better. I participate in fundraising as part of my job. So that half of the job looks really different. But much of the job is really similar to what I would be doing on the tenure-track.

In terms of what a typical day looks like, it really varies. So right now we are two weeks out from the midterms, so much more of my time is being spent doing the public-facing type work. I talk to reporters, getting ready for what’s going to be a hectic period right after the election when we’ll do several public and private events around the election results. But there are other days where my typical day looks much like it did when I was in grad school and working on my dissertation—reading, collecting data, that sort of thing.

Did you get any training or support from Brookings on how to interact with the press?

Reynolds: Yes. When I started, Brookings put me through media training. We had a professional media trainer who helped me learn how to talk to print reporters, radio reporters, how to go on television. I also sought out some specific social media training from our communications staff. I came to Brookings not on Twitter and I realized pretty quickly that the job that I have and being a public-facing political scientist meant that getting on Twitter would be a good idea. But I didn’t know how to use it. So, I had some Twitter training. I also have ongoing support. We have communications folks who work both centrally across the institution and then we have communications folks in the Governance Studies Program, which is the program where I work. They’re really great in terms of helping me navigate all of those things.

APSA is trying to do this as well—help scholars know how to engage with the public.

Reynolds: You definitely don’t learn it in grad school. I think there’s a bit more focus in the discipline now on doing some writing for public audiences. The success of the Monkey Cage is a big part of this, as well as other political science blogs too. But beyond that…  That’s the thing. You get a sense of how to write for a broader audience and then you put your work out there, but what happens if someone reads it and wants to talk to you? It’s a different set of challenges.

What did you study in graduate school? Can you say a bit about your research?

Reynolds: My training is from the University of Michigan where I did a program that is joint between the political science department and the public policy school. I decided to do that program because I came to political science very interested in understanding how the world works and how the policymaking process works and what the actual consequences of that are. It was a really great opportunity to get trained really well in the discipline, but then also interact with folks who also had policy interests across other discipline—largely in economics and sociology.

I arrived in graduate school knowing that I was interested in studying Congress, so I’m a little atypical in that sense. I actually knew pretty early on that I wanted to write about the particular Senate procedures that my dissertation ended up being about. That’s in part because before I went to graduate school, I also worked at Brookings. I worked there for three years right out of undergrad in a research assistant role. One of the last projects that I worked on before I went to graduate school was a project about—this was the spring of 2009—the particular rules that the Democrats were considering using in the Senate to do healthcare reform. The person I worked for had read a number of accounts in the press that said, “This would be an unprecedented use of these rules.” He came to me and said “I don’t know if that’s true. I think they’ve been used consequentially at other times, can you find out for me?” So, I did all this research. I put together a whole lot of information about other times that the budget reconciliation rules have been used in the Senate. I then thought, “Oh, this is interesting. This is a way to get around the filibuster in the Senate. We think the filibuster dominates everything.” I got to graduate school and I discovered that there was very little political science on this thing. I’m definitely an outlier in the fact that I arrived with a sense of what I was interested in and I stuck with it. The project broadened as it became a dissertation. It turns out those procedures are one example of a broader class of rules in the Senate. That’s how I ended up studying what I did in graduate school.

Why and when did you choose to pursue a career beyond the academy?

Reynolds: The why is largely because I came into political science because I really wanted to be able to understand what was happening in the world better and explain it to people. I am a person who has a specific object of interest—I’m interested in Congress. I have lots of graduate school colleagues who went into political science and into to graduate school because they had a question they wanted to answer, but I’ve always thought of myself as someone who has a thing that I want to understand. Because in my view, it’s such an important thing in the world—Congress—and I want to help other people understand it as well. That’s always how I’ve thought about myself and my work. When I was preparing to go on the academic job market, I found out that Brookings was looking to do some hiring that year of early career scholars in American politics. They were open to hiring someone who did work on Congress. I decided to apply along with all of the other academic jobs. The timing worked out that I was offered the Brookings job and I had to decide whether or not I wanted to take it before I knew too much else about what was going to happen on the job market. But it felt for me like a really good fit and the kind of place where I would get to the kind of work that has always mattered the most to me.

Did you ever have thoughts, or do you still have thoughts, that maybe you would want to go back to a traditional academic route?

Reynolds: At this point, I’m really happy with the job that I have. Again, it’s a space where I get to do the kind of big projects that I want, but also where I get to spend half a day writing 1000 words about how the discharge petition rule works in the House, then put it out into the world and go work on something else. It’s a really great balance for me.

I like teaching, I’ve always liked teaching, but one of the nice things about being in DC is that there are lots of opportunities to pick up adjunct teaching. I taught twice out at George Mason in their MPA program, which has been really fun—a nice way to keep that part of my brain going, while also getting to do this job that I really like.

In what ways did your doctoral training help you in your career?

Reynolds: A couple things. One, the methodological training I got in grad school. I feel really well-trained in that and because I still do research, being able to use that is really invaluable. Also, in terms of thinking about how to define a research question and how to structure a research project in terms of figuring out what questions can I answer and what questions can’t I answer. Particularly because I work in a field, have always worked in a field, that is basically only observational data there are some counterfactuals we will never be able to observe—there’s only one Congress.

What surprised you most about your transition from academia to your first job beyond the academy?

Reynolds: I think because I have a job that has a public-facing component, that’s probably where most of the surprising things have come. They’ve been largely good surprises. So, one of the things that’s always been a real pleasure of the job is getting to talk to reporters, especially print reporters in the Capitol Hill press corps who really smart and hard-working and want to get things right. It’s a really fun part of my job to help them do that, particularly because so much of the work I do is on very arcane and complicated congressional rules and procedures. I knew that doing media was going to be part of the job when I took it, but it’s something I’ve particularly enjoyed more than I expected to.

What energizes you about your current career?

Reynolds: I am a political scientist who also really loves politics, which is not true for everyone. That’s something I learned pretty early on in graduate school. Because I love politics, I really feel energized by getting to do a job where I can take the tools that I have as a social scientist—the substantive knowledge that I gained in graduate school—and combine those with what’s happening in the political world to try and help people understand better why things look the way they do.

Can you offer any advice to aspiring political scientists?

Reynolds: First of all, I’m a pretty big proponent of the idea that you shouldn’t go to graduate school of any kind until you feel pretty confident that what you want to do after going to graduate school requires that you go to graduate school in the first place. In the case of thinking about a PhD in political science, as much as anything else, the opportunity cost is pretty high—it’s a long time, it’s a lot of work, they are years that are often in prime early-career years of your life. So, you go to graduate school and you watch your friends who are in their early or mid-twenties rise through the career ladder and there you are still in school. Given that, and given the state of the job market on the other side, I think thinking about whatever it is you want to do after you’ve been to graduate school, does it require having gone to graduate school?

Another thing to think about is figuring out what about the field gets you excited. Are you a person, like me, who’s really interested in a thing? Are you a person who’s really motivated by an unanswered question in the world? Then asking yourself, “Is getting a PhD the best way to be able to pursue that thing that gets you really excited?” Maybe the answer is yes and maybe the answer is no. I think there’s a lot of really interesting work being done by people with PhDs now that straddles the research-advocacy line, but I think there are also certain people who really want to have an advocacy career and maybe getting a PhD isn’t the best way to get you to that thing you’re really excited about.

The last thing I’d say is to also think about what it actually means to do the work and do you think that you as a person are going to enjoy what it takes on a daily basis to be a political scientist. A lot of it can be, especially in graduate school, very solitary—particularly writing the dissertation. That’s a thing that you can set up an infrastructure to get good feedback, but at the end of the day you have to do it yourself to get the degree. Asking yourself are you comfortable, are you able to work for long periods of time by yourself in a self-directed way? Do you like doing quantitative work, and if so, tailor your degree that way? Do you like talking to people, so maybe you would do interview work? So, thinking one step beyond just: “This is a thing that I’m interested in. This is a thing that I want to study.” Talk to people about what are the day-to-day behaviors that are involved in doing the work.

Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career beyond the academy? Are there any specific resources you would recommend?

Reynolds: I have two things to say on that. One, if your university has a career center, I would encourage students to see if those resources are available to you as a graduate student. I think sometimes people forget about them. Many universities, within the graduate school, can have career resources, so pursuing other things on campus beyond your department.

The other thing I would say, in graduate school we are conditioned to think about ourselves as subject-matter experts, which we are, but oftentimes when you are pursuing non-tenure-track options, you really want to think about what skills you have—that’s not just quantitative skills. If you are well-trained in quantitative methodology, there are lots of jobs out there for which that’s relevant. But, there are lots of other skills that you’ve gained as a graduate student that are relevant to non-tenure track options. Things like project management—getting your dissertation from A to Z is a pretty remarkable feat of project management, even if you don’t think about it that way. So, figuring out how to talk about those skills. Thinking about the skills you’ve gained teaching and how those things are relevant for corporate training work or anything like that. Thinking not just about what you know on your subject matter, because you’re definitely an expert on that, but also what are the skills you’ve gained while in graduate school that are going to be attractive to employers.

What advice would you give to graduate advisors and mentors about how they can support graduate students who might be interested in careers beyond the academy?

Reynolds: First of all, I would say to start talking about the topic early. Help students think about options outside of the academy, or even within the academy but outside of tenure-track careers. Oftentimes we think of non-tenure-track jobs as things that people do because they can’t get a tenure-track job. Sometimes that’s true, but a lot of times it’s not. A lot of times people pursue non-tenure-track options because that’s what they want to do. Helping students think about whether or not that’s the right path for them much earlier on in graduate school.

Second of all, I think it’s really important for mentors to know what they know about options off the tenure-track and what they don’t know and being honest with students. If a student comes to you with a question about something that you don’t know the answer to, because you’ve only ever had a tenure-track job, saying, “I don’t know. My experience is limited to this corner of the academy…” then “Let’s help find you someone who can help answer those questions that you have.”

What advice would you give to political science departments about how they can better support graduate students who might be interested in careers beyond the academy?

Reynolds: The other thing departments can do is keep track of what their graduates who go into non-tenure-track jobs are doing. I think it has important signaling value, because it says to current students, “We think these other pursuits are important enough to keep track of and tell you about.” It helps with the cultural change. It also means that if students who are considering non-tenure-track options want to start trying to do some informal networking, other people who went to your grad program is a really easy place to start—it’s low hanging fruit. That really helps students make those connections.