Career Path Profile: Derek Barker

Political scientists pursue wide-ranging and diverse career paths. This interview series, developed by the APSA Professional Development Program, highlights the many different ways political scientists carry their skills and expertise into the workforce. For more information, including resources on career options outside of academia, visit APSA’s career page.

Derek W. M. Barker is a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. With a background in political theory, he works primarily on research concerning the democratic role of higher education institutions; philanthropy and non-profit organizations; journalism; and the professions. Barker is the co-editor (with David W. Brown) of Kettering’s Higher Education Exchange and also works closely with the foundation’s team of resident researchers. Barker holds a PhD in political science from Rutgers University.

Barker’s contributions to Kettering research include “The Colonization of Civil Society” in the Kettering Review and the coauthored working paper Research on Civic Capacity. Barker has also co-edited several Kettering publications, including Democratizing Deliberation: A Political Theory Anthology, A Different Kind of Politics: Readings on the Role of Higher Education in Democracy and Connections.

What did you study graduate school? Can you say a bit about your research?
I studied political theory. My dissertation was on the intersection between Greek tragedy and participatory and deliberative democracy. I was interested in how the Greek tragic sensibility helped incorporate attention to moral complexity into their civic culture, something which seems to be lacking in the modern emphasis on power and institutional design. Currently, I am working on the intersection between deliberative democracy and virtue ethics.

What was your first post-PhD job? What did you do in this position?
My first job was a visiting position at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA. I taught mostly political theory and thoroughly enjoyed my colleagues and students while working on the manuscript for my first book.

What do you do now and what is a typical day like?
I now work for a non-profit research organization called the Kettering Foundation, located in Dayton, OH. In a nutshell, I describe my job as picking people from around the world to come to Dayton and have impactful and critical conversations about the meaning of democracy. We work with thought leaders and civic innovators in a variety of walks of life that are attempting to better engage our citizenry and improve our civic culture. We are especially concerned with the issue of political polarization, and work with the National Issues Forums Institute, which convenes forums around the country for citizens to deliberate on controversial issues. We provide background research for these forums, and do a lot of convening to plan the initiatives and interpret the results.

On the best days, I get to meet all kinds of civic engagement practitioners and leaders from around the globe, from school teachers and community organizers, and to college presidents to government officials. I also help to design collaborative experiments with some of these partners that are most open to experimenting with Kettering’s insights. Of course, there is a lot of networking and logistical work that goes into it, but that is the core of the work.

I still pursue scholarly writing, but not as a core responsibility of my job, unfortunately.

Why and when did you choose to pursue a career outside the academy?
I never intended to pursue a non-academic career. I began working with Kettering as a PhD student while at Rutgers University. Our faculty was unusually active in building connections with the policy and non-profit worlds, and had history of referring grad students to Kettering. I had never heard of Kettering, but an opportunity to do a graduate assistantship dropped into my lap, and I helped Kettering do some background research for a couple of projects while finishing my dissertation. Following grad school, Kettering invited me to serve as a scholar-in-residence, and that later morphed into my current role on the foundation staff. Of course, this all happened in the midst of the recession, when the job market for political theorists in academia had severely contracted.

How has your doctoral training helped you in your career?
I view my job as essentially a kind of applied political theory. I refer to the concepts and theorists I studied all the time in my work. At the same time, using political theory in my daily work forces me to connect my theoretical interests to the real world. Political theory is no esoteric endeavor in my line of work. Intellectually, Kettering has been a perfect fit for my interests.

I also use many of the same skills I had developed as a teacher in the convening work that Kettering does. In a sense, I am teaching political theory, we just don’t call it that. I am trying to introduce political theory concepts such as deliberative democracy and social capital to stakeholders who might be able to experiment with our ideas. These may be people who are interested in democracy at a general level, but have not given much thought to the topic. The funny thing is that my perspective as a political theorist is often taken more seriously by non-theorists outside of academia than I am by my theorist colleagues. They are really hungry for my perspective because what I have to say is new and fresh for them in a way that is not true for my fellow political theorists.

Incidentally, I also think my non-academic career has also helped my scholarship. I still identify as a political theorist and publish occasionally, but my research now is much more geared toward big questions of democratic theory rather than interpretations of particular texts. I also have a wider base of experience that informs my work.

Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career outside the academy?
I would not recommend doing what I did! I was very lucky that a non-academic career path just happened. These days, I would recommend a much more proactive approach. Rather than addressing your research to your dissertation committee, do research that relates to issues in the real world. Most non-academic employers will not care about your scholarly credentials. They are more interested in people who share their mission than the name of their dissertation advisor or lines on their CV.

Keep in mind that senior faculty are career academics. They were trained and professionalized in a different system, in a different economic context. Your PhD mentor may sincerely have your best interest at heart, but not necessarily the skills or experience to connect students to jobs outside of academia. While I wish that PhD programs would do more to own up to this problem, it is the students who are going to have to take responsibility for their own careers.

Do not approach non-academic jobs as a backup plan. You are most likely over-qualified based on your academic credentials, but under-qualified based on your experience and other skills. Employers are not going to question your intellectual skills, but you are going to have to convince them that you buy into what they are doing and want to work for them.

Finally, just be open to new pathways and experiences. Academia isn’t everything, and you may end up in a career that is more satisfying than the path you had originally envisioned.