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.
Kevin R. Kosar is senior fellow and governance project director with the R Street Institute. He co-directs the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group and edits LegBranch.com. His work has appeared in scholarly and professional journals, such as Presidential Studies Quarterly, Public Administration Review and National Affairs; and in popular media, including the Washington Post, New York Times and The Weekly Standard. Prior to joining R Street, Kosar was a research manager and analyst at the Congressional Research Service, an agency within the Library of Congress. There, he advised members of Congress and committees on a range of legislative issues. Kosar earned a bachelor of arts from Ohio State University, and master’s and doctoral degrees in politics from New York University.
What did you study at graduate school? Can you say a bit about your research?
Kosar: Political philosophy was my major, and American politics and international relations were my minors. On the cusp of dissertating about the evolution of American conservatism, I made a shift. Instead of writing about theory itself, I used theory as a frame for assessing the debates over federal education policy in America. The switch set me back a bit, as there was so much education policy and history to read, but it was a move that happened to set me up for my first job.
What was your first post-PhD job? What did you do in this position?
Kosar: I applied and got into the Presidential Management Fellows program my last semester at New York University. The PMF is a fast-track was to get hired by federal agencies. The Congressional Research Service, a unit in the Library of Congress, took me on. What a blessing that was. CRS is a corps of civil servants who do nonpartisan research and training for congressional staff and legislators. At CRS, I learned first-hand how Congress and government operate. Funny enough, accepting the CRS analyst position meant I had to again switch my field of study—I trained up on public administration and various subjects relating to congressional oversight of the executive branch.
What do you do now and what is a typical day like?
Kosar: After 11 years at CRS, I hopped to the R Street Institute, a private sector think-tank in Washington, DC. It offered me the opportunity to intellectually spread my wings a bit more, and to see Congress and government from another angle. On the surface, my work is similar to what I did at CRS: I write about governance topics and frequently meet with congressional staff to share what I know and to bat about ideas for reform. But, the current position differs in that I have much more control over my research agenda. At CRS, one spends much of one’s day responding to Congress’ requests for information—which can come quite frequently. One year I answered more than 660 requests. At the R Street Institute, I can spend much more of my time deciding what I think is important to research and write about, and to try new things. For example, this past year was I founded LegBranch.com and the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group with a friend at New America, another think-tank. Both the website and the group examine how Congress operates and look for reforms that will, as we say, “Make Congress Great Again.” I also should add that working at a think-tank these days means becoming a media figure. The interview requests and the offers to go on television come—which can make for interesting experiences. Until this past spring when CNN called me in to talk about the congressional budget process, I had never had make-up applied.
Why and when did you choose to pursue a career outside the academy?
Kosar: In my last year of graduate school, I knew I did not want to be one of those university political scientists who teach about politics and government without having ever worked in politics or government. That was why I entered the PMF program. I figured I would do a couple years in DC then head back to academia better experienced to teach. Ha, I made that move in 2003. I also confess I was concerned that my odds for getting a university job in a location I desired to live and grow old in also gave me grounds to look outside academia.
How has your doctoral training helped you in your career?
Kosar: Certainly, the credential gives one cache as a highly educated person—which is important, because DC runs on brainpower. As for the doctoral training, as a general proposition: it gives one a mental bank of history and analytical frameworks, along with a bent of mind that differentiates one from the average politico or government employee. The training, then, makes one a bit different from the usual candidates hunting for jobs in Washington, DC. In DC, it is very easy to get sucked into the common frames and easy interpretations that blare from the myriad media and political operative machinery. Having training in political science allows one to rise above that stuff, and to take a different view of the various political phenomena occurring. And, my dissertation research also carried value: it obliged me to spend a ton of time reading education legislation, congressional hearings, and other documents that are used by Congress, and learning about how the national legislature works.
Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career outside the academy?
Kosar: Sure! I laid out some strategies in this short essay I wrote for PS journal this past year: “Preparing for Unforeseen Opportunities Outside Academia.” In short, develop strong relationships with your advisers, and have frank conversations about employment opportunities outside academia, and do arrange time to gain the non-collegiate skills and experience you’ll need. I, for example, helped myself by working as an editorial assistant at a newspaper, which taught me to write crisply and quickly.
Why have you continued to be a member of APSA?
Kosar: Well, I enjoy the conferences. Intensely. I also like to keep connected to the thoughtful work that is being done by political scientists on Congress. One of the things we are doing with LegBranch.com is encouraging academics to draw upon their expertise to write short pieces about our national legislature, which will be read by people on Capitol Hill. Staying in APSA helps me build the intellectual bridge between academia and Congress.