Career Path Profile: Matt Hirschland

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.

Matt Hirschland is a founder and principle at H2A Partners. He was formerly the Global Communications Leader for McKinsey & Company’s Strategy Practice and the AD for Operations of McKinsey’s $300 million Knowledge (R&D) portfolio. He led all communications for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a member of its senior management team overseeing the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He is a strategic communications professional with more than 15 years of experience specializing in public relations, branding, experiential learning and thought-leadership marketing—all in support of client acquisition strategies. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

What did you study graduate school? Can you say a bit about your research?
My focus in graduate school was international relations and political economy. My research explored the rise and power of corporate social responsibility, its meaning and impact on state and non-state actors alike. I was, and still am, interested in the lines between where private and public meet, blur and the implications and efficacy of having corporations as enforcers of international norms and law.

What was your first post-PhD job? What did you do in this position?
I accepted a position in San Francisco while finishing my dissertation at Business for Social Responsibility or, as it is now called, BSR. It is a not-for-profit consultancy with offices around the world.  BSR’s focus as a membership organization and advisory service provider is working with members (Global 1000 companies) on their human rights and environmental practices. Based on my research, I wanted to work with them very badly and accepted a role leading their communications and research functions. It was a tremendous place providing direct access to global business, NGO and government leaders working on important issues such as child labor practices, environment regimes and other issues at the heart of corporate social responsibility.

What do you do now and what is a typical day like?
I left BSR for a position with McKinsey & Company where I spent 5 years in roles that required a move to Europe. There I continued light-touch work in corporate social responsibility, but transitioned into more traditional strategic communications and marketing roles.  Shortly after returning to the U.S., and with two colleagues, I founded my own firm, H2A Partners. Today at H2A we serve large, global companies and other organizations on a range of issues focused mainly in three areas 1) strategic communication planning, and execution, 2) customer engagement and acquisition strategies, 3) experiential design for innovation and change management. A typical day, when not visiting our clients, is filled with a lot of conference calls and writing. We do a lot of listening which means capturing, distilling, and translating the essence of what our clients need into actionable plans for their success.

Why and when did you choose to pursue a career outside the academy?
I have always been enamored with politics and knew that an advanced degree in the subject was important to me. It was a means to access the rigor of a powerful toolkit for better thinking. While I came into grad school from business, I kept an open mind to pursuing a university position. During my study, it became clear that I was very focused on working in the world in ways that allowed me to have tremendous flexibility, while exercising the entrepreneurial side of my personality. One can certainly do those things in the academy but for me the size and freedom of the private sector seemed to offer more opportunities for the kind of impact I sought.

How has your doctoral training helped you in your career?
Some of the best things I have been a part of professionally are products of strong, fact-based analysis that are well-communicated. My training at the University of Colorado, Boulder with great mentors taught me valuable lessons in both. At base, that means how to adjudicate between that which is real vs. perceived and how to effectively and accessibly share that information with precision and care.

Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career outside the academy?
Some know exactly the path they are pursuing. Many don’t know for some time. I didn’t. We live in a world in need of smart, well-trained, and well-rounded minds. Done well and not pursued too narrowly, the skills you are acquiring over the course of political science graduate study provide this. My advice would be to avail yourself of opportunities across sectors (public, private, social) and become more of what Joseph Nye calls “tri-sector athletes.” This means purposely spending time as part of your studies (and after) serving in different environments, allowing you to actually see where and how your skills apply in unexpected and refreshing ways.