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.
Irene S. Wu is author of Forging Trust Communities How Technology Changes Politics (Johns Hopkins University, 2015), that featuring case studies of how both activists and governments have exploited the latest communications innovations toward their own political goals. Examples are from Brazil, China, Europe, and beyond, starting with the telegraph through social media. Her first book, From Iron Fist to Invisible Hand: the Uneven Path of Telecommunications Reform in China, was published by Stanford University Press.
Dr. Wu is also a senior analyst in the International Bureau of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and teaches at Georgetown University, where she was the first Yahoo! Fellow in Residence. Dr. Wu received her B.A. from Harvard University and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
What did you study in graduate school? Can you talk a bit about your research? What was your first post-PhD job and what did you do in this position?
Wu: After getting my PhD, I have never had to look for a job, because I had one before I started. After finishing my masters’ degree at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), I spent a year working as a staffer on Capitol Hill and some time at an international industry association. A friend of one of our interns told me the Federal Communications Commission was hiring. This was in the 1990’s when the Internet was booming and information technology and telecom were hot sectors. As the regulator, the FCC was staffing up to handle a range of challenges, including international outreach. I was hired to cover Asia just as the World Trade Organization’s basic telecommunications agreement was finalized. I spent most of my time talking to communications regulators throughout the Asia about the WTO, different options for regulating communications markets, and the implications of the Internet for market and social development.
It is good to be able to make a contribution to real world. It justifies political science’s usefulness to society.”
Once at the FCC, I enrolled in the PhD program at Johns Hopkins SAIS. My dissertation examined economic policymaking in China’s telecom sector starting from the 1980’s. In particular, I was curious how the Chinese government’s policy making reacted to new technology such as Voice over Internet Protocol. That research was published in 2009 by Stanford University, From Iron Fist to Invisible Hand: the Uneven Path of Telecom Policy Reform in China.
What do you do now and what is a typical day like?
Wu: I am now a Senior Analyst in the FCC’s International Bureau. The division I am in regulates entry of foreign firms into the US communications sector. Also, we are responsible for data collections on international services. For example, we have annual data collections from all our licensees that include the number of minutes, revenue, and capacity between the US and all other countries. This includes all technologies, whether terrestrial, satellite or submarine.
In government analytical work, the data collections tend to be very comprehensive on a topic—the whole country, the whole state, for every person, company, or unit. In my agency, if we ask companies to submit data—all of these companies in the country submit data, not just a sample of them. A major part of the work is thinking about why we need to know something, determining what data meets that need, and then going through a lengthy process to explain this to the public and seek their cooperation. Once in place, these kinds of data collections can easily continue for decades. Afterward, cleaning and analyzing the data is another task, but except for the scale, this is very similar to university work.
If you decide to stay in the academy, then you will have a better grasp of its special privileges, such as the opportunity to say and publish as you please without fear of losing your job, and make good use of your unique position.”
Why did you choose to pursue a career outside the academy?
Wu: The impact of government work can sometimes be immediate and far-reaching. I remember early in my career working with colleagues to break the monopolies that telecom companies had on certain routes for international calls. The prices went down dramatically within a year or two. Consequently, instead of families calling relatives abroad with a handset in one hand and ticking timer in the other, they can talk often and at length. Now they can call not just by phone, but with other apps and technologies. It is good to be able to make a contribution to real world. It justifies political science’s usefulness to society.
How has your doctoral training helped you in your career?
Wu: A PhD equips you to confront problems, develop good questions, and answer them. When you need change, it is great to have these skills. In my agency, those with PhD’s or research degrees in their respective fields are often the ones who show up during those moments of change. So far, I am the only political scientist in the building. It would be great if we had more.
Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career outside the academy?
Wu: Remember that you are likely to get paid more outside the academy than in it. While pay is not a measure of your self-worth, it is a reflection of the market’s need for your skills.
Given the better compensation combined with the opportunity to make direct contributions to government, business, and society at large, a career outside the academy is something I think all PhD students should explore. It will make you think about political science differently and reflect on your role in the world more broadly. If you decide to stay in the academy, then you will have a better grasp of its special privileges, such as the opportunity to say and publish as you please without fear of losing your job, and make good use of your unique position.
Why have you continued to be a member of APSA?
Wu: I stay in APSA primarily to make friends and meet new colleagues in my areas of work and research.
Also, attending APSA annual meetings has helped me publish my work. At a book exhibit, I met the Johns Hopkins University Press editor who took my most recent book Forging Trust Communities: How Technology Changes Politics. A few years back, I met the editor of Perspectives in Politics at an APSA meeting and published an article in that journal some years later.
Several years ago, I began an APSA working group called then Practicing Politics and now soon to be called Applied Politics for members who work in government, policy organizations, and non-government organizations. While still small, it has been fun to talk with these colleagues who come from a diverse range of fields within political science. There are a range of special issues we face such as ethical questions when collecting data for our research, constraints on publishing on topics in which we have governing responsibility, and how to present complex ideas and data to other policy makers who are short on time and attention. Dr. Rick Farmer is now in charge, for those who are interested. There is a lot of room for growth here.
To read more about Irene Wu, see her website here.