Dr. Nathan Paxton Discusses His Career Transition into a US Senate Office

Nathan A. Paxton is a Legislative Assistant in the United States Senate. He also serves on APSA’s Committee on the Status of Contingent Faculty in the Profession.

What kind of work do you do at the US Senate? What is a typical day like?

It is likely a cliché to say that there is no typical day on Capitol Hill, especially in the current moment. As a policy staffer working for a personal office (i.e., I work for a senator, not a committee), while the form of the day rarely follows a pattern, there are a number of tasks I do regularly.

  • Brief my member on legislation and policy within the issue areas that I cover: We have regular meetings with the senator to talk about current and upcoming issues on the floor or in committee hearings. Sometimes I provide written memos and sometimes the briefings are oral, depending on the speed and depth of information required.
  • Prepare my member for hearings: I research and write memos on the topics to be covered in oversight and legislative hearings.
  • Meet with constituents and interest groups: February to May are “fly-in” season, where constituents affiliated with all sorts of interest groups meet with staff and, sometimes, the senator to present the issues of highest importance to their groups. There are associations and groups to represent every facet of American life, and many of the people we meet with are concerned constituents who are passionate and articulate advocates for their causes.
  • Coordinate with communications department to publicize senator’s activities: I help to draft or comment on social media posts, press releases, talking points, op-eds, statements to the Congressional Record, and any sort of public statement you can imagine.
  • Create policy responses to issues affecting the state: I research legislative ideas and develop instructions for legislative counsel to draft bills, solicit information and reactions from affected stakeholders, negotiate and coordinate with the staff of legislative co-sponsors, and work with committee staff to learn what form of a bill will be able to pass committee muster and be sent to the floor. Besides legislation, one other tool in the arsenal of policy is the well-crafted public letter to an executive branch agency, asking why they have taken certain actions—or why they haven’t.
  • I also take lots of meetings. Lots of meetings. Especially during fly-in season.

Most congressional staff cover a variety of issue areas, which may or may not be related to your area(s) of expertise and which are also a bit path dependent. Your knowledge of a particular issue can help, but congressional staffers will often be asked to cover policy areas they are most familiar with – or most interested in digging into if an opportunity arises to broaden one’s portfolio.

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

In grad school, I did IR and political theory, although my research was pretty much all IR, owing to the exigencies of the job market. In particular, I focused on global health and health security. My dissertation used mixed methods to examine how countries make the decisions about which HIV policies they had on their “menu,” as well as how the structure of the deciding organization affected the contents of that menu. After grad school, I continued to study and teach global and international health.

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

I ended up in Washington DC because of the infamous two-body “problem,” and I became an assistant teaching professor at a local (Washington DC) university. I had been on the job market for about three years, but nothing emerged that also allowed me to live with or near my husband (we had already lived 500 miles apart for a year and a half).

It takes a little while of doing it to discern whether one likes teaching, I think. While I was generally pretty good at it, it wasn’t a vocation for me, and I did not enjoy teaching enough to accept the low pay associated with the positions available to me. Moreover, I wanted to advance in my career, and there was no path of realistic advancement in the teaching track at my university[1].

I applied for an APSA Congressional Fellowship (CFP) because I wanted to understand the US policy process more, and understanding that process was becoming more and more relevant to the research I was trying to do.CFP ended up being an eye-opening experience. One of the bits that I learned was that there are people outside the academy who are as smart and as focused as those who frolic in the groves of academe. I soon encountered Senate staff and executive branch employees who had as much raw intelligence and specialist knowledge as any of my colleagues and mentors. Indeed, several of them had PhDs as well, as often in the natural sciences as in the social sciences.

I found out I liked work in the Senate more than my teaching position, so when a job offer came, I took the leap. It did not hurt that the pay ended up being more as well (which is perhaps the only time someone got a pay raise by moving to Congress!).

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

As I said there isn’t a “typical” day, there is also not a set list of day-to-day duties. Though there is some collaborative idea generation and oversight from senior staff, there is also a lot of independent action and being “entrepreneurial.” Much of what I do is to look for policy or actions that my member can take.

I can’t quite speak for how other policy staffers do it, but I spend some portion of my time following a sort of research-hypothesis-test-analyze flow. For example, if I want to develop a policy response on a particular topic, I will start with some background research, noting particular questions that interest me or that think tanks or Congressional Research Service (CRS) have highlighted. Then I will consolidate some of those questions and generate some idea on how the legislative apparatus might address those. Then I start to talk to staff, CRS, outside groups, and other analysts, with the goal of testing the strengths and weaknesses of those ideas. I have the results drafted into a bill, and then I show the bill to some of those same people, to see if the proposed statute does what we think it does, to garner support, and to refine again.

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

I think I was surprised by how collaborative people could be. My experience of academia was of relative isolation. Research can be pretty lonely, and the feedback can often take months or years. In legislation and policy, there’s a lot of talking things out, iterating ideas back and forth, revising and re-revising—activities that I found hard to replicate in academia, except perhaps for a once-a-year conference or the occasional helpful peer review.

There’s a sense of shared mission in what I do now—even when I work with staff from other members and parties, there is a sense that we do have a common goal of trying to fix or improve something that does not work optimally. We often don’t agree entirely on what that optimal solution is, but that common goal provides us with some basis.

What energizes you about your current career?

For the time being, I enjoy that the focus changes over time. I may work on the same policy areas for months or years, but the issue of the day continues to shift, so that there is something new to learn. That does not mean that there are not bad days or weeks, that the job does not sap your energy. But on some level, there is a degree of novelty over time that I didn’t see during my teaching career, and I really enjoy the challenge of encountering new ideas and actions and getting up to speed on them quickly and (I hope) competently.

Can you offer any advice to aspiring political scientists?

Probably that you should think long and hard about becoming a political scientist with a PhD. Based on probability and averages alone, political science PhDs are not likely to gain employment as tenure track professors. If you get a PhD in political science, I think you should plan for the fact that it is probably several times more likely that you will end up in an adjunct position, “alt-ac,” or non-academic role than that you will end up as an assistant professor.

If you do become a political scientist—i.e., you get a PhD in this topic—you should recognize that you are likely to take a job that does not use the skills and knowledge you have acquired over the course of seven years or so. We all know the horror stories of how tenure-track positions have collapsed, never-ending rounds of adjunct work, and all that.

The PhD trains you to be a research professor on the tenure track. Many of the jobs that you can get outside the academy with a PhD are just as attainable with less education. In my experience of Congress, virtually everyone else doing my job does not have a PhD, and many in Congress see the PhD as something of a liability. (Many mid-to-high-level staff have law degrees or some sort of master’s degree. A considerable number have “only” a bachelor’s.) But if you decide to go ahead and pursue a PhD, ask your department about extra-academic resources from day one. I found the ones associated with my campus career center to be quite helpful, and the career center made me aware of a few helpful ones online (described below).

You may not be able to ask faculty, but you should be able to ask other students and the grad administrator. Go to your campus’s career services, sign up for their info, and start investigating what else you can do with a PhD from the moment you get to campus. As of now, the vast majority of students entering PhD programs will not be tenure-track faculty, so they should begin preparing for that likelihood, in the likely event that they don’t land a tenure-track position  even after multiple shots at the market—or they discover that the academy is not actually a place they are flourishing.

Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career in applied political science? Are there any specific resources you would recommend?

Haunt your campus’s career services office or department. Attend their programs and workshops for PhD students. If they do not have such things, start pushing them to do so. Enlist the graduate student government to help you in that push, if you can.

Another resource I would recommend is versatilephd.com. Versatile PhD has a variety of resources for helping to navigate turning your PhD into an entirely (or slightly) different career. The site has a “career finder” (careers that other PhDs have pursued or found meaningful), a career exploration course (my campus career center had one of these as well), job listings, and super supportive, informative, helpful forums. I have used all of these at some time or another over the last few years. My campus career services had a subscription to the site, and if your university does not, help them see how this is a relatively efficient way to invest in PhD success.

Over the last couple of years, APSA appears to have expanded its resources that help political scientists translate themselves to non-research faculty careers. I have participated in the Career Fair and the Ask Me Anything tables at the Annual Meeting, and I have certainly enjoyed sharing my experience. For job-seeking participants, I think one thing that might be helpful would be to have accountability partners. In the same way that it’s helpful in grad school to have a friend or colleague you can check in with weekly or so and show dissertation pages to, it could be helpful to have someone you can check in with about your career-change search.

You should also develop some skills or interests beyond academia. First, these can be the source of some much-needed sanity. I worked as a bicycle mechanic for a couple of years during grad school. I needed the cash, but I also enjoyed doing something with my hands. I was actually pretty good at it (so my supervisor told me), and I think that in part this was because the analytic skills I had honed in research allowed me to look at systems like bicycles and see how there were all sort of subsystems that worked together. In any event, I tended to be pretty good at figuring out why people’s bikes were not working as they were supposed to.

Second, outside interests can provide you some skills that may be as or more important than your putative expertise, at least in securing something outside of the traditional academic-industrial complex. Or at the very least, they may stand out on the resume. I recently had an informational interview, and my interlocutor noted that I had done a pets-as-therapy program at the local veterans’ hospital for a few years. Honestly, I had done it because my dog was cute and personable, and I liked spreading his “ministry of smiles.” This person, however, said it seemed both different than what you normally see on resumes in DC, and it showed that I was probably good with people and was willing to make a relatively invested volunteer commitment. Who knew?

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

Most people in traditional departments know very little about careers and life beyond the academy, and so they are not well posed to offer this sort of advice. That’s not a judgment as much as a fact—faculty in a PhD program have to have done pretty much only one job to be faculty in a PhD program. So rather than expect that departments should have the resources within themselves to advise students on such a transition, they can do three things.

  1. First, departments can create networks. All departments have communities of alumni, and many of those alums have chosen non-academic careers. One thing that departments can do is to facilitate a network of their non-academic alums. Maybe it’s as simple as a list, or maybe there’s a full-blown technological way to do this. There’s a shared community among graduates—and I’m including here people who leave with their master’s degree or ABD, not just those who get all the way to “Dr.”—of a department.
  2. Another action that departments can take is to be more explicit about plugging their students and graduates into campus and post-campus resources. Many universities provide post-graduation career services to alumni, and departments could publicize this. Departments could also host or sponsor speakers, workshops, and other events from the career center. In a similar vein, most departments haven’t made much use of the university’s alumni networks. In alumni activities, PhD students are often an afterthought, and many PhD alums outside the academy often have much in common with other PhD alums of the university, especially in cognate fields. For example, as a political scientist with a Ph.D. and outside the university, I find I have a good amount in common with sociology, economics, and history PhDs working outside academia. We are often, as far as I can tell, in similar roles. Alumni organizations could facilitate bringing us together for career networking and advising.
  3. Finally, faculty can support and encourage students who go on to some sort of other career, without necessarily regarding that set of choices as a sort of failure. I was both fortunate and unfortunate in this regard. One of my faculty advisors had worked in government themselves before eventually returning to academic and saw academia and policy work as valid paths for poli sci PhDs. Another faculty member told me that since I wasn’t “good at research” (because mine was moving very slowly), I should consider applying to government jobs or perhaps high school teaching. Although the faculty member said they would not think less of me for doing such, my impression was that they definitely saw these options as less impressive, intelligent, and worthwhile. Although not every faculty member in my grad program acted in this fashion, I definitely caught the vibe from many any career option that wasn’t at an R1 or a highly selective liberal arts college was primarily an alternative for the less talented. I don’t know how we do it, but we, as a profession have to stop conveying this idea that paths off the research tenure track are lesser in status, impact, or intellectual satisfaction—such an idea is counterproductive and counterfactual.


[1] There was a sort of ladder system, but it pretty much only conferred a title bump, with no additional security of employment or real increase in pay.

APSA’s Career Paths series explores the wide range of career trajectories that political science PhDs can take and provides specific career advice for graduate students entering the job market, as well as other political scientists at all career levels who are looking for new career opportunities. Individuals interested in contributing to the series should email Dr. Tanya Schwarz, APSA’s Director of Teaching & Learning, tschwarz@apsanet.org.