Dr. Sarah Bryner Discusses her Work at OpenSecrets

Sarah Bryner joined the Center for Responsive Politics in 2011 and is responsible for overseeing the Center’s data analysis and research collaborations. Previously, she was CRP’s lobbying and revolving door researcher. Prior to joining OpenSecrets, Sarah was a doctoral student at the Ohio State University, where she also taught undergraduate political science courses. Her dissertation, “Politicians Behaving Badly: The Determinants and Outcomes of Political Scandal in Post-Watergate America,” incorporates both original data collection and political experiments. She received her Ph.D. from Ohio State in 2014 and her B.A. in political science and biology in 2006.

What kind of work do you do at the Center for Responsive Politics? What energizes you about your career?

I oversee OpenSecrets’ Research department. We work with large government datasets covering campaign donations, lobbying, and other money-in-politics topics. We primarily collect this information, add value to it, and present it in formats that general users and members of the media can access for analysis and reporting. I love this work.

There is no typical day – some days, I might be in meetings discussing high-level organizational strategy or on back-to-back calls with reporters, and on others, I might be coding and writing data diagnostics in MSSQL. This diversity, and the passion that many of my coworkers bring to their work, is what keeps me motivated.

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

I studied political psychology and American politics in graduate school at Ohio State. I was most interested in when and why people choose to “punish” politicians who are involved in political scandals and my dissertation used experimental data to show when people disavow political behavior even if they share the same partisan identification as the politician. That research wrapped up in 2012, and it is interesting how different I think some of my results would be now – a Clinton/Lewinsky scandal would be perceived very differently in 2020 than in 1996.

Why and when did you choose to pursue a non-faculty career?

The decision to leave academia came to me gradually. Most of all, I found myself frustrated by the timelines in academia. Political science is often framed around timely issues – I care about what is happening in the world around me right now. By the time most articles or books are published, the period covered by the research is old news. I found that lag to be draining and didn’t enjoy working on one project for many years. I also was in a serious relationship with another political scientist in my program and the idea of managing a two-body problem was intimidating. I made my final decision in my fifth year of graduate school, found a non-academic job and didn’t look back. I will note that I was not finished with my dissertation at that point, but I had defended my prospectus. I would strongly recommend against leaving a program before you are finished with your degree – as much as you might think you’ll be able to balance full-time work and finishing a dissertation, it is incredibly challenging.

Try to find a career that plays to your strengths and realize that those careers have their own paths – just because you have done well in academia or have a PhD, doesn’t mean that you can jump into a completely different environment at the top of the organizational chart.”

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

I am fortunate that my job continues to allow me to keep in contact with political science. I collaborate with political scientists and deliver custom data to academics. I find that knowing “the lingo” can make those conversations more productive even though I occasionally feel like an interloper. But, fundamentally, the two aspects of graduate training that helped me are simple: the actual content I learned, and perhaps somewhat problematically, the fact that I now have an incredibly thick skin. People often gloss over the fact that you actually learn facts in graduate programs – I loved many of my graduate seminars and still consult notes from my methods classes. Grad school is also a place where – for better or worse – I rarely heard positive feedback. This has made me much more comfortable speaking up in all aspects of my life and although the process of losing sensitivity wasn’t particularly pleasant, I do think it has been helpful in the long run.

Do you have any advice for PhD students considering a career in a non-profit research group?

There isn’t a “one size fits all” answer to this question. Different jobs require different skills. I would urge all PhD students to really critically think about their own personality. I am a person who values excitement and thrives under stress and pressure but isn’t always as good at managing long-term projects and expectations. I also love working on teams. Try to find a career that plays to your strengths and realize that those careers have their own paths – just because you have done well in academia or have a PhD, doesn’t mean that you can jump into a completely different environment at the top of the organizational chart. Be respectful, thoughtful, and honest with yourself.

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 teaching@apsanet.org