Political Scientist Robert Griffin Shares Thoughts on Pursuing a Non-Academic Career

Robert Griffin serves as the Director of Quantitative Analysis at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, DC.

He has taught courses on research methodology, statistics, public opinion, and political advocacy for The George Washington University, Pennsylvania State University, and Loyola University Chicago. Griffin received his undergraduate degree from Ithaca College and his Ph.D. in political science and research methodology from The George Washington University.


What kind of work do you do at the Center for American Progress? What is a typical day like?

Griffin: For the last few years the bulk of my work has been focused on the States of Change project, where I’ve served as co-author and lead data analyst. In a nutshell, it’s a bipartisan partnership between several institutions that projected out the demographic make-up of every state to 2060 in its first year and then tried to think through the political consequence in its second and third year. In practice, that’s involved hunting down and marrying tons of data, coding just a god-awful amount in Stata, and then translating our findings for a broader audience.

More recently I’ve also done work outside of the Center or with outside partners – participating in the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group and working with Paul Gronke on the effect of automatic voter registration in Oregon.

Beyond that, it varies considerably. I consult with other teams at the Center on the construction of their projects and how they’re doing their quantitative analysis. I interact with the press and do interviews – responding to broader questions they might have about topics related to American politics or my own work. I serve as one of many mini-ambassadors for the Center by speaking to student groups and intern programs from other think tanks.

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

Griffin: I originally came into my PhD program thinking that I would go into academia, but several things pushed me in another direction.

For starters, I was in the program at George Washington University – just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the three branches of government.  What I quickly learned is that people with data skills and a knowledge of American politics were in relatively high demand. Even as a grad student, I found myself involved in projects advising smaller government offices on survey design and creating likely donor models for campaigns. It sounds a bit naïve, but I realized there were other career paths out there that were still engaging and fulfilling.

I also had the sense that for political science to have a bigger impact on the world it needed to be a part of the world.”

I also had the sense that for political science to have a bigger impact on the world it needed to be a part of the world. Along with writing a journal article or blog post that helped inform an institution’s thinking, it struck me as important to shape their thinking from the inside as well. The rise of things like the Monkey Cage showed we were doing a good job on the former, but we still needed to work harder on the latter. (Full disclosure: John Sides, co-founder of the Monkey Cage, was my dissertation chair and is just an all-around lovely human being).

Last (but not least), my then girlfriend and now fiancé had her own career here in DC. Among other things, an academic job can mean having to ship out to wherever you can land a position. She loves me, but maybe not enough to live in Cowtown, USA.

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

Griffin: I could point to a hundred things, but let me highlight two. First, it gave me the tools to do research – an understanding of research design and some hard data skills. You would be absolutely gob smacked to discover how rare these skills are outside of academia and how valuable they are to your career if you can communicate their value to others.

Second, it gave me the chance to develop as a public speaker and as an explainer of complicated things. Even as a teaching assistant, you probably get the chance to speak publicly more than 95% of the population. That’s an invaluable opportunity if you invest your time in it.

What research topics do you primarily focus on? How did you become interested in these topics?

Griffin: My dissertation work was on migration and politics – topics very close to things like The Big Sort. I was introduced to this topic by becoming a research assistant to Hal Wolman, a professor who straddled both the political science and public policy programs at GWU. I was fascinated by migration because it was a thing that just about everybody does at one point in their life but within the field of political science is kind of hard to study. Lots of good data on party identification and lots of data about people moving, but very little data where you get both. Although it’s not the core of my work now, the interplay between people and the places they live and choose to live is still something I try to incorporate into everything I do.

In my current work, I suppose the easiest label I could use would be “political demography” (studying changing demographics and the consequences of those changes) with a twist of election analysis and American political behavior.

Can you offer any advice to aspiring political scientists?

Griffin: Always tough to know how generalizable these things are, but I can point to a few things that have served me well.

  • Plant ten opportunities for yourself to succeed expecting that only one will bear fruit. Hopefully you’ll do better than that, but it’s a good expectation to set for yourself.
  • Maintain your ability to communicate in normal human language. No one cares about your ideas if they don’t understand them.
  • Build up some solid hard skills, but don’t let people pigeonhole you and assume that’s all you’ve got to offer.