The 2019 APPAM Spring Conference opened on Tuesday evening with a plenary that explored the academic and career experiences of four public policy and public affairs graduate program alumni. The session took a Q&A approach to identify the key benefits of these graduate programs as well as a few things that they may be lacking.
To kick off the event, panelists were asked to identify three skills or experiences from their graduate program that help them in their current positions. Steven Putansu, a senior design methodologist at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, got the group started by sharing that the best skill learned in graduate school was how to consider the ideal versus the realistic outcomes. That skill was echoed by Kimberley Meinert, a staff member at the U.S. House of Representatives, and Kirk Heffelmire, a social scientist at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Kimberley noted that there’s “a fine dance between what data and literature say is correct and what’s actually feasible in the political context.”
Another skill mentioned by several panelists was the interdisciplinary nature of a public policy or public affairs degree. Being able to assess a challenge from multiple angles and turn it into a useful solution or result through research and design is something that was made possible with the help of the panelists’ degrees and their focus on learning the framework of contextual issues. Patty Troppe, the session moderator and an associate director at Westat, noted that this was an essential skill for her to succeed in team environments.
The next question focused on skills that the panelists wished they’d learned in their programs. Putansu and Heffelmire cited forms of communication as their response. Heffelmire talked about translation and how important it is to communicate with non-researchers and non-academics both in the beginning and final stages of a project to be successful. Putansu echoed this adding that he wished there were more skills taught in a qualitative setting such as how to run and collect data from focus groups or design a questionnaire. Meinert also mentioned that she wished she had been given a deeper understanding of the federal budget and especially how the president’s annual budget is created – something that has a large impact on how research funds are distributed. The one thing that all the panelists agreed on was how to be concise. Nearly all projects need to have vast amounts of data whittled down into just a few pages of a report or even just a few soundbites so they can easily be shared with policymakers and other lay people. Being able to teach this in graduate programs would be instrumental--regardless of the career path an alumnus chooses.
Panelists were asked what they felt the advantage was of a public policy degree and if they would recommend it to others. Most panelists agreed that the degree provides a broad view of most any situation or challenge. Troppe shared that her doctorate program exposed her to much more than just quantitative work which has given her an edge over many of the statisticians she works with. Heffelmire and Putansu agreed and added that the methodological diversity of their degrees allow them to see the broader context of issues and break out of silos that other, more strictly focused, degrees might have. Sarah Tahamont, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, said while a more disciplined degree can be useful in academia, there are more and more academic homes that welcome multidisciplinary degrees such as public policy and public affairs. All of the speakers said they would recommend getting a degree in the field but Meinert added that it’s absolutely imperative that those getting the degree truly care about public policy and public service.
Finally, panelists were asked about the career services provided by their graduate programs. They overwhelmingly agreed that internships were by far the most helpful services offered to them. Tahamount noted that while she went straight into her doctoral program from her Master’s program, she wished she would have been given information on internship or fellowship programs earlier in her Master’s program. Putansu and Heffelmire both received full time offers through their internship and fellowship programs. Unlike the other presenters, Troppe did not use the career services at her program but shared that she was able to work full-time while she earned her doctorate because of the part-time option at The Trachtenberg School at George Washington University, where she received her PhD.
All of the alumni that participated in the plenary session had largely positive reviews of their graduate programs. The broad focus of their programs give them an edge over their colleagues and perhaps more importantly, they’re able to produce realistic solutions for any number of challenges.