From Ph.D. to Policy: Facilitating Connections Between Junior Scholars and Policymakers

This article is part of our special issue “Nudge Turns 10,” which explores the intersection of behavioral science and public policy. View the complete issue here.

In this piece, Ashley Whillans first shares her experience (bad and good) going from a graduate student to policy advisor and professor. Then, Heather Devine, one of Whillans’ mentors, shares ways to help other aspiring graduates find their place in academia and government.

From Ph.D. to Policy Advisor
Ashley Whillans

When I was in graduate school, after presenting my research, I frequently received the following feedback: “Interesting talk. In your future directions, you mentioned that you were hoping to replicate your study in the field with a local company. Why bother?”

This comment was meant to be constructive.

My senior colleagues believed that my results were publishable “as is” so why go through the effort of replicating them in the real world? Seminar after seminar, I faced related questions: “Aren’t you worried that doing applied research will take too long? Why write op-eds? You know those do not ‘count,’ right?”

My senior colleagues believed that my results were publishable “as is” so why go through the effort of replicating them in the real world?

Experiencing the same feelings that Robert Cialdini conveyed in his article “We Have to Break Up,” I thought often about leaving academia. Even as a graduate student (in social psychology), I was tired of justifying my interest in practical application and public outreach.

I considered quitting. Then I became part of a new program at the University of British Columbia (UBC): the Public Scholar Initiative (PSI). The PSI is intended for Ph.D. students who want a scholarly identity as a “pracademic”—an academic who “learns by doing” and works with community partners to demonstrate the relevance of their work within and outside the ivory tower. The PSI provides funding for applied research, connections to like-minded peers, training for science communication, and exposure to writing op-eds and giving public talks. (For a set of resources for graduate students interested in this type of approach, see the Further Reading & Resources section at the end of the article.)

Through the PSI, I learned about opportunities to use my research skills in applied settings before graduation. For example, I had the opportunity to work as a behavioral scientist in an emerging “nudge unit” in the government of British Columbia. I used my academic knowledge to run experiments, build behavioral science literacy, and establish partnerships with ministries and nonprofits. I used theoretical and statistical knowledge together with new skills in science communication to encourage faster hiring and greater tax compliance. Thanks in large part to this experience, I am now happily employed at the Harvard Business School, where I am encouraged to work with companies and government, alongside publishing in traditional outlets.

Of course, my interest in applied research is not unique. Many Ph.D. students desire the chance to gain experience in policy settings. Perhaps most importantly, junior scholars are on the cutting edge of their fields and excited to work on social problems. They also bring crucial empirical tools and talent to the public sector. The future of behavioral science’s role in informing policy lies in governments’ ability to attract and retain top academic talent. This starts with supporting junior scholars who are interested in academic careers that blend both basic and applied research.

The future of behavioral science’s role in informing policy lies in governments’ ability to attract and retain top academic talent. This starts with supporting junior scholars who are interested in academic careers that blend both basic and applied research.

Despite the appeal of applied experiences for Ph.D. candidates and policymakers alike, these opportunities are hard to learn about and seldom offered to Ph.D. students in the social sciences. In research that I conducted with Angela Legg on behalf of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the largest association of its kind, a staggering 63 percent of Ph.D. students we surveyed reported having “zero access” to resources about nontraditional academic jobs.

These observations raise the question: What can academic institutions and governments do to better support and engage junior scholars?

To address this question, I reached out to Heather Devine, head of the “nudge unit” in the Government of British Columbia and my former boss. Heather’s experiences provide a complementary perspective regarding the benefits and opportunities to involve academics in policy relevant research.

Benefits of Involving Junior Scholars
Heather Devine

Engaging with current and aspiring academics has contributed to the successful launch of our behavioral science unit and continues to be a cornerstone of our business model. We value the expert knowledge and advice that the Ph.D.’s on our team and in our partner academic institutions provide on a daily basis to ensure that we generate ethically derived and impactful insights.

Research Design. Academics are uniquely positioned to create and validate research designs as well as to conduct statistical analyses across the full spectrum of policy challenges. For example, academics working in our unit have advised on projects ranging from health to hiring to tax compliance. Further, academics are trained to systematically test their ideas to help policymakers understand what works and what doesn’t. For governments, which are often operating within budgetary constraints, knowing where resources have the biggest impact is invaluable.

Increasing Science Literacy. Academics improve science literacy through knowledge exchange. This year, our unit was involved in either delivering or contributing to various conferences that directly connected academics and policymakers (BI in Canada, SPIN, Pacific Innovation Fair, and the BI Forum). Formal interactions with academics encourage those in public service to adopt a “testing mindset,” challenge the status quo, and ensure that the scientific method becomes second nature in government.

Expanding Our Network. Partnering with academics bolsters the overall network of researchers available to policymakers. Academic partners are able to leverage their professional networks to identify local or global experts for new policy problems as they arise. They can also build bridges to other research institutions and funding agencies for potential collaborations. Our academic partnerships have expanded the number of people inside and outside of government thinking about and working on key policy issues. We believe this benefits everyone—government, academia, and most importantly, the people in our communities.

Opportunities for Involving Junior Scholars

Conferences: To more formally engage academics, our unit recently partnered with UBC’s Sauder School of Business to cohost a conference aimed at facilitating knowledge exchange and seeding future collaborations. This initial partnership is part of a long-term strategy to build connections between government and academics, and is the first step toward creating a center for decision insights that UBC hopes to establish on the west coast of Canada.

Centers of Excellence: The vision for UBC’s interdisciplinary research center is to facilitate data sharing and publications through formal partnerships, professionalize education through an academically structured credential program, and support creative and robust solutions to policy problems through cooperative research networks and lab facilities. Similar initiatives exist elsewhere, such as the Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR) center at the University of Toronto, which serves as a connection between scholars and policymakers.

Internships and Open Policymaking: We look for formal and informal opportunities to engage junior scholars, such as co-op, intern, and fellowship programs like the Mitacs Science Policy Fellowship Program. Other units have engaged junior scholars through open policymaking contests like the Government of Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge.

Research universities should also look for ways to promote careers in applied contexts like government as a viable alternative to academia. There is an infinite supply of interesting policy questions ready to be tackled by the next generation of pracademics.

Looking Forward
Ashley Whillans and Heather Devine

Collectively, our experiences have led us to the conclusion that we need to make it easier for junior scholars to engage in policy research—for the benefit of the academic community and the public sector writ large.

In an era when it can be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, and when public trust in our democratic institutions appears to be declining, experts and insights from applied research can help governments to create evidence-based solutions that achieve the best possible outcomes for citizens, economies, and communities.

By facilitating connections between junior scholars and policy opportunities, all fields can lend their expertise and credibility to critical policy conversations, and perhaps make meaningful progress on some of society’s most wicked problems.