I have lived in two worlds as a professional — nearly 15 years in the U.S. government and 25 years in the academy. Sometimes I am asked what are the differences and similarities between being a professor and being a public official. I’ll tell you one thing: the differences are greater than the similarities.
One difference is how you work. A professor mostly works alone preparing and presenting classes, advising students and working on his or her research. If you give a successful class (where students listen with rapt attention to what you say and little light bulbs go off in their heads when they grasp a new idea you have just explained), the credit is all yours. (This experience is especially rewarding for professors since, in my experience at least, it doesn’t happen that often.) If you give a miserable class with students looking at the ceiling, whispering to one another or sleeping, the blame is all yours too (I won’t say how often this happens.). If your recently published book is a best seller, you get the praise; if it sinks without notice or worse, it gets blasted to shreds by the critics, it’s all your problem.
In government, you work as part of a group. Your efforts typically merge with those of many others. If your work is successful, the credit is distributed among many; if you fail, you are less to blame. So you have less ability to get things right but less responsibility for the outcomes as well. Out of this difference comes the necessity in the public or private sectors to learn to collaborate with others as a team. This is not an essential part of the experience of a professor although we often sit on faculty committees to get tenure, promotions and other tasks accomplished. But professors tend to be much more single entrepreneurs than do public officials.
With one important exception, when we in the academy work in committees, we tend to work as equals. One day I am chair; the next day you are chair — regardless of our professorial rank. In the public sector, there is always a hierarchy, and it determines who sits in the chair and who along the wall. One gets much more deference from co-workers if one is at the top of the hierarchy in the public sector than one does in the academy. Deference is nice if one is the Big Cheese, but I confess, I don’t much like hierarchy.
The one exception is that in the academy, one is either tenured or not. Junior professors working for tenure are not exactly terrorized by senior faculty, but they tend not to speak up in faculty meetings for fear of alienating senior faculty who will eventually vote on their tenure application. This division does not exist in the public sector; one is almost always and easily given permanent employment if one is a full-time employee in a government job (though a foreign service officer might be forced to retire early in the foreign service if not promoted regularly according to a fixed schedule).
Most importantly, at the core of the academy and the public sector are two quite different values. If you listen carefully to individuals in each profession talking about their colleagues, you can hear these values applied. In the academy, the core value is honesty and its close cousin, trust. Honesty in research is essential if the results are to be credible. This goes for students’ work as well. Much of the work of the academy gets done on the basis of voluntary collaboration (tenured professors have a great deal of discretion on what they choose to do or not do, given that it is very difficult to fire them), and trust between colleagues is important in effective collaboration.
In the public sector — especially in foreign affairs — the key value is toughness: Can a person understand complex issues (and their politics) and make hard-headed recommendations and decisions? Idealists are nice, but they do not get far in a realist world. The quality of toughness is one that women are particularly judged by – there is often a presumption that they may not be tough enough to do difficult jobs. It is not my experience that honesty — though always valued — rises to the very top of the core values in the public sector.
But there are also a few commonalities between work in the academy and in the real world. One that struck me is the similar skills necessary to run a good seminar and to run a good meeting. Running a good seminar requires the professor to have a mental agenda — to know where he or she wants to guide the discussion while allowing students have a say. Running a good meeting requires the same skills: having an agenda, guiding the discussion while letting everyone participate. The only difference is that a good meeting needs an outcome and to result in future steps.
Finally, there is the sometimes uncomfortable way professionals in the academy and the public sector regard each other. In many universities (though not Georgetown), those who have served in the public sector are regarded as unfit for the academy even if they are well published Ph.D.s with lots of good scholarship. On the other hand, I have found that in the public sector, “Flakyacademic” is one word, and professors are suspected of having no practical knowledge or common sense. (They are also a little feared for their expert knowledge by those who do not share it.) When I joined the Clinton administration in a senior position, my boss told me he had announced my appointment at the regular staff meeting of the Secretary of State by saying that although I was coming from a university, I wasn’t “just some dumb professor.”
I think it was a joke, but it said something about perceptions.
Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind the Podium appears every other Friday.