Career Paths for Policy-Related Work with John Cisternino

Authored By 
Jack Greenberg
Blog contributor 
Graduate Student
Publication date 
October 12, 2021

On Friday, October 11, ISPS and the Policy Lab hosted a policy-related skills training workshop on “Career Paths for Policy-Related Work.” The session was led by John Cisternino, who serves as director of research at the Tobin Project – a non-profit, non-partisan research organization based in Cambridge, Mass. that maintains an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on problems of public importance through academic research. In this role, Cisternino oversees the Tobin Project’s work across its four core initiatives (institutions of democracy, government & markets, economic inequality, and national security), along with supervising its graduate student programs and developing connections with policymakers.

Cisternino spoke to a captive audience of undergraduate and graduate students who are weighing how to have the most impact in their careers. In his remarks, Cisternino offered useful reflections on his own career trajectory and highlighted the specific fulfillment he gets out of his current work. The event was moderated by Jack Greenberg, a PhD candidate in political science at Yale and coordinator of the Dahl Research Scholars program.

From Philosophy to Policy

After graduating from Tufts and working as an editorial assistant for a literary agency, Cisternino started a PhD in philosophy at Columbia University, working on questions concerning the nature of truth and science. It was while writing his dissertation that the September 11th attacks occurred. In processing the event, Cisternino grew frustrated with the public dialogue surrounding the tragedy, maintaining a different opinion as to how to make people safer but unsure of how to get his thoughts out.

This disconnect prompted Cisternino to leave Columbia before finishing his dissertation and enroll at Harvard Law School with the goal of doing something policy-related in his career. After working in a diverse array of areas while at Harvard, Cisternino was ultimately attracted to the Tobin Project on account of it giving him an opportunity to have an impact on policy without being consumed by quotidian political conflict.

 “I found that there was a piece of me – the piece that led me to be a philosopher in the first place – that was frustrated by being in a situation where we were never stepping back and asking ‘well, but what really is the right thing to do here,’” Cisternino remarked. “And so, for me, it was extremely attractive to find a niche in the world where I could be working in a way that was policy-related but [centered around] asking bigger questions about what might we do, trying to help understand how we could solve big public problems or understand why they were problems in the first place and go from there.”

Keynesian Influence

In explaining his attitudes towards his work, Cisternino referenced a quote from the English economist John Maynard Keynes that affords him inspiration, parts of which were up on a whiteboard at the Tobin Project while he was interviewing at the organization:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

While Cisternino feels that Keynes may have been exaggerating somewhat, this thinking aligns roughly with Cisternino’s own. In particular, Cisternino believes that academic understandings of issues can be tremendously consequential, shaping the conventional wisdom with which society operates (even if they do not gain immediate traction).

Cisternino also cited the work of Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas – whose research on cranial shape refuted racist, pseudoscientific claims that white people had bigger brains (and were thus inherently smarter) – as an example of this dynamic. While Boas’ work “did not make racism go away,” Cisternino argued that it fueled critical junctures like the Brown v. Board of Education decision and changes in social norms and attitudes in American society more broadly.

“If you are in academia because you care about getting things right, because you’re excited about the methods that you’re being shown, that’s a path that you can take that could yield tremendous public results in public policy potentially far beyond what you could achieve if you went and worked for someone in government,” Cisternino remarked.

Nevertheless, Cisternino did offer encouragement to those interested in working more directly in politics:

“There’s a number of different ways to be impacting public policy in this country, and I highly recommend that you take whatever opportunities you have to be trying out things in many different sorts of venues so that you can see what you like and what you’re good at before you’ve committed yourself too much…”

Following these remarks, Cisternino entertained questions from the student participants, which included inquiries as to how academics can usefully interact with policymakers (including when scholars’ recommendations are potentially loftier than what is politically feasible) and about evaluating the effectiveness of one’s work.

Upcoming Training Event

The next ISPS policy-related skills training event will be on Friday, October 29. Sara Gottlieb-Cohen, manager of statistical support services at Yale’s Marx Science and Social Science Library, will present on “Best Practices in Reproducible Research (Quantitative Methods).” You can register for the event here.