Since defending my dissertation (in 2003), I’ve worked in both academia and for the DMV. Prior to moving back to California, I was an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Texas Christian University (TCU). I’ve continued to teach as an adjunct in the Department of Sociology at CSU-Sacramento while working full-time for DMV.
There are a number of differences between the two types of organization. Some of these differences are obvious, some not. Some of these differences tend to be in favor of the academy, and others tend to be in favor of state service. First, and most obviously, there is the matter of pay and benefits. The salary range of our research program specialist series (the main job titles that are associated with research work in California state service) are roughly equivalent to the salary range of tenure-track faculty in the CSU system. In addition, we have a defined-benefit pension in retirement. On the other hand – and this point will surely hit home for this audience – working for state government involves a non-trivial step down in occupational prestige. Not a season goes by but what I have to answer some version of the question “you have a PhD and you work where?!?” Usually these questions come from persons outside the academy, and probably reflect some inherent sense of the disjuncture between having a high-status degree and working for one of the most “common” government departments (as opposed to a more “rarified” shop like the Demographic Research Unit at the state’s Department of Finance – an outfit which, I should note, does truly outstanding work). Academics may be puzzled by my position, but they are often quickly curious as to the kinds of data we have access to, the kinds of methodologies we use, the publication possibilities, etc. Those working in government are, if anything, impressed by the fact that California DMV has an R&D unit (most states don’t); they are also respectful of the fact that our agency (and the legislature) takes empirical research into account when setting policy.
In a less tangible manner, working for a government agency is stressful in different ways than teaching. While students expect professors to be available 24/7, this is not true of state service. Once the work day is done, I can go home and not worry about checking my e-mail until the next day. That said, the implications of a mistake are very different. In teaching, if we say something that isn’t quite right in lecture we can usually address it in a subsequent class session. If we make an error in a publication, we can issue an erratum. It’s embarrassing, but usually not grossly consequential. In state service, on the other hand, a mistaken statement – or worse, a faulty set of analyses and recommendations – can have real, dramatic, and long-lasting effects on policy and revenues, and ultimately on people’s lives. For that reason (among others), we have multiple layers of review for our studies and publications.
Finally, I would note that when considering a career in government service, it is useful to think about the implications of the grand logics of different types of organizations (cf. Weber 1922; Dobbin 1994; Meyer and Rowan 1977; Meyer and Scott 1983; DiMaggio and Powell 1991). We all know, for instance, that those working in for-profit businesses generally judge a given person’s performance through monetary means. It is only more rarely that we reflect on the fact that those working in government agencies tend to judge personal performance through metrics of power. In my experience, it is rarer yet that we admit the truth about academic institutions: that people are judged almost entirely in terms of reputation (and not just one’s own, but more broadly that of one’s advisor as well as one’s institutions, both past and present – see Etzkowitz, Kemelgor and Uzzi 2000). Switching from one field to another usually necessitates that one be prepared to operate under a different set of institutional rules and expectations. In the case of moving from the academy to the state, this means (among other things) caring much less about what people think about one’s work, and caring much more about making things happen.
What the heck, let’s do anarchism week. Let’s start with the following conversation I had at the end of my social theory class a few semesters ago. A student approached me and asked why I didn’t teach anarchism in the course. There’s a few good reasons, but not so strong that you couldn’t include it if you really wanted to.
First, the goal of my social theory class is to have people read original texts written by seminal social thinkers. This doubles as a sort of Western civ (since IU doesn’t require it) and people need to understand the core arguments of sociology. So we hit the “classics,” the interactionists, feminists, French theory,* and a little evolutionary psych. The course also needs to prepare a handful of students who will continue in soc, poli sci, or other fields at the graduate level.
Second, I teach things that really drive discussion in contemporary sociology, which means that that many topics, including those dear to my heart, must get cut. Since there are very few anarchist sociologists, or research that uses an anarchist perspective, it means that it simply isn’t a priority.
But that doesn’t mean that anarchism isn’t a real social theory or that it should be actively excluded. In contrast, there’s now a body of anarchist themed social writings, mainly in fields other than sociology. For example, anthropologist David Graeber’s writings should count. James Scott, the political scientist, has written about statelessness at length. There are the classic anarchists, like Prodhoun, and feminist anarchists like Emma Goldman. You have right wing anarchists like economist Murray Rothbard or philosopher Michael Huemer. Then you have empirical studies of statelessness like Pete Leeson’s pirate book.
In other words, you have more than enough material and it’s high quality material. But it’s definitely not central to sociology (yet?), so you don’t feel guilty cutting it. But the social theory course isn’t set in stone. I am already tiring of French theory and other topics, so it may be time to rotate some new material in.
* Remember, I don’t teach postmodernism anymore.
A few days ago, Ju Hong heckled President Obama at a speech. He asked the President to sign an executive order to stop deportations. The President said that he did not have the power to do so and that Congress would have to change the law. This is just plain wrong. While it is certainly true that Congress writes the law, the executive branch has a lot of freedom in choosing which laws to enforce and how to enforce them. For example, the state and local police don’t give tickets to every single person on the highway who drives 61 miles per hour or faster. The police make all kinds of judgments about when the infraction should be punished. And this is a standard feature of being a prosecutor. You actually have discretion.
At the Federal level, it is very clear that the modern presidency has accumulated a great deal of discretion in how to enforce the law. For example:
- Signing statements – apparently, lots of presidents have gotten away with ignoring laws they find inconvenient.
- Pardons – if a law is deemed to be wildly unjust, the President can just pardon people en mass. For example, President Carter pardoned a couple of million people who evaded the draft.
- Executive order – Obama could easily produce a legal argument that deporting someone causes great economic harm and separates them from their family, and thus constitutes harsh punishment for the administrative violation of coming to America without the right paper work. Then, he could instruct the federal department (DHS) to simply suspend deportations, especially of minors, because it is unconstitutional.
In other words, a legal system that allows presidents to kidnap people and send them to Guantanamo forever could easily be mustered to prevent the deportation of the guy with the leaf blower. It ain’t that hard.
First, I’d like to thank Katherine and Teppo for allowing me to guest-blog on this site. I’ve put together three pieces: (1) what does doing research for a state agency involve, (2) how does working in the public sector compare to working in the academy, and (3) are we hiring (yes) and what do we look for in candidates?
We have two units within our branch here at DMV Research and Development (R&D). I work in the Driver Competency and Safety Projects Unit; there is also the Alcohol and Impaired Driving Unit. The distinction between the units is not substantial – many projects involve collaboration between researchers, and in many cases we use very similar types of data and methods to conduct our projects.
In general, I’ve worked on projects that involve the screening, testing, and assessment of physical, visual, and mental functions that may affect driving. If you’ve ever read a newspaper article about some tragic incident where someone pressed on the accelerator instead of the brake, and drove into a fast-food restaurant, you may have wondered “gee, I wonder if anyone’s doing research on this problem?” The answer is “yes,” and I’m one of the people that works on that type of question (if you’re curious, such incidents often involve some element of cognitive impairment – such as occurs in early-stage dementia). The kinds of projects that I’ve worked on as a researcher include: (1) evaluating the results of a pilot project that used novel screening and education tools to identify drivers that may be at risk of unsafe driving due to a physical, visual, or cognitive impairment; (2) calculating projections about the number of cases DMV may see in the next few years of drivers who are referred for evaluation due to a medical problem of one type or another; (3) developing a method by which we can determine the reliability and validity of a drive test that we use (rarely) for persons who drive in extremely limited circumstances, on defined routes or in bounded areas.
In terms of publication opportunities, we mainly publish monographs ourselves (after a rigorous process of internal review). We also submit articles to peer-reviewed journals in the field of traffic safety. Finally, we present our findings at national and regional conferences (Transportation Research Board, LifeSavers, California Office of Traffic Safety Summit, etc.).
I was recently promoted, and my current duties include overseeing the research of others. Some of these projects include: (1) assessing the reliability of machines used to screen people for problems with visual acuity, (2) determining at a descriptive level the incidence of distracted driving incidents, particularly those that involve crashes where there is some indication that usage of a cell phone contributed to the crash, (3) calculating the effect of a particular novice driver training and education program on subsequent risk for crashes and violations. Finally, and perhaps most exciting, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in reviewing research (conducted by others) on automated vehicles; this review has been for the purpose of assisting our policy and legal staff in developing regulations that will govern the testing by manufacturers, and use by the general public, of automated vehicle technology on public roads.
Oh, and since I know at least one person might wonder: my dissertation had absolutely zippo to do with any of these topics. We will address this area (what do we actually look for in job candidates for our research shop) in post #3.