Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track: Benjamin Sacks *18 (HIS)

Written by
Max Horder, GS (ANT)
April 16, 2021

Benjamin Sacks *18 (HIS) interviewed by Max Horder, GS (ANT).

In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them. 


I’m currently an Associate Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation and a Professor of Political Geography at Pardee RAND Graduate School. I completed my PhD in history from Princeton in 2018. My doctoral dissertation examined how the expanding early modern French state and its agents iteratively developed a set of standardized imperial urban planning practices and, in so doing, helped establish geography (within European empires, at least) as a form of state authority making.

Laying the groundwork

I completed my undergraduate degree at Tufts. It was a wonderful experience for me, and I was fortunate enough to have more than one mentor there. And I mean mentors in the true sense of the word - people who not only advise you on professional activities but who become friends for life; who are there to help you develop as a person. Tufts and my mentors taught me several critical tenets. First: no discipline is isolated. You must always be interdisciplinary. Second: network, network, network. But importantly, do not network with some goal in mind. Rather, meet interesting people for interest’s sake and stay in touch with them. Don't try to target individuals in some weird or insidious way; just get to know people outside your discipline as well as within your discipline, and as early as you can do it the better. Third: - and this is going to sound rather jaded but it's true - is to never put all your eggs in one basket. So, these were the three tenets that guided me when I graduated from Tufts in 2010 and matriculated at Princeton the following year.

Importantly, when I graduated Tufts, my mentors advised me that, although I planned to earn a PhD in history, I did not need to go in and necessarily plan to be a professor. You're going to get a PhD, they reminded me, because the skills you're going to learn from getting it are going to be invaluable - whether you end up as an academic or a policymaker or anything else you want to go into. So, when I matriculated at Princeton, I arrived knowing how important it was to have a network and that I needed to start reaching out to other programs in order to get the lay of the land. And that's why, at what I believe was the end of my second year, I ended up at the Princeton School of International and Public Affairs’ Liechtenstein Institute. I was looking around and trying to figure out what other departments, actors, or groups like the Institute would be a good place for me to develop my ongoing interests outside of the history department.

I knew, probably by the end of my third year or so - the year following my general exams - that I wanted to enter the professoriate, higher education administration, or an international affairs think tank. The beauty of those three paths is that a history PhD is fairly ideal for all of those fields, but each of those fields required slightly different skills on top of the base ones that a history PhD provides you. I didn't really have any order, and I never tried to rank or order them in any way. I just knew I was interested in those three areas. And so, I just kept networking and trying to develop my skills for those three areas. In some ways, their skill requirements overlapped, and in some ways they did not.  

In my sixth year, I applied for faculty positions and, just like about everyone else, didn't get any of them. It was somewhat irritating. But I think it bothered me less because I already had approached the job market with this concept that I had other, equally interesting options. I therefore decided not to apply for academic positions the following year. Instead, I decided to focus my energies and skill development interests towards think tanks and higher education.

At the same time, I was also developing a working relationship with my external examiner, Emma Rothschild, at Harvard. This was formalized when I decided to take a postdoctoral fellowship with her. She is ahead of the curve about alternative career paths beyond the professoriate. She was incredibly supportive about me exploring all three paths. During my postdoctoral year, I did look at the academic job market, but from the perspective of a postdoctoral fellow rather than a graduate student. I believe I applied for one or two faculty positions, but I was also seriously looking at think tanks and higher education administration. And it was at that point in the postdoctoral fellowship that really one organization stood out above all others: RAND.

The moment that changed everything

By my fifth or sixth year I had already begun sending out feelers to various organizations in my areas of career interest. For higher education administration, for instance, I had maintained existing and developed new contacts at Tufts, Princeton, Harvard, and elsewhere. I learned about their experiences and asked: if I was going to become a dean, what is the process? Where do I start? And they would give me a list of people to start talking to, and so on, and so on.

I undertook this approach for each of my three career paths. For think tanks, I wrote up a list in my fifth year. I started contacting people at RAND, Brookings, Chatham House in London, and elsewhere, seeking to figure out how they operated. Would a history PhD work? I started having lots of informational conversations. I must have made dozens of enquires over the phone or in person over cups of coffee. Just asking them questions. Learning what I liked and didn’t like. One of my most memorable and meaningful conversations was with a former director of a global consultancy. He first explicitly told me not to follow that route and why I would be such a poor fit, before spending an hour happily brainstorming where I would be a good fit. Unsurprisingly, we ended up drawing up a list of interdisciplinary-focused think tanks.  

From these rich conversations, I learned, for instance, that humanities PhDs transitioned into RAND via two approaches. The first way is that RAND maintains a long-established program called the Summer Associates Program, which is for PhD candidates only. You apply through a formal process. If selected, you are paid for the summer to work on a RAND project. Since starting at RAND, I've been working with the Graduate School to try to enhance the visibility of this program on Princeton's campus because, unfortunately, by the time I started calling up people at RAND, I was no longer eligible for the Summer Associate Program.  

The second approach is more generalizable. Several years before you expect to defend, you begin building up a few contacts at each of these think tanks. The way to do it is you find out who went to your graduate or undergraduate alma maters, or hold history PhDs at these organizations. I developed a matrix of all the history PhDs who worked at these think tanks. For RAND, for instance, I created one matrix column with all the people who worked there with history PhDs. And then I wrote another column where I identified if a RAND employee attended one of my alma maters.

The next step was to start emailing them and scheduling informational conversations: I deliberately kept my inquiries respectful, open-ended, and brief. I would inform them that I was currently a PhD student at Princeton and that I was interested in potentially working at a place like RAND. I noted that they hired historians, but freely admitted that they easily could be looking for skills or talents that I may or may not possess. Either way, I’d be very interested in learning more. I’d never ask if they had positions available, only if they’d be free for a chat.

Many RAND employees—whom I now count as colleagues, mentors, and friends, were more than happy to chat. They really helped me both identify what skills I had, and what I still needed to learn, to succeed at a place like RAND. You've got your history PhD, you're getting it from Princeton. That's great. You're interdisciplinary, that's great. You need to learn more GIS and especially network science. And you need to define your niches, your particular areas of expertise, that may be of interest to us. But keep talking to us, keep asking questions. So, that's ultimately what I used my postdoctoral fellowship for: to develop those skills and my areas of expertise, and the method of doing so was in the form of both a peer-reviewed article, combining history, modern international affairs, and public diplomacy, that's now coming out in the Journal of Cold War Studies as well as my first serious foray into network science, a skill I continue to develop on the job. Importantly, I remained in touch with RAND throughout my postdoctoral fellowship to make sure I was developing the right skills. In September 2019, I was hired as an Associate Policy Researcher.

Life beyond academia

Now that's not to say that a think tank is a ‘nine to five’ job. It's not. It is actually very similar to academia in some respects. You're often allowed to do your own type of research (if you can obtain a grant), which is great. You get to work with a lot of really interesting people, many of whom are leaders in their field. However, I still struggle not to work weekends. I still have imposter syndrome, a trait I’ve learned that I share with many of my colleagues. And your “seniors,” the senior researchers to whom you answer, are in many ways the equivalents of department chairs.

I nonetheless have learned, and continue to learn, to fight my instincts to ‘always work’ in order to maintain a much healthier work/life balance. As a graduate student, I gradually came to ask myself: is this really what I want, being alone working all the time? Those who have succeeded in this horrible academic market as it stands today, are those, in my opinion, who have a fanatical devotion to duty, who are okay with potentially being alone for a very long time and maybe meeting that special someone later in life. And I know that, for some people, it does happen. But being in a relationship and working to enter the professoriate today can be extremely difficult. I found out in a very painful way how wrong my priorities had been, and I resolved myself not to repeat past failings and learned to prioritize relationships with loved ones above singular career goals. Financially too, it helps to be of personal means – I, unfortunately, like many others had graduated from college with tremendous student debt. The weight of this debt severely impacted my financial ability to endure the path to a tenured position, especially in the current climate. Looking back, I now know that I had to go through the PhD process to learn what kind of life I wanted.

Best advice for graduate students

The first thing I would advise is to think about a range of options as early as possible, ideally in your first year, and to begin mapping out the processes to reach those options. Learn about what is really involved to get an academic job. I knew that I had these three areas by my third year, but my dissertation was already pretty much set-in stone. So, think about how you can fit what you’re doing at Princeton into your vision. By the end of my first year, had I known better about my three areas, I could have developed a thesis project that would have allowed me to learn the necessary career-specific skillsets earlier. For me, these were network science and GIS. In my case, I had to kind of go outside and find those myself.

I know that others will disagree with me 100%, but my advice is that it the postdoc is actually one of the best things academia ever created. A postdoc is rarely structured. It gives you one final formal institution of which you can call yourself a part. It gives you one final group of really, really bright people to exchange ideas with in an unstructured collaborative academic setting, before you go out into the working world. But most importantly, it gives you a year, or if you're so lucky two or three, to learn, to network, to get the skills that you think you’ll need for your chosen career path in addition to those you've already obtained through getting a PhD.

And for me, because I was making all these phone calls from my fifth year onward to places like RAND and various universities’ administrations, I learned that I possessed certain qualifications. I had worked at the Liechtenstein Institute, Princeton’s own small international affairs think tank. I had developed considerable public speaking experience because of all my conference presentations. That was all great and I had the Ivy League history doctorate, but what I needed to learn, and what I needed to do, was show that I could both translate the tremendous PhD skills Princeton had provided me into analyzing contemporary international affairs while still providing a proper historian’s lens, as well as develop my technical expertise. Through my doctoral thesis and postdoctoral fellowship, that’s exactly what I did.

This interview has been edited for clarity.