Alumni Profiles Series: Justin Pearlman
Justin Pearlman received his bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. After receiving his Ph.D. in Political Science from Duke in 2005, he worked as an Assistant Vice Provost for Research Advancement at the University of Southern California. He is now the Chief of Staff to the Provost at Columbia University.
How did you decide to pursue a non-faculty position?
I was trained in the fields of International Relations and Political Economy. I went to Latin America to conduct fieldwork and then moved to Los Angeles while working on my dissertation. I realized that I liked dealing with many issues simultaneously. Academics must maintain an extended focus on a specific set of questions. I recognized during the dissertation phase that I prefer the challenge of juggling disparate issues that need to be resolved quickly. And, as a student of institutions, I find the university as an organization to be a fascinating subject. After I got my Ph.D., I joined the University of Southern California, where I worked for several years with the Vice President for Research. Columbia created the new position of Chief of Staff to the Provost six years ago, and I’ve been in that role since then.
What do you enjoy most about your current position? What is the most challenging thing about your job? How did your graduate education at Duke prepare you for it?
I enjoy that every day is a bit like going back to school, where I have the chance to learn about a new discipline or topic. One day, I may be working with the leaders of our interdisciplinary science initiatives to help build a new data science institute or neuroscience institute. The next day, I may be working with deans in the arts and humanities on important scholarship in their fields.
The most challenging – and often exciting – thing about my current job is that many of the issues that land on my desk have no standard processes and no designated office to deal with them. These can be academic or non-academic issues, ranging from creating a new initiative to train and mentor faculty, to providing services to support students’ mental health needs. Meanwhile, the decision-making process at big universities such as Columbia is quite decentralized. You need consultation from different offices, and decisions have to to follow the norms and standards of the university to be successful. My political science training at Duke helped to equip me with skills to identify people’s interests, analyze which solutions will be most supported and effectively serve the mission of the university, and reach a consensus in a decentralized institution.
Any advice you’d like to share with current graduate students at Duke?
First, a feature of a few political science core seminars that I found really useful was the opportunity to read early drafts of published faculty work, including some of the classic highly cited texts in the field. Typically, grad students see only the end product: the published article. Here, we got to see how scholars overcame roadblocks in their work, and got a window into the necessary process of revision and improvement. It’s a helpful reminder to new grad students that even the most highly regarded works often began with the author stumbling in the darkness for a while before alighting on the idea that helped shape the discipline. Grad students in introductory survey seminars should look for – or ask for – the chance to do this.
Second, whether you go on to become a professor or pursue another professional career, there’s a crucial skill that tends to be underappreciated and underdeveloped: the ability to say “no” in a professional setting and to do so comfortably, clearly, and in a way that makes it clear that the decision is based on objective criteria and isn’t personal. It’s certainly true that, given the structure of doctoral studies, there may not be enough opportunities to practice this skill. But if you become a new faculty member, you will have far more claims on your time than there are hours in the day. You’ll be asked to take on additional tasks, from serving on committees to contributing to other scholars’ research. Knowing when to say no and how to say it effectively is a key to success.
What is one of your favorite memories of Duke?
One of the things I will always remember and value was the support of my cohort. I have been at several institutions and all were wonderful, but Duke really stands out. People from my cohort supported the growth and progress of their fellow students from day one. In any Ph.D. program, you need a lot of support – both academic and social - to make it through. I remember weekend chili cookouts and going to games at Cameron as a big group from the department. To get tickets to those games, we attended the campout together and divided up the lottery tickets. It was a great bonding experience.
Ph.D. candidate, Political Economy
Anh Do is originally from Vietnam. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Economy. Her research interests include high-skilled migration and educational and gender inequality in developing countries.