I’ve asked this question over time to several prominent academics who spent a year or more working in government before returning to academia (usually to a policy school) – some worked years ago in government (for Nixon, etc.), while others worked more recently for the CEA. Is it worthwhile?
In fact, a number of friends have done so, to the point that some have left academia permanently to rotate between government and think tanks like Brookings, AEI, etc. It’s a quandary:
- Working in government has real value, but the “currency of the realm” in academia is peer-reviewed publications. A year in government puts one at a strategic disadvantage on this front.
- Working in government may be like when Dorothy finally meets the Wizard: “ignore the man behind the curtain” – not that you’ll be jaded about the reality of policymaking in government, but that you’ll find it more attractive than the (admittedly less-than-compelling) reality of academia post-Great Recession. The job has changed in ways that won’t change back very soon. (We work in a world of RCMs – Revenue Center Management – and profit centers.)
Perhaps the real risk is that academics aren’t as attracted to a year of government service as to creating a new app or platform that improves governance via a startup. That’s what the smart kids seem to be doing these days (even my students are trending this direction).