Historians in Government: a conversation with Chris Casey (Berkeley Ph.D. 2017)

January 27, 2020

Christopher Casey completed his Ph.D. in History and his J.D. in in August 2017. His book, Nationals Abroad: Globalization, Individual Rights, and the Making of Modern International Law, will be released in mid-2020 with Cambridge University Press. He currently works as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service in the Library of Congress, where he conducts research for the United States Congress, and as an Instructor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Derek: Please tell us a bit about your work since Berkeley. What are some of the projects you've worked on? What does a typical week look like for you these days?

Chris: After I finished the Ph.D., I took a postdoctoral fellowship in legal history at NYU’s School of Law. There, I finished transforming the dissertation into a book manuscript and got it accepted for publication. After the end of that fellowship, I took a permanent position as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Congress’ non-partisan research agency based at the Library of Congress.

CRS provides research and advice to Members of Congress and their staff. My days as an analyst there don’t look that different than when I was at Berkeley. I spend much of the day reading books, articles, and documents that I find interesting and writing about them (and there’s no shortage of books at the world’s largest library). I hold office hours. I answer questions from Members of Congress and their staff (often to provide historical context of laws and policies). I provide feedback on draft bills or hearing memos. I go to (and conduct) talks, seminars, and conferences in the Capitol and at universities and think tanks around Washington (and sometimes further afield). I talk with colleagues about our various research projects. I eat lunch religiously. In effect, I read, write, and teach with the primary difference being that my audience is Congress and their staff.

My most recent project was a lengthy report on the history and contemporary use of presidential emergency economic powers. For that project, I read original documents and scholarly monographs and articles, I talked with other scholars from a variety of disciplines (economists, political scientists, sociologists), and I drafted an article-length report.

Separate from my duties at the library, I teach classes in the evenings for undergraduates in Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Washington program.

Derek: When you reflect on the course of your Ph.D., are there particular moments--for better or worse--that you would point to as having a major influence on your development as a scholar? Would you offer any particular guidance to current students who might encounter similar situations?

Chris: Could you speak about your experience of the transition from the Ph.D. to the job market? Are there any suggestions you would offer current Ph.D. students about preparing for and then navigating this juncture? For instance, what career development resources or opportunities at Berkeley tend to go overlooked? What mistakes could we avoid?

Overall, I’d say that, in general, the University didn’t provide a lot of generally available resources for Ph.D. students navigating the job market (inside or outside the academy). I was lucky in that my advisors and mentors provided invaluable guidance and were endlessly supportive (reading cover letters, teaching statements, statements of research, and writing letters of recommendation). But I got the sense that such experiences were very faculty-specific. I was doubly-lucky because the law school had fantastic career resources (for both academic and non-academic law tracks).

Derek: What has it felt like so far to be a trained historian working outside of a formal academic context? As a historian, what do you miss the most, and the least, from your time in universities?

Chris: I am not entirely outside of a formal academic context insofar as I do research in the world’s largest library surrounded by researchers from a variety of disciplines and then communicate that research to both expert and non-expert audiences in a variety of formats.

As a historian, the thing that I miss most about universities are the time and flexibility to pursue your own interests and questions. I work for an institution with a specific research mission. While I am given wide latitude in determining how to participate in that mission, I have to regularly justify (to a more skeptical audience than one’s disciplinary peers) why what I’m doing is a benefit to Congress in particular and to the People of the United States in general. While I enjoy thinking daily about how to make use of history to serve the public, I do miss being able to spend days pursuing anything that I find interesting.

While there is less whimsy in my day-to-day work, I find satisfaction in providing answers to questions that other people are actually asking. I also enjoy that the work is often truly interdisciplinary and collaborative. I frequently coauthor reports and memos and hold briefings and office hours with colleagues from different disciplines. While many of the analysts have traditional policy backgrounds, there are historians, anthropologists, primatologists, sociologists, economists, physicists, geologists, agronomists, and more and it is common to collaborate with them on a regular basis on a variety of projects (I actually do call the agronomist frequently).

Derek: Is there any particular experience you had or skill you developed at Cal that has been surprisingly helpful in your current job?

Chris: Cal is a beautifully bureaucratic public institution. The skills I learned navigating the University’s bureaucracy (as well as state-run archives) have been invaluable in working for the world’s largest bureaucracy.

Derek: What have been the most challenging aspects of the transition to working in D.C.?

Chris: Being far from mountains (the Appalachians don’t count).

Derek: For Ph.D. students contemplating a transition to government work, what skills or work would be most useful for them to pursue as they go through the doctorate?

Chris: Government work, in my experience, is more collaborative than much of the work performed by doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences. Every day I work on research projects with multiple scholars from a variety of disciplines. Seeking out and participating in collaborative projects is the most useful thing any student can do to prepare for the transition. I’d encourage students to organize a conference with a group of colleagues, co-author an article, or do some other project that can demonstrate to a future employer that you know how to work with others. Many students already do such things, but many others don’t.

I’d also encourage students to learn to talk about their skills and achievements in government-speak: You didn’t write a dissertation, rather, you raised funds for, and coordinated, a multi-year research project. You didn’t write an article, rather, you compiled information and presented it in multiple formats accessible to non-expert audiences. One develops so many useful skills in writing a dissertation, learning to talk about what those skills are is the biggest hurdle.