Political Science at Port Authority (feat. Allison de Cerreno)
Alumni Aloud Episode 1
Allison de Cerreno has a PhD in Political Science from the CUNY Graduate Center. She now works as Assistant Director for Policy and Business Programs in the Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals Department at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Allison’s job focuses on tolling operations, revenue forecasting, facility planning and traffic analysis, as well as toll and transportation policy. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Allison offers advice to students considering careers outside academia, and shares how the skills she developed as a PhD student have helped her in her career.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: You’re listening to Alumni Aloud, a new podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career and the advice they would give current students. This series is sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at the Graduate Center.
VOICE OVER: Today we talk with Allison de Cerreno, who has a PhD in Political Science and now works as Assistant Director of Tunnels, Bridges & Terminals at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Allison’s job focuses on tolling operations, revenue forecasting, facility planning and traffic analysis, toll and transportation policy. Allison offers advice for students considering careers outside academia and shares how the skills she developed as a PhD student apply to her career. She’s interviewed by Flannery Amdahl, from Political Science.
FLANNERY AMDAHL, HOST: Allison, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us what you do for a living?
ALLISON DE CERRENO, GUEST: Yes. I am an Assistant Director for Policy and Business Programs in the Tunnels, Bridges & Terminals Department at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
And, in that role, I have a number of areas under me. One of them is anything and everything related to our toll system, which does E-ZPass; everything from the nuts and bolts of the design and the engineering and actually the capital side of doing the infrastructure and investments to the operations, the daily operations; and anything policy or business related. I also have the transportation planning as well as internal business planning, and performance metrics as well as our bus lease agreements and all of our revenue forecasting, and our communications, internal and external, related to TB&T.
AMDAHL: Oh, that’s a lot. You stay busy.
DE CERRENO: I do.
AMDAHL: How did you wind up there? What was your academic background?
DE CERRENO: So, my academic background – I actually – interestingly, I originally began entirely in math and science. And social studies, ironically, when I was younger – I really didn’t wanna have any part of, and so I went and got a PhD in Political Science, which –
AMDAHL: What prompted you to do that?
DE CERRENO: Well, it’s interesting. I had been actually pursuing a dual major in biology and geology, and along the way – I’m not quite sure exactly where it happened or how it happened – I took a course in Latin American politics, and I was really fascinated. And I decided to shift over. So, that’s how I got – that was my degree, and then, I worked the entire time.
AMDAHL: Okay. That was as an undergrad or as –
DE CERRENO: As an undergrad and as a graduate student, all the way through.
DE CERRENO: And so, as I was doing my undergraduate, I got a part-time and then, ultimately, a full-time job with the Council on Foreign Relations and basically was at the Council as I had finished up my PhD. When I left the Council, I went to the New York Academy of Sciences, so I was able to bring my science and tech back. And while I was there, coincidentally – I think that happens a lot in life; it’s sort of just a fortunate set of coincidences – we were doing a study and, as part of that study, we were looking at communications and transportation infrastructure –
DE CERRENO: As what you needed to undergird technology-led economic development, and I fell in love with transportation. It’s like a giant puzzle. Lots of moving pieces. You have to understand all modes as well as policy, as well as finance, capital and operations, and it sort of was a natural fit, even though substance-wise it seemed very different.
AMDAHL: Right. So, your dissertation was on what?
DE CERRENO: My dissertation was on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime. And it comes kind of full circle again. It was probably about the broadest dissertation you could possibly do and still actually complete one.
AMDAHL: Okay. (Laughs)
DE CERRENO: So, it was definitely in that niche, right? I got to deal with a little – I got to deal with the technology as well as the politics, regime theory, which is very broad, and it sort of comes full circle because in transportation security is a really important part of it all.
AMDAHL: How did you land that first job at the Council of Foreign Relations?
DE CERRENO: Oh, wow.
AMDAHL: Do you remember?
DE CERRENO: It’s been a long time back.
AMDAHL: Did you have a connection there or …?
DE CERRENO: I think I did. I think I actually – I went in – it was a summer internship, and I don’t actually honestly recall. I knew some of my professors had recommended and talked to me about it, but I don’t honestly recall the whole process that I went through to get in there. But it started as sort of a summer internship-type thing, then it became a part-time and then, ultimately, a full-time job.
AMDAHL: Now that you’re at the Port Authority, what would a typical day be like for you?
DE CERRENO: Crazy busy.
It is a different type of world. It is – first of all, Tunnels, Bridges & Terminals, or TB&T, is an operating division, which means our department works 24/7, 356 days a year because we run all of the tunnels and the bridges that connect New York and New Jersey, as well as the Port Authority bus terminal and the bus station over at the George Washington Bridge. So, those facilities are open all the time because the traveling public needs to go where it needs to go safely and efficiently.
My job – I’m actually located at headquarters downtown – and on any given day there is a load of work that has to be done, and yet emergencies or urgent matters that happen. I have roughly 30 – a few more than 30 people that are under me. I touch base with them. A lot of interpersonal relationships have to be addressed, making sure the managers are doing what they need to do, managing their people.
And lots of interacting with the other – we call them units, the different units and divisions. Lots of different interactions with the rest of the groups and the divisions because, when things have to happen and things get done, we all own different parts of it. One of the things that I really love about the Port Authority is the ability to interact with all these different disciplines, different types of people from all walks and background, all aiming to get a job done and all having the same overall vision of where things have to go.
AMDAHL: Sounds very different from the life of a grad student, where you’re doing a lot of work on your own, your research and writing. Was that a hard adjustment for you, or…?
DE CERRENO: Not entirely.
AMDAHL: Or the fact that you had worked beforehand – did that help the transition?
DE CERRENO: I don’t know if working beforehand helped the transition. I mean, the Council was also very academic oriented. We also had summer Fridays off, which was really nice.
AMDAHL: I should tell our listeners that we’re here very early on a Friday morning, since you’re on your way to work that early.
DE CERRENO: That’s true.
So, it was – I think what made the transition easier for me – easier as opposed to easy – is I love to make things happen, right? So as much as I love doing the research and the writing, I also like seeing something happen from it and getting my hands dirty to make things. And, in fact, when I first started looking around in transportation, that was more or less what I said, was I love to make and build things. And so, you know, I think my transition to a public agency was a little more than just transitioning into transportation.
And so, when I came from the New York Academy of Sciences, I actually went first to NYU at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. And I think that was very helpful because I transitioned into a new subject matter, but still within an overall framework of a business environment that I was more accustomed to. It was more academic, nonprofit, which is where I’d come from. Gave me the time to learn a new substance, meet all the people, learn the industry in an environment that was more comfortable before I jumped into an entirely different way of working at an agency.
The one thing I’ll add, though, that I think was really helpful is the rigor that I learned through getting my PhD has been phenomenally helpful at the agency because, although I’m getting things done and making things happen, I’m also very much one who’s reviewing documents, editing documents, reviewing what the consultants or my staff turn in, making arguments, making pitches, trying to gather people together and reach consensus. And all of that is very much based on how I worked and what I learned in terms of the approaches back in grad school.
AMDAHL: Did you ever see yourself as becoming a tenured professor and going into academia, or did you always intend to go into public service?
DE CERRENO: No, I absolutely thought I was headed for academia.
AMDAHL: Oh, okay.
DE CERRENO: I really did. I finished that PhD and I was, like, I’m gonna go become a professor! And, frankly, even part of my decision on my dissertation at the time, which was sort of ironic in looking back, in hindsight – at the time – you know, I was very pragmatic about finishing my dissertation. I purposely wanted something I didn’t so love that I’d never be able to finish because it was never good enough. I’d watched, frankly –
AMDAHL: That’s nice.
DE CERRENO: Too many of my colleagues do that.
DE CERRENO: And so, I said alright, I have a lot of things I’m very interested in. I’m very curious. When I spoke to my professors at the time, we talked about the fact I was interested in international relations. And, frankly, there were a lot of people who were poised to retire, and so there was gonna be a lot of opportunity. Except they didn’t retire! And so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity! And I wanted to stay in this part of the country, which limited it further. And so, I decided to start to look beyond that and see what else was there.
AMDAHL: So, is there anything you miss now about academia?
DE CERRENO: You know, it’s funny. I miss sometimes the writing and the – not that I don’t do a lot of writing already, but the heavy – like, let me go research whatever I want and write about whatever I want, which you can’t really do when you’re in an agency.
DE CERRENO: You have to make sure there’s no conflicts of interest, you have to – and there’s also a time issue. There’s only so much time, and when you’re working kind of around the clock at times, you gotta get the work done first. But with that said, in hindsight, I’m actually married to someone who’s a teacher, and he loves it, and he’s fantastic at it. And I’m not sure the academic life would have ultimately suited me as well, just given my nature of how I like to be kind of moving, making things happen – not just writing the books, but also implementing. And so, that piece of me, I think, really thrives in the kind of environment I’m in at this point.
AMDAHL: What about the teaching part? Do you miss teaching?
DE CERRENO: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. I have – I continue to teach. I just don’t teach formally there. In fact, when I first came to the Port Authority, I started a Brown Bag series for my department, where I was working on folks not just sharing information but actually helping them hone their own skills on presenting. I’ve continued to work really hard in developing my direct staff as well as the staff underneath them and have gotten a bit of a reputation where other folks actually come over and ask me for help at times.
AMDAHL: That’s great.
DE CERRENO: So, I do a lot of mentoring in that sense.
AMDAHL: If you were mentoring a current GC student right now, are there any professional skills you would recommend that they hone?
DE CERRENO: So, I think it base – and this is really interesting because a number of years ago, almost a decade ago now, we did some work with the New York Academy of Sciences on what you need to undergird technology-led economic development. And it was really interesting. The skills that were identified by a number of experts at that time in the region who – in the field of technology – the skills they identified are the same skills I find myself needing now as somebody who manages and supervises and oversees: problem solving, first and foremost; communication skills; real need for writing skills.
We get a lot of people who can’t really write well anymore, even in an environment where you’re not writing theses and you’re not writing long papers, but you’re writing really succinct arguments, in a sense, white papers to make a point and get approvals for things. To have the ability to succinctly and clearly put together an argument to be made and organize that appropriately – you’d be surprised at how difficult that is to find people with that skill. And then, of course, interpersonal skills.
Beyond that, my feeling has always been if I find somebody with those skills, that are really strong, I can teach substance. I can teach somebody a toll system. I can bring them out to the lanes, or have one of my people bring them out to the lanes, and show them. These are all the parts of the toll system, this is how it works, and they can learn that because they can study that on their own.
And I think what you just asked is a good question. I think the other thing we’re finding, especially today – even though a lot of places are still very much niched, there’s less and less need for those niche positions and more and more need for people who actually can do more than one thing. And so, on the one hand, when you get a PhD, you usually end up in a very niched area, and yet, to the degree that people can do some things beyond that, I think would be very valuable if they decide not to go into academia.
AMDAHL: Is there anything that GC students who are considering careers outside of academia should do to supplement their GC courses?
DE CERRENO: If it won’t get in the way of finishing the darn thing, because it’s really important to finish and it’s really hard to finish, I would really seriously look at doing internships and things that are out there beyond academia. So, it’s great to take some extra classes, but that’s still very academic. And if you have any thought to potentially pursuing something outside there, it gives you a little bit more in terms of credentials. And it gives a sense of – for you, of whether it is something you wanna be doing, and how you might be able to use your degree. What I caution with that is don’t let it get in the way of you finishing the degree.
AMDAHL: Good advice. How has finishing your own PhD benefited you in your current career?
DE CERRENO: Certainly in terms of where I started at the agency and where I am at this point. I think that that degree’s been particularly beneficial. And even coming in. When I first came into it, one of the key questions they had was: Is she gonna be too academic? Right? How’s she gonna do this? Hoe’s she gonna manage a project?
And, in essence, I think even that, you have to manage your PhD. Your project managing it, though I dare say most PhD’s would never think of it that way. But, in fact, it’s one of the things I talked about. Well, yes, I had to manage things, starting with that because if you don’t manage it and organize it well you’ll never get through it. So, in that sense, very helpful.
AMDAHL: You said that some folks were a little wary you might be “too academic.” Was there any way you tried to reassure them –
DE CERRENO: Yes!
AMDAHL: That you were up for the job?
DE CERRENO: Yes! There were a couple ways. So, one thing to understand about the agency is there are lots of different disciplines and divisions, right? And so, we have nearly 7,000 people who work in the agency.
DE CERRENO: So, it’s huge.
DE CERRENO: And one of the things, I think, that’s been very helpful, and I mentioned much earlier about interpersonal skills, is I can go speak to the engineers, turn around and go talk to the staff departments in law or government and community relations. And I went right out to talk to people and was pretty blunt with them, with the very first gentleman actually saying to him, so, you’re probably sitting there wondering who is this person from some academic background? What does she know about putting a toll system on my bridge? And the gentleman, to his credit, just sort of barked out a laugh, and I think – and then said, well, you know, let’s see what we have to do. And I said, well, I’m here to learn from you.
And I think that’s one of the most important things is, even with the PhD, the humility that needs to come with it because people are intimidated. And so, to go up there and say okay, fine, I have – he didn’t know at the time, but he found out later – I have a PhD, but I actually don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re more experts in what they’re doing than I am at this point. And so, what can I still learn from them?
And, I guess, in that sense, the other thing that’s very helpful is, if you’re getting a PhD and you’re one of those folks – many of us are who are doing it – who are just naturally curious and inquisitive, just remember that piece when you get everywhere else because you’re never – so, you got your PhD, but to me, that wasn’t the end; that was actually just a base on which to put everything else afterwards.
AMDAHL: Do many people in your field end up getting PhDs?
DE CERRENO: Where you do find a lot of PhDs in transportation are working in some of the nonprofits for transportation. There are a lot of PhDs in transportation; they’re just not necessarily all working at agencies. The other place you find them – so, the nonprofits, like the Eno Foundation down in Washington. You’ll find them in scattered places that work on economics related to transportation. And you’ll also find them – a lot of the consulting firms, you will find PhDs in there as well, who have kind of been in academia sometimes and then moved into consulting or back and forth. So, they’re there.
AMDAHL: You said there’s this huge staff of 6,00, 7,000 people…?
DE CERRENO: Yeah, it’s a little over 6,000 at this point for the entire agency.
AMDAHL: Would you recommend that this is a good field that more PhDs should go into?
DE CERRENO: I think so.
AMDAHL: Are you hiring?
DE CERRENO: I love transportation. As I said, it’s a big puzzle. In fact, I had a colleague of mine from Baltimore City DOT years ago who said, “There are two things I always love to ask you about. Your kids and transportation.” And I asked him why because, you know, that’s especially funny. Like, why? And he said, “Because, you know, your face lights up and you get a smile before you even say a word for both of those things.” And he’s right because I do.
I think it’s a great field to work in. It gives – for somebody who likes to learn, there’s always something going on, and there are so many facets of transportation that you can work in financing, you can work in the actual infrastructure, you can work on designing things, you can do the engineering if you have your degree in engineering, you can do the policy, you can do the politics, government-community relations, media relations – any – law. We have a huge law department. So, anything and everything.
The Port Authority itself, yes, we’re always looking for talented people, and, frankly, the best place to do that now – we have an online – we’ve sort of moved into that area, as everyone else has. So, online, if they go to look for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, they can actually go online and look under Careers, see what’s open. And even if there isn’t something open, there’s a place to submit resumes.
AMDAHL: You said you loved the puzzle. What’s a really fun puzzle that you’ve had to deal with recently?
DE CERRENO: So, right now, we’re putting in a new toll system. But first, we have to upgrade because the old system was 19 years old, which is exceedingly old for a toll system, and it couldn’t wait for the new system to come in.
And so, in a sense, it was a puzzle because it was how do you – how do you orchestrate this in a way that you’re protecting your revenue base, you’re protecting your system, but you’re also making sure to make a prudent investment that’s not going to be totally worthless because you’re gonna come back later and you’re actually gonna redo the whole thing. But you can’t wait for that.
And so, that becomes a puzzle in itself of how do you structure it, how do you – where do you begin? We have a number of facilities, so which one do you begin at? Which is the safest one? Which is the least risky? Which is the best for the traveling public, so it’ll have the least impact before we really get out because if there’s any problem when you first start, it may take longer. So, you don’t wanna go anywhere it’s gonna have tremendous impact because we want our customers to continue to travel. And so, all of that – lots of pieces that you have to juggle: financial, operating, policy, community…
But then, on top of that, it’s a moving target because you’re working with a vendor and their schedules, and depending upon what happens, or if something has to be added or taken away, that schedule moves either in or out. And meanwhile, the new toll system is out there, and that schedule moves at the same time. So, that’s what creates the puzzle.
And that’s broadly in transportation. That’s one of the reasons I love it, is that just when you think your pieces fit together, something shifts, whether it’s a political environment, whether it is an operational situation, whether it’s finances or community interests, or just the nature of technology or something else that’s going on in the field – just when you think you had it, something happens, and it’s, like, alright, that plan’s gone. Next!
And so, typically – I get joshed a little bit about this, too – I typically have a plan – not just A, B, C, but N, and O, P, Q because it’s always – you know, what am I gonna do? I don’t wanna have to stop to think – I mean, you need to stop to think, but you wanna actually do that in advance of getting hit with a surprise so that you actually already have a plan of action that you may have to hone more and sharpen, but at least you already have a sense instead of just going, “Oh, my God, what do I do now?”
AMDAHL: Alright. It sounds like you have a very busy day ahead. I better let you go soon.
DE CERRENO: Yeah, I do. Thank you.
AMDAHL: Do you have any final advice, though, for graduate students or grads?
DE CERRENO: Yeah. For the graduate students themselves, keep plugging away. Learn as much as you can, and in some ways as diverse as you can. It’ll give you the broadest opportunities later, if you do decide you don’t wanna stay – or even if you do stay in academia. You can always leverage skills. And don’t worry; you can finish it.
It always seems like – I was fortunate. I had some really good friends and colleagues ahead of me who shared this book. I think it was called How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation, that we actually all signed and kept sending it around. It went around the world at one point because one of my friends was from India. And I’ll never forget – the opening passage talks about – have you ever felt like you’re up against the never-ending report or, you know, the train at the end of the tunnel with the lights coming at you? Don’t worry; we’ve all felt like that. But you can actually do it.
AMDAHL: And what about for fellow grads?
DE CERRENO: Be willing to look at other things. You know, if you’re truly – if you’re dead-set on academics and you’ve always wanted to be in it, that’s one thing. But if you’re not really sure, don’t think that, now that you’ve gotten your PhD, you must go that way. There are a lot of other opportunities, and the one we’ve been talking about today – or the ones because, even before where I am, I was in different areas – they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Lots of folks out there doing lots of different and really interesting and exciting things.
AMDAHL: Yeah, that’s great advice. Thanks. And your eyes are lighting up as you talk about transportation. That’s fun to see. (Laughter) Thank you so much for stopping by.
DE CERRENO: Thank you. You’re welcome.
AMDAHL: And have a good day at work today.
DE CERRENO: Thank you. Take care.
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