History at Pew Research Center (feat. Jeff Diamant)
Alumni Aloud Episode 17
Jeff Diamant is Senior Writer and Editor at Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. He received his PhD in History from the Graduate Center in 2016.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Jeff talks with us about the academic and journalistic environment at Pew, and the most helpful skills he learned while at the Graduate Center.
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 Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at The Graduate Center.
ABBIE TURNER, HOST: I’m Abbie, a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at The Graduate Center. I work in our Office of Career Planning and Professional Development, and I interviewed Jeff for this episode. Today I have on a call with me, Jeff Diamant. He got his History PhD at The Graduate Center and now he is Senior Writer and Editor at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC. So why don’t you start off by telling us what it’s like working at the Pew Research Center?
JEFF DIAMANT, GUEST: I really love working at the Pew Research Center. It’s a place that I had known about before I got to The Graduate Center and I was a big fan of their work. I had been a newspaper reporter before that and I would sometimes write about their studies. And I always thought that I would really like to write studies like that and to do the type of work that they work. It’s a full-time job and my main goals are on the youth religion team. And that basically entails writing and editing youth religious reports.
TURNER: And so your main content is on religion. Did that relate to your dissertation research?
DIAMANT: Yes it did. My research when I was at the Grad Center was on African-American-Muslim history from 1975-2000. And I actually had gotten into that topic or had been interested in that topic when I was a journalist. I was a newspaper reporter for fifteen years before I went to grad school. And the last seven or eight years I was a religious affairs reporter for the New York Star Ledger, the biggest newspaper in New Jersey. And while doing that, I covered religious communities across the state and there was some national coverage too involving Catholics and Jews and Muslims and Protestants mainly. And in my final couple of years there I became very interested in African-American-Muslims as a topic to write about. And in 2008, about a year after I had been working on this project, our newspaper started to have some financial problems so the problem I was working on seemed to lose some momentum. A lot of people left.
And my goal had always been to write more in-depth stories and stuff like that, but at the newspaper, the appetite for long stories was diminishing. So the type of work I always wanted to do, it seemed like the opportunities were not coming up for that. And some people said after I talked to them about my work, they said “oh maybe you should turn that into a dissertation.” And I didn’t know very much about the academic culture or much about dissertations at all actually. But I talked to a lot of people, many of them at the Graduate Center. And I got into the History program which I was very excited about. I worked mostly with Clarence Taylor who was at Baruch, he had just joined there but also with several other people. And I had a certain idea about what my dissertation was going to be when I was applying. And like I guess about 90% of other doctoral students, wound up changing it. Although the general topic was the same, I expanded it rather broadly, among African-American-Muslims.
TURNER: Great, ok, so you’ve really identified as a content expert then in the workplace.
DIAMANT: Yeah, so I’m someone who writes reports and the fact that I’m somewhat of an expert in Muslim-American history has been helpful from time to time. But by and large to be honest at Pew, it’s less my specific specialty that’s important and more that I’m able to write and edit and be part of a team like that.
TURNER: On that note, why don’t you share with us some of those skills that you got in graduate school that you’re actually using at this type of job?
DIAMANT: Ok I think that one of the important skills that I got at graduate school, was I learned a new way of thinking and taking methodology seriously and just being able to absorb arguments in a way that as a journalist you just didn’t have time to do. I was a newspaper reporter for more than a decade and in graduate school, I felt like I learned about a lot of the preconceptions I had on important topics, that I hadn’t even realized that I had. When you write for a place like Pew, it’s important that you not fall into different fallacies or tropes that maybe a lot of journalists often fall into. And it’s important not just to realize that you’re making those mistakes but how. I think I gained a lot of expertise while at the Graduate Center in trying to write in a way that would avoid those fallacies and tropes. That’s not to say that when I was a reporter or journalists in general don’t take these things seriously. Most of my former colleagues in journalism still do. But it seems like it’s a higher concern at Pew in some ways and being in graduate school definitely made me better at that.
And the other thing I learned in graduate school, which again I had done it as a reporter but I think in graduate school I got better at it, is that I learned how to communicate complex ideas in a way that is understandable to a broader audience. Again, this is maybe something not everyone takes seriously in graduate school. It’s something academics are sometimes criticized for…not communicating in a way that’s clear enough for a broader audience. And that’s something I always tried to do as a reporter before graduate school. But I definitely got a lot better at in graduate school in ways that helped me at Pew. Because Pew kind of considers itself sort of a fusion between academic and journalistic styles. They want to be able to communicate important ideas to a broader audience but with sort of an academic rigor to it so we’ll be taken seriously by scholars. Before we do a survey or a study in addition to thinking about the most compelling topics to ask questions about or ask survey questions about, to do demographic works on. We typically convene a group of scholars who know the topics in the field and we want them to take the work seriously once it’s out. One of our goals is often to be a resource for not only journalists but also for academics as well.
TURNER: Yeah, ok so there’s a couple things in what you were just saying. I was taking notes on it. So how did you practice that really important skill of communicating a complex topic or your data from your research to a broader audience?
DIAMANT: When I got to graduate school one of the things that surprised me was how partisan things seemed to be. How political even within the fields. I don’t mean among my fellow students or in CUNY politics or anything. I just mean how within the discipline, whatever the discipline was, people felt very strongly. Too often, there wasn’t as much effort to write in a neutral way. In fact sometimes writing in a neutral way is criticized. You’re supposed to make your argument, right. And you can make your argument while also writing in a way that various sides of the topic will find acceptable. You can also write your argument in a way that makes you an advocate. And I learned over time that there’s a place for both of those and other types of desires and skillsets in graduate school.
My own desire was always to be able to present my research not as an advocate but more as a presenter of information that people on various sides of whatever political spectrum I was writing about, would take seriously and view as fair. And my particular topic involved Muslims in America which is often a controversial topic. And very often when you read scholars in the field, who I respect very much, people I’ve learned a lot from. You can kind of tell what their political background is by the third page of whatever it is that you’re reading. That’s just the way it is in academia. But having come from a journalist background that prides neutrality and aspirations of objectivity, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to hone that skill because I always wanted to stay on the right side of whatever I thought that was. And so just in writing papers and things like that, I came to see that the professors who themselves may have considered themselves advocates for certain positions were still pretty complimentary of my work. And respected my approach.
TURNER: Great. And so can you tell us some more details about… you mentioned a couple things that Pew does in general. Surveys, choosing different topics that they want to get opinions on. What do you specifically do in your position? Maybe what is the day to day like?
DIAMANT: So the day to day at Pew is a combination of. We have a rolling schedule of report that we release. And these reports tend to take maybe between 9 months and 18 months to produce. So I’ve only been there for about 14 months so I’ve worked on maybe 4 or 5 of these. And it’s a very collaborative effort, in fact a typical team environment in ways that I truly haven’t worked in before. Academia obviously is going to be somewhat of a solitary existence. Obviously you work with your advisor but people can go weeks or months without talking to advisors or people on their committee and that’s considered normal, that’s fine. That’s just what you kind of sign up. When I was a reporter that is also…you know it’s not a solitary existence, you go to a newsroom every day and there are hundreds of people there. But you kind of work on what you’re working on by yourself. You care more about it than anybody else does, it’s your story. And later there are editors involved, photographers, graphics people.
But at Pew everything is a team effort from the very beginning. So there are people there who have PhD’s or Master’s and are experts in survey methodology, which I’m not. So when I first went to meetings when I was new there, I would suggest questions that could be asked in surveys and I would hear a dozen valid reasons why the question I came up with was not a valid question. It’s been asked before, it doesn’t work right, people don’t understand it, it has to be translated, people won’t hear it the way you think they were, that word doesn’t mean what you think it means to other people. So there are people who are specialists in that who have been doing this for years or who know about this. There are people who work with companies in the field who maybe do international studies and we subcontract these companies around the world to do this if we’re doing international surveys. There are people who work in graphics, there are people who only do research and only do data analysis. And then there are people like me that brought in whose goal is to present the information in a way that will be compelling and understandable to the masses. While some people focus on research other people like me, our main goal is the writing, editing and presenting of information.
Most of the time I spend working on the mid-sized or longer reports that Pew puts out on religion. Either on the chapter… we might put out a report that’s four or five chapters or maybe eight or nine chapters long and I’ll be working on chapters on a particular day or what we call the overview at the beginning. This can entail a reading up on a topic to make sure we can present it with more authority or reading on a topic, reading journal articles. My Graduate Center alumni access has been extremely helpful to be able to read things from different journals. And sometimes, right now we’re working on a study… can’t go into details about it because it’s not going to be coming out till 2018, but working on a study and I have been spending an hour or two every day for the last week and for the next following week, talking to professors in the field. Asking them for their input on what the best questions would be to ask in this survey, telling them my understanding of it, seeing if there are any flaws with that, seeing if they have any ideas of their own they’d like to contribute. We have what are called advisory panels where we include professors who come to Pew or talk with us on the phone every now and then just to make sure we’re on the right track with what we’re doing. So I’ll spend some time doing that.
I also spend some time on what we call fact-tank posts, which is basically a blog that the Pew Research Center, 600, 700-word articles that are supposed to illuminate certain data points from our reports that we think, if we do these fact-tank posts we can give more attention to something interesting and important that might otherwise stay buried in a 20 or 50 or 150 page report. So it’s another way to get the information out there. We also have on a typical day in a typical week there may be two or three gatherings with outside experts in a particular field come in to talk either about religion or survey methodology in general or politics or whatever it is. And it’s almost like a continuing education thing. It really feels like a university environment in some ways. It feels like a combination between a newsroom and a university environment in ways that having come from those two backgrounds I find very stimulating and enjoyable.
TURNER: Yeah I think that’s a great way that you just described it there. I’m really getting a good picture of what it’s like to work there.
TURNER: So how did you get this job?
DIAMANT: Ah yes ok. Good question. I worked as a reporter for a long time before this and when I was a reporter and Pew came out with a study it was very often worth writing about from what I was writing for the newspaper I was writing for. And when I read Pew’s reports I was very impressed with the rigor and the context and the writing. I felt like I learned from these reports. Reading Pew reports always seemed like time well spent. And thought it might be really interesting to write for them one day. And I knew someone who worked at Pew from when I was a reporter, he’d been a reporter too at the time. And I contacted him midway through, right after my orals I think it was or maybe it was before my orals. And I just told him I was interesting in having an informational interview or something and I met with him down in DC and it went very well and I just stayed in touch with him over the years.
Because having a journalism and an academic background were something that was valuable. And I did do something actually that I think helped my chances. I signed up to audit a course at Pew on quantitative data analysis. It was taught by Laird Bergad and it basically taught me a data analytics program called SPSS which is used at Pew. I think they kind of viewed it as an additional reason that I’d be a good fit there. I was a little bit older, so I was maybe less willing to go live anywhere where a job came up, I’m married with two kids. It wasn’t as easy to up and leave and go anywhere so this is something that I took seriously. I guess that’s kind of how I got the job.
TURNER: Ok so first of all, I really like that you said you did an informational interview with an old colleague. So is that something you would recommend? Did it really give you a good sense of what it was like to work there?
DIAMANT: I highly recommend doing things like that. When I was a reporter back in a day when…not to date myself, but my friends and I, when we were out of college, something we would do was…we wouldn’t just wait for job postings to come up. If there was a place you wanted to work, you would contact the people there under the guise of just wanting to hear more about the place and see if it would be a good fit. And we would always through in at the end, “oh if I’m in town I’d love to come meet you sometime.” Knowing full well that we were going to tend to be in town for something else and then contact the guy. “Oh yeah you know I’m going to be in town for this or that January 22nd, can I stop by?” And then after he says yes, you buy your plane ticket or your train ticket, whatever it is right.
And so I think that’s what I did for this too although I might have actually had a valid reason to be in DC. I mean I was coming to DC for research as well, so I actually may have had a valid reason to do it. I definitely recommend that. I don’t know how applicable this will be to everybody who is listening to this, but there’s definitely value when you think about your path in trying to combine…If you came to grad school and you did have a career that you liked and that you can see using in a different way after you graduate. In keeping contacts with those people and thinking of ways that you might be able to turn that into something outside of academia after you graduate. And that’s kind of what I did. I added something to it by taking the quantitative analysis course, methodology, the SPSS course.
TURNER: And that was my next question. Is SPSS generally what Pew Research Center uses there or are they also using R or Stata or whatever else?
DIAMANT: Yeah they use R and Stata. And SPSS doesn’t do as many things as R and Stata do.
TURNER: Good so a lot of our students will be interested in knowing that. What the good software to know is.
DIAMANT: A lot of people who are strictly researchers, it’s kind of expected I think that you be familiar with that. Those are definitely the things. I think for someone like me, who did qualitative research as opposed to quantitative research. I mean just dipping your toe into this is really the big step. A lot of people are scared off by the math that’s involved. Not that you truly do math, the program does the math for you. But some people aren’t really comfortable with numbers and getting past that fear will probably help you in whatever you do I think. Because if you work in a field where people aren’t good with numbers and you are good with numbers or comfortable with them I think it’s always an advantage. It’s good to take steps and to kind of plan ahead. Nobody told me I had to do this, I kind of had one of the paths I was considering. And I thought it was reasonable given my background. And I thought it would help me so I did it.
TURNER: Great, so I’m curious what other jobs were you going for when you graduated? What else did you apply to? What else were you looking into?
DIAMANT: So during my fellowship I was teaching history at Lehman College and then as part of my Enhanced Chancellor fellowship. And then I got the idea, someone put it in my head-you could try to become a journalism professor too. So I started teaching journalism classes at Rutgers-Newark. Which I really enjoyed very much. So I looked into some journalism professorships and I was going to apply for religious studies and history professor jobs. And actually, my interview at Pew was ten days before I defended before my dissertation. So I wasn’t on the job market for particularly long. I started applying for journalism professorships before, because they tend not to mandate that you have a PhD. I applied for a few of those in the year before I got the job at Pew. I had wanted to finish the PhD. I guess I never really applied for that many tenure-track positions in my specialty field. I was very fortunate.
TURNER: What do you think was the either attitude or atmosphere or how did your advisor or your department look at you taking a job outside of academia? Did it even matter? Did you use them as a reference?
DIAMANT: Funny you ask that. I was a little bit uneasy about getting my advisor to be a reference for that. I had a very good relationship with my advisor and I know they would have helped me. I guess maybe I did mention it to one or two of them before it happened. You know your advisors are spending time helping you develop a dissertation with the idea that you’re going to be part of the next generation of scholars. Which I did think I was going to be and I still plan to turn my dissertation into a couple of books. The job at Pew is not so all consuming that I won’t have time at night to do that. I’m working on a proposal right now in fact. But I was wary of that. You know it’s funny, in academia there is an understanding now that you have to prepare people for the possibility that they won’t get a tenure-track job right. This is spoken of openly now. But I think it’s kind of an evolving process where professors are getting more comfortable. And these professors are very busy people, they have a lot of demands on their time. And I didn’t think it was important to go into their office you know a nervous wreck over a job possibility. I just didn’t think that was something I was able to work out with other people. Had I needed them I would have.
DIAMANT: I happened to have other contacts. There were people who were in academia who were not my advisors who I had come to know over time who wrote recommendations for me for journalism jobs. They tended to be journalism professors at other places. I was kind of respectful of what I viewed as a process I guess. And I didn’t want to burden them with helping me getting a job outside their fields of expertise or outside of academia. I’m not saying that works for everybody, I’m not saying that was a necessary hesitancy on my part. I think I had a good enough relationship with them that they would have been fine with it. I just I didn’t actually need to so I didn’t really go down that both. They were very nice when they heard about the job I got. I’m still in touch with all of them frankly. In fact, I have consulted one of them. I had him invited to be on our advisory council for a study we did on Muslims in America and I just talked to one of them today about another study that we’re trying to do. So I definitely maintained my relationships with them.
TURNER: Right. And so it also sounds like you do do a lot of interactions and networking with academics still because you need to.
DIAMANT: Something about the job that I love…I also love getting to read journal articles. It kind of gives me a reason again. Calling up JSTOR or whatever it is, whatever we’re able to access as alumni. It’s been extremely helpful to me. So that’s something that I feel very fortunate for, that I’m able to keep doing that because I really enjoyed the research very much.
TURNER: Yeah and so what advice do you have for current students who want to pursue research careers outside of the academy? What kinds of things should they be doing now?
DIAMANT: I think it’s important to not wait until you have defended your dissertation. Because people tend to apply for jobs and hit the job market in academia when they’re nearly done with their dissertation or obviously afterwards. I think that that might be a little too late ideally to start thinking about the process seriously. But for this type of approach I think it’s important to maybe identify a number of places that you think you’d want to work at. Maybe as you’re about to finish up your coursework or something. So 2 or 3 years to start trying to make yourself a good applicant for that place. I think it’s important to focus on being able to write for non-academic audiences. Almost these research places, research institutions, care very much about how their work connects with a broader audience, not just in academia. And I personally think that a lot of academics that I worked with really defied the stereotype of academics only being able to write for academics. I worked with a lot of very good writers.
I had this sense when I got to the program having been a journalist for fifteen years, I was going to be the best writer in my cohort. And then were a lot of excellent writers in my cohort. I think good writing is stressed more now maybe then it used to be a very long time ago in academia. But I do think there’s value in trying to write for broader audiences. Places like the Conversation, there are all sorts of blogs that people can write for. I don’t know if this is changing to some degree, but you used to be advised not to blog or to do that. You were supposed to devote all of your attention to scholarly journals. And there still are people who believe that and I certainly don’t know what’s best for everybody to do or not. But there’s a certainly a tension. Should you spend all your time writing for scholarly journals or should you write for blogs that are maybe geared for a different audience. There’s probably some combination there that’s probably good. But if you’re interested in working for some of these institutions it seems to me to be important to have a demonstrated ability to connect to a broader audience.
TURNER: Perfect, yeah.
DIAMANT: I would also say that it’s valuable to try to make these connections. When I was a young reporter going on all these job interviews. My friends and I would call them “interviews.” Like oh I have a quote-unquote interview with the Tampa Bay Tribune or I have a quote-unquote interview with the Palm Beach Post. And that would basically be short-hand for an interview that we kind of set up ourselves. Informational types of interviews. It’s just a way to be more than a name on a job application, to be more than just a resume. A personal connection you can make with people and just showing them that you’re interested you know, without being desperate. You have to make a good case, learn about the place well of course. And when you go there you have to obviously demonstrate care about it and want to work there. Which is probably true, you aren’t lying to them because you wouldn’t take the time to do it unless you actually cared about. My desire to work at Pew was a pretty strong one that I’d known about for a long time so it was an easy case for me to make. But there’s so much information about places out there. A lot of these places like the idea of good writers who care about these topics that they care about. Taking the time to do those things, to make the contacts, to really focus on your writing for these audiences is valuable.
TURNER: Wow, yeah. That’s great advice, great. Is there anything else that you can you think of that you might want to share before we wrap up? About your career experience or some advice?
DIAMANT: I think I want to say that I had a very positive experience at the Grad Center. I thought that the professors there lived up to their exceptional reputations of research and knowledge. And they were very easy to work with I found. They were accessible and I count myself very fortunate to have had the experience with the Grad Center.
TURNER: Great, great, ok. So if that’s everything we can wrap it up and I want to thank you again for joining me tonight on the call. And yeah thanks so much for telling us about your experience.
DIAMANT: My pleasure!
TURNER, VOICE-OVER: Thanks to Jeff for talking to us about his research at Pew Research Center. To learn more about your own career possibilities after graduate school, you should check out our calendar of events on our website at cuny.is/careerplan or follow us on Twitter @CareerPlanGC where we give you the latest updates on our programming. Thanks so much for listening!
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