Q&A with Congressional Fellows: Paul Rubin
Q&A with Congressional Fellows: Paul Rubin

July 2018

Tell us a little bit about your year on Capitol Hill, the issues that you covered, your responsibilities.

During my year on Capitol Hill, I focused on the education portfolio of Senator Elizabeth Warren. As my boss sits on the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) Committee, I was involved in the hearings and conversations around two major education bills this year: the Higher Education Act and the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. As my academic and research background is in higher education, I was excited to be involved in the discussions around these major pieces of legislation. However, the portfolio I covered also included early childhood and K–12 education, child care, adult education, and other issues that are related to education such as dyslexia, public service programs, and public broadcasting. In addition, my daily responsibilities included meeting with constituents and advocacy groups; drafting letters, memos, and legislation; briefing my boss for hearings and meetings; and speaking with other congressional offices about ways to work together on projects and bills.

Can you describe a day in the life of a congressional staffer?

There is no “regular” day as a congressional staffer, but it usually includes a combination of external- and internal-facing activities. The external-facing activities include meeting with constituents and advocacy organizations and attending hearings and briefings. The internal activities include drafting letters, memos, and legislation; briefing my boss on upcoming hearings and meetings; and speaking with staff at other congressional offices about ongoing and future projects and topics. In addition, congressional staffers continually keep up-to-date on news and insights that relate to their bosses’ agendas in a given policy area. On multiple occasions, though, I witnessed a staffer’s schedule drastically change due to breaking news at the national level or within their boss’s state/district, which necessitated an immediate response and shifting of all planned activities for the day. I left my office on multiple days having accomplished many things, none of which were on my to-do list when I arrived that morning.

What was the most valuable thing that you learned from the experience? What is the most surprising thing that you learned while in DC?

The most surprising thing I learned from my time on the Hill is how differently each office operates. Besides having a different policy agenda, each congressional office has different legislative goals and processes that can influence the utility of information, research, and policy discussions. A colleague described the 100 Senate offices as 100 small businesses, with each senator serving as a CEO overseeing how their office is run. Relatedly, the most valuable aspect of this experience is recognizing that all members of Congress are making decisions based on what they believe will benefit their constituencies the most. Although I might not agree with every opinion held or made, it is important to recognize that decisions generally do not occur haphazardly or with poor intentions.

What should education researchers know about the factors that go into education policy decisions?

Researchers should recognize that policymakers’ education policy platform is usually connected to their broader policy agenda, which is usually based on the needs and goals of their constituents and state or district. Consequently, policymakers will often try to determine the impact of a policy on their constituents and its connection to their broader agenda before taking a position for or against. Research—not only in the academic sense but also more broadly, to include news stories and personal stories—can play a role as policymakers figure out their positions, but this process is equally impacted by relationships and political factors that might take priority. This is not to downplay the impact of research, but research is not always the driving force behind decision making.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to fellow education researchers about connecting their work to policy and sharing their research with policymakers?

I think it is important for education researchers to understand that congressional offices will often have established relationships with organizations and individuals that will help inform and guide their decision making. It becomes researchers’ job to position themselves to connect with these preferred sources in order to influence policy. For example, I would suggest researchers consider reaching out to and partnering with intermediary organizations—think tanks, policy groups, advocacy organizations—as a possible mechanism to amplify their work. These organizations provide congressional staffers with information and often distill academic research into digestible quick takes for policymakers. Researchers should also try to connect with government relations personnel at their institution or organization, who often have established relationships with policymakers.

Besides making connections, education researchers must reframe their work to be more policy relevant. Currently, the “policy recommendation” sections of research papers rarely provide actionable suggestions but instead highlight a one- or two-sentence theoretical framing of what the findings mean. If education researchers want to actually influence the policy process, they need to be willing to discuss more directly what their research means for current policies and what can realistically be changed.

How might this experience shape your future research and career decisions?

I came into this fellowship immediately after completion of my Ph.D. in higher education. Besides solidifying my interest in education policy, my year on the Hill has sparked new questions on the policymaking process and an interest in the federal government’s role in education policy, which I look forward to examining further. I hope to be able to use my experience this year to make my research more policy relevant and consider ways to be influential in both the academic and policymaking communities.

Paul Rubin received his Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Georgia in 2017. While at Georgia, he served as a project manager and lead graduate researcher at the Institute of Higher Education. Rubin’s higher education policy research focuses on federal financial aid policies, institutional test-optional admissions policies, and state-level policies designed to impact college completion. Rubin, who served in the office of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), will be commencing a two-year postdoctoral position at the University of Utah in August.

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