Karen Shanton -- Fact-Checking in the Political Arena

Staff Writer for Verbatim, a political fact-checking project of Ballotpedia

At what stage of your academic career did you start thinking about seeking work outside of philosophy?

Only in the last year of my Ph.D., really. I was prepping to go on the academic job market, and feeling less and less sure that it was the thing for me. I’d been interested in politics since my undergraduate days, and an internship seemed like a good way to explore my options. So I signed on as a public policy intern at an organization called Immigration Equality, moved to DC, and split the last summer before I finished my Ph.D. in October 2011 between dissertation writing and Hill visits.

I tried out a few other areas of political work over the next few months, keeping the American Council of Learned Societies’ Public Fellows program in the back of my mind. The Public Fellows Program is for Ph.D.s in the humanities and humanistic social sciences who want to do nonprofit or government work. ACLS launched it in 2011, and I heard about it then from my graduate placement director. I wasn’t eligible for the program that first year, but I applied for the second cohort in 2012.

When did you actually leave philosophy? What was your thinking, or what were your reasons?

I started testing out political work while I was finishing my dissertation, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when I transitioned out of philosophy. But accepting the ACLS Public Fellows position at the National Conference of State Legislatures is one clear marker. Once I did that, I was officially on the path to a career outside philosophy.

I accepted the ACLS position because it was simply too good an opportunity to pass up. Between moving to DC and applying for the position at ACLS, I spent some time at a nonpartisan congressional research organization and at a company that provides state-specific research to political campaigns. Those experiences taught me how much I prefer doing nonpartisan political research, and digging into the nuances of state-level politics. The NCSL gig allowed me to keep doing both.

NCSL is a bipartisan research and support organization for state legislators and legislative staff. I worked in NCSL’s Legislative Management Program, where I specialized in elections, campaign finance, legislative organization, and legislative procedure. On a day-to-day basis, that often meant responding to inquiries from legislators, legislative staffers, and the media. I also contributed to NCSL’s blog, in my first real attempt to write for the general public. And NCSL was kind enough to give me the space to develop new projects, and learn new skills. It was there that I first started learning the programming language R, how to conduct legal and legislative research, and what it takes to put together a useful public-facing database.

You started a new job recently. What do you do now, and what's interesting about it?

I did! I work for Verbatim, a fact-checking project of Ballotpedia. I check the veracity of political claims by politicians, pundits, and other individuals and groups in the political arena.

The claims we check can come from any part of the country, any level of government, any policy area. So, I get to dig deeply into all sorts of interesting corners of American politics. I might work on a claim about a California health care provider tax one week, and another about the number of open seats in the U.S. House of Representatives the next.

How did you figure out what work projects you wanted to take on outside of academia? By extension, what advice would you offer to philosophers who want to leave philosophy, but who haven’t figured out what work they would pursue in its place?

Politics was a natural first place for me to look. I double majored in philosophy and political science in college, and enjoyed following politics.

To figure out the best fit in the politics and policy world, I tried out a few different positions from my first days in DC to my ACLS Public Fellows position and through to my current job. That helped me figure out that I like doing nonpartisan research, and am particularly interested in state-level politics and policy.

I’d advise philosophers who are considering work outside philosophy to actually go and try it out—by volunteering, picking up an internship, doing some freelance work, etc. A challenge I ran into when I first starting looking for work outside philosophy was that I was simultaneously over- and underqualified. My Ph.D. made it difficult to get an entry-level position, but my relative lack of experience left me underqualified for higher-level positions. Taking some time during graduate school to try out nonacademic work can help not only with identifying the kind of work you’d like to do, but also with building a record of relevant work experience.

That experience is useful not only as a resume line, but also for acquiring relevant skills. For example, writing for a general audience is a very different skill from writing for an academic audience. Knowing programming languages and statistics are valuable—and often required—skills in many fields. Getting some experience outside philosophy, both before and after I made the official jump to a non-philosophy career, gave me opportunities to practice those skills.

Philosophers considering work outside philosophy should also familiarize themselves with the conversations in potential alternative fields, just as they do with debates in philosophy. Knowing some of the nuances of state politics and policy undoubtedly gave me an edge in the application process for the ACLS position with NCSL. And learning more about the context of the claims I write about in my current job—the political and policy debates they’re part of—makes for better fact checks.

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Karen's Background

Ph.D. in Philosophy with Certificate in Cognitive Science
Rutgers University (2011)