Experts say academic campaign training provides competitive edge

With the 2008 elections already fast approaching, many Hill staffers may be considering ditching their daily commute in favor of the campaign trail.

Plenty of resumes from job seekers will flood campaign offices in the coming months, particularly those of the most high-profile candidates around the country.  Many campaign veterans swear by climbing the ladder in the world of campaigns the traditional way, by learning on the job.

And the skills that many Hill staffers rely on to do their daily jobs translate well into campaign jobs, like media relations, policy development and messaging.

But academic experts say formal training in campaign management can give a job candidate specific skills that would otherwise take years of on-the-job training to develop — and a competitive advantage over other candidates without them.

Academics say that the increasingly complex and specialized world of campaigning makes academic training an asset.  A graduate of a campaign-management program, for example, can glean insight from complicated polling data, know how to go about setting up a grassroots organization, or draw up a media strategy — all on their first day of work.

Political work is increasingly specialized and knowledge-driven, says Chris Arterton, Dean of The George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. “Politics used to be all about who you know,” he says. “Now, what you know is almost as important.”

Arterton says the world of campaign professionals have come around to the idea that the classroom can be a better proving ground than the trail.  Violetta Ettle, associate provost for administration at the American University, agrees that classroom training in campaign work can make a job candidate stand out in a crowded field. “Having work experience in addition to academic experience makes someone competitive,” she says. “They already have expertise and credibility.”

Academic programs also offer the opportunity for people who know they are interested in campaign work to get a better idea of what specific kind of races (say, local or national, Senate or House) they might want to get involved in.  They offer exposure to top political experts who can share valuable insights. “You hear from experts in the field, on both sides of the aisle, national and international, who are shaping the profession,” Ettle says.

Arterton says formal training provides campaign workers with something they might find difficult to learn on the job, particularly given the break-neck pace of most campaigns: a solid grounding in the ethical principles underpinning the profession.  Campaign ethics are best studied before a sticky ethics question arises, he says, and GW’s emphasis on ethics is meant to prepare students for real-world dilemmas. “That’s our aspiration—to infuse our students with a sense of propriety,” he says.

And although most people seek academic training for reasons that fall into the “what you know” category, attending a local college or university can also help in the “who you know” department, too.  Networking with fellow students and alumni can be a powerful tool for making contacts that could lead to a job, Ettle says.

Area institutions allow would-be campaign management students to choose from an in-depth or quick-hit program, depending on the time they have and their career goals.  George Washington, for example, offers an evening master’s degree program with an emphasis in campaigning.  American University ’s intensive course on campaign management, on the other hand, lasts two weeks.  Hill staffers looking to climb the ranks of the campaign world might think about hitting the classroom before they hit the trail.

American University

In addition to regular graduate-level programs in public affairs, the school offers a two-week intensive program through its Campaign Management Institute. Courses focus on campaign strategy and keeping students abreast of cutting-edge technology used in campaigns.  The main project participants work on is developing a campaign strategy for a real political race.
George Washington University

The institution’s Graduate School for Political Management offers a concentration in campaign management.  Classes are at night, and many students fit classes around full-time jobs.  A common courseload is two classes for each of three semesters a year; a student could finish his degree in two years on that schedule.