At home in political science, Clemson’s Ph.D. in policy studies allows graduates to shape policy in South Carolina and beyond
Michael Mikota’s motor scooter got plenty of use during his time as a graduate student at Clemson. It meant a great deal to him, and not only because it was his primary source of transportation during the four years it took to earn his Ph.D. The motor scooter was a daily reminder of what he had given up, and the gamble he took when he abandoned a career that most would have happily continued.
Mikota is now president of Central Carolina Technical College, but that level of success was never guaranteed. Back in 2003, he had parlayed his master’s degree in business to a good job in banking. He had a plush apartment and a couple of sports cars, but he took a dramatic left turn in his career and arrived in Clemson for his Ph.D. because he wanted to make a difference and serve the public.
“I sold those cars and got the $450 motorscooter that I used throughout my time at Clemson,” Mikota said. “Selling the cars helped pay my bills when I started to make significantly less as a graduate assistant. I could have stayed put many times over the years, milking a career in banking or later in government, but I wanted to make a positive change.”
The program Mikota sought out was Clemson’s Ph.D. in policy studies. The program, which now calls Clemson’s political science department home, has helped students learn not just how to enforce or understand public policy, but how to shape it.
Leadership in the political science department hope to further expand its graduate offerings while more effectively fulfilling Clemson’s land-grant mission by positioning the Ph.D. in policy studies as its first graduate program. However, the key strength of the program, its ability to attract and serve the needs of a wide range of students, remains unchanged. It will continue to pay dividends for future students in the ways it did for Mikota.
The architects of Clemson’s policy studies program knew it needed to touch many disciplines when they created the program in 2000. Bruce Ransom, professor in Clemson’s political science department and director of the policy studies program, was one of those architects. He saw the value of keeping the program open to multiple colleges and departments so that it could appeal to as large a cross section of students as possible.
“Our students and their interests have always driven the course of study in this program,” Ransom said. “Our graduates have gone on to affect policies in everything from environmental management to health care. They are successful because of the interdisciplinary nature of the program.”
Mikota has come to understand that public policy is more than just political; it’s as important in the board room as it is in the farm field. Clemson’s degree program was attractive to him because it would allow him to cross disciplinary lines and work with a cross section of faculty at Clemson.
Mikota took advantage of Clemson’s diverse disciplines when working on his dissertation, which examined the economic and political feasibility of incorporating wetlands into water quality trading programs. He wanted to examine how science can meet policy, and he’s been pleased since completing it that his work has been used and cited by international scientists and policy makers.
Mikota said he values the relationships he made at Clemson as much as he values the ability to put “doctor” in front of his name. He enjoyed learning from and working with Ransom and the other faculty involved in the program. The friends he made in the policy studies cohort have lasted; he’s the godfather of one of his fellow graduate’s children.
On his way to his current position leading Central Carolina Technical College, Mikota served as executive director of the Santee-Lynches Regional Council of Governments. He also served as an analyst and senior analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C. Even though he applied the knowledge gained during his doctoral studies to these positions in government, he said they continue to serve him in an academic, administrative setting.
“Without a doubt, 100 percent, no question it’s the best possible degree to have as the president of a college or university,” Mikota said. “Whether it’s working with local government or the state legislature, those relationships and that kind of problem solving are second nature. It’s my natural habitat. Even the experiences I had at Clemson that might have seemed small have had a huge impact.”
Anna Eskridge, community development program manager for Charleston County, had spent her career enforcing policies in the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, but wanted to learn more about shaping public policy. During her time in the policy studies program, Eskridge worked with the South Carolina Water Resource Center as a graduate assistant. She focused her dissertation on how public participation influences the policy making process.
Even while working on her dissertation, she found herself working up and down the East coast dealing with state agencies and the EPA. During this time, Eskridge interpreted and implemented environmental regulations and coordinated compliance for an industrial manufacturer. She said her background at Clemson has played a big part in furthering her career and landing her in her current position.
“I now do long-term planning for Housing and Urban Development funds to make sure the public has input on how the government spends its money,” Eskridge said. “The Ph.D. has helped me stand out and establish myself in Charleston County.”
According to Jeff Peake, chair of Clemson’s political science department, the department is a natural home to policy studies because the subject is traditionally viewed as a subfield of political science. Faculty in the department provide the core courses that relate to the theory surrounding public policy, while faculty from across the university are pulled in to serve as dissertation committee members, which broadens the program’s scope.
The fact that the program touches on so many disparate topics in various disciplines also appealed to Peake. Alumni have gone on to work in industry and academia; many graduates have gone directly into professorial positions. The variety of topics covered also means the majority of doctoral students’ work in public policy directly aligns with Clemson’s land-grant mission, so he is eager to further increase his department’s role in public service.
“It only makes sense for our department to have a program such as this that’s both academic and research oriented, but at the same time very applied,” Peake said. “It truly bridges the gap between theory and practical application.”
The Ph.D. in policy studies’ core curriculum consists of 33 credit hours. It draws heavily from the policy sciences, including economics, political science, public administration, quantitative methods and management science. The four concentration areas are environmental and natural resource policy; agricultural policy; economic development policy; and science and technology policy.
Concentration courses (18 credit hours) and elective courses (12 credit hours) come largely from linkage disciplines, which are related to the life and physical sciences, technology fields and the social sciences. Policy application is made through seminars, practicums and workshops as well as in-house research activities. In addition, students must research, write and defend a dissertation (at least 18 credit hours).
For more information on the program, click here.