“I Love My Job”

Chris Pulliam’s pursuit of his dream job at a major think tank benefited from the direct interest taken in him by a senior professor who once worked there himself.

By Dana Cooke

Chris Pulliam

By all appearances, Chris Pulliam ’17 BA (Econ/PSc)/’18 MPA was destined for important work in the policy sector. Even as an undergraduate at Maxwell, he was drawn, he says, to “really thinking seriously about policy ideas, policy programs, the trade-offs and the costs.” Purposeful, intelligent, and passionate about policy, Pulliam probably would have landed a good job in that sector.

Today, though, only a few months after Maxwell, Pulliam already holds his “dream job.” He’s a research assistant at the Brookings Institution, working with senior fellows focused on economic mobility and income inequality. And he figures he owes that, at least a little, to John Palmer, Maxwell’s dean emeritus, a University Professor, and a former senior fellow at Brookings, who recommended Pulliam for the job.

“Sometimes I sit at my desk and I’m still amazed,” Pulliam says. “It’s a surreal feeling. . . . I went to Maxwell hoping to get a job like this, but it’s a dream. I love my job.”

After his BA, Pulliam returned to Maxwell largely for the chance to study with Palmer, a former Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services and a leading authority on the social safety net. “I knew he was a top researcher and top practitioner,” Pulliam remembers. “I learned after I got here that he’s a great teacher. He’s one of those ‘triple-threat’ professors.” Pulliam took Palmer’s seminar, US Federal Budget, Health Care and Social Security Reform, and served also as Palmer’s graduate assistant.

When the job came up at Brookings, Pulliam asked Palmer if he would write a recommendation letter, which Palmer did. Then Palmer’s phone rang. It was Isabel Sawhill, one of the Brookings senior fellows to whom Pulliam would report, if hired. She also happened to be a former research partner of Palmer’s, from their time together at the Urban Institute in the 1980s. According to Palmer, Sawhill’s question was simple: “Is this guy as good as you claim he is?” Palmer listed Pulliams’s attributes: strong analytic skills, good writer, conscientious, “plays well with others.” And Pulliam got the gig. Sawhill later emailed to report, “He’s all you said he was and more.”

For Palmer, it’s typical to have general career chats, about likely jobs and sectors, with half or so of the students in his course. Maybe once a year, on average, he plays a role in someone’s hiring. He is aware of alumni at OMB, CBO, GAO, HHS, Treasury, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget whom he helped get hired. And now Brookings.

Pulliam has completed a handful of Brookings projects, co-authoring, for example, a report on increasing middle class dependence on safety-net programs. He also attends internal Brookings policy debates. “To listen to people in a major think tank hash out that kind of stuff . . .,” says Pulliam. Amid a sort of can’t-believe-his-luck reverie, Pulliam doesn’t need to finish the sentence.

This article appeared in the winter 2019 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.