A Public Policy PhD Alumna Shares Insights into U.S. Army Strategy and Acquisition Reform

Alexis Lasselle Ross’ job with the Army doesn’t require a PhD, but she’s happy to have one. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Strategy and Acquisition Reform says she thinks about what she learned while earning her degree “all the time.”

Ross earned her PhD in Public Policy from the Schar School of Policy and Government in 2015.

As a senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology, Ross, who is a civilian, must bring together factions that are often at odds: the legislative branch and the executive branch of the government. Her job is not a small one, and the defense of the country counts on her team’s success: Increase efficiencies in how the Army acquires its weapons systems.

“We’re trying to overhaul the entire enterprise,” she said during an interview at her office in the Pentagon.

Her Schar School public policy degree prepared her for using “a lot of theory and methodology that I never thought I would employ but I do. Things like political economics, and, obliviously, theory of public policy and policy change…Those theories fundamentally help what I do.”

The skills she learned during her time at George Mason University’s Schar School come into play frequently, particularly when she and her team of 20 tackle a new problem.

“Anytime we start a new project related to reform, there’s a perceived problem, and we have to come up with a solution,” she explained. “Most of the time that exercise beings an understanding of what the problem is—which is causal analysis—using logic models and root cause analysis. All those things we would talk about in an academic setting.”

“Then you think about the true cause of a problem—in reform work, if it just scratches the surface [a solution] will never stick. To have true change you really have to address and analyze the root cause. And that’s just the beginning of the process.”

Ever the researcher, Ross, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University and a master’s degree from the Naval War College, looked at the doctoral program offerings of other Washington, D.C., area universities before choosing the Schar School.

“George Mason University’s program, in my mind, was far better structured in terms of the way it was laid out,” she said. “It was a three-phase approach, with courses first, then field readings and exams, and then dissertation research.”

Clearly, Ross made the right decision. “In our PhD program, Alexis was an impressive student as well as an accomplished professional,” said University Professor James Pfiffner, Ross’ public policy PhD chairman. “It takes a lot of discipline to earn a PhD when you are working fulltime.”

Not only was Ross working fulltime on the Armed Services Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, but during her time at the Schar School she got married, moved twice, had a baby, and wrote a groundbreaking dissertation about the Department of Defense and its health-care system for retired military personnel.

“Her practical experience at the Pentagon and as a senior congressional staffer added a lot to the sophistication of the scholarship in her dissertation,” Pfiffner added. “I am not at all surprised that she is now a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army and a member of the Senior Executive Service. Her career is not over yet.”