International Relations Graduate School Pros and Cons
So, you want a career in foreign policy field and are weighing your options....
Andrew Exum and Erin Simpson, a brand-spanking-new PhD in war studies from the University of London and recentish PhD in government from Harvard, respectively, offer some advice to wannabe international relations* graduate students and generate thoughtful reactions from Dan Drezner (Stanford PhD, full professor at Tufts) and Robert Farley, (Washington PhD, assistant professor at Kentucky’s Patterson School). I commend all three posts to you in full.
Based on my own experience, I’d offer the following advice: It all depends on what you want to be when you grow up.
If you want to teach college from the day you finish school until the day you retire, the PhD or DPhil are all but required. There are simply too many of us floating around competing for jobs for hiring committees–who are comprised almost entirely of those with doctoral degrees–to even look at a candidate without one. Ideally, the degree should be from a traditional academic program rather than a public policy school. And the brand on the sheepskin matters; go to the highest ranked school you can get into and afford.
Indeed, I’d go a step further: Unless you’re going to be satisfied teaching at a lousy school, don’t bother pursuing a PhD if you can’t get into a top flight school–one ranked in the top 10; certainly, the top 25.
I had no idea what I was doing and applied only to the University of Alabama which, well, is not in the top25 IR PhD programs. I got an excellent education, left school with no debt, and have had a reasonably satisfying career. But, once I discovered that teaching at a school like the one where I finished my undergrad degree was actually not what I was cut out for, my academic employment options were quite limited.
If you want to be a think tanker, a PhD–preferably from a public policy school rather than an academic program– is preferable but an MA from a decent policy school can get you in the door. It’s very hard, though, to get the coveted senior fellowships and other jobs where you’re writing under your own byline and building a reputation as an intellectual without the PhD.
If you want to go into the Foreign Service, Intelligence community, or the Pentagon, a PhD is desirable but probably not worth the tradeoff in delayed earnings and entry into the workforce. As Farley points out,
[D]oing a Ph.D. rather than an MA means you’re four years closer to dead. This sounds trivial, but think of it this way; the four year difference between a 2 year MA and a 6 year Ph.D. constitutes roughly 10% of your entire expected professional career. If you’ve served in the military, or taken a couple years off, or worked another job, the math gets considerably worse. If you choose to pursue the Ph.D rather than the MA, here’s what you’re not going to do in those four years: Learn how government works from the inside, build a bevy of professional contacts within the bureaucracy, and (not least) make money.
Indeed, if I had it all to do over again, I’d probably have gotten a master’s degree from the best school I could get into and tried like hell to get a Presidential Management Fellowship. The PMF is the Golden Ticket in government service, shooting you all the way to the GS-13 level in a very short period and opening the path to the Senior Executive/Intelligence/Foreign Service as a relative kid. By comparison, it took David Petraeus 17 years to make lieutenant colonel (GS-13 equivalent) and 26 years to make brigadier general (the lowest SES equivalent). And he’s a West Pointer with a Princeton PhD!
Even without the PMF, a public policy masters will get you in the door and give you both the training and credentials to enable you to move up through the ranks expeditiously. Theoretically, the government doesn’t really care where you went to school–a degree from University of Phoenix is as good as one from Harvard to the personnel department. But a good brand name will matter later in your career.
Many government types actually manage to get a PhD in mid-career. (It’s especially common for military officers, since the Pentagon has a relationship with a handful of schools, most notably Princeton, that allows them to rush people through the program in a mere three years.) This comes with the twin benefits of the degree being paid for and being paid while in school.
Additionally, government service provides another route to being a think tanker or even a professor. While several of us at the director level at the think tank where I work have PhDs, most have MAs and very valuable experience at senior levels of government–ambassadors, assistant secretaries, National Security Council staffers, and such. And many of the elite universities around the country will hire people with that sort of experience as professors (especially in the public policy schools). The war colleges and other professional military education schools vastly prefer them to career academics.
As my own career path (Army officer, grad student, college professor, book editor, defense contractor, freelance writer, and think tanker) demonstrates, there can be many twists and turns in the road. The better your credentials and contacts, the better. Going to Harvard or Stanford or Chicago simply gives you more options than going to a less prestigious institution because it stands out on a resume. Additionally, as Farley notes, some schools do a much better job than others of providing institutional support in networking and finding jobs. And, of course, having spent your 20s working for the Deputy Secretary of Defense or the Ambassador to the United Kingdom is going to open more doors than having spent them in an archive somewhere working on a giant book few will ever read.
All that said, though, the Web has opened new pathways to recognition. Social networking sites like Twitter allow young people interested in public policy to, well, network with those much more senior and accomplished. (Indeed, this whole conversation started with some aspiring MA/PhD students asking questions of Exum and Simpson, resulting in a lively exchange and then these blog posts.) It’s easier than ever for smart people to find information and to publish their work and impress people.
Credentials still matter–probably more than they should and, especially, longer** than they should. But they likely matter less than they did a decade ago.
UPDATE: Steve Saideman (PhD, UC-San Diego, prof at McGill) weighs in.
*The discussion is much different for other fields; the expertise of those offering advice here is confined to this one.
**One of my pet peeves is that people continue to be judged on where they went to school years, even decades, down the road.