As a professor at a policy school who previously
spent a decade in policy jobs in Washington DC, I'm often asked by students for
advice on the best academic and professional routes for breaking into policy
work. So I've taken particular notice of the ongoing blogosphere debate that my
FP colleague and friend Dan Drezner has prompted,
on the question of who should pursue a Ph.D, and why? Dan has been getting
ample attention from our Shadow Government ranks recently; see here
for the thoughtful exchange between Dan and Phil Levy on prospects for progress
on trade liberalization during President Obama's second term, an exchange
prompted in part by me
suckered persuaded by Dan's original post.
[ed. -- you are shameless, Inboden,
stealing Drezner's blogging gimmicks like that!]
Of course there are downsides to agreeing with Dan, such as foregoing a chance to win dinner at his expense. But on this question of whether people interested in a Washington policy career should get a Ph.D., I think Drezner has it right: if your main reason for pursuing a Ph.D. is to burnish your résumé for a national security job, then you probably shouldn't pursue a Ph.D. The doctoral process is simply too long and laborious, and prospects for finishing are too meager, if your motivation is mainly to get those letters after your last name. There are plenty of other pathways to successful policy careers. Rather, as I often tell my students, the single most important factor in determining if you should go for a Ph.D. is if you love the process for its own sake. In other words, if the prospect of spending 5, 6, 7, or more years in relative isolation reading, researching, and writing about a specialized (and often obscure) topic excites you, then you are probably cut out for a doctorate. Whereas if that sounds merely tolerable, or downright unpleasant, then you will be at high risk of being one of those bright and ambitious people Dan describes who start but never finish their doctorate, and face the worst of all worlds of paying high opportunity costs for little reward.
This is not at all to say that a Ph.D. isn't of use for a policy career. It can be tremendously helpful, for assets you develop such as a deep knowledge base, critical thinking, and writing skills. This is why the foreign policy community has an abundance of Ph.D.s, and why getting a Ph.D. can be very good for a policy career. But there are other ways to develop those assets besides doctoral work, and there are skills and qualities more important than a Ph.D. for succeeding in a policy career. Here are just a few that I have observed and experienced:
Interpersonal skills. Policy accomplishments are rarely a matter of who has the most brilliant idea or the most extensive issue knowledge. The foreign policy world is full of experts with brilliant ideas (as the experts are happy to tell you). Few of those ideas ever get realized. The people that succeed are those who can persuade others, who can build a coalition to support and then implement their ideas, and who can artfully navigate the inevitable roadblocks. Doing this demands strong interpersonal skills, such as being able to read other people, understand their motives and interests, and persuade them to want to support you.
Personality and character. This relates to interpersonal skills, but is more about who you are. Are you the type of person whom others enjoy being around and want to work with? Are you trustworthy, honorable, winsome, and collegial? Unlike academia, which rewards solitary work, most public policy work takes place in groups and teams. Only in rare cases will a person succeed in policy work if they don't play well with others. Those who get ahead are those who have the types of personality and character that their colleagues find appealing and trustworthy. Be the kind of person whom others want to include in meetings, trust on major projects, and be with during long days and late nights at the office -- or extended trips around the globe.
Good writing. A good idea poorly expressed is not better than a bad idea. The policy community in Washington DC still works by "moving paper" -- meaning written memos and reports that move up the chain of command for leadership decisions. People with good writing skills thrive; those with poor writing skills rarely survive. Learn to write well, and quickly.
Mentorship. Just about every successful Washington DC foreign policy practitioner I've known was the beneficiary of good mentorship. In a town that runs on personal networks, some of the most important but least appreciated relationships are those between mentors and protégés. Seek out multiple mentors whose character you admire and whose professional accomplishments you would like to emulate. Not only will you learn much from them, but you will also have an inside slot on a job working for them next time they get promoted or land a new policy-making position. And once you get started on your career, pay it forward by seeking out opportunities to mentor those younger than you.
Sound judgment. Abundant knowledge and analytic skills are no substitute for wisdom. Good judgment mostly comes from experience, and experience includes learning from mistakes. For young people who want to embark on a policy career, this can sound like an annoying tautology -- after all, the main way to get experience is to get hired in the first place, and making mistakes is not the kind of thing that will normally endear you to a new boss. But if you have cultivated the other qualities above -- interpersonal skills and character, and finding good mentors -- you will be better equipped to develop sound judgment. Yes, often this includes making your own mistakes, but the best of all worlds comes to those who can learn from the mistakes of others, and thus attain the benefits of those lessons without incurring the costs of the mistakes. Two practical ways to do this are to ask your mentors about what they've learned from their mistakes, and read history -- an abundant record of human folly and its endless lessons.
What does all of this mean for students and young professionals who want a foreign policy career and are considering graduate school? Simply this: pursue the graduate degree that is of most interest to you in its own right. This might mean a terminal master's program, law school, business school, or yes a Ph.D. I have seen countless examples of people succeed in foreign policy with any of those degrees. Of course there are other relevant factors to consider in selecting a graduate degree program, including financial cost, time and opportunity cost, career placement record, etc. But those factors, while important, will be insufficient to get you through a graduate program if you otherwise find your studies insufferable.
The difference between those who succeed and those who don't is rarely a matter of degree (pun intended); rather it is a matter of those who cultivate the qualities like those described above. Other qualities could probably be added to this list -- I hope some of my fellow Shadow Government contributors might have some thoughts to add?
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
As much of the world heads into August vacation season, we've canvassed our Shadow Government contributors to find out what they are reading (or plan to read) this month. Below are our book recommendations; in many cases our contributors added a few words of background as well. No surprise, many of the books are related to foreign policy, but with some creative twists here and there.
I've just finished Christopher Buckley's new book, They Eat Puppies, Don't They? and Nate Fick's One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, which is the assigned book for Washington College first year students this coming academic year. (Nate is coming to campus later this year to meet with the students and discuss the book's themes of leadership and responsibility.) I am currently finishing Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, which won this year's George Washingtion Book Prize as the best book on the revolutionary era. And I hope to start next Rob Litwak's final installment of his foreign policy "trilogy," Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain or Engage Regimes.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Excellent review of the causes of poverty and lack of development because it focuses on the absolute requirement for democratic governance and the rule of law to secure property rights. However, it fudges the culture issue by assuming that institutions and culture are somehow different things, as though the latter does not produce the former.
On China, by Henry Kissinger. Because it's Kissinger.
Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France, by Jean-Vincent Blanchard. Diplomats and policymakers can learn much from this genius who shaped modern European and world affairs to this day by being the first to insist that his state's interests were his North Star. Leaders of an exceptional nation-state like the US have interests beyond power, but they can't achieve them without understanding what Richelieu knew and how he operated for good and bad.
Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome, by Robert Harris. Harris is a master at showing us who Cicero was: a statesman who loved the republic but was a consummate realist in all he did to restore the liberties of Rome (such as they were). He got his hands dirty, but he saved the republic for a few more years by, among other things, defeating the Cataline Conspiracy, the subject of this novel. Harris takes liberties in this work of fiction, but it is nonetheless instructive.
State of Disrepair, by Kori Schake (yes, that Kori Schake!)
Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
Ranald S. Mackenzie on the Texas Frontier, by Ernest Wallace. A history of white settlement of the southwest and the role played in it by the soldier who finally figured out how to win the Indian wars.
Bright's Passage, by Josh Ritter. A lyrical novel about a World War I veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, reminder of the toll that combat takes on the people who fight it for us, how important and difficult it is to stitch them back into society.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason. A collection of short story excursions on themes from the Odyssey. Homer would be turning cartwheels to see his material used with such vigor and creativity.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Why? Because I've never read it before. Impression thus far: it's very long. And very good.
The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller. An erudite and winsome defense of the intellectual plausibility of the Christian faith.
Postwar by Tony Judt. The word "magisterial" is woefully overused, but in the case of Judt's elegant history of Europe from World War II to the present, it is wholly merited.
Capital: A Novel, by John Lanchester. A well-written tale of London that I started on a recent trip there.
Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Two very good authors try to disentangle history, politics, and economics.
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. The sequel to Wolf Hall! A distinctive writing style; not necessarily easy, but very rewarding.
George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis. A great historian writing about one of the last century's most important diplomats.
At Home, by Bill Bryson. Bryson serves up a reminder about how advances in technology - including seemingly mundane ones - have repeatedly had a major and unforeseen impact on politics and international affairs. Plus beach reading is supposed to be entertaining, after all.
West Rules (for Now), by Ian Morris. Meta-history at its best by an archaeologist who combines insights from
history, geography, and sociology to explain why it was the West, not the East,
that came to dominate the modern world. Like many students of the past,
though, his predictions for the future are questionable. Read it for its
rich historical insights rather than using it as a crystal ball.
Jews, God, & History (2nd edition), by Max Dimont. As a non-Jew, I discovered this book on my current trip to Israel. Excerpt: "Jewish history is too fascinating, too interesting, too incredible to remain the private property of Jews and scholars.... Jewish history cannot be told as the history of Jews only, because they have nearly always lived within the context of other civilizations. The destiny of the Jews has paralleled the destinies of those same civilizations, except in one important respect. Somehow the Jews managed to escape the cultural death of each of the civilizations within which they dwelled. Somehow the Jews managed to survive the death of one civilization and continue their cultural growth in another which was emerging at the time."
Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, by Lawrence James. When I lived in New Delhi we shunned literature on Britain's Indian empire so as not to give our Indian friends the idea that we were colonial romanticists or Orientalists. However, the legacy of the Raj lives on in India's institutions and in its expanding foreign policy horizons, and it is difficult to understand modern India without an awareness of the nationalist and modernist currents that emerged from the colonial experience. To the extent that the modern world grew out of a British empire on which the sun never set, Britain's experience in India is central to the narrative of global history, and to understanding Asia's other big rising power.
The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. I recently rediscovered the joys of Niebuhr's philosophy when Shadow Government co-editor and German Marshall Fund fellow Will Inboden gave a presentation of his new paper on Niebuhr's relevance to our understanding of international politics today. During the early Cold War, Niebuhr's thinking on the intersection of human morality (including its darker undercurrents) with democracy, totalitarianism, and the international balance of power shaped the work of generations of scholars and practitioners. His rich understanding of the human condition and its expression in the instruments of state power are a welcome antidote for students of political science unconvinced by the austerity of structural realism and other modern theories of international relations.
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Two apparently unrelated snapshots have got me thinking about the hoary topic of the gap between academic political science and the nitty-gritty world of foreign policymaking.
Snapshot 1: The story about the haggling between Chinese and U.S. aides over protocol niceties for the state visit of Chinese leader Hu. The report vividly conveys the back-and-forth that is the daily grind of diplomacy in the trenches. I could well recall how doggedly the Chinese aides pursued a diplomatic nicety here or a protocol advantage there, all the while blocking the efforts of U.S. aides to add elements that would highlight U.S. priorities. And I cringed once again at the account of the gaffes that accompanied the welcome ceremony of Hu's visit back in 2006.
Snapshot 2: My program here just hosted Farah Pandith, who is special representative to Muslim communities in the State Department, a relatively new post that was set up to help implement the vision President Obama outlined in his June 2009 Cairo speech. Ms. Pandith is a rarity -- she has served as a political appointee in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations -- and she delighted the students with a vivid account of her engagement with Muslims around the world on behalf of Obama and Secretary Clinton. She focuses on the under-30 generation and, naturally, this led my students to ask about recent dramatic events in Tunisia and Lebanon in which the younger generation seems to be playing a particularly influential role. However, Ms. Pandith deftly shifted from expansive to circumspect to avoid saying anything that might roil the diplomatic waters at this delicate time; "I would refer you to the remarks made by Assistant Secretary Feltman," was about all she would say. And rightly so, because in her position a stray remark might wreck carefully calibrated (at least, I hope they are carefully calibrated) strategies being pursued at the top level.
Both these snapshots are good teaching moments, precisely because they are at such variance with the daily fare of a typical political science course, including my courses. Very few theories of U.S. foreign policy cover adequately the nuances of summit protocol staff negotiations, and it is hard to capture such detail in class discussion anyway. Yet, I indulge the conceit that I am training the next generation of staffers who will do it. Likewise, my students hear me speculate widely and wildly about every current event, precisely because in my current position and in my classroom there is very little harm done -- nothing protects the country from my errors quite so much as towering irrelevance. Yet, if I were in Ms. Pandith's shoes, I would have to adopt as circumspect a posture. The challenge is for trained-in-the-general and free-to-be-irresponsible academics to cultivate an appreciation for nuance and an attention to circumspection in one's students.
The best way to do that, I guess, is to keep introducing my students to practitioners and to remind them that, as good as political science can be, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in [my] philosophy."
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.