Shadow Government

On doctorates, Dan Drezner, and getting ahead in DC...

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 and 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 being 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?


Shadow Government

Should Obama listen to the conventional wisdom in choosing his national security team?

President Obama seems to have two options in assigning the top three national security spots (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor): follow the conventional beltway wisdom or go his own way and do what he thinks is best.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama should pick a Democratic "dream team." That would put Senator Kerry in the Secretary of State slot. He is the Democratic Party's acknowledged congressional leader on foreign policy and would be a shoo-in to be confirmed. He has certainly earned the president's favor, having rescued the administration from some tricky foreign policy predicaments, and he clearly wants the job. The Obama political operation appears willing to risk the Democratic Senate seat in the by-election to replace him. He will not have the celebrity star power that Hilary Clinton had, but there is no one (except her husband -- or perhaps Colin Powell) who could come close to matching that anyway, and Kerry probably is the biggest name available. Secretary Clinton's most important contribution to foreign policy in the past four years has been this high profile "face of America" role -- certainly she had a bigger impact in that role than in shaping key policy debates inside the interagency -- and so seasoned foreign policy hands recognize the importance of making a high-stature appointment.

For Defense, the conventional wisdom is that either of the top two underlings from the first term -- current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter or former UnderSecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy -- would be strong picks. Neither would face a contentious confirmation fight or a steep learning curve. Both enjoy bipartisan respect and would be as capable in selling Obama's controversial defense cuts as anyone he could pick. Both would be trusted to do the best that could be done to mitigate the damage those cuts risk doing to national security.

That leaves Susan Rice looking for a spot to land, and the conventional wisdom is that she would make a fine National Security Advisor. She clearly has the trust of the president, which is the single most important criterion for success, and she would be seen as an equal by the other principals (another important criterion). This is also a non-confirmable post, so the Benghazi unpleasantness would pose no hurdle. There is the awkwardness that the job is currently filled by someone who wants to stay, Tom Donilon, but the conventional wisdom is that it would be no bad thing for President Obama to start the second term with a clean slate. Indeed, as one Obama insider put it, an "intervention" may be needed to repair the dysfunctions of the first term. The president could also consider many other worthy names for spots on the "dream team " that were also in circulation four years ago -- Richard Danzig, John Hamre, Jim Steinberg, to name just a few -- but they all have in common this "clean slate" feel.

The trial balloons floating out of the White House suggest that President Obama doesn't agree with the conventional wisdom. It appears he wants to put Susan Rice at State -- never mind that some Senators seem willing to serve the sauce for Rice's goose that she merrily served to their gander over the years. Even some Democratic voices have raised doubts (here and here) about whether Rice is a good fit at State.

And if Rice is at State, what to do with the loyal Kerry? The consolation prize appears to be Defense -- never mind the doubts that a Senate office is the wrong training ground for managing such an unwieldy bureaucracy. Or perhaps Kerry would be left at the altar altogether, which would mean that Obama's rocky relations with Congress would have one more unhappy boulder to contend with.

And if Rice is at State, that means Donilon is likely to stay as National Security Advisor, which leaves the slate uncleaned.

When facing similar choices in the past, Obama has tended to follow his own lead and ignore the conventional wisdom and so I guess the best bet is that he will do so again. But sometimes the conventional wisdom has a certain, well, wisdom to it.

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