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Professional Education in Foreign Affairs


Andrew Exum and Charlie Simpson wrote a post a few days ago on how wannabe policy professionals should approach Ph.D. education.  The post was written in response to a series of tweets that defined the parameters of the problem, but the absence of context led to a bit of misunderstanding. Let this be a lesson: Not everyone reads your twitter feed religiously, and as such a bit of context is helpful.

Although I have some issues with the general argument that Exum and Simpson make, the last paragraph really irked me:

A note on Master’s degrees: Charlie went straight through to a PhD program, skipping the MA. Abu Muqawama got his master’s degree at American University of Beirut, which he loved, but mainly because he was just out of the U.S. Army and was basically a sponge, intellectually speaking. (He thought it was really cool — and continues to think it is really cool — that he could just walk into Tarif Khalidi’s office hours and chat about the medieval Islamic world or about Beirut during the war.) He spent a lot of time on his Arabic and graduated a semester early so he could concentrate full-time on his language training. (He also learned French during this period, which has been really useful as a research language.) Perhaps then it’s not a surprise that neither of us are huge fans of the IR / Security Studies MA racket. Frankly, we just don’t think the training is that good. (If the training was good, maybe there’d be less demand for PhDs in Washington!) Look for MAs that give specific training – language + regional studies, focused research + analysis, or similar. Else, go to a PhD program for 2 years, complete your coursework, ask for the master’s, and get out of Dodge.

Ok. That’s not a breezy dismissal so much as a slap in the face.  Over twitter, Exum has defended the post with the argument that it was intended only for those committed to getting a Ph.D.  Were that true, the explicit denigration of the terminal international relations MA would have been unnecessary.

But there are also a few other things wrong with the paragraph.  Let’s start with the acknowledgement that, in fact, Ph.Ds from policy oriented schools will be better prepared for inside-the-beltway analytical positions that most MAs.  The Ph.D takes longer, is more rigorous, requires original research, and forces the analyst to get used to plotting out her own projects.  Note the caveat “policy oriented”; I’m actually very skeptical that doctorates from non-policy oriented schools leave the candidate better prepared for a policy position than a policy oriented MA.

But, before anything else, you have to take into account that doing 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.

Ph.D. programs also, invariably, experience a considerable amount of attrition.  Some of this comes at the beginning, some at the second year mark, and some along the long and winding road to a dissertation.  The sad story of the ABD is that until the dissertation is finished, you have an MA, and generally not a particularly useful MA.  More on that in a second.  What this means is that if you make it to year 3, 4, 5, or 6 of your Ph.D and then, for whatever reason, can’t finish the dissertation, you’ve wasted years that could have been put to good use in a professional setting.

That’s pretty bad, but it’s actually worse that all that; a MA that was acquired as part of a failed Ph.D effort is, contra Exum and Simpson, considerably less valuable than a terminal MA.  The latter is structured to create a professional, and faculty tasked to support the project of training an international relations professional capable of undertaking a variety of different jobs in the foreign policy universe.  The former is structured to create the foundation for an academic.  These are two very different things, and the terminal policy MA leaves you in a much better professional position than the “failed on your way to a Ph.D” MA.  As Exum and Simpson suggest, faculty in many Ph.D programs can be somewhat less than helpful in the pursuit of non-academic jobs; this goes double for students they regard as failures.  Faculty at a terminal MA program, on the other hand, have different expectations of their students, and different understandings of the role they’re supposed to play in helping students get public policy jobs. Moreover, graduates of terminal MA programs in foreign affairs can almost always rely on an extensive network of alumni, working in policy positions both inside and outside of government, for assistance in job hunting.  And from experience with my own students looking for work, most of these jobs aren’t limited to getting coffee and handling administrative duties. That said, no MA program can guarantee a good, interesting job, even for its very best students.

The bottom line is this:  Exum and Simpson include ample warning about the difficulties of pursuing a Ph.D. for professional reasons, but miss a couple of the most important problems.  The time consuming nature of a Ph.D., combined with the very real threat of attrition, makes the Ph.D. an extremely sketchy choice for someone who aspires to write about policy inside the Beltway.  Contra Exum and Simpson, terminal, policy oriented MA programs do offer a genuine alternative to pursuing a Ph.D., an alternative that is in many ways superior.  Of course, some people will successfully pursue Ph.Ds, find jobs in DC, and lead happy, productive lives.  Many will not, so be very careful when thinking about how you want to spend the next six years of your life.

See also Drezner

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