Sunday, 11 March 2012

Now they tell me…! (To PhD or Not to PhD?)

“a PhD in Political Science should only be for those who are passionate and curious and do not care where they end up living. And that they need to be aware that the job market can be pretty challenging and stressful.”  - Dr Steve Saideman

Only, really, it’s not the first time I’ve heard this, or sentiments like it. There’s another good article about it at the Duck of Minerva that seems to be making the rounds this weekend, by a graduate student. I learned of it from a post by Dan Drezner, which has a lot of other handy links embedded within it. Here are a couple of snippets from the Duck of Minerva post, which I thought were of particular interest:

“you should think really hard about what makes you happy. Do you only want to be a professor if you can be a hip prof in New York or the Bay Area? Then don’t go to graduate school. You are statistically almost certain not to get that job. So unless you’ve come to the conclusion that you’d be just as satisfied working for years to take what your mentors will refer to as a ‘Good Job’ in a state that voted for Santorum instead of getting the Best Job in the discipline, then you’re pretty much setting yourself up for failure.”

And, because this is excellent advice, and something I tell anybody who will listen, across disciplines at the PhD level:

“if you’ve been admitted, you almost certainly have the raw talent necessary to play the game. You’re likely to be deeply depressed at some point in your first semester, though, because it will seem as if everyone in your program knows more about everything than you did. That’s extremely unlikely to be true, but it will nevertheless feel that way… The best advice I ever got about grad school was on the first day, when a senior Ph.D. student informed our entering cohort that nobody can write a dissertation on their own.” [emphasis mine]

Now, for me, that actually was the case – before my PhD, I had never studied international relations theory, was fresh off an International Journalism Masters course, and felt very quickly lost whenever anyone threw out words like “Gramscian” or “Hegelian” (two words that still make me shudder a little). Nevertheless, a few months ago, I was able to submit this:

201202 - My Thesis

My thesis, as presented by my good friend Ann-Marie, who organised the binding and physical submission while I was out of the country. [Huge thanks again!]
Excerpts available on request for prospective employers & interested parties.

That final point, in the above pull-quote, however is a very important one – you cannot write a PhD thesis in your own, personal bubble. Your supervisor(s) will have input (you hope), colleagues and friends will be able to help you with snippets of your text, and will also act as sounding boards (witting or not) if you get stuck and want to work out an argument. There are a number of people who were invaluable to me when it came to, particularly, those final months of writing before submission and then again before my defence (or “viva” as we called it at Durham).

One thing that has been interesting for me, as a Brit with a PhD in US politics, wanting to find employment in the United States, is how everyone seems to assume holding a PhD means I only want to be an academic. There seems to be little discussion of the possibility of going into policy and/or government in one capacity or another. I wonder why this is? In truth, I have a great deal of ambition to be many things over the course of my life – most of them involving writing of one form or another, and many of them stemming from my passion for American politics and foreign policy.

For example, I would love to be employed by a university to study, analyse and comment on the role of domestic institutions in American politics (preferably starting at a postdoctoral researcher-level, while I gain confidence and publications – although I know I could rise to the occasion and responsibilities of any position I was offered). Outside of academia, however, I would love to work in politics – as an analyst, staffer, commentator, and/or journalist. After years of academia, part of me – while certainly enjoying the researcher environment and lifestyle – would also love to do something, instead of just researching and commenting on those who make and work on policy and in politics.

*   *   *

While I’m on the subject of what I want to do, I thought I’d offer just a bit of an updated Mission Statement for this blog. I intend to keep publishing book reviews, despite the relative silence on that front for the last few months. I have kept reading, of course, but mostly I’ve been focusing on articles rather than long-form texts. This will change, and I have four reviews in the works already:

Boomerang by Michael Lewis, Becoming China’s Bitch by Peter D. Kiernan, Escape Artists by Noam Schreiber, and Strategic Vision by Zbigniew Brzezinski

I can’t promise exactly when these reviews are going to materialise, but they’ll all hopefully be soon. I’ve also got a short piece in the works about the “return” of realism in foreign policy discussion (this, really, is a response to two articles I’ve read over the past couple of weeks). Speaking of articles, I’ll continue posting interesting comments on various news and journalistic articles I read, and video segments I see. Probably not many on the 2012 GOP Primary season, though, as frankly there’s becoming ever-less to say about it that doesn’t require wholesale repetition or bloviating without first-hand-knowledge. I’ll also be putting up occasional posts like this, and trying my hand at more commentary/opinion pieces.


  1. One thing that has been interesting for me, as a Brit with a PhD in US politics, wanting to find employment in the United States, is how everyone seems to assume holding a PhD means I only want to be an academic.

    This is a common perception here, yes.

  2. Frankly all you need to know about the GOP primary season is one thing. The RNC decided which candidate it was going to back and put all it's money and power behind AFTER THE FIRST DEBATE. IOW who they were intending to foist off on the American People. That candidate was Mitt Romney. I said long ago that "Politics" and "Politician" were both 4 letter words.