August 05, 2011

Ph.D.s for Dummies

I should have noted, when I first posted this, that Erin/Charlie and I first wrote this after getting a lot of requests of Twitter for advice on Ph.D. programs. After you read this post, be sure to read the excellent comments.

Disclaimer: this advice is geared toward individuals interested in conflict studies and national security -- with some applicability to the broader social sciences. Your mileage may vary. If you’re looking at getting a PhD in Comparative Literature or Bio-Physics, it should go without saying that you may not want to take career advice from a blog with a Lego insurgent as its avatar. For that matter, why the hell are you even reading this blog? Also, long-time readers remember we used to write this blog in the third person and use handles that protected our real identities. We have reverted back to that habit for this post because we wrote this post together, and because Erin started it with the whole Charlie business.

To begin, a few questions to ask yourself:

1. Why do I want a PhD? Do I need one? Is a master's degree or bachelor's degree sufficient for what I want to do?

2. What kind of training am I looking for? Or do I just want the credential?

3. Am I willing to spend money? How much?

4. What’s my time commitment?

But here’s the dirty secret about DC. Everybody wants to hire PhDs, but most people don’t know anything about them. They won’t read your dissertation, they aren’t going to call your advisor (thank goodness), and most won’t know until it’s too late whether you’ve actually been trained in anything useful. So if you just want the credential, stop reading now and just find the cheapest, quickest program and git ‘er done.

On the flip side, if you’re going this direction, why not go all-in? For one, the better the program, the better the financial support. (The only thing Charlie paid for her PhD was library fines.) Make the commitment, get the best training you can possibly find, and be a rockstar. Full-time programs don’t fit everyone’s circumstances, but be creative and think long-term.

Else, your options:

Full-time, full-on traditional American PhD program (likely Political Science)– this is what Charlie did and anyone who knows her knows she didn’t exactly enjoy it. Huge variety of programs from super-theoretical (Chicago), old-school guns and bombs (MIT, Columbia), to political economy driven (Stanford, Princeton). These programs typically require two years of full-time coursework.

Pros: state of the art training in research methods (quant / qual), world-class faculty, amazing resources (libraries, research funds), solid tuition assistance (often including stipends).

Cons: takes freaking forever (4-6 year full-time commitment), professors are training their replacements and are often hostile to / dismissive of policy work (preferring academic debates to real world ones). Worse still, they’ll spend 6 years convincing you that no, you don’t want to be a DASD; you’ll be failure if you never publish in the APSR.

Examples: Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Michigan, Wisconsin, UCSD, Penn

Full-time, full on Policy School PhD program – similar to the above but with less disdain for working in DC. Most are better known for the masters programs and have relatively small PhD classes.

Pros: Oriented toward policy related research. Some have very good quant / econometrics training. Often located in and around major cities.

Cons: Many are overly narrow in their focus on security studies. Lots of combined classes with Masters students. Few options for rigorous qualitative research. Funding may be less robust than larger, traditional programs.

Examples: SAIS, Georgetown, George Mason, Harvard Kennedy School

2a) Part-time American PhD – these programs are mostly found in policy schools in and around DC. Sadly, just not that may options. George Mason and Georgetown come to mind.

Full-time UK PhD – this is what Abu Muqawama did. This experience really depends on your relationship with your advisor. People ask Abu Muqawama all the time about the Department of War Studies at King's College London, but honestly, the department or university matters less than the advisor. Abu Muqawama had completed an American-style master's degree at the American University of Beirut in Middle Eastern Studies and started some research on Hizballah in 2006 that he wanted to explore further. There was basically one dude on Earth he wanted to work with -- a guy named Yezid Sayigh, who did some of the first really serious work on Palestinian military organizations. Yezid happened to have just left Cambridge for the Department of War Studies in London, so Abu Muqawama went to London. Had Yezid been at the University of Fisheries and Mines in Northern Wales, he would have gone there.

Pros: If you already have a master's degree and have a subject you really want to work on for about three years, this is the program for you. This is basically one long supervised research project, so it appealed to Abu Muqawama, who admirers would describe as a "disciplined self-starter" and everyone else would describe as "a bit of a loner."

Cons: Abu Muqawama had done the majority of his language training and course work prior to matriculating. Since he's an area studies geek, he more or less had what he needed in terms of skills to complete his dissertation project. But he got next to nothing in terms of methodological training beyond that, so he has to partner with people like Charlie whenever he wants to apply quantitative methods to his research. Also, the great thing about U.S. programs is that you take enough course work to where, if you enter the academy, you can teach Political Science 101 in a pinch. If you get a history Ph.D. in the United States and specialize in 19th Century France, you have probably also taken enough graduate courses to where you could teach an introductory course covering stuff like, the English Industrial Revolution. This makes you more competitive than a UK-trained dude on the academic job market. Also, these programs can be really expensive for Americans and other non-Euros. Most people are self-funded. I got some generous assistance that helped pay for both my master's degree and Ph.D., but I was the exception.

Examples: Again, for a Ph.D., ignore the program. Pick an advisor you want to work with, contact that advisor, and ask that advisor if he or she would like to work with you.

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.