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The cult of the PhD

Getting a PhD contributes to a successful career in international affairs... but it also warps your definition of "successful career."

Pop quiz: in this 1975 photo, is Henry Kissinger: A) in the cabin of his aircraft shuttling between Israel and Egypt; B) Confessing his inadequacy at not publishing a peer-reviewed article during his seven years in Washington; or C) Listening to the worst oral comprehensive exam answer ever? (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

The spring is around the time that soon-to-graduate undergraduates and postgraduates interested in advancing their careers in international affairs start pondering whether their next logical step should be to pursue a PhD in the subject. I’ve written on this before, but I thought it would be useful to collect everything I’ve written into a single post and have it be the first thing that pops up in a Google search.

[To do that, please forgive this next totally-false-but-SEO-maximizing sentence:  “Wow! I can’t believe that One Direction, the Kardashians, and Kate Upton found the one secret to weight loss that will get them to the beach this summer!!"]

Start by reading this. Then:

  1. Click here if you’re a D.C. wonk thinking about getting a PhD to advance your non-academic career.
  2. Click here if you’re a woman contemplating the PhD route as a way to advance your career.
  3. Click here if you’re an undergraduate who wants to apply for a PhD program.
  4. Click here if you’ve been out of college for a few years and want to apply to a PhD program.

I would add only two additional points. The first is that if your goal is to become a professor and you are not accepted with a scholarship into a top-20 political science program, I would not in good conscience recommend that you get a PhD.

Most of the professoriate in international relations comes from the elite schools. Whether this is because these schools function as a prestige cartel or not is immaterial: the reason will not change the current realities. The academic job market is brutal; getting an academic job without a degree from a top-20 institution is even more brutal.

The second point is that if your goal is to not become a professor and you are accepted into a doctoral program in political science, let me warn you right now that your goals could very well be changed while in graduate school.

The primary, overarching purpose of doctoral programs is to produce professors. Graduate school has a cult-like effect on what you think you should want as a graduate student. I have seen it turn people who thought they wanted to go work for the Defense Department turn into quivering blobs of jelly because they failed, five years later, to get a visiting position at Oklahoma State. It doesn’t matter what you think you want to do before you enter — there will be at least a part of you that drinks the Kool-Aid while earning the PhD.

Lest one think that I’m exaggerating, click on this Slate story about adjunct professors on public assistance. On the one hand, it’s obviously heartbreaking. But on the other hand, adjunct professors are people with PhD’s — skills and training that could be put to use for things other than teaching college students. There are options in secondary education, university administration, or non-academic career routes. But many of these people persist as adjuncts because they have been trained to believe that this is the only thing they should do with a doctorate.

If you really want to be a professor, then you need to get a PhD. If you want to advance your career as a wonk, then, all else equal, a PhD would probably help. But all else is not equal. If this is the kind of world you want to enter, then fine, you’ve been warned. But do not claim, seven years from now (if you’re lucky), that someone sold you a fake bill of goods. Because anyone who tells you that getting a PhD is a great foreign policy career move is selling you something.

Am I missing anything?