A useful primer on higher education choices for international affairs

Over at Abu Muqawana, Andrew Exum and Erin Simpson provide a useful breakdown of the choices available for those misbegotten fools young people thinking about getting a graduate degree in international affairs of some kind.  Not surprisingly, the choice is highly contingent on a) your level of patience; and b) what you want to do ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Over at Abu Muqawana, Andrew Exum and Erin Simpson provide a useful breakdown of the choices available for those misbegotten fools young people thinking about getting a graduate degree in international affairs of some kind.  Not surprisingly, the choice is highly contingent on a) your level of patience; and b) what you want to do with the degree afte you graduate. 

Besides the criminal omission of The Greatest International Affairs Program in the World, I have only one cavil to their analysis.  When they discuss getting a Ph.D. in the first place, they note: 

[H]ere’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.

Over at Abu Muqawana, Andrew Exum and Erin Simpson provide a useful breakdown of the choices available for those misbegotten fools young people thinking about getting a graduate degree in international affairs of some kind.  Not surprisingly, the choice is highly contingent on a) your level of patience; and b) what you want to do with the degree afte you graduate. 

Besides the criminal omission of The Greatest International Affairs Program in the World, I have only one cavil to their analysis.  When they discuss getting a Ph.D. in the first place, they note: 

[H]ere’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.

And here I must dissent on one minor point and one major point.   First, a small correction:  if you’re trying to get a job in DC and you’re a newly-minted Ph.D., damn straight your advisor will get a phone call.  This doesn’t always happen, but it’s more likely than not.  I’ve been on the receiving end of several of these since arriving at Fletcher.  True, one could always try not to list your advisor as a reference.  The thing is, that is a massive red flag signaling that your advisor doesn’t think all that much of you. 

Now, the major point:  if your goal is to just get the Ph.D. credential, do not "find the cheapest, quickest program and git ‘er done."  Instead, just run away — run away as fast as you can. 

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — there is no such thing as grinding out a Ph.D.  People who think that can "gut out" a dissertation will never finish it.  Unless you love whatever it is you’re writing about, you’ll never finish.  You’ll hate the topic at some point — and without the love, you’ll find other ways to occupy your time than dissertating.  This is particularly true at lower-ranked Ph.D.-granting institutions, because all of them aspire to be higher-ranked Ph.D.-granting institutions and believe the only way to do that is to "tool up" their students to within an inch of their lives. 

This is one way in which a Ph.D. is different from a JD, an MBA or an MA.  Coursework can be gutted out, as can exams.  Writing 75,000 words on a topic requires something else, and anyone who tells you differently is selling you something

Because most traditional Ph.D. programs start out with coursework, I’ll understand, dear readers, if you don’t believe me.  To take advantage of the pedagogical tools of the Internet, however, here’s the best video I know that captures this decision: 

And, just to be clear, aspiring Ph.D. students:  I’m the guy with the weird Scottish accent, the bunny is the Ph.D. program, and all y’all are the ones suffering from the blood and gore. 

Unless you really want to kill that bunny, just walk away. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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