Daniel W. Drezner

Should women get Ph.D.s in international relations?

Erik Voeten reminds us that now is the time "when undergraduates interested in a career in political science have to choose between PhD programs."  Erik offers some very useful pointers on how to choose, but there is a deeper question to ask — is it worth it to get a Ph.D. in political science?  As ...

Erik Voeten reminds us that now is the time "when undergraduates interested in a career in political science have to choose between PhD programs."  Erik offers some very useful pointers on how to choose, but there is a deeper question to ask — is it worth it to get a Ph.D. in political science?  As one graduate student blogging at Duck of Minerva puts it: 

I’m loving graduate school; it’s been on balance the best time of my life; and nevertheless there have been times when (to quote a colleague) I’ve wished I’d taken the blue pill and kept my job.

Or, as Steve Saideman phrases it

[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.

Checking my blog archives, I see that I’ve mused on this topic before — so, rather than repeat myself, here are some links.  If you’re wondering about the virtues of getting a Ph.D. vs. a policy degree like SAIS or Fletcher, click here and here.  If you’re really interested in politics and are debating between a Ph.D., a law degree, or going the apprentice route, click here

But I want to blog about a question related to something buzzing about the foreign policy blogosphere:  what if you’re female?  Micah Zenko at CFR and Diana Wueger at Gunpowder & Lead have blogged about the underrepresentation of women in foreign policy positions in the government, think tanks or the academy.  Wueger asks readers to "spend 10 minutes thinking about what you can do to help your female staff or friends or Twitterbuddies to advance in their careers." 

After ten minutes, I have some positive words and some cautionary, bordeline controversial pieces of advice.  Here goes. 

My hunch is that, all else equal, the value-added of getting a Ph.D. might be greater for women than men.  Wueger blogs about a big problem:  the difficulty/trepidation that women have when seeking mentors, particularly if their field is dominated by men.  The advantage of getting a Ph.D. is that it pretty much forces the person to work hard at collecting mentors and advisors.  Furthermore, these relationships are forged through years of TAing, RAing, and pleading for dissertation advice.  So, even if women are shyer about seeking mentors/male advisors are warier about advising female students, these barriers can be broken down with time. 

That’s the good news.  The bad news is two-fold.  First, Wueger argues that the assignments women get at the outset have a powerful effect on their later careers: 

There’s a gap in the types of tasks women and men are assigned early in their careers. Intentionally or not, women tend to given more administrative or support work rather than policy or research work; path dependence takes over from there. I recall a prominent scholar regularly asking his female research assistant (RA) to pick up his dry cleaning and take his car to the shop—things he didn’t ask of male RAs.

OK, for the record, my male RAs were too forgetful to request as little starch as possible this is a problem, but I suspect it’s decreasing.  The more serious problem operates through a subtler channel — women might get shunted into research areas that are seen as more female-friendly.  For example, I believe that more women study international political economy or international organizations than international security.  Even within security studies, I suspect that there are more women studying "human security" than more standard guns & bombs kind of security.  This might be due to interest, but there are path-dependent effects at work, and so successive waves of women go into those fields in greater numbers.  So, that’s a thing. 

The second problem is, I suspect, even greater and trickier to discuss, but here goes.  Unlike the apprentice or professional degree paths, the Ph.D. route to a foreign policy career has a few BIG decision-making nodes that have profound effects on a person’s career choice.  For the Ph.D., the first job after getting one’s doctorate matters a lot, particularly if said Ph.D. is pursuing the academic career track.  The first job can define whether you want to be thought of as a researcher first, a teacher first, a policy wonk first, and so forth.  Also, it usually requires moving — with the exception of Ph.D. granting institutions in-Boston-well-not-in-Boston-but-nearby-no-not-Tufts, universities do not hire their own. 

The thing is, most people are between 27-32 years of age when they complete their Ph.D..  This also happens to be the peak demographic of the whole getting married/having children phase of life.  And, women tend to marry men a few years older than them.  The professional difference between 50 and 53 is negligible, but those few years can make a HUGE difference in one’s late twenties/early thirties.  It means that, on average and regardless of career choice, the man in the relationship is more firmly embedded down his career path. 

For newly-minted women Ph.D.s, this can impose profound constraints on career choices.  Their best job offer might be inconvenient for their spouse’s career, and so they pass on it.  I saw this very dynamic play out multiple times with female colleagues when I was in graduate school.  There are a lot of good reasons to subordinate one’s first job choice to family considerations, but it has a negative impact on one’s long-term career trajectory.

[What about you?–ed.  As a man, the age effect was reversed.  My fiancee was younger and therefore at a more embryonic stage of her career, which meant she was more portable.  For the record, I accepted a post-doc that I otherwise wouldn’t have taken for her career, but this was a minimal sacrifice.  It only delayed my first job by a year and I got a ton of writing done during those twelve  months.]

This problem is not unique to those earning doctorates.  Those with non-Ph.D. career tracks , however, have more career-decision nodes at later and earlier ages.  I suspect this problem is magnified for Ph.D.s in a way that it isn’t for those who pursue more apprentice-oriented or shorter-degree tracks.  But I’d be interested in hearing differing opinions on this in the comments below. 

So, to sum up:  if you’re a woman and you’re trying to pursue a foreign policy career, there are some advantages by getting the Ph.D., but there are big pitfalls at the beginning and end of getting the doctorate.  I urge you to have a good sense of what you want to study before someone shapes that decision for you.  And have some good, long conversations with any potential spouse about what you want to do with your career. 

Am I missing anything?  Seriously, am I? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner