A View from the Trenches of IR Training


Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new series “The Schoolhouse”. The aim of this series is to explore and debate the state of advanced graduate education in international affairs. We aim to move beyond the often-repetitive and tiresome debates about the usefulness of scholarship to policy. We believe there are deeper issues at stake. Please join us and chime in in the comments section or with a submission.


Academia is a bastion for the pursuit of scientific truth and a place where scholars can engage in research unencumbered by the demands of the outside world. For many students of politics, it is precisely this environment that makes pursuing a PhD in international relations so alluring. Removed from the politicking and partisanship of the policy world, academia is one of the few places where a talented individual can spend years studying fascinating questions of war and peace for no other reason than to discover more about the world in which they live.

As a result of this noble goal, academia is also inherently self-evaluating. University rankings are based in large part on the placement of students in other academic institutions, hiring and tenure decisions are made by departmental faculty, and many senior academics see it as part of their professional mission to mold the next cadre of great thinkers in their own image. In short, the focus on training academics for academic careers is, and should continue to be, the main priority of any graduate program in international relations.

But there are a number of ways in which graduate training can achieve this goal while also preparing students for other, equally worthwhile, non-academic pursuits. And this is where the current system is falling short. The intense, singular focus on training graduate students for academia alone, which is currently prevalent within many political science departments, generates important costs that PhD students in international relations are increasingly forced to bear.

All three authors of this article are lucky to be in departments—at MIT, Georgetown, and George Washington, respectively—that grapple openly with these questions and explicitly attempt to prepare their students to be active and successful participants in both the policy and academic worlds. Our time at these institutions reinforces our belief that contributing to policy and academia is not a zero-sum endeavor. We have experienced first-hand the benefits of sophisticated theoretical and methodological training, as well as the autonomy to explore questions of practical significance. We have also benefitted from working with advisors and mentors whose careers have successfully “bridged the gap” between the academic and policy worlds.  Thus, while we are concerned about the larger trends in the discipline, our experiences also make us hopeful that relatively small changes to PhD training in political science could make a substantial and long-term difference.

The Status Quo

In the vast majority of departments, political science training ignores two crucial realities. The first is practical: the job market is oversaturated with aspiring professors and there is simply not a sufficient supply of tenure-track positions in political science departments to satisfy this demand. For the many students who fail to secure academic positions, existing training doesn’t offer much guidance on where to go and how to succeed. Second, the current approach ignores an important ethical consideration. Graduate students and faculty enjoy enormous societal benefits from their positions, ranging from research funding to job security. Given that the wider world underwrites our work, scholars have an ethical obligation to ask questions with significance beyond the academy.

While many PhD programs claim to promote policy-relevant research, the reality is that current training—both implicitly through the disciplinary incentive structures, and explicitly through advice from senior colleagues—often discourages these pursuits. When beginning a PhD program in political science, students encounter a rigid incentive structure that is rarely acknowledged during the application process and largely opaque to those outside of the ivory tower. The coin of the realm in political science is academic success, measured by hiring and promotion in prestigious departments, as well as publication in well-regarded disciplinary journals. Given the intensely competitive academic job market in international relations, graduate students ignore these requirements at their own peril.

Consequently, any activities that take graduate students’ time away from purely academic pursuits are a practical and perceptual liability; practically because they literally take time away from the work that could be rewarded with an academic job, and perceptually because they signal to mentors or potential employers that a student is not wholly committed to the pursuit of academic success. In many departments, this calculus is made explicit by well-intended faculty members. In other departments, the graduate student rumor mill propagates this advice and students fear the consequences of challenging widely accepted norms. These realities give policy-interested PhD students no choice but to pursue a strategy widely known as “hedging.” Such students continue to check all the boxes necessary to optimize their chances of getting an academic job, while finding creative ways to engage with policy as an extracurricular activity to be pursued on their own time.

As a discipline, we would be remiss not to ask how we can improve our graduate training to serve not just the standards of our field, but our colleagues and the world around us. The first step toward changing the culture of international relations—and hopefully political science more broadly—entails acknowledging the reality faced by graduate students, both during and after their PhD training.

Where to Next?

After almost a decade of training and research, what options face a freshly minted doctor of political science? Most PhD graduates follow one of three paths:

(1) Playing by the Rules. Many, perhaps most, IR scholars who successfully enter the academy focus their careers on responding to the professional incentives that structure the discipline. These academics engage with policy orthogonally, if at all. Since graduate students on this track are well-served by the status quo, they are not the focus of this post.

(2) Exiting the Ivory Tower. The reality is that, whether by choice or circumstance, many IR PhDs will not end up in academic jobs. Illustratively, the American Political Science Association recently reported that a quarter to a third of political science PhDs do not proceed to positions in academia after graduation. Those expelled from the Ivory Tower by an unfavorable job market leave their PhD programs with little training for job searches beyond the academy, let alone the tools to succeed once they get there. Too often, we have heard our colleagues speak vaguely of “working in policy” as a backup option if academia doesn’t work out, but these students have little concept of what a government job would entail, nor do they understand how to get one. Yet exiting the Ivory Tower is not something that only happens to the unlucky few: some PhD students decide that their professional and personal aspirations will be best realized outside of the academy. These students face the dilemma of when and how to disclose this decision to their advisors, and the fear of upsetting academic mentors may dissuade students from seeking advice as they weigh their professional options.

(3) Delaying Gratification. For those scholars who remain in academia and truly wish to “bridge the gap,” there are real disadvantages when it comes to tenure. The demand to publish articles in top-tier journals and release a book within a few years of graduation makes policy-engaged research extremely difficult. Indeed, contributing to policy debates through writing, briefings, or participation in working groups and commissions, is viewed by many departments as irrelevant or, worse, a liability for tenure decisions. With these risks in mind, many scholars put off policy-oriented projects until after tenure—nearly two decades after beginning their graduate training.

What can be done?

What can international relations PhD programs do to better serve the latter two populations? The common denominator among both of them is the desire to think deeply about international politics and to bring that knowledge to bear on contemporary problems, while leveraging the extremely valuable tools offered by political science methods. We believe that relatively small reforms can move international relations substantially closer to fulfilling its practical and ethical potential. Toward that end, we propose that PhD programs consider the following changes:

Teaching Policy Relevance. For all of our talk about the importance of policy relevance, there remains little discussion and definitional clarity about the term, even at institutions where it is preached.  For those professors who see policy relevance as part of our discipline’s mission, teaching students—either individually or in a dedicated course—about the full range of policy-relevant activities available to them is critical. As a community of policy-interested scholars, we need to clarify the direct and indirect pathways through which our work can successfully influence policy debates, as well as the metrics of success in this endeavor. But it is evident to us that the obligatory statement of policy relevance at the end of a book or journal article is insufficient to meet these goals. Instead, our most influential tools seem to include our teaching, our public service in the local and national community, and our ability to make valuable scholarly findings accessible to a wider public audience. All of these tools are available to graduate students in international relations, but without guidance, they often remain elusive.

Teaching Policy Practice. Just as important as understanding how policy-relevance can be incorporated into traditional academic work, is helping graduate students to understand how policy is actually practiced, created, and made. Again, students interested in the policy arena are left to their own devices when it comes to acquiring this knowledge. Scholar-practitioners, including those who have permanently left the academy, are vital to this effort; if the discipline is to increase its policy relevance, these individuals must re-engage with international relations graduate students and faculty. Scholar-practitioners who have successfully participated in both the world of policy and academia should be invited to departments to offer students guidance on how the skills and methods of political science transfer (or don’t) into policy work. Skills from project management to networking are often critical to success in the policy world, but are rarely discussed with graduate students. Such interactions early in a student’s career would allow them to more fully integrate the relevant skill sets into their training at their home department or, where necessary, to look outside of the department to acquire them. In addition, it would expose interested students to potential mentors that could provide accurate and up-to-date counsel about working in the policy world, while also directing them toward research questions with salience in Washington.

Enriching Traditional Training. Training students to be good academics can be enriched and reinforced by incorporating policy-relevance into traditional coursework and departmental standards. In particular, training students to ask and answer questions with big implications for policy is a skill that is easily learned, but must be taught. Moreover, giving these same students sufficient tools to answer those questions, using whatever methods are best suited to the endeavor, is equally critical. This requires deep, substantive training in methodology, case selection, international relations theory, and, perhaps the most critically neglected area, history. Encouraging students to work with their advisor to choose those courses that match their interests and questions makes them better suited to succeed on whatever job market they enter.

Transparency. A major element of the problem is that prospective students do not get an honest account of what they are signing up for when they enroll in a PhD program in international relations. The signals from faculty are often mixed and contradictory, and many students report feeling duped once they arrive. Having expected to get deep, substantive, expertise on a set of issues that are important to them, students spend much of their time satisfying disciplinary demands for advanced methodological training that feel removed from their interests and motives. Whatever the mission of specific departments—policy-relevant or not—it should be on the front page of their website and reinforced throughout the application and admissions process. PhD coursework requirements, including syllabi, should be equally transparent. Moreover, faculty in these departments should be expected to live up to the department’s mission, and this commitment should be enforced in tenure and hiring decisions. Such transparency would allow students to know what they are signing up for at the outset, making them much more likely to succeed in the long run.

Stoking the Demand for the PhD Skillset. Perhaps most importantly, PhD students should leave their graduate experiences feeling confident that their skillset is valuable—not just to a narrow group of individuals much like themselves, but to the wider world. Graduate training in international relations structures our thinking in unique and important ways that many people in the policy, private, and nonprofit sectors find incredibly useful. Making it clear to those communities that students are eager and willing to join their ranks, as well as giving students the confidence to lay claim to their analytical acuity, should be highly encouraged. Advertising and encouraging students to participate in short programs that give exposure to the policy community like the Clements Center Summer Seminar, Bridging the Gap and the RAND summer associate program, as well as longer term commitments like pre- and post-docs at Brookings, USIP, RAND, CFR, and elsewhere, will stoke both demand and supply for international relations PhDs. Similar programs that encourage PhDs to engage with the private and non-profit sectors would also be hugely beneficial. Finally, to meaningfully stoke the demand for the PhD skillset, PhDs who have left the academy must play an active role in recruiting recent graduates to their organizations.

These, of course, are just suggestions, and some will be easier to adopt than others. Moreover, we acknowledge that these issues are not of concern to all students, and not all institutions and departments will be interested. But our point is relatively simple: small changes can go a long way. There is much to be gained by encouraging those who are interested in the policy world and in carrying out policy-relevant research. We have seen the benefits in our own experience, and we hope to see more in the future.


Lena Andrews is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Techonology. Her research focuses on U.S. civil-military relations, grand strategy, and military innovation. Prior to MIT, Lena was a senior program specialist at the United States Institute of Peace.

Rebecca Friedman Lissner is a PhD Candidate in the Government Department at Georgetown University. Prior to Georgetown, Rebecca was a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. She received her MA in Government from Georgetown University and her AB in Social Studies from Harvard University.

Julia Macdonald is a Stanton Nuclear Security Predoctoral Fellow at MIT and a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the George Washington University. Her research focuses on coercive diplomacy, foreign policy decision making, and US military strategy and effectiveness. Julia received her undergraduate training in New Zealand and she holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago.


Photo credit: Uri Rosenheck