Breaking Discipline and Closing Gaps? — The State of International Relations Education


Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment in 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.


Over 20 years ago, esteemed political scientist Alexander George published “Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy,” which identified a growing divide between academics and policymakers interested in foreign policy and international affairs. George argued that decision-makers took less advantage of international relations scholarship than they should, while scholars were producing work that was less useful to the world of practice. In the years since, both communities expressed a desire to close the gulf. As commentators from Nicholas Kristof to Joseph Nye to Robert Gallucci have pointed out, however, many believe the gap has widened in the years since George’s book first appeared.

Are they right? Many academics strenuously disagree, offering examples when their research influenced policies. Others argue that decision-makers should make more of an effort to access international relations scholarships. Still others contend that scholars, particularly political scientists, are producing work that is less focused on real world problems and more oriented toward abstract theory and methodological sophistication. War on the Rocks has actively contributed to this important debate, and is an ideal forum for continued discussion.

In the past, I have argued that much could be done to improve both the relevance and accessibility of international relations scholarship, and that both communities could do more to find common ground. In an increasingly complex and fast-changing global environment, many policymakers are hungry for knowledge and expertise. Universities, for their part, provide the training and space for deep and broad thinking about the world, free from many of the time and political pressures that burden research in government and even think tanks. This should be a match made in heaven. Yet the gap persists, and even grows.

Up till now, the focus of this debate has been over the merits and pathologies of academic scholarship. Could it be, however, that the real cause of the policy-ivory tower divide lies much deeper, and occurs much earlier, before a scholar has penned her first journal article? For many, the gap appears the moment a student interested in international affairs begins a graduate level education. And it grows larger as she works her way through her coursework, dissertation research and writing, and positions herself for the academic job market. The stark truth is that the current incentive structure in higher education provides little support, and much sanction, for the international relations student seeking to combine an interest in the world of ideas and the world of practice.

If scholars of international affairs are truly interested in engaging and contributing to policy, they need to re-examine how it is they train, acculturate, and reward their advanced students and junior scholars in international affairs. Encouraging the occasional opinion or policy piece, or attending a summer camp, no matter how worthwhile, is not enough. What we need is an open, vigorous, and potentially difficult conversation around fundamental, structural forces driving the academic enterprise. Critical questions must be answered, namely: What are the goals of advanced graduate training in international affairs – both stated and unstated — and are they the right ones? And how well do our advanced graduate programs do in providing the knowledge and training needed to achieve these goals?

The Discipline of Disciplines

On one level, advanced graduate education is an extraordinary proposition. You are removing some of the smartest, most creative members of the population from the work force during their peak years of productivity. The student is asked to defer income and delay many of the personal and professional trappings of adulthood. A Ph.D. in international relations can take six or seven years; the financial cost to the university of tuition, stipend, added to the income foregone by the student (to say nothing of opportunity costs) can be measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. What is the benefit – to the individual, the university, and society at large – for this considerable investment?

When I talk to young people considering graduate school, many of them say they are motivated by a desire to learn about how the world works and how to contribute to making it better. In their most optimistic moments, they may aspire to the tradition of scholar-practitioner in the mode of Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Tony Lake, Condoleezza Rice, and others who taught in universities, produced rigorous scholarship, and served their nation in government. Even if they recognize it is not likely they will become secretaries of state, they expect the training they receive in their Ph.D. programs to provide them with the skills and knowledge to move back and forth between the world of ideas and the world of service. They might also imagine that the cross-fertilization of these two worlds – ideas and practice – will enrich their teaching, scholarship, and real-world skills and opportunities. Before beginning their Ph.D.s, they see no a priori reason why their graduate school decisions will force them to permanently chose one world over the other. Those outside the ivory tower – the society that supports and subsidizes the higher education enterprise – believe many of the same things.

The student entering a Ph.D. program to study international relations, however, quickly learns that preparing her to excel in both the world of ideas and action is not the purpose of her graduate education. She has entered a social science discipline, a way of organizing knowledge in American higher education that functions according to strict rules and incentives whose origins and logic are often opaque. The classes she takes, the research questions and methods she chooses, how she writes, and where she publishes, will be shaped almost entirely by the demands of her discipline. As she moves through the program and starts her career, she will be assessed by one metric: how much she will contribute to advancing the discipline she is entering, as defined solely by those already entrenched within it. Quite often, these disciplinary demands will seem disconnected to real-world considerations and will provide little preparation for engagement outside the ivory tower. If the student does wish to contribute to real world policy discussions, she is typically told to wait until after she gets tenure. Depending on the length of her PhD program, postdoctoral fellowships, and years on the tenure track, this could be as long as fifteen years after she begins graduate school. In short, the discipline will ask much of her, without justifying its demands either to the student, the university she is in, or the world outside the university. It is reasonable to ask if this disciplinary process provides a fair return on investment, to the individual student, the university, and society at large.

Where did this model of advanced graduate education come from? The rise of disciplines in the social sciences has a complex history. In the second half of the 19th century, many higher education institutions rebelled against the “great letters” classical curriculum that had dominated American education to that point. Hoping to mirror the great successes of the big three physical sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics), and copying the model of German universities, fields, or “disciplines” such as modern political science, sociology, economics and anthropology gained prominence. Biology, chemistry, and physics revolutionized how the physical world was understood, and in the process, produced innovations that transformed the way people lived. By importing what were seen as the same rules and practices of natural sciences, the new social sciences hoped to produce equally transformative understanding and improvements in the social and political world. The study of international relations was undertaken primarily by the political science discipline, and the hope was that war, the great scourge of man, could be scientifically understood and eliminated.

The rise of social sciences imposed greatly needed rigor and contributed much to our understanding of the social, economic, and political forces shaping the world. It is fair to ask, a century and a half later, if they retain the same vigor and relevance they once held. The comparison with the natural and applied sciences – the very world many social scientists believe they are mirroring – is instructive.

While there have been important successes, it would be hard to argue that we have obtained anything approaching the kind of revolutionary understanding of and innovation in the social and political world that we’ve acquired for the natural, physical world. That may be an unfair standard. Still, it is worth observing that the social sciences have arguably become more rigid and inward looking than their natural and applied science counterparts in the past few decades. Often animated less by disciplinary considerations and driven more by real-world problems, physics, chemistry, and biology have generated dozens of new fields, including biochemistry, neurophysiology, molecular biosciences, human ecology, computational biology and bioinformatics, petrology and mineral physics, and computational geosciences, to name just a few. This is not to say that the natural sciences don’t engage in their own navel gazing or are without their own pathologies. These new fields, however, focus less on maintaining the norms and standards of their mother discipline and instead reflect how scientific activity reorganizes itself as new problems emerge or older ones are solved. In large measure, scholars in many of the physical and applied sciences see theory and methods as tools to better understand the world, and judge both on that basis, adding and discarding as knowledge is uncovered, answers are found, and new problems and puzzles emerge.

The results can be seen in graduate education. Students with advanced degrees in the physical and applied sciences routinely choose careers outside of academia. Moving back and forth between the ivory tower and other sectors – non-profit, private, and governmental – is not uncommon. The skills and knowledge they obtain in their Ph.D. programs, in other words, can be applied outside of higher education. In political science, like most social sciences, the curriculum and training is instead geared toward replicating the scholars within the discipline. From required courses, to comprehensive field exams, to choosing and writing a dissertation, the highest value is placed not on asking and trying to answer big, interesting questions or solving real world problems, but on advancing the discipline, as those within it define progress. Unsurprisingly, these Ph.D. students often find themselves poorly prepared to pursue careers outside of higher education should they want to do something else (or, more likely, when they find the academic job market is saturated with recent graduates just like themselves). Furthermore, those that do successfully make the jump from a Ph.D. program to the policy world are rarely welcomed back to their home disciplines in the ivory tower. The Ph.D. student faces a stark, binary choice between the world of ideas and action, and once a decision is made, there is rarely a chance to return.

A critic might respond that we have institutions that do meet this demand: graduate schools of public policy, public affairs, and international relations. These are remarkable institutions that perform an important service and have grown considerably in the past few decades. There are two problems, however. First, most policy schools offer a one- to two-year curriculum, enough time for students to acquire some skills, but not enough time to master the important substantive knowledge and methods increasingly needed for complex policy environment. Second, while some policy schools do have Ph.D. programs, they are not without issues. Students receiving Ph.D.s from policy schools often find it challenging to obtain academic jobs. Since the main point of disciplinary programs is to advance the discipline, disciplinary departments prefer and mostly hire Ph.D.s from their own fields. More alarmingly, a look at the faculty of many policy schools reveals even they rarely higher their own. Instead, policy programs are more likely to hire Ph.D.s from traditional social science disciplines, such as economics and political science, rather than bring on a Ph.D. from a policy or international affairs program.

A Call for a Conversation

What is the most effective advanced training for people who want to contribute to both the world of ideas and action in international affairs? When they go to graduate school, are students best served by learning sophisticated statistical methods, elegant theories, and formal modeling? Or would their long-term prospects be improved by obtaining a deep knowledge of language, history, and culture? Perhaps an intensive seminar on great books, like Thucydides’ “The Peloponnesian War” and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” would yield longer-term benefits? Courses on military campaign analysis? Maybe an interactive lab setting, with students and scholars from different fields and disciplines working together on a shared problem, such as cyber vulnerability or climate change mitigation, which better reflects the realities of global policy? An internship year spent in public or non-profit sector? Or perhaps an intellectual configuration that has yet to be designed?

Each of these approaches possesses advantages and can generate insight. In an ideal world, a student might want to experience all these learning environments. But in reality, a student can’t do it all – the Ph.D. process is already too long. Choices need to be made.

To be clear, I do not propose taking a side in the counterproductive “methods wars” taking place within many social science disciplines, including political science. Some policy questions will demand expert skill in statistical methods, others will benefit from formal modeling, whereas others may require deep knowledge of languages, history, and culture. A few may demand more than one approach. Oftentimes, however, methods are privileged within disciplines for reasons that have little connection to concerns of the world outside the ivory tower. Nor are students incentivized to generate scholarship that aims to have a larger impact on the world outside of their discipline.

I do not presume to dictate what the right curricular choices should be. As currently constructed, however, advanced graduate programs do presume to dictate these choices, often with little explicit justification to the student or the world at large. They also provide clear disincentives for spending time in and engaging with the policy world. Reasons for these disciplinary requirements and incentives should be transparent and understandable not just to aspiring graduate students, but constituencies both within and outside of universities. These requirements should be assessed in an honest and open manner against alternative approaches.

At a minimum, those responsible for constructing graduate education and establishing professional incentives – disciplines, departments, and universities – should welcome, encourage, and even facilitate assessments and debates over what graduate students in international affairs should learn, how they should be taught, and to what end and purpose. Three communities, in particular, should begin this conversation:

The political science discipline. For better or worse, most students seeking advanced training in international affairs will drift toward Ph.D. programs in political science. Many of these students are eager to contribute to both the world of ideas and of action. Are the current curricula and incentives hospitable to students achieving their goals, both within and outside of the discipline, or could more be done? Does the political science discipline value policy relevance, as many leading scholars claim? To be clear, it is fine if the answer is no – the discipline might decide, for example, that other important values, such as scientific rigor or methodological innovation could be compromised by conceding too much to the policy-relevance mission. If that were the case, however, the discipline should make both its mission and incentive structure transparent to the prospective graduate student of international affairs. The discipline should also explain these choices to the larger world.

The international affairs/security studies community. Not all scholars interested in international affairs are political scientists – many come from law, history, area studies, sociology, anthropology, economics, and other fields. Even political scientists interested in international affairs and security may lack true compatibility with others in their discipline more interested in what they see as scientific progress, methodological innovation, and theory building than policy relevance. The international affairs/security studies community might ask: Does graduate school prepare the international affairs student to understand the complex world of trade-offs, uncertainty, unintended consequences, and second-best solutions that mark foreign policy and world politics? A recent survey of policymakers revealed they were not enamored with the methods considered most cutting-edge in the discipline and found history and area studies of greater use than political science. Might some Ph.D. students be better served with an option of obtaining a deeper grounding in languages, culture, technology, law, and history than currently available? Might a new partnership with like-minded members of other fields who also feel marginalized in their own disciplines — such as international relations, diplomatic and economic history, national security law, and military sociology — provide a better home for advanced graduate training than political science or history departments? There are successful examples: in the past half century, the department of War Studies at King’s College London created by Sir Michael Howard and nurtured by Sir Lawrence Freedman has been a dynamic and increasingly popular interdisciplinary locus for first rate scholarship and graduate training in international affairs.   Could creating a more flexible field(s), adaptable to a changing world – which noted political scientist Stephen Van Evera has proposed – allow for more fruitful interactions with, say, scholars of global public health, energy sciences, or information technology? The answer is not clear, but it is a debate worth having.

Higher education leaders. Many leaders from higher education – university and college presidents, provosts, deans, and directors of research centers – have long emphasized both the need for interdisciplinary, problem-driven research and training and the opportunity for institutions of higher education to contribute to understanding and solving the world’s greatest challenges. In other words, most university leaders prize both rigor and relevance. Yet when it comes to the decisions that matter – how to evaluate and train Ph.D. students and how to hire and tenure faculty – they delegate the rules and decision-making to departments, which by and large follow the self-determined demands of their disciplines. Much of the time, this deference is understandable. If, however, the narrower goals and incentive structures of social science disciplines, like political science, clash with those of other important constituencies – the needs and wishes of undergraduate and advanced students, alumni, future employers in the public and private sector, society at large – university leaders should at least ask whether it isn’t worth exploring other ways to organize and incentivize international affairs education, training, and scholarship. All sorts of university practices, from tuition to tenure, are under increasing scrutiny by external constituencies. By creating more effective mechanisms for producing both the ideas and the talent needed to better understand the world, university leaders have an opportunity to demonstrate the great value of higher education institutions to these constituencies.

What can be done in the meantime? The first thing to do is to highlight and build upon efforts that already successfully promote rigor and relevance, such as the Bridging the Gap project, the Monkey Cage blog, Basin Harbour, the Clements Programs History, Strategy, and Statecraft summer seminar, the Maxwell School’s Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research and MIT’s Security Studies Program. Interdisciplinary research centers with an interest in global policy – such as Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the University of Texas’s Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and Duke’s Triangle Institute for Security Studies, to name a few – should band together to promote their missions. With the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation and in cooperation with policy-interested scholars from several institutions, an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners are creating the Carnegie International Policy Scholars Consortium and Network as part of their Rigor and Relevance:  Bridging the Academic-Policy Gap Initiative. We hope to help provide a select group of international relations students a small part of the training, mentoring, and knowledge needed to navigate and contribute both to the ivory tower and policy.

It is important to recognize that these concerns are not limited to any one discipline: Sociology, for example, has struggled with these issues, while my own discipline, diplomatic history, has almost completely abandoned any effort to contribute to serious discussion of national and international security. Nor is it clear what constitutes success. Economics graduate training is plagued by (and arguably responsible for) many similar pathologies, yet it has, albeit controversially, much influence in the policy world. And within political science, this movie has appeared before – the effort to be more problem driven, relevant, and connected to the larger world has a long history. We should better understand why these efforts came up short.

If we are really to overcome the policy-ivory tower gap George identified, more needs to be done. “Policy relevance” is a notoriously ambiguous term, meaning different things to different people. Perhaps a better term would be “public mindedness”. We need far more clarity over its meaning and its connection to basic research, to better identify when the ivory tower can usefully contribute with rigorous scholarship, while guarding against chasing fads and simply mirroring the day-to-day concerns of decision-makers. Focusing on the so-called “real world” can also come with a cost, as history reveals the dangers of power and politics corrupting the intellectual enterprise is ever present. Most importantly, we need a broader dialogue over what the mission of advanced graduate training is and should be, and what are the best ways to accomplish those goals.

This will not be an easy conversation, especially for tenured faculty who have spent their professional lives working within the norms and incentives of a discipline, and it should proceed in a constructive, respectful manner, recognizing that consensus will (and probably should) be elusive. As scholars and practitioners who spend our lives rigorously assessing and challenging the assumptions about the world we live in, however, we should not be afraid to turn the lens in on ourselves. As teachers, mentors, and citizens, we owe it to our students to ask the same kinds of difficult questions we are training them to ask and answer.


Francis J. Gavin, a diplomatic historian, is the Frank Stanton Chair in Nuclear Security Policy Studies and a Professor of Political Science at MIT. He is the author of Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (2012, Cornell University Press), and Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations (2004, University of North Carolina Press).


Photo credit: Eric Baetscher