Thinking About a Policy-Oriented PhD in International Relations?


Friends and family often ask, “So why a PhD?” It is a common question for doctoral students in any field, one posed by earnest relatives over the holidays, concerned parents fretting financial futures, and forlorn friends lamenting the loss of buddies to fieldwork. Yet the question takes on a special importance for those pursuing a PhD in international relations at policy-oriented programs. For starters, the majority of those studying international relations do so in political science departments, which mostly offer only mixed encouragement to students with policy interests. These departments insist that the primary purpose of a doctoral degree is to prepare for a university career. Meanwhile, according to one survey, nearly three quarters of international relations professionals do not have a PhD. Instead, the most common credential is a terminal master’s degree, making it easy to question the value of a research degree for policymaking.

In contrast, a minority of PhD programs in this field are not in traditional political science departments, but in professional schools of public and international affairs. While the pursuit of academic careers in these institutions is not discouraged, such programs tend to be more supportive of a broader array of career opportunities. In the United States, schools like the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the Tuft’s Fletcher of Law and Diplomacy are affiliated with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA). International PhD programs at institutions such as London’s Kings College or the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore offer a similar experience.

After over 10 collective years pursuing policy-oriented PhDs at such programs, we’ve come to the conclusion that earning such a PhD has merit, but not for everybody. Judging from the questions we often hear from prospective students and our peers studying in more traditional departments, whether to pursue doctoral studies at an APSIA school is a choice that demands contemplation on merits of its own. We’ve consolidated our views into ten considerations prospective applicants ought to mull over before applying. This is not an exhaustive list and it should only supplement the valuable advice about pursing a disciplinary PhD already out there. We hope this list adds new views from the trenches of the academy that frame the values and risks of a policy-oriented international relations PhD.

Not-So-Good Reasons for Getting a Policy-Oriented PhD

You are looking for the fast track to senior positions in government. We have all been approached by students or colleagues under the impression that a PhD is a distinguished credential that may help them rise to the upper echelons of the policy world. Inspired by the examples of prominent PhD-wielding public servants such as Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, and Gen. (ret.) David Petraeus, they appear to believe that a doctorate will give them a leg up in pursuing senior government positions.

However, top spots in the U.S. foreign policy establishment are generally not filled by scholars but by experienced politicians with time served in the private sector or in the federal bureaucracy. The most common advanced degree among their ranks is the law degree. International relations scholars who do end up in senior government positions got there by more circuitous routes than typically appreciated: either because they proved themselves skilled statesmen after taking a hiatus from a top research institution, as in Kissinger’s and Rices’ cases, or because of their accomplishments on the battlefield, like Petraeus. In the policy world, degrees themselves matter far less than what you do and who you know, and as Dan Drezner noted, they are not “merely a box to be checked on the way to power and influence in Washington.” This is true of both policy-oriented PhDs and more traditional disciplinary programs.

You want to learn how to navigate “the blob.” Navigating the bureaucracy, even in junior positions, is a challenge for those who have spent years honing the skills needed for a PhD. For most jobs in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, affectionately known as “the blob,” a PhD is not a requirement. First and foremost, it is a degree designed to develop researchers. For those insistent on these government careers, the years spent obtaining a PhD may be better spent climbing up the bureaucratic rungs or working in the private sector. Why? First, there is the worst-case outcome – beginning a PhD and not finishing it – leading to plenty of book knowledge but no degree. In addition, the research rewarded in any social science field, including policy-oriented international relations programs, does not inherently incentivize the type of personal and professional growth most often associated with practitioner’s careers. Instead of learning how to navigate bureaucracies, manage budgets, or cultivate leadership skills, PhD students work alone on projects of their own design with the overriding aim of publishing. Finally, those who spend their early careers working their way up the ranks of would-be policymakers may look skeptically at those who spent the same time hitting the books.

You are set on becoming a tenured college professor at a research university. Typical political science and history departments, the fields most closely associated with the study of international relations, are most interested in hiring candidates with a degree in their particular field, not a policy school. According to the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) survey of international relations faculty, 63 percent of political science professors agree that doctoral study of international relations should be done in departments like theirs, as opposed to APSIA-like settings. Moreover, only the very best ranked disciplinary programs consistently show success in placing their graduates in stable academic positions, and the legion of adjuncts living course by course, semester by semester, suggests a large pool of qualified scholars who find it difficult to attain jobs. International relations is a tough market to crack without a top-20 political science or history degree, so if you are dead-set on being a scholar in the most highly ranked schools, a policy-oriented PhD is likely not for you.

You enjoy the fast-paced world of international politics. A prospective doctoral student in any field must be confident in her ability to conduct research. This has as much to do with temperament as it does with intellect. The conduct of a long, independent research project is a solitary endeavor fraught with uncertainty and self-doubt, and those inclined to consider a policy-oriented program may actually be searching for a more fast-paced, team-oriented professional experience. If you want to pursue a PhD, you must be comfortable working alone for many years on a structured and elaborate piece of written work with only intermittent and critical feedback.

You cannot do without disposable income. A would-be PhD candidate must be comfortable with the opportunity costs. Allowing for the conventional wisdom that one should never pay for a PhD of any kind (which is absolutely true), there is the added complication that those eligible to apply for APSIA doctoral programs already have serious earning potential that is forgone by going back to school. After all, these PhD programs generally require an MA in international relations already, which necessarily means potential applicants are older and already have some professional experience. Presuming completion of an international relations PhD in four years (which is optimistic), such a person may well be forgoing hundreds of thousands of dollars early in life when expenses associated with starting a family, buying a home, and paying off undergraduate loans are very real. This is a somewhat different calculus than an early twenty-something considering a traditional disciplinary PhD program.

Good Reasons for Getting a Policy PhD

You are interested in policy relevant jobs that require in-depth policy research and analysis. At their heart, PhD programs train their recipients to perform original research. Most often such research is done in college and universities, but there are several other places conducting high-quality research geared towards affecting policy. These include think tanks, federally funded research institutions, international organizations, and private sector firms engaged in activities like risk analysis. APSIA schools are especially well placed to train you to communicate in ways congenial to these environments and to connect you with networks opening these types of doors. According to TRIP data, over three quarters of faculty at APSIA schools have consulted at these kinds of places, compared to only about half of faculty in traditional departments. These professional linkages offer APSIA faculty valuable insights into the needs of these groups, their approaches to research, and the people signing off on new hires. If these policy-oriented research jobs sound interesting, an APSIA school’s training and connections may be for you.

You want to break into the analytical foreign policy establishment. As we pointed out in the previous section, a PhD is not required to break into the U.S. foreign policy establishment and few foreign policy professionals pursue this degree. But for those who are comfortable with the trade-offs and who enjoy the process of conducting research, policy-oriented PhD programs do bring value and can set candidates apart. For one, most APSIA programs offer their students opportunities to hone memo writing, develop briefing skills, participate in policy-oriented fieldtrips, and engage with policymakers on a regular basis. TRIP data suggest that nearly two-thirds of APSIA faculty and traditional political science faculty alike agree that doctoral training should provide more tools to graduates for careers outside of the ivory tower. APSIA schools do, and most students are better able to think deeply, write convincingly, and express themselves coherently on difficult policy issues after several years in a policy-oriented PhD program. These are transferable skills similar to those cultivated in law schools, where an emphasis on teaching students how to think has long been appreciated in the policy world. Policy PhD wielders are also considered experts on the topics they study, which provides an added layer of credibility when publishing op-eds, blogs, or think tank pieces. Just as crucially, APSIA schools are far less likely to ding their students for taking on an internship, pursuing a consulting project, or getting involved with policy advocacy than traditional programs, and some even encourage it. In fact, TRIP data indicate that 57% of policy school faculty engage in at least yearly advocacy compared to 39% of their peers in political science departments. APSIA faculty also tend to encourage students to produce policy-relevant work, understanding that it is not some hidden passion that may lure you away from the ivory tower. According to TRIP, one third of APSIA faculty consider themselves scholar-practitioners, a far higher number than imaginable in typical political science departments. And then there are your peers in the program, many if not all of whom already have professional experience at think tanks, in the military, or in government analytical positions, who offer not just a network for jobs, but also new takes on policy-relevant research and ways to approach it.

You are happy pursuing a non-traditional academic career. While you will not be as competitive for most tenure-track teaching positions in the United States, many of our colleagues find success as academics abroad, where degrees from U.S. schools (and policy schools in particular) tend to have significant cache. There are also many departments at U.S. institutions who find interdisciplinary scholars appealing, from liberal arts colleges to Joint Professional Military Education institutions, such as the National Defense University. Additionally, provided you have a position in the public or private sector that is paying the bills, a policy-oriented PhD may open doors to teach part-time as an adjunct or visiting faculty member.

You wish to gain specific expertise in a (sub)field where there is little. Prospective students should have burning questions about the world that can only be answered after years of research. Unlike a traditional academic program, where basic research is often preferred, these questions should be of a more applied variety. Just what constitutes “policy relevant” work is open to debate, but generally prospective employers who work at the nexus of academia and policy are not interested in hiring an international relations theorist or critical historian. Rather, they want to see candidates who can take their research training and use it to provide building blocks for future policy. If you work in the policy world and know of important topics or areas lacking experts and are willing spend three to five years of your life becoming one, a policy-oriented PhD is worth considering. And you’ll find support at APSIA schools. According to TRIP, just over three-quarters of their faculty have responded to world events by explicitly modifying their research to make it more policy relevant while slightly more than half of scholars in traditional political science programs have done the same.

You want to “bridge the gaps.” Policy-oriented PhD programs are especially well placed to bridge two important divides among those thinking about international politics – the gap between policymakers and academics and the space between historians and political scientists. By design, APSIA programs are interdisciplinary and policy-oriented. The TRIP survey reports that fully half of APSIA faculty members co-authored with a colleague from another discipline or department while only just more than one third of their peers in political science departments did the same. These programs are making earnest efforts to produce scholar-practitioners capable of interpreting the best of the academy for those charged with making and implementing policy. This means building networks of policymakers and academics alike, knowing their cultures and languages, and understanding their approaches and needs in ways that spending time only in the academy or in Foggy Bottom just does not allow. While this approach is part of the reason these PhDs may do less well in the traditional academic job market, if you are passionate about traversing this bridge, then one of these programs may be for you.

A policy-oriented PhD is not for most people interested in pure scholarship or policymaking. Indeed, there are compelling reasons to avoid submitting an application. However, for certain kinds of students, the policy-oriented international relations PhD experience can be an invaluable stepping stone to a career at the nexus of both worlds. These ten considerations offer a starting point for a student seriously considering a policy-oriented PhD program in international relations. By making the benefits and disadvantages of these programs clear, we hope to make another larger point, namely, that the policy world should not be viewed just as a “back up” option for would-be academics. The policy world should be explicitly sought by a subset of researchers who earnestly want to bend their analytical skills to inform policymaking. Like the hard sciences, there is value in appreciating the difference between applied research and basic research. Those of us interested in policy-oriented research careers (the “applied” side of the equation) need our colleagues training to be traditional political scientists and historians to cover the “basic” research that will complement our own work. This way we all might hope to see the research generated by the ivory tower better informing the halls of power.


Bradley Potter is a PhD candidate in international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a predoctoral research fellow at the Belfer Center in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Nathaniel Allen is a PhD candidate in international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a 2016-2017 U.S. Institute of Peace Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar.

Torrey Taussig is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Belfer Center in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

A special thank you to TRIP project managers Hannah Petrie and Elizabeth Martin for their assistance pulling data and to the TRIP Principal Investigators, especially Mike Tierney and Dan Maliniak, for their support.

Image: State Department