Saturday, August 1, 2009

Professionally Lucky

Whenever I go through a bad run at the poker table, I complain that if it weren't for bad luck I would not have any luck at all. But, come to think of it, in my professional life, I really have been very lucky. Let me count the ways:

  1. The accident that is political science. I went to college thinking that I was going to become a doctor or a chemist. However, I realized pretty quickly that precision and carefulness are not my forte. I lucked into Poli Sci or Government as it was called then at Oberlin because the course supplement for the Spring term of my first year had new courses that were not listed in the regular course booklet, including Soviet Foreign Policy. Yes, I am old enough to take classes with Soviet in the title. So, anyway, I took that one class, which opened my eyes to what Poli Sci could be--much more than high school Civics, and especially International Relations. I might have found Poli Sci later, but that really altered my destiny, to the extent that some of my friends teased me only two years later with the nickname Mr. Government.
  2. I was lucky to end up at UCSD. I really did not know anything about grad programs, but I really bought low and ended up selling high. It was an up and coming program when I got in, and it has fulfilled its destiny--it is now a top ten program, so the value of my degree has skyrocketed. More importantly, it was the right place for me despite not really having many specialists in my area of interest--International Security. It would have been a great place if I wanted to do International Political Economy and perhaps my first long term job might not have been at Texas Tech if I specialized in a UCSD strength. But it was a great place to do grad work mostly because of the people who were in the program at the same time. It was the first "big" cohort--of 12--now they admit more per year. And the people they let in had very little in common, especially when it came to research interests, but I was lucky enough to be surrounded by really smart, generous and fun folks. It was not the first place nor the last where I received heaps of friendly abuse either.
  3. I lucked into ethnic conflict. I came by my dissertation topic mostly by accident, as I was interested in the meaning and realities of sovereignty, which led me to the International Relations of Secession. And to answer that question, ethnic politics seemed to be the right way to go. So, I defended my research proposal the same month that Yugoslavia fell apart. And now the IR of Ethnic Conflict is my specialty and what people know me for.
  4. Ending up at Texas Tech for 6 years (officially 7) was actually fortunate as well. The job market in the early 90's was quite poor, although not as miserable as now, and I should have focused more effort in grad school to getting publications out rather than just getting done. Anyhow, TTU was a sub-optimal outcome in many regards, but it was a good place to get work done--neither the grad students nor the undergrads made many demands on my time. I had a short commute, low taxes, and reasonably decent health at a time when I was starting out and when my kid was getting sick alot. So, I, like many before and since, was able to publish my way out of TTU. Had my first job been more demanding, it might have been my only or last academic position. Plus I was there at a time where they ended up hiring a great bunch of people who stayed only for a short time, but have become great friends.
  5. My interest in poker led to interactions with a group of folks at the International Studies Association annual meeting that has been rewarding (personally, intellectually, and professionally) to this day. The regular game has not only been one of the key highlights at the conferences each year, but also an entree into a network that I might not have bumped into otherwise.
  6. The CFR Fellowship was quite lucky. My record may have played a role in getting it, but I had no clue about where to end up. Since Condi Rice, despite being a former CFR fellow, was not letting CFR fellows from working at the National Security Council, my desire to "see sausage get made" led me to the Joint Staff, specifically the Directorate of Strategic Planning and Policy and its Balkan desks. This was incredibly lucky as I got to see policy made at a critical time in US history--the immediate aftermath of 9/11. [For my 9/11 story, you can hear this interview] Again, I was lucky to work with a great group of officers from all over the US military (with whom I got along well since I could take and dish out friendly abuse), and it led to the next set of research questions that has taken me to Europe this summer.
  7. I was lucky that McGill was hiring that year--that my book had just come out and I was then getting some policy experience so that my record was just then becoming attractive to these folks. And it was a good time to move to Canada--escaping the Bush administration was not the purpose of the move but a pleasant side effect.
  8. And now, I am quite lucky that my CFR fellowship led to a research agenda that has become of great interest outside of academia. My stuff on NATO and Afghanistan has led to lots of interesting meetings with military and civilian types in Canada and now Europe, as well as more opportunties to meet other academics in Canada. Plus more media opportunities and a trip to Afghanistan. I did not expect this kinds of benefits when I started asking questions about how countries control their militaries in multilateral operations, but I was lucky enough to find a topic that became quite timely and interesting to everyone else. Let's hope the book publishers feel the same way.
Obviously, it is not all about luck, but I have been far less strategic and instrumental than I usually assume politicians to be in my theories and publications. I have not ended up anywhere either in terms of areas of research or parts of the world that I ever would have guessed back when I started grad school about two decades ago.

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