Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Happy phd-versary

As I was moving stuff around my home office, I glanced at my PhD, and realized today is my Phd's anniversary:*

*  Yes, Pete Wilson, a Republican who helped turn California into a Blue state due to the failed effort to use xenophobia for political purposes, signed my PhD as governor.  Pretty perfect given my research interests.

I have been Ph-D-ing for 25 years. Looking back, I find that those five years have made such a deep impact on me, in many ways more so than college (other than that finding a life-partner thing).  How I think about the world, how I think about my profession, how I think about comprehensive exams, how I teach graduate students, how I miss San Diego, how I eat Mexican food, how I think about pets since we got my favorite dog there, how I remember bachelor parties (or try to), etc, so much of that comes from those five years.

I have never felt that having a Phd means one is brilliant or smart.*  Just perseverant and, as the degree says, able to do original research.  The hard parts of getting a PhD are: coming up a question that is feasible to answer and that has not been answered satisfactorily before, figuring out one's approach to it, writing it all up (the actual doing of research is not so hard, I think), and responding well to critical feedback.  Our profession tends to assume that if you can do this once, you can do it again and again, which makes the PhD the basic minimum to profess at most places.  While that may not be true, the reverse is: if you can't pull off an original research project in graduate school, where one has a supervisor and hopefully a supportive cohort and role models, you almost certainly can't do it elsewhere, especially if you have other major commitments.
*  And yes, I find it incredibly annoying that the intellectual arms race depicted on superhero shows and elsewhere has the smart person in the room having many more PhDs than anyone else.  More PhDs is not more brilliant, just more unrealistic.  Sorry, Mr. Fantastic, and sorry, Felicity Smoke.
Getting back to that original question thing, I remember it was once very hard to think of an original question.  What I proposed in my application to grad school did not survive impact with grad school classes--something to do with arms races, as Ken Waltz and the security dilemma satisfied my curiosity on that stuff.  I did start thinking really big--about the meaning of sovereignty--what matters more the norms about the inviolability of boundaries or the independence of governments? Is the IR of secession distinct from the IR of revolution?  I ended up focusing on the former since I found the work in that area to be unsatisfying.  I never got back to the big question, although I recently got invited to join a project that might just get me back to that.

Anyhow, once I had that one question, I was able to pursue it, but, at first, I had a hard time thinking what to do next, which was not great for job talks as "what is the next project" is always asked.  Eventually, I started being able to see lots more questions, so many that I have left many of those on the shelf.  Having different experiences, like the year on the Joint Staff, have produced questions in completely different areas.  My dissertation did haunt me for a good fifteen years after grad school, but I never really focused on the same part of the world or on the same issues.  My questions kept taking me further and further away from where I started, leaving me a jack of many trades (and a reviewer of many areas) and a master of none.

I might have been more productive if I had stuck with the same stuff--no need for additional literatures to master and reviewers to persuade--but I have always been driven by my curiosity and not by what was strategically sound for my career.  It has worked out wonderfully for me even though I had no grand plan, no imagination of living in Texas or Canada, no expectation to be working on alliances or civil-military relations.

And, yes, I have survivor bias, as others who were similarly unstrategic may not have survived the Darwinian job markets of the past 25 years.  So, I am not sure I am a great role model for how to build a career.  All I really know is this: I got into this business because I am a very, very curious person, and this profession allows me to pursue my curiosity wherever it goes.  It does not allow me to choose where to live with complete freedom, but it does allow me to study what I want for as long as I want.  And yes, to talk about whatever I want for as long as anyone wants to hear me.

Could I imagine doing anything else?  Well, in grad school, when I had doubts about doing this stuff, I would ponder being a firefighter or a policeman or some other fantasy from when I was a kid.  Because maybe I knew that there was no other way for me than this way.  Sure feels like that now.  Either that or I have a crappy imagination about what else I could have done.

So, on this 25th anniversary of my PhD, all I can do is be grateful for the badge that allows me to do what I am best suited for and what I enjoy the most--thinking, reading, teaching, talking, and, yes, writing. 

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