Choosing a Ph.D. Program in Political Science

Every April, hundreds of prospective students choose to pursue a Ph.D. in political science. The choice is an important and serious one that usually entails a multi-year commitment to a place, its professors, a set of people, and a program. For these reasons, many prospective students often struggle to come to a decision about what program to choose. Others have written extensively about the application process. However, we at The Smoke-Filled Room wanted to offer advice, from the perspective of political science Ph.D. students, exclusively about the process of choosing a Ph.D. program. To that end, we solicited our contributors for their advice. Here’s what they had to say:

Lionel Beehner, Yale
The best advice I received was to go into grad school with an open mind, cast a wide net, and find scholars whose work you like. I didn’t know what the difference between a R1 school or a policy-focused school was when applying (I probably should have), having already had a policy degree from SIPA and done some think thank and journalism work. I knew nothing about methods. I only knew I was interested in was security studies broadly conceived as well as civil wars. There is no such thing as a “perfect” school, since every program you apply to will entail tradeoffs. No grad student can “have it all.” But overall, you should get a keen knowledge of the program, its top scholars, and determine if the school is a good fit. Also, talk to as many grad students as possible, which I found was invaluable.

Matt Eckel, Georgetown
Think about the money, and not just yours. It’s probably not news that a guaranteed stipend can make a world of difference in the time, mental energy and caloric output you can dedicate to your academic work. It can be tough to stay focused on research when every semester brings a new search for rent and grocery money. If you are lucky enough to have multiple funded offers, though, don’t just consider what each department is offering you. Consider what it’s offering your future colleagues. How many get fellowships? How much funding is available on a semester or annual basis for those without guaranteed funding? This advice doesn’t come from some grad-students-of-the-world-unite sense of class solidarity (though if you’re inclined toward such thinking we should chat), but rather from intellectual self-interest. You’ll have a more enjoyable, productive, rewarding experience in graduate school if you’re surrounded by colleagues who can devote as much time, energy and attention to their research as you can.

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Multiplicity (not starring Michael Keaton)

Duck of Minerva did a public service by hosting a debate between Matt Kroenig, Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann (see herehere, and here). The topic was nuclear superiority and crisis bargaining. Those are abstract words, but they are relevant for how we think about the United States’ ability to compel, say, North Korea in a crisis. But I think the debate should be of interest to anyone interested in applied methods in IR.

For me, Sechser and Fuhrmann’s arguments are the more compelling. In particular, they critique how Kroenig squeezes the appearance of more data out of a very small number of events:

Kroenig confronts a basic challenge in his empirical analysis: nuclear crises are rare.  Specifically, he has only 20 nuclear crises in his dataset (drawn from the ICB dataset). Yet he winds up with 52 observations, enough to generate a statistically significant correlation.  How does he obtain such a large dataset from such a small set of crises? The answer is that Kroenig simply duplicates each observation in the dataset, so as to double its size. A single observation for the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, now becomes two independent events in his dataset: a victory for the United States, and a defeat for the Soviet Union.  This is inappropriate: the two observations are measuring the same event. Kroenig is not actually observing more data here; he is simply reporting the same event twice.  This is equivalent to an exit poll that lists each respondent twice in the sample – once voting for candidate X, and once voting against candidate Y – and then claims to have twice the sample size.

As quantitative methods have pushed into new areas, including areas with very few observations, their employers have suggested greater confidence than is deserved about their findings. In fact, at some point, my guess is the whole enterprise of treating dyad-years as meaningfully independent observations will come collapsing around our heads. It’s been a while since I looked at it, but Erickson, Pinto and Rader have a paper that concludes “typical statistical tests for significance are severely overconfident in dyadic data.”

Political science’s great challenge is knowing what we know. Quantitative methods are not a panacea for this problem.

Barack Obama has Nothing to Gain from Promoting Middle East Peace

There has been a lot of talk the past few weeks about President Obama’s visit to Israel, both in government circles and the media. The gist of the chatter is quite similar across the board; Obama should take this opportunity to renew efforts towards achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. This is certainly a noble endeavor, I mean, who doesn’t want peace? But when we start examining the deeper content behind these calls to Obama, it quickly becomes clear that “peace” means very different things to different people, both domestically and abroad. Not only is the topic contentious in America’s domestic politics, but it has the potential to further destabilize an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been quietly seething in recent months. It appears a third intifada is closer today that any time since the end of the second, and neither Israel nor the Palestinians are in any position to renew good-faith negotiations that could actually lead anywhere. Obama would be wise to avoid pushing either side back towards the negotiating table; nothing constructive can result from such action.

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Condemned to Repeat It: Revisiting the War in Iraq

On the ten year anniversary of the War in Iraq, Peter Feaver “celebrated” with a post on Foreign Policy about five “myths” that pervade views about the war. Lists are fun. And this is a fun list. I say this because I hope nobody is taking this list seriously. I appreciate Feaver’s effort to try to clear up what happened in the build-up to the war. To be honest, I am still not sure exactly why the war in Iraq occurred. I do agree with Feaver’s implicit claim that monocausal explanations of the war are doomed to fail; this is a complicated policy issue that evolved in unpredictable ways from 2002 through 2004 that now cloud our ability to judge what happened.

All that being said, I don’t think Feaver’s attempt to clear the air makes a significant contribution to our knowledge about the war for three reasons. First, some of the “myths” are strawmen with which no serious observer of international politics would actually agree. Consider, for instance, the following myth:

The “real” motivation behind the Iraq war was the desire to steal Iraqi oil, or boost Halliburton profits, or divert domestic attention from the Enron scandal, or pay off the Israel lobby, or exact revenge on Hussein for his assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush.

Feaver then proceeds to debunk each of these in turn. This is not necessary. Evocation of such arguments against the war come about only through serious misreadings of The Israel LobbyRise of the Vulcans, and, perhaps, Orientalism. In Feaver’s defense, he does admit that these are opinions held by “far left (and right) fringes.” But is this really who Feaver is targeting with this post?

The second type of myths are oddly-timed reaffirmations of some of the same arguments used in the build-up to the war a decade ago. For instance, Feaver rebuts John Mearsheimer’s claim that the Bush administration lied about the al-Qaeda-Iraq link as follows:

The first is the question of links between Iraq and al Qaeda. As I noted above, while the Iraq files contain no “smoking gun” of an active operational link, the record includes ample evidence of overtures originating from either side — each pursuing precisely the kind of enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend alliance of convenience that Bush worried about.

Ok. So, in conclusion, then: no link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. I sincerely hope that this country’s national security apparatus does not consider “overtures” proper casus belli.

Finally, Feaver correctly addresses the myth that the Bush administration wanted to democratize Iraq from the start with two fairly persuasive points: (1) learning from Desert Storm, Bush officials were only committed to Saddam Hussein’s forcible removal from power, and (2) once Saddam had been removed, the administration promoted democracy as the best option for a post-Saddam Iraq. Obviously, the administration was woefully underprepared for this endeavor. Nonetheless, Feaver’s description of the timing of the motives is sound. However, he offers little clarity in his description of the primary cause of the war:

Bush was committed to confronting Iraq because of the changed risk calculus brought about by 9/11, which heightened our sensitivity to the nexus of WMD and terrorism (believing that state sponsors of terrorism who had WMD would be a likely pathway by which terrorist networks like al Qaeda could secure WMD)

This sentence barely means anything. Mostly, it’s just national security buzzwords strewn about a couple of proper nouns and “WMD” to lend an air of credibility to a nonsensical policy decision. It’s especially curious that Feaver would call Iraq a “nexus of WMD and terrorism” given the overwhelming evidence that it had neither in the spring of 2003. While it is important to clear the air surrounding some of the overtly biased arguments against the War in Iraq, it is equally important not to revert back to the same myths that led us into this mess to begin with.

For more of his thoughts on US Foreign Policy, follow William on Twitter.