Alumni Profile: Olya Oliker | 2019 | News
1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?
Ph.D., Between Rhetoric and Reality: Explaining the Russian Federation’s Nuclear Force Posture
2) What is your current position/title?
Program Director for Europe & Central Asia, International Crisis Group
3) As is often the case for SSP alums, when you finished your dissertation you had an important choice to make between a position in the policy world and an academic career. What inclined you toward the option you chose? Do you have any advice to share with current SSP students as they weigh their career choices?
I started the PhD without a clear sense of where I would go next. I’d gotten a public policy masters, and then I had worked at the Pentagon, so part of the appeal of the Ph.D was that it would open up the academic option. However, I have never been big on life planning. As it turned out, I was in residence at MIT for only the first 5 semesters: coursework, generals, and one semester of collecting data and doing nothing with it. Then I took a full-time job at RAND and moved back to DC.
At that time, I was not making a conscious choice between the academic track and thinklandia, because again, I’m not much of a life planner. I was looking for interesting things to do, and RAND offered them. I wanted a paycheck bigger than a stipend, and RAND offered that, as well. To be honest, I missed DC (yes, I’m weird that way). For a while I was still working on the dissertation, but then for a long time (as in a decade) I wasn’t. I’d withdrawn, I was doing interesting research, and I figured that I could live with that particular sword of Damocles hanging over me. But in the end, I cut the string myself: I decided to re-enroll and finish, thinking it would take about two years. It took five (I told you about my life planning skills). By the time I defended, I wasn’t at RAND any more; I’d moved over to CSIS. And by that point, I didn’t have a choice to make between academia and policy. I was firmly entrenched in a think tank job and highly unlikely to go on the academic job market as a fairly senior person, but with a shiny new Ph.D.
A career spent mainly in think tanks has worked out well for me. I carry out and oversee research which is meant to be policy-relevant and usually is. The theoretical underpinnings are sometimes clear, more often implied, and frequently not even that, but I know they’re there, and find that valuable. I teach sometimes, and I enjoy that. As far as advice goes, I suppose if you want to be like me, don’t make plans, and follow opportunities when they show up. But I also think I got stunningly lucky with the opportunities. These days, even more than back then, there aren’t a lot of jobs out there. When I hire, I see far more qualified applicants than I have jobs available. So it’s not as though the think tank or policy worlds are good fall-backs if academia doesn’t work out: they’re the first choices of a lot of very capable people.
4) Would you say that your experience at SSP has continued to influence your current position? What key concepts or values from SSP have served you well in your current position?
I got fantastic training in theory, methods, and thinking at SSP, surrounded by really bright people (students and faculty) who sharpened my mind. It made me a better producer and consumer of research and analysis. I don’t know of any other program in our field that gets the balance between theory and application as right as SSP does. Also, and because of this, the MIT SSP “Mafia” truly is a phenomenon: you meet another graduate of the program, and you know they’re solid (and also probably a person you can get on with). This creates a fantastic network of folks across and adjacent to policy and academia. It has served me tremendously well.
5) One of the primary premises of the MIT SSP is “War is an extension of politics. Politics causes wars. Policy must be the governing force.” Can you explain how, in your experience, this has been true or false? What has been your own experience?
We’re living in a time where this particular Clausewitzism (Clausewitzianism?) is turned on its head a lot. I often hear (& read) about the “weaponization” of this and that. What folks really mean is that non-military tools of national power are being used to attain state goals. Which is, um, politics. The rhetoric isn’t new, but it seems to me to have become extremely prevalent and to reflect an unstated assumption that military options should be the default. It’s as though there’s something inappropriate about using commerce, diplomacy, intelligence, information, or other tools. It reflects a trend towards militarization of international politics and makes a virtue of that trend. This in turn makes it harder for policy to, indeed, be the governing force, at least good policy. There’s a paper in this which I keep not getting around to writing. Maybe someone else wants to?
6) What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why?
I like my current job because I really like the mission and purpose of Crisis Group. It’s not pure research, it’s research and advocacy, but the advocacy is very pragmatic. We’re trying to figure out how to end, resolve, and mitigate the effects of conflict, and sometimes we succeed. Also, I get to live in Brussels, where the beer is wonderful, art nouveau architecture is all around me, and I have a lot less jet lag then I did when I lived in DC.
7) What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP been a part of that?
A few times in my career, I’ve contributed to analysis or direct action that actually helped people—gave them opportunities to get out of precarious situations, made security organizations less predatory, made some part of the world a wee bit less dangerous, maybe taught someone something they didn’t understand previously. (Other times I failed miserably to do any good at all, but you didn’t ask me about that). SSP helped give me the tools to make better judgements, and likely helped put me in the position to make them. Oh, and I’m actually kind of crazy proud of getting that Ph.D. done. It was hard.
8) What, outside of SSP and your work here, has been the factor that has most influenced who you are now, and what your current research interests are?
Like international relations itself, I believe I am influenced by history and geography. I was born in Brezhnev-era Russia and came to the US as a child refugee (after a year of separation from a parent courtesy of the Soviets, which seems topical these days). Not everyone with this sort of background decides to study war, of course, and even if there is correlation, it may be spurious, so we surely need more data to draw conclusions. Process-tracing might be useful.
9) Looking back, what, if anything would you do differently?
I’m not big on regrets. One makes decisions based on the information one has available at the time. I have difficulty imagining myself making other choices in the same conditions with the same information. One should learn from others, though. So learn from me and don’t take 20 years to write your dissertation and/or try to finish it while running a research program.
10) What is the key piece of advice that you would pass along to current SSP graduate students, or those just beginning their careers?
Other than not to take 20 years? I’d say keep your options open, both in terms of professional opportunities and research interests. It’s amazing what turns out to be applicable across topics. And try to have as much fun doing this stuff as you can. It’s a luxury to be able to study interesting things and try to make the world a little less dysfunctional on the basis of your knowledge. If you’re not enjoying it (or, also, if you find you’re very bad at it), do something else and let others have a shot.