Alumni Profile: Dan Byman | 2020 | News

Alumni Profile: Dan Byman
Dan Byman

Alumni Profile: Dan Byman


In this section we will ask an SSP alum ten "frequently asked questions" in order to spotlight their own career achievements as well as what insight they have gained as a result from their years at SSP.


Daniel Byman is a professor and Vice Dean in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. He is also a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.


1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?

Ph.D. in political science. “Keeping the Peace: Lasting Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts.”

2) What is your current position/title?

I am currently a professor at Georgetown and a Vice Dean (aka mid-level bureaucrat) in the School of Foreign Service there. I am also a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a think tank.

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 always had strong policy interests, having worked in government before coming to MIT. In addition, for personal reasons (my wife also had strong government interests), I knew that Washington, D.C. was the likely destination for me. As academic jobs in general are tough to come by, and the odds of being able to get one in the city of my choice was low, I oriented myself toward the policy world and took a job with the RAND Corporation while finishing up at MIT. Several years later, an academic job opened up at Georgetown, and I was lucky enough to be chosen.

I’d advise graduates to understand how personal factors (city desirability, a spouse’s concerns, etc.) are likely to shape where you want to be. Not surprisingly, certain cities are more desirable to most people and thus jobs there are more competitive. If you want to orient yourself toward policy, you will want to display a different skill set and set of experiences than if you are seeking a traditional tenure-track job.

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 learned several important things from SSP faculty members and SSP students beyond the substance of the classes. One of which was the seriousness of security issues. It is tempting as a political scientist to focus too much on theory or on an innovative method. However, the literally life or death stakes of the issues involved means that the question and hard realities involved should always be at the forefront of my thinking. Another was to best case, rather than straw man, opposing arguments. I’ve found that my work is more credible among those who disagree with me as a result.

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?

These are big questions, and my own experience and knowledge is limited. Yet even in my limited areas of expertise, I’ve seen how politics distorts intelligence policy. This is common in counterterrorism, where fear is high, public information is low, and there are political incentives for exaggerating dangers (as well as times ignoring threats).

6) What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why?    

I realize it sounds trite, but I really love teaching. I’m fortunate at Georgetown to have (usually) fantastic graduate and undergraduate students. I particularly enjoy teaching new courses and trying out new forms of learning. I’m currently doing work on social media companies and national security, and much of the knowledge comes from younger voices – including the students.

7) What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP been a part of that?

I’m proud of a number of things, and my MIT background played a role in what successes I have had. As an example, I’d mention work I did for the Congressional 9/11 Inquiry and then the 9/11 Commission. In both cases, I went deep into the empirics, learning about Al Qaeda but also on U.S. counterterrorism policy, both through interviews and by reading a wide range of classified documents – this at a time when very few people knew much about terrorism or counterterrorism. Very basic social science concepts informed my understanding and the questions I asked. What were the organizational sources of U.S. counterterrorism policy? How do analysts and policymakers handle incomplete and conflicting information? What are likely tradeoffs in any policy solutions? By asking these questions—familiar to all SSP students--I believe I was better at my job.

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?

Chance played a huge role. In my first job with the U.S. government, I ended up working on the Middle East, which was not intentional on my part. Not only did I learn a lot at the time, but that background shaped my subsequent steps and left me well-positioned to work on Middle East security issues in the years to come. Of course, terrorism and Middle East security issues moved to the front and center of U.S. foreign policy, so I’ve been able to engage on a wide range of issues.

9) Looking back, what, if anything would you do differently?

Wow, that’s a long list. There were times I did not do temporary tours in government for family reasons that would have helped my career, though I would never regret the additional time with my kids (yes, I want it both ways). Also, when my Arabic was at its peak, I regret not doing an extended stay in an Arab country to hammer it into my skull, as by now it has mostly escaped.

10) What is the key piece of advice that you would pass along to current SSP graduate students, or those just beginning their careers?

Standard old person advice. Don’t plan too far into the future, as unexpected opportunities will come your way. Love your research topics and don’t chase headlines – our ability to predict what matters five years out is pretty close to zero, so by trying to be trendy you are just as likely to be wrong as if you had pursued what you love in the first place.  Finally, there’s a strong random factor in academic success. If you achieve it, be humble, and if it eludes you (at least by your own standard of success), then recognize that a few small things going in a different direction might have made a huge different.