Alumni Profile: Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch | 2020 | News

Alumni Profile: Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch
Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch

Alumni Profile: Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch



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.


Michal Ben-Josef Hirsh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science & Legal Studies, Suffolk University (Boston, MA).

1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?

I graduated with a PhD in Political Science in 2009. The title of my dissertation was “And the Truth Shall Make You Free: The International Norm of Truth-Seeking.”

2) What is your current position/title?

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science & Legal Studies, Suffolk University (Boston, MA). Previously, I was a Lecturer in the Department of Politics and in the Coexistence and Conflict Program, Heller School for Social Policy, Brandeis University, and a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Wellesley College.

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?

Even before I came to the US for my PhD, I knew that I enjoyed teaching and that I wanted teaching to be a major part of my academic career. My commitment to teaching only strengthened at MIT, where I had several opportunities during my PhD to be a teaching assistant and later to teach my own course. Consequently, it was less of a dilemma for me to choose between policy and academia. When I finished my dissertation, I knew that I was aiming for a teaching job. At the same time, policy-relevant research and teaching has always been essential for me, as it is for other SSP graduates. At Suffolk, community engagement and social responsibility are two of the university’s core values. The university, therefore, actively encourages policy-relevant research and teaching. This has led me to get more involved in and collaborate with local NGOs, to teach global public policy, and to be part of the process of developing a new school of public affairs at Suffolk.

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?

Definitely! Beyond the robust training in theory and methodology, SSP brings together a remarkable group of smart and informed students and faculty, who not only sharpened the way I think analytically but also expanded my knowledge of history and contemporary politics. It was always a great feeling to come out of classes and Wednesday seminars and realize that I just learned something new.

My undergraduate and graduate education in Israel was primarily shaped by security studies and realism. When I came to MIT, I naturally fit in with the SSP crowd. At the same time, however, I wanted to broaden my perspective and it was Barry Posen who encouraged me to also study comparative politics. This choice ultimately shaped my interest in and focus on identity, the role of ideas, and historical justice and memory. When I worked on my dissertation, I often felt like the oddball constructivist among a bunch of ‘guns and bombs’ realists who challenged me vigorously, yet kindly. I am forever grateful for their hard questions, which forced me to think and write more clearly.

The final SSP legacy that I carry with me is the cultivation of what Steve Van Evera always called “being a Mensch.” That is, being a good friend and colleague who reads and comments on peers’ research and always offers scholarly as well as personal support. I aspire to be a Mensch myself and try to surround myself with Mensch colleagues and co-authors. 

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?

In my research and teaching I have focused less on the causes and the course of wars, and more on what happens and can happen post-conflict. Then too, the Clausewitzian premise is often applicable. Domestic and international political actors and factors often shape not only the material outcome of conflicts but also the historical memories and the collective narratives that prevail. It is often politics and changes therein, both material and ideational, that shape how post-conflict justice looks.

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

Overall, I consider myself incredibly lucky and privileged to do the work I am doing. I get to learn and research issues that interest me and spend some of my days reading and grasping new ideas and concepts. I also get to spend my time with awesome and dynamic young adults with whom I share my knowledge and who teach me new things every day. If I am pressed to identify one source of dissatisfaction, it would be the administrative service commitments that come with an academic position. There is plenty to learn from committee work, including the ins and outs of curriculum design, the guidelines for human subjects research, and the management of a departmental budget. It is also a good way to make connections with faculty members outside one’s department or discipline. Yet, the significant downside is that committee work often takes a lot of time that I would have preferred spending on my research or teaching.

My greatest satisfaction comes from teaching. My teaching philosophy has always been premised on the principle that teaching is as much about learning as it is about imparting knowledge. Teaching forces me to clarify ideas and concepts and to engage closely with texts and research questions. As a result, my teaching informs my research. More importantly, teaching is where I feel I have a real impact by shaping or at least informing the ways in which students view and understand the world. In my current position, I have students, some of whom are first-generation students, who are smart, able, and creative, but who do not always have the support systems or foundations of knowledge that are needed to navigate a college education. Working closely with these students and being able to help them develop the skills to thrive in college is especially rewarding and satisfying.

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

I am proud of persisting. I was on the job market for the first time in 2009 and that was not good timing, to say the least. It took me six years of adjunct faculty positions to finally find a tenure track position in the Boston area. In my years of adjunct teaching, the key was to keep doing as much research as possible and to stay engaged and active in the research community. The continued support of my mentors – especially Steve Van Evera – and the ongoing relationship with my former SSP peers (special thanks to Kelly Greenhill, who keeps inviting me to the Belfer/CSPP working group that she leads) played an important role in keeping my research agenda active and relevant, even when my academic path proved to be somewhat winding. More recently, I am extremely proud of helping to place some of my most promising Suffolk students in prestigious graduate programs.

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?

The main factor that influenced my career is motherhood. I had my first two children as a graduate student (MIT was one of the first universities to provide a paid maternity leave to graduate students) and the third one while I was a post-doc. While talking about motherhood is often ‘hushed’ in academia, one cannot ignore the effects it has on life and career choices. While motherhood did not shape the substance of my research, it has fundamentally shaped how I work – forcing me to be more efficient, less of a procrastinator, and above all to put things in perspective.  

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

I would not do much differently, since I feel quite happy with how things have turned out so far. The one thing I would do differently is to publish my dissertation as a book. I have several articles that came out of my dissertation research, yet I never felt I had the time or resources to engage with such a large project. It always seemed more manageable to focus on the short-term goals of articles. Looking back, however, I wish I had focused more on the book project.

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

I am not sure I am comfortable giving advice, but I would offer three suggestions. First, if possible, do not delay the publication of your dissertation as a book manuscript. Second, know that career paths do not always look alike and may have bumps and diversions. Especially in the current uncertain and unsettling times, it is best to embrace those bumps and diversions as part of the path. My final point is primarily directed at female SSPers.  When I started in the PhD program at age 27, I wish someone had openly talked with me about some of the inherent tradeoffs between an academic career path and my desire to start a family. I strongly believe that the relationship between an academic career and parenthood, and especially motherhood, should be part of an open conversation. Having it all may well be possible, but it is helpful to have realistic expectations about tradeoffs.