MIT SSP’s new professor seeks clarity in jargon | 2021 | News

MIT SSP’s new professor seeks clarity in jargon
Christopher Burns | MIT Security Studies Program
Mariya Grinberg

Introducing Dr. Mariya Grinberg, SSP's newest professor, who started July 1, 2021.



photo: Christopher Burns



Dr. Mariya Grinberg’s first gig in international relations involved translating Russian materials into English. Given the goal of her first assignment, it is unsurprising she is focused on tightly defining the language of her field.

Dr. Grinberg is the newest MIT Security Studies Program professor and a specialist in the theoretical understanding of international relations. She first entered the world of IR under the mentorship of Dr. Mary Sarotte, who hired her as a translator while she was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California.

Thematically, her professional interests haven’t shifted far from that first job description. As a newly minted MIT professor, Dr. Grinberg is engaged with assigning clear definitions to the words and phrases that underpin theoretical arguments in the realm of political science and IR.

“I very much appreciate good, clear, crisp definitions,” she said during a recent interview in her office at MIT SSP’s headquarters. “I find that a lot of the time, that is the element most lacking in what we do.”

As a field planted in the social sciences, shared comprehension of language is important in international relations. Yet, as a research subject it is often overlooked.

Dr. Grinberg aims to create clear definitions within IR theory, and to ensure definition is understood within different contexts. In her most recent project, she’s focused on the field’s shared understanding of “decline” in the context of nation-states.

“Sometimes [the problems in definition] come from the assumption that ‘everyone knows what this term is,’” Dr. Grinberg says. “We’re all assuming comprehension but we’re all speaking a different language.”

One of her methods for ensuring clarity in her own work relates back to that first undergraduate job. She writes her initial thoughts in Russian before translating them into English.

It forces her to “take out the jargon” and “make sure the words I use are specifically designed to have meaning,” she says.
In academia, clarity can be a double-edged sword.

Crystal-clear clarity “does open you up to a lot more critique. Because if people can understand what you’re saying, they can tell you you’re wrong,” Dr. Grinberg says with a laugh. “That’s what makes it fun, because you can actually engage in a fruitful debate.”

Her most recent paper, “Dealing with Decline: The Trade-Off between Relative and Absolute Gains in Strategies to Avert Decline,” is currently in development.

“I read a few books that talked about decline, retrenchment and preventive war. And I realized I wasn’t entirely satisfied with how they were discussing what decline actually is,” she said. “I tried to figure out what decline is — as far as I understand it — and that’s how the paper got started.”

In addition to her project on decline, Dr. Grinberg recently finished her dissertation: "Planning for the Short Haul: Explaining Wartime Trade between Enemies.” This piece of research seeks to explain why states trade with one-another while they are at war.

Early life

Dr. Grinberg moved to the United States from Russia when she was ten years old. Her parents left Russia in order to give her and her brother greater opportunities in their lives.

“The Russia they were fleeing was not one of many opportunities,” she says.

She brings to the table a cross-cultural perspective into the world of international relations. This perspective goes beyond linguistic clarity.

“There are many differences in culture and how people think” between The US and Russia, she says. “In this particular instance, the differences help me. I can bring a slightly different thought process to the world.”

Dr. Grinberg is the only member of her family who doesn’t practice as a computer scientist. Her mother and father, Irina and Victor, as well as her brother, Dmitry, are all computer experts.

Like an engineer, she enjoys the logical challenges that come with the analysis of international relations theory. But, she prefers its basis in social science because variables, consistencies and ‘the right answer’ are constantly in flux.

“The units you’re working with are human beings, and they’re so complex, you’re never going to find the ‘right solution’ to the problem,” she says.

MIT and Cambridge

Dr. Grinberg has enjoyed her move to Cambridge, and MIT. Professionally, MIT is the “ideal place” for her to continue her research.

There are not many security studies programs left in the U.S., she says. Of those remaining, MIT offers an especially wide degree of freedom for researchers to look at both theoretical and qualitative approaches to IR.

“MIT hits the trifecta. I’m very lucky I’m the kind of person they want to see in the hallways here. This always seemed like the ideal job that I was never going to get, because it was too good to be true,” she said.

She lives in the Lechmere neighborhood and appreciates the walkable nature of the city.

Outside of work, she has an adventurous side and a quiet side. While she practices skydiving and SCUBA swimming, she can also be found working on a new cross stitch project.

Every week, she joins a livestream board game appointment with her family. Lately they’ve been playing Gloomhaven, a widely variable tactical war-game with many different plot structures.