Alumni Profile: Caitlin Talmadge | 2017 | News

Alumni Profile: Caitlin Talmadge
Caitlin Talmadge

Alumni Profile: Caitlin Talmadge


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.


Caitlin Talmadge is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University

1)    What is your degree and your dissertation title?

Ph.D. in political science, 2011. My dissertation was “Explaining Military Effectiveness: Political Intervention and Battlefield Performance.”

2)      What is your current position/title?

I am Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University.

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?

One of the things that makes me most proud of SSP is that we have graduates who have gone on to the highest levels of success in both policy and academia, and some have even managed to do both. This diversity of placement is a testament to the versatile training here and to a certain kind of open-mindedness about what constitutes a valuable contribution to the world. Both policy and academic jobs are extremely challenging to do well, and I think SSP is committed to helping people develop skills essential for either path.

For me personally, I went to graduate school thinking I would go into the policy world. The surprise was that I really liked scholarship and teaching. Whereas some people can’t stand the solitude and delayed gratification involved in academic research, I found the process satisfying. I also really enjoyed having the opportunity to shape young people’s interests and understanding of the world through teaching. That’s a long game, but I do believe you have an impact not only through what you write but through what you impart to your students. The neat thing about being in DC is that I still have opportunities to contribute to and stay connected with the policy arena as well, so the trade-off isn’t that stark.

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?

The lodestar for me is the importance of having authoritative civilian sources of defense expertise, both in and out of government. This is critical for both our national security and our democracy. You need a civil-military dialogue, but both sides of the dialogue have to be informed. To cultivate the necessary civilian expertise, you have to have places that train people to do serious defense analysis outside of the military services. SSP does that, and I think SSP graduates carry that mission with them wherever they go. Certainly I do. Even for my undergraduates who won’t go directly into the national security field, merely sensitizing them to the complexity of security issues by giving them some points of reference and basic analytical tools is valuable. That is part of how you generate informed public debate on security issues.

The one other big value from SSP that has really stuck with me is intellectual egalitarianism. SSP was completely non-hierarchical. At the Wednesday seminar, you would hear questions from the likes of Carl Kaysen, but all the graduate students would be given a turn as well. The working assumption until proven otherwise was that anyone might have a good insight or idea. That is a useful mindset to have in this field and in life generally. It forces you to truly listen.

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?

I guess I drank the SSP Kool-Aid, because those are the major themes in all of my work. I think people might assume that militaries are apolitical organizations and that war is a science. But military organizations have incredibly interesting internal political dynamics that affect how they behave in war and even in peacetime. The interactions between civilian leaders and military officers are also highly political. I don't mean that in a pejorative way but simply in the sense that there are differing interests and perspectives, and competition for power. That is inherent to the process and must be understood, not assumed away. All of my work on civil-military relations, defense policy, Persian Gulf issues, and nuclear strategy springs from this basic orientation toward the issues.

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

The thing I love about my job is that it usually doesn’t feel like work. I love the intellectual autonomy to be able to do long-term projects on complex subjects that I think are important. I am constantly learning because I am surrounded by colleagues and students who are teaching me things. And it is gratifying to have the chance to share things that I’ve learned with others. Even though research and writing can be a grind, the truth is that if I go more than a few days away from my desk, I start to miss it. Barry used to say that writing a dissertation was like wrestling a bear, and I find that that feeling never goes away in scholarly work. There is always the next bear, and you are never sure if you will actually wrestle this one to the ground or not. But you are compelled to try.

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

More than any specific accomplishment, I’m proud to be part of a circle of serious security scholars in our field who are committed to doing theoretically informed, methodologically rigorous, policy-relevant work. It is great just to be included in the conversation—to be at the point where other scholars will engage with my ideas or ask my views about theirs, where people outside the narrow field of academia notice that I might be doing something that is relevant for them, where I am given the opportunity to help to train the next wave of national security scholars and practitioners. Those are privileges that I owe them to my SSP training.

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?

My parents. I come from a family of teachers, and my parents placed a huge emphasis on education. They didn’t have a particular career path that they wanted me to follow, but I think their values created a natural pathway to academia. My dad is the ultimate autodidact and a huge reader. My mom is the sharpest armchair political analyst I have ever met and constantly created great learning opportunities for me in and out of school. They both gave up a lot for my education. Because of them, I was fortunate to have some really outstanding teachers and also to participate in high school policy debate, which honed my interest in research and policy issues.

Regarding my specific focus on defense matters, I just always had what Barry calls “the bug.” I was drawn to security issues over and over with an insatiable curiosity from about age 10. I struggled to figure out where exactly one studied these things. I owe a lot to my college mentor, Steve Rosen, who steered me toward specialized classes in international security and then to SSP. Without Steve’s direction I would have ended up in law school.

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

I would have listened to Taylor Fravel more. I followed about 80% of his advice, but 100% would have been better. I also wish I had taken more classes in comparative politics, because MIT has such phenomenal faculty in that area, and the subfield was much more relevant to my interests than I understood when I first enrolled.

In general, though, I wouldn’t change much about the past, even the fact that I spent an entire year on a failed dissertation topic. It was a good early lesson that ultimately what we do in this business is not linear. In trying to generate knowledge, there are twists and turns, dead ends, bad ideas, lots of doubling back, and constant wondering if you are a complete idiot. The successful people do not overcome this process; they learn to manage it.

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

Remember that your peers are just as important as your professors. Your fellow grad students are not only are essential to surviving the intellectual hurricane that is doctoral training but will likely constitute your core professional network for the future. On a daily basis I still find myself collaborating with and learning from my SSP alumni family—discussing the issues of the day, emailing one another with random research questions, providing comments on one another’s work in progress, co-authoring, appearing on conference panels together, and so on. I’ve even worked closely with quite a few alums whose time at SSP didn’t overlap with my own. I would encourage SSP-ers to take advantage of every opportunity to build these relationships both in graduate school and afterwards. You will find not only great colleagues but lifelong friends too. Of course the relationships with faculty are very important too, but don’t forget the person sitting next to you in class.