Alumni Profile: Kelly M. Greenhill | 2017 | News

Alumni Profile: Kelly M. Greenhill
Kelly M. Greenhill

Alumni Profile: Kelly M. Greenhill


In this section we will ask an SSP alum 10 “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.


Kelly M. Greenhill is Associate Professor and Director of International Relations at Tufts University, and Research Fellow and Chair of the Working Group on Conflict, Security and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center at Harvard University.

1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?

I earned both masters and doctoral degrees from MIT. My S.M. thesis was entitled “Dropouts to Top Scouts? An Analysis of the Use of the Military as a Tool for Social Reform.” It analyzed the use of the US military as a social engineering laboratory and as a political, economic and social pressure release valve, focusing in particular on the cases of the Civilian Conservation Corps (or CCC) during the Great Depression and Project 100,000 during the Vietnam War. Though I wrote this thesis many years ago now, I still regularly hear from veterans who have come across my thesis and who report that it has helped them make sense of, and come to terms with, events and experiences they had while serving in the military that had puzzled them for decades. Although I had no idea this would happen when I embarked on this project, it has been enormously gratifying to be reminded regularly that academic research can have salutatory, real world effects, even outside the policy world and far beyond the Beltway.   

My doctoral research was of a radically different nature and resulted in a Ph.D. thesis entitled “People Pressure: Strategic Engineered Migration as an Instrument of Statecraft and the Rise of the Human Rights Regime.”  This thesis served as the foundation of my first book, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy. The book won the 2011 International Studies Association’s Best Book of the Year Award and has since been translated into German and Italian (in whole) and into Spanish and Portuguese (in excerpted form). My post-graduate research has taken yet another, rather different turn, but dimensions of the tragic, ongoing migration emergencies in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America fit the theory presented in my book all too well in many respects, so I still spend a goodly chunk of my research energies focused on migration and security.

2) What is your current position/title?

I wear a few different professional hats. I divide my time between Tufts University, where I am Associate Professor and Director of International Relations, and Harvard University, where I am Research Fellow and Chair of the Working Group on Conflict, Security and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center.

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?

This is an interesting and difficult question, especially as it could have just as well gone the other way. Indeed I started graduate school expecting to decamp to Washington after I finished (and even interned for then Senator John Kerry on the side while I was completing my masters’ thesis). But, ultimately, the combination of a strong desire to control my own research agenda, a set of “two-body” geographical constraints, a love of working with students and a hefty dose of luck landed me primarily inside academia, although I still consult for governments/NGOs/IOs on the side.

4) Do you have any advice to share with current SSP students as they weigh their career choices?

It is a bit of a cliché, but nevertheless worth noting that life is both long and short. With this oxymoron in mind, I would advise students to follow their instincts and listen to their guts. It can be really hard to know ex ante if one is making the right decision, but actually pretty easy to know if one is making a decision that feels wrong, shortsighted or driven by other people’s expectations.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that while path dependency is real and not to be gainsaid, people can change their minds and their career paths. There has long been, for instance, a well-greased revolving door between universities and government and, to a lesser extent, between FFRDCs and universities (and government).

Finally, for what it’s worth, research suggests that what one is doing tends to trump where one is doing it in terms of job satisfaction. So wherever one lands and whatever path one chooses, I recommend focusing on big (and under-examined) problems that matter and for which we lack good or sufficient solutions.

5) 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?

SSP continues to strongly influence my career and my life more generally. Professionally, I regularly employ what I learned as an SSPer with regard to: how to identify questions and puzzles that bear tackling; how to think about the right—as opposed to simply the most expedient—ways to answer those questions; when to question conventional wisdom—or “call BS”—as well as when to embrace shared wisdom to build broader consensus and cumulative knowledge; and how and why it is critical to leverage and disseminate practical, policy-relevant findings not only within academia, but also far beyond “the ivory tower.”

On a more personal and/or hybrid level, the norms of cohort colleagiality (over competition) and of providing tough, but constructive, criticism are strongly held by SSPers, and I continue to fervently embrace them. Many of my most trusted colleagues and critiquers are SSP-affiliated faculty and students. They made my time in graduate school intellectually rich and rewarding and also a tremendous amount of fun, which is not something everyone can say about their time in graduate school. Though those of us who were students together have dispersed around the country and the globe, connections with many remain strong. And through my continued affiliation with the program, I have come to know some long-time faculty even better and have also learned from and benefited from meeting newer “generations” of students and faculty.

6) 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?

Although there is an awful lot of material embedded in these three deceptively simple declarative sentences, I would say the premise is true because at heart almost everything is a question of politics: Who has power? What are they doing with it? How is it wielded and/or distributed?And what does this distribution and set of behaviors mean for the present and the future? Disagreements over power and policy can be adjudicated through voice and/or violence, but in the end, whether domestically or internationally, it is all, as Harold Lasswell put it, a question of “who gets what, when, how.”

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

I don’t know that I can isolate the single thing that gives me most in my job(s) other than to say that overall I feel extraordinarily lucky to have a vocation that is also one of my avocations. It is a rare privilege to be paid to study, read and write about things that interest, puzzle and madden me.

On the other hand, I can readily identify what I like least about academe—in a word, grading.

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

Well…to say that I hail from a broken home and a troubled family is to exaggerate the prevailing level of stability and security in the household. So, that I not only made it to adulthood, but also not only put myself through college (as an initially out of state student at UC Berkeley) as well as earned multiple graduate degrees, and then secured a coveted spot as a tenured faculty member sometimes feels like nothing short of a miracle.

But, and this is a giant "but," I did not accomplish any of this alone. Throughout my life, I have been extraordinarily privileged to have had friends, teachers, professors, and other external role models, who recognized in me talents and skills I did not have the background to know I had. These key figures, including—and, arguably most importantly, SSP faculty members!—mentored me, served as emulation-worthy role models, and provided critical advice, life knowledge and support along the way. I am pretty scrappy and hard to keep down by nature, but I would not have accomplished any of the things I have without my personal heroes and guardian angels. My PhD advisor, Barry Posen, deserves particular plaudits and thanks in this regard. SSP is fortunate to have a leadership, a host of faculty members, and also a dedicated staff who care deeply about the students, pre-docs and post-docs who pass through the program.

9) 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?

Growing up around charlatans and other crooks has left me with a very low tolerance for liars and dissemblers. It is probably this legacy that inspired my interest in the politics of information, which is a major strand of my research agenda. In addition to my work on the politicization and manipulation of crime and conflict statistics and my cross-national survey research on rumor adoption and dissemination, I am currently finishing a book that explores why, when, and under what conditions, "extra-factual" sources of political information (EFI)—such as rumors, conspiracy theories, myths and propaganda—materially influence the development and conduct of states’ foreign and defense policies.

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

I’ve made any number of errors and passed on any number of promising opportunities that could engender regrets about “paths not taken.” But, given how lucky I have been relative to what might have been, I try really hard not to play the “I wish I would have” game. Instead, I treat errors and failures as opportunities to learn and to avoid similar mistakes in future. Besides, I have found that it really does seem to be true that when one door closes, another opens, and, as often as not, the prize behind door #2 is better than the one lost or forfeited.

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

I'll offer two hard won insights. First, it is remarkably easy to get overcommitted, so learn early how to say no when you can and to protect your time. (I have been pretty terrible at following my own advice in this regard, but that’s why I can offer it with some authority.) Second, on a more micro-level, I also learned later than I probably should have that many people in the discipline erroneously assume that if one’s articles appear in specialized subfield journals, it is because they couldn’t get them placed in field journals. It is an unfortunate and rather counter-productive misapprehension, but it also is a remarkably widespread one, so be aware!