Alumni Profile: Joshua Shifrinson | 2018 | News

Alumni Profile: Joshua Shifrinson
Joshua Shifrinson

Alumni Profile: Joshua Shifrinson


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.


Joshua Shifrinson is Assistant Professor of International Relations with the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.



1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?

I received my PhD in political science with a focus on international relations. My dissertation title was “Dilemmas of Decline, Risks of Rise: The Systemic and Military Sources of Rising State Strategy towards Declining Great Powers,” chaired by the indomitable Barry Posen.

2) What is your current position/title?

I am currently an Assistant Professor of International Relations with the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Previously, I served as an Assistant Professor of International Affairs with the George HW Bush School of Government at Texas A&M 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?

It was a tough call between academia or government service. When I was finishing (2012-2013), the government was in one of its limited hiring periods, meaning, there were somewhat constrained options for government service. At the same time, as someone interested in grand strategy, diplomatic history, and military operations, it seemed tricky to find the right fit: the State and Defense Department’s don’t quite hire “grand strategists,” just as opportunities for a civilian in the military operations world were few and far between. I was certainly interested in government service, but couldn’t seem to find the right fit.  

At the same time, reflecting on my time at SSP and benefitting from a few lucky fellowships, I realized that I really wanted the freedom to think big thoughts and tackle important issues that come with the academy. I got the (perhaps parasitic) bug. Although it wasn’t a slam dunk case, when the opportunity arose to try my hand on the academic job market, I threw my hat in the ring. The rest happened over time.

For current students, I’d say: speak your mind and don’t just aim for the projects that seem marketable or doable in a finite amount of time. As scholars, we’re trained to value big ideas and arguments. Let that be the guide to both research and conversations. Don’t simply toe the party line or go for an easy win – swing for the fences.

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 don’t think SSP was an experience so much as it was a way of life. From my understanding, it’s a bit like joining the Bloods or the Crips (or the Sharks or the Jets): once you’re in, there aren’t too many ways out.  

The greatest strengths of SSP – the focus on understanding the security domain as it is rather than as we might like, the egalitarian atmosphere, rigorous intellectual conversations, and community spirit – compose an ethos that I certainly try to emulate with my students and take to my colleagues. It’s an approach that calls for engaging policy, theory, and empirics at the same time – not prioritizing one over the other. It’s a tall task, but increasingly necessary at a time when policy problems are getting increasingly complicated, and we need theories and data to help policymakers and students alike chart a course in world politics.

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?

The more I think about this statement, the truer it seems: not only does policy shape the ways and mechanisms by which politics can metastasize into conflict, it’s entirely right that policy governs how wars are conducted. Most of my work is on modern great power politics where (thankfully!) we don’t have many instances of wars erupting between highly capable states. Still, the trend is there.  In my research on U.S. policy during the end of the Cold War, for instance, it’s obvious that strategists sought to craft policies – carefully avoiding antagonizing the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, for example – that created firebreaks for any political push that might roil the geopolitical waters. Likewise, some of my recent research on post-Cold War U.S. grand strategy suggests that policy was captured and distorted by politicians who engaged in often a-strategic decisions; today, some of these choices increase the risk of great power conflict and competition.

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

I get a kick out of teaching, as well as convening seminars and colloquia that connect scholars (of different generations) and policymakers. I’ve been lucky to have students at both TAMU and BU that are a delight to teach: thoughtful, engaged, and motivated, they are a constant reminder that academics lead a charmed life and have a privileged position to shape future public debates.  

Likewise, I take a lot of pride in trying to break down barriers and helping scholars and policymakers at all experience levels network and learn from one another. The best research, after all, links to and is informed by policy discussions, just as policymakers need to do a better job engaging IR. I’m increasingly working to create programs that can facilitate these relationships.

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

Again, I’d point to two things. First, I just published a book with Cornell University Press – Rising Titans, Falling Giants – that is an extension and revision of my dissertation. So, that accomplishment has SSP’s fingerprints all over it.  

Second, I’m proud being part of a group of scholars that is rewriting the history of U.S. foreign relations in the late Cold War/post-Cold War era and, for the political scientists among the group, using the results to revise IR theory. I’m thrilled to participate in an interdisciplinary effort that has shed increasing light on the origins of post-Cold War U.S. grand strategy, U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese relations, and the drivers of U.S. military policy.  

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?

I’m a fallen amateur historian. History was my first passion as a kid and my original major in college; I started taking political science classes when my history advisor (in what was almost certainly meant to be an insult) told me that I “had good ideas” but “wrote like a political scientist”! I sort of migrated into IR from there. I bring this up because my interest in history has never waned: at SSP and afterwards, the notion of rigorously using the past to assess, evaluate, update, and propose broader theories that can shed light on the present has been at the top of my agenda.  

Especially as we try to understand “classic” IR questions that are again relevant on the policy agenda – issues such as the risk of great power entrapment in allies’ conflict or how one thinks about the rise and fall of great powers – a deep reading of history can help us make sense of today’s policy concerns and their scholarly analogs. It can be easy to be somewhat dismissive of historical approaches and deep historical research given the popularity of quantitative models, but there’s a lot of insight to be gained from carefully engaging with the past.

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

Grad school is a marathon run at a sprint. Looking back, I’d have liked to take a longer-term view of what my goals and ultimate ambitions were.  Especially in the moment, it was easy to get tunnel vision or focused on the day-to-day drudgery. A little more perspective would have been nice.

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

There’s no one piece of advice, but I think three points are critical.

First, as social scientists focusing on security affairs, we have a duty to try to make the world a better, safer, more secure place by speaking truth to power. This isn’t easy. Asking the hard questions, checking (and sometimes challenging) the conventional wisdom, and speaking up even with contrarian answers are the price we pay for our privileged position. It’s supposed to be tough – these are serious matters. Still, it’s a noble purpose.

Second, your grad school colleagues (or other junior faculty, for those starting out) are your allies. You’ll learn as much - intellectually and professionally – from one another as you will from any formal part of the education process. Not only is it important to get to know one another, but it’s therefore critical to support each other. These are long-term bonds.
Finally, you are never too good to steal cheese and crackers from a workshop.