Alumni Profile: Marika Landau-Wells | 2020 | News

Alumni Profile: Marika Landau-Wells
Marika Landau-Wells

Alumni Profile: Marika Landau Wells


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.


Marika Landau-Wells is Assistant Professor in the Travers Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley.



1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?

I graduated with a PhD in Political Science in 2018.  The title of my dissertation was “Dealing with Danger: Threat Perception and Policy Preferences”

2) What is your current position/title?

Assistant Professor in the Travers Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley

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?

I worked in the private sector for quite a while before starting my PhD and seriously considered three post-PhD options: back to the private sector; policy/think-tank life; and academia. I decided to pursue an academic career somewhere around the end of my fourth year in the PhD program.  At that point – a year into my dissertation – I knew that I enjoyed doing independent research.  Academia looked like the best option for me to keep doing that.  At the same time, I knew an academic job was a longshot.  So, I kept my options open in case it didn’t work out and tried not to get too attached to any particular outcome.

Current students are going to encounter a hiring environment for which none of us has a reference point, so I want to avoid trite advice.  Even those of us who dealt with the fallout from 2001 or 2008 can’t forecast the next few years with any confidence.  My advice to current SSP students is to (1) focus on short-term goals (in your research and non-academic life) and (2) think very broadly about long-term interests without pinning all your hopes on one outcome.  It’s important to realize that career choices aren’t generally forever anyway and it’s impractical to think in “career terms” right now.  Before starting my PhD, I had three jobs that could have led to other careers – but I only stayed in each job 1.5-2.5 years before switching to something else.  Although job decisions seem huge, they are less permanent than we imagine.

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 learned so much from being a part of SSP that this question is almost impossible to answer.  I’ll give one example from my teaching.  I designed a new Conflict & Security course for Berkeley undergrads, with a focus on psychological mechanisms in decision-making.  I wanted students to learn more about “the pointy end of IR”, as Barry Posen puts it, and about the security issues that influence their lives every day.  Although we do cover theory, a lot of class time is devoted to working through real cases of major conflict-related decisions and associated primary documents.  Many students tell me they’ve never had a course with so many real-world applications and examples.  I learned from my time at SSP to value the space where theory meets practice, and not to get lost in theory for its own sake.  That lesson is now exerting a strong influence on how and what I teach.

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 have no direct experience of making policy (war-related or otherwise).  But I do spend most of my days investigating the reasons that humans wind up in violent conflict with one another.  As I teach my students, if politics is about who gets what, why, and how, then conflict is essentially inevitable.  Violence may not be, however.  That is, conflict is at the heart of politics, but politics need not always escalate into war.  In my view, if policy is going to provide an effective brake on the aspects of politics that generate pressure for war, then there is a need to understand human behavior and decision-making at a deeper level than we currently do.  That’s part of what I try to do in my work.

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

I love the ability to keep learning on a daily basis.  As a junior faculty member, there are a lot of demands on my time and aspects of the job that are new to me.  But I still find time to read, to learn from my colleagues, and to do research, which is the most interesting part of the job for me.

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

I’m so early in my career that I have to say completing my PhD is still the thing I am most proud of.  SSP played a major role in that and was my home for 6 years.  I think my mentors in SSP – especially Roger Petersen – were incredibly supportive of my work, even when my interests took me into uncharted territory (and occasionally into a different department).

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?

When I was about five years old, my mom gave me a life-sized model of the human brain that you could take apart.  I’ve be interested in understanding how our brains work ever since.  All of my research, one way or another, is oriented around the question: how do the workings of our brains influence our politically relevant behavior, including the choice to initiate conflict?

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

I honestly don’t know.  Possibly nothing?

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 think it’s important as a PhD student to figure out what you like about the process of doing research and what you dislike.  It’s okay not to love every minute of graduate school.  But it’s worth paying attention to the parts you like and don’t like.  Some people love solo research; others hate it.  Some people love working on multi-year projects; others don’t.  Some people love coming up with research questions; other people would rather do just about anything else.  Be honest with yourself about how much you like these things because that will help you decide whether you really want to pursue an academic career.  One of the wonderful things about MIT and SSP is that there is no assumption every graduate will go on to academia.  Our alums represent a wide variety of post-PhD paths.  Take that variety to heart, pay attention to your preferences, and don’t settle on one option too soon.