Alumni Profile: Paul Staniland | 2020 | News

Alumni Profile: Paul Staniland
Paul Staniland

Alumni Profile: Paul Staniland


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.


Paul Staniland is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and Nonresident Scholar, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?

“Explaining Cohesion, Fragmentation, and Control in Insurgent Groups,” PhD, 2010.

2) What is your current position/title?

Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago; Nonresident Scholar, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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 had some summer-length stints in political and policy positions in college and grad school that were very valuable and interesting. But I didn’t really like having a boss and I found myself frustrated by the often-short time horizons of the work I did. I found academia, for all its faults, to offer incredible flexibility in the kind of work I could do and, especially, the long timeframe for pursuing projects. Academia’s formlessness is very attractive, and as someone who likes to dive deeply into topics, its flexibility is really rewarding. I can learn things in academia that would be impossible in other careers. Ultimately, I thought I could provide some value-added in academia relative to my even more limited skills in other possible career paths.

SSP students will be entering a very challenging job market, so I am hesitant to offer any advice about finding a job. Moreover, academia is facing a set of overlapping crises that make it a challenging path. Put bluntly, everyone pursuing that goal should have a Plan B and Plan C in mind. For those who do end up in academic jobs, my main advice for once you start is to ruthlessly triage your time to focus on the basics of the job – doing publishable work from the dissertation and meeting the teaching and service requirements of your employer. Side projects, extra service, public engagement, etc can all be hugely rewarding, but should be pursued with caution as a junior scholar.

There are numerous excellent careers outside of academia – for many smart, motivated, and hard-working people, the solitary, politically irrelevant, and often exceptionally mundane academic life (even in the best of cases) may not be for them, and they should seek opportunities to transfer their skills and expertise into other areas. There are a huge number of interesting and fulfilling jobs outside of academia and I think disciplinary departments need to be more aggressive in promoting and valuing those career tracks.

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 loved SSP and it’s had a huge and enduring impact on my work. I took away a few lessons. First, you need some people willing to say potentially unpopular things, and academia provides unusual protection for doing so. Second, there are gains to be made from subjecting important questions to sustained research and study: that’s what, ideally, can give our work a longer shelf-life than quick-hit publications, which are easy both to write and to forget. Third, academics can benefit from having their work inspired by those important questions and pressing contemporary dilemmas; academic trends are worth paying attention to, but chasing them around for forty years is not a life I’m interested in. Fourth, community is incredibly important: the people I went to grad school with were incredibly smart, knowledgeable, and helpful. I benefited enormously from them, and I’ve kept in touch with many.

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?

Political violence is deeply political. While older trends in the civil war literature cast insurgents (and sometimes governments) as loot-seeking thugs bereft of politics, it’s become clear that this is a very limiting view of how conflict works. The importance of politicized social networks for insurgent mobilization was a key theme in my first book. In my current book project, I’ve been examining how nationalist ideologies shape governments’ perceptions of threats – political goals and fears play a central role in determining state responses to armed groups. Without a deep understanding of the political history of a context, scholarly explanations and policy responses risk being superficial and even counterproductive.

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

I have an incredible job and am extremely lucky. I most enjoy my ability to research topics I find interesting, even if they may seem somewhat niche or obscure. Being able to show up in the office and spend a morning reading about Thailand’s communist movement or googling senior Pakistani military officers is really great. Leaving aside the growing administrative duties that come along with becoming more senior, I have a legitly absurd amount of flexibility.

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

I’ve enjoyed seeing students, whether undergraduates, MA, or PhD students, going on to exciting opportunities after coming through my classes or working with me as an RA or advisee.  Obviously, I’m not responsible in any way for their success, but it’s still gratifying to see. SSP taught me the importance of networks and advising, not to create clones but in order to provide some direction and sense of possibilities to students. Roger Petersen was a particular inspiration in his dedication to his advisees.

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?

Doing dissertation fieldwork during grad school had the biggest influence on me. I became engaged in a long-term way with a huge and fascinating part of the world, encountered puzzles and ways of thinking about things that never had occurred to me before, and was forced to acquire skills in adapting to new situations that had previously eluded me. It was a transformative experience.

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

I would have probably taken academia a little bit less seriously than I did earlier in my career. My job is an important part of my life, but ultimately limited – you can’t take your journal publications with you when you die (and it’s not clear what you’d do with them even if you could!). Your work should be taken seriously but needn’t become the central pillar of your identity, since that leaves you extremely vulnerable to the ever-changing vicissitudes of professional success.

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

One big thing I try to emphasize is that you have time to figure things out – you don’t need a dissertation topic immediately and should give yourself the space to explore new interests, even if you originally were focused on other topics. Students sometimes force themselves to stay in boxes even when they outgrow them, and that can lead to frustration. I had no inkling I’d end up focusing on political violence in South Asia during my first year or most of my second year, for instance. You don’t want to wait forever to choose a direction, but you also don’t want to rush into anything.