1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?
Ph.D., political science, 2004. “Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics”
2) What is your current position/title?
Associate Professor of Government, Dartmouth. And I’m a research associate at Harvard’s Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies, and at Chatham House, London.
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 came into SSP thinking I wanted to enter academia. However the reason I went to SSP is I wanted to develop the kind of policy-relevant, analytic toolkit that it offers. I felt like I got the kind of training I wanted that would enable me to join academia but do the policy-relevant work that I aspired to.
My advice to students is to talk to people to get a sober understanding of the reality of the academic job market and career. The faculty you interact with are the tiny minority who succeeded –students don’t see the majority of people who for various reasons didn’t finish graduate school or later left academia. It’s important to see the whole picture before deciding to embark on this path. It’s also important to understand the many options outside of academia. Political scientists have created fascinating careers in the private sector, think tank/NGO community, government, and journalism.
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?
My advisors at SSP were and are committed to getting to the bottom of important questions. That is, they taught me to think about the quality of the question: life is too short, and there are too many profoundly important problems in the world, to dally with trivial questions. MIT SSP faculty also care deeply about getting the answer right: getting at the truth. They modeled this in their own work, and they modeled it while advising our dissertations. When working on vital issues, bobbing and weaving and hand waving were not acceptable. ‘What’s your DV? What’s your IV? How do you know what you claim?’ The faculty (and the MIT students who became my colleagues) treat serious issues seriously. The faculty taught us to choose important questions; to develop a deep knowledge of our cases; to subject our arguments to every possible critique. Pundits and dilettantes need not apply.
I can still remember a few times when, at the Wednesday seminar, we’d have some breezy speaker offer some half-assed argument – only to receive the category-5 force of Barry Posen’s wrath. And who could forget the Ted Postol smirk, Ken Oye’s raised eyebrows, and Steve Van Evera’s give-me-a-break blue stare. Yet those same faculty would generously engage with the earnest, stammering nerds who were doing their best. So MIT-SSP taught me the craft, and taught me respect for the craft. I try to impart this to my students.
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?
It’s a good sentiment and of course (given that my degree is in political science) I absolutely share the view that one can’t study wars without studying politics. But when I think about what I value abut MIT-SSP, it’s actually the reverse: the program’s strong commitment to a toolkit that includes military as well as political analysis. In any conversation about, say, Afghanistan or Responsibility to Protect or China-Taiwan relations, analysts overwhelmingly focus on politics. They’re trained to do this by the nature of the toolkit they acquire in graduate school.
But what made me want to go to MIT SSP is that it’s one of the few places that’s also committed to giving students a basic foundation in military analysis. So when MIT SSP students analyze important international political issues like the ones I mentioned, we tell a richer story – or we can analyze aspects of key questions that others neglect. I tremendously value what MIT taught me in this regard—it’s a valuable arrow in my intellectual quiver. More broadly, training civilians to do this kind of analysis is vital for improving the quality of policy debates.
6) What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why?
Dissatisfaction: I loathe the administrative parts of the academic career. I detest faculty and committee meetings. The gods punished Sisyphus by making him roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. If the gods wanted to punish me, they’d make me a dean of something.
Satisfaction: The freedom to set my own research agenda – the excitement of discovering puzzles, and the freedom to explore them – is thrilling. I love burrowing down those research rabbit holes not knowing where I’m going or where I’ll end up. And when I end up somewhere interesting or innovative there’s just no greater thrill. It’s like sleuthing.
I am pretty introverted so I love the solitary part of the process – the quiet hours of reading, exploring, and writing. But I have also come to love and greatly value the social part of the process too: exchanging ideas with colleagues and students, the churn of ideas at talks and conferences, and having someone mention a book or article to me, which turns out to be vital, in a chance conversation. This churn of ideas is magical—thrilling. So even introverted me loves the social, community dimension of the job. In the past two years I’ve missed that so much, as I know we all have.
7) What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP been a part of that?
I’m really proud of my first book, Sorry States. The book changed the conversation about historical memory, and about Japan’s “history problem” in East Asia. SSP was so much a part of that – Barry Posen, my chair, and my other dissertation advisors made the book so much stronger. I would not have written a dissertation on this without Steve Van Evera’s influence: we spent hours and hours (when I am sure he had a million other things to do) discussing what was then a topic largely ignored in international relations theory. Steve inspired a whole cohort (e.g., David Art, Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch, Yinan He) to explore historical memory and its connection to IR.
Relatedly, I feel comfortable in and proud of my analytic approach in my work: not only research but writing op-eds, teaching, policy consulting, and so on. I strive to use analytic thinking to shed light on problems. I try to explain issues succinctly and clearly. I show respect for different ways of thinking. For example, I teach my students to explain an argument – even one they strongly disagree with – showing it full respect, in a manner that would make its proponents nod vigorously. Then, either support or dismantle the argument analytically. I think that my effort to be reasonable and analytic is valued in many settings: among the policy audiences I interact with, the allied governments and scholars I frequently talk with, as well as among students and colleagues. My MIT mentors (students and faculty) very much modeled this kind of communication.
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 family influenced who I am: my father’s hard work and love of history and ideas, and my mom’s work ethic and devotion to community. My husband Daryl (MIT SSP ’01) is another strong influence: we share a commitment to being good parents, to contributing to our intellectual community, as well as to our local community and country. Daryl is also a close intellectual collaborator. We recently wrote an article that we outlined while walking our dogs in the woods.
My research agenda has always been driven by East Asia’s key political-military challenges. Twenty years ago it was historical memory issues: from the media and talking to people in the region, it was clear that these played a major role in regional politics, but IR theory had ignored the issue. So that was the purpose of my book: to use social science tools to shed light on this issue. Today, East Asia’s key challenge is how China’s rise will transform the region, and whether China’s rise can be peaceful. So these questions are motivating my research, and led me to the topic of my new book—which asks whether authoritarian rising powers will be able to compete effectively against, or even overtake, liberal great powers.
9) Looking back, what, if anything would you do differently?
When I got to SSP I hadn’t yet figured out what being a grad student meant. I was very much in undergraduate mode: expecting that my professors were there to teach me, and I was there to dutifully take notes. It took me too long to recognize that this was an undergraduate mindset, and that graduate school is for professionals. Students are not yet colleagues of the faculty, but the faculty are evaluating them – from Day 1—not merely on their performance in class, but more broadly on their ability to become colleagues—to join the field. So I would get into my time machine and show up on the first day with that mindset. Grad school does not prepare you for your first academic job; it is your first academic job.
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 is no one way to succeed at being a graduate student, scholar, or professor. You might look at your cohort and say, X is a better writer than I am; Y knows so much theory; Z is such a gifted speaker! But remember your own strengths. Both graduate school as well as the academic career are so multi-dimensional: reading, thinking/organizing arguments, writing articles, writing books, meetings, teaching, networking, writing for popular audiences, giving public talks, giving job talks. I felt outclassed in so many ways by brilliant students in my cohort—but my secret weapon was grinding endurance: butt-in-chair. There is no one way to do this job—no single type of person who is good at it. People are good at different dimensions.
And importantly, you can improve at the parts of the job that you’re bad at. As I said, I am introverted and used to be quite shy. In grad school I was quiet in class, scared to give talks, and even scared to give comments at seminars. My voice would shake – it was mortifying. But I knew that I had to get over this in order to join this profession, so I committed to improving myself. It took a lot of study and practice. But as I said, now I love that part of the job.