Alumni Profile: Ketian Zhang | 2021 | News

Alumni Profile: Ketian Zhang
Ketian Zhang

Alumni Profile: Ketian Zhang


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.


Ketian Zhang is an Assistant Professor of International Security in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.


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 “Calculating Bully: Explaining Chinese Coercion.”

2) What is your current position/title?

I am currently Assistant Professor of International Security in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason 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?

I have always wanted to be a professor since I was an undergraduate student. My undergraduate professor, Edward Friedman, influenced greatly. At the time when I was still a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he had been teaching at Wisconsin for over 40 years. I learned so much from his Chinese Foreign Policy class and admired his passion for teaching. Moreover, I personally prefer to take a step back from the policy world and research questions that matter for foreign policy making from a more neutral perspective. So academia is a natural choice for me. Nevertheless, my research is highly policy relevant and SSP certainly has an important impact on my interests in asking important policy questions. Therefore, being in a policy school is a perfect choice for me.   

As for advice, I would say follow your passion instead of what is supposedly the “right” path for Ph.D. students. There is pressure from the academia to push Ph.D. students to pursue an academic career regardless of what they really want to do. What I learned from SSP that it is perfectly fine to choose the policy world and have some real-world impact on crucial questions to international security. Students should consider what career interests them the most, be it academia or the policy world. For those who would like exposure to both, I think policy schools might be a good choice.

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?

Yes, absolutely. SSP taught me to ask important and policy relevant questions, research that actually matters to the peace and stability of the world. In particular, my SSP experience has continued to push me to research questions that are empirically challenging but have important policy implications, for example, understanding the foreign policy decision making of authoritarian China. Moreover, I learned at SSP that one’s research should be both theoretically and empirically rigorous, which is something that I have carried over even in my teaching. My graduate grand strategy class, for example, examines both the theories that explain the grand strategic decisions of states and the empirical evaluation of chosen grand strategies.

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?

Certainly. My own research examines when, why, and how China coerces other states over issues of national security. I found that whether China uses military coercion or non-military coercion is its rationale calculation, in particular, a combination of domestic political, economic, and external reputational concerns. As such, I would definitely argue that war decisions are political, be it international or internal politics.

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

I enjoy my current position equally in terms of both teaching and research. However, I would say that what I love about my current position, that I would not be able to do in a non-academic position, is teaching the wonderful students here at Mason. It has such a diverse student body at both the graduate and undergraduate level. It is gratifying to know that students have learned something from me and I have also benefited from the interesting thoughts and experience that they shared.    

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

I might say that I am really proud of my book project, which is a result of two and a half years of fieldwork in both China and the United States. It is based on my dissertation so SSP definitely has a critical impact on it.

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. I grew up in China and my grandparents were politically persecuted during the Chinese cultural revolution. I have always heard my family discussing politics growing up. My grandparents’ experience during the Cold War got me interested in international relations, especially international security. I am amazed at how high politics such as the U.S.-Soviet rivalry could affect the lives of individual citizens.

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

I went to pursue my Ph.D. degree at MIT directly after I graduated from college. If I were to choose again, I would get some policy exposure first, maybe in a think tank in D.C. I think having policy experience helps one’s research.

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 was encouraged to ask important questions when I was at MIT, even if it means it might be difficult and challenging to research them. And the questions should be what you are passionate about, not what is currently “hot” as a topic. I think current students should explore questions that matter to the world, but these questions should also be what interests you the most.