Alumni Profile: Christopher Twomey | 2022 | News

Alumni Profile: Christopher Twomey
Chris Twomey headshot

Alumni Profile: Christopher Twomey


In this section we will ask an SSP alum 8 "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. 


Christopher Twomey is an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, and an expert in Asian security, Chinese foreign policy, and strategic deterrence. 

1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?

PhD, The Military Lens: Doctrinal Differences, Misperception, and Deterrence Failure in Sino-American Relations
Committee: Stephen Van Evera (chair), Barry Posen, Thomas Christensen, and Carl Kaysen.

2) What is your current position/title?

Associate Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California

3) As is often the case for SSP/IR 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 gone into my graduate studies with the intent (hope) of being able to have a foot in both pools, policy and academia. One of my mentors before UCSD (Susan Shirk) and one at MIT (Tom Christensen) had scribed that path (both holding, under different administrations, the same job at State). This seemed a reasonable aspiration. But (or is it is simply, then?) when I was offered a position at the Naval Postgraduate School, I found a more integrated route to something approaching that. While high level political appointee positions are hard to come by, here at NPS I’ve been able to contribute at the margins to policymakers at DoD, State, INDOPACOM, etc., while still maintaining a toe or two in traditional academic publishing.  I consider myself extremely lucky in this regard.

My advice would be to try to keep doors open. I do feel that I’m better in both worlds for my experience in the other. If you go the traditional academic route, CFR fellowships or such can be a great way to see how our scholarship looks from inside five sided buildings in DC.

4) Would you say that your experience at SSP and CIS has continued to influence your current position? What key concepts or values from SSP and CIS have served you well in your current position?

My education and inspiration at SSP/CIS were foundational to my identity here at NPS and a professor (who hangs out in DC a lot). Had I gone anywhere else, my ability to contribute in both worlds would be different. My core time at MIT was the late nineties. At that point, there were few places in the country who took the study of security studies seriously, as an academic enterprise. I think the empirical knowledge and analytic rigor that SSP approached that issue set with was absolutely foundational to my ability to navigate the wildly different worlds of Joint Staff SCIFs and ISA conferences.  

5) What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why? What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP/CIS been a part of that?

That’s a hard question: I have found value in lots of work I’ve done. Track II diplomacy with the PLA on nuclear issues, publishing a book in the Cornell Security series, certainly both are on the list and would have been unthinkable without the education from MIT. But (and maybe this is biased by just having finished an intense teaching term), I have to say, the older I get the more I enjoy bumping into my former students. I see them at INDOPACOM, walking the halls of the Pentagon, bringing me into meetings there or elsewhere in DC, and certainly at embassies in Asia. The older I get, the older they get, with corresponding influence as they rise in seniority. I had not anticipated valuing that as much when I started as a very green junior faculty member. 

Perhaps more narrowly, I started working on “crisis simulations” or “geopolitical war-games” while at MIT, working under Prof. Samuels in his AMPO Working Group. I have found these to be tremendously valuable as an “educational” tool. I continue to partner with MIT faculty and grad students on running such simulations for my own students (three years and running!). But beyond that, I have used related “facilitated discussions about hypothetical geopolitical scenarios” in support of official bilateral diplomatic engagements for the USG, as well as in less official but vital discussions with Chinese interlocutors. I have found those to be extremely valuable teaching tools and ways to explore just beyond the perimeters of diplomatic posturing. 

6) What, outside of SSP/CIS and your work here, has been the factor that has most influenced who you are now, and what your current research interests are?

As a child of the late Cold War, nuclear issues have always appeared important. The history of the time imparted that, as did my parents’ political activism on those issues. Ironically, I did not work intensely on such issues in coursework nor in my dissertation. And yet, for nearly 2 decades at NPS I have been able to facilitate engagement between the US and China at the track II (or 1.5…still unofficial, but less so) levels on exactly these issues. Still, since the nuclear level layers on to conventional balance issues, I’ve depended on my learning about those latter issues at NPS.

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

I threw away 300 pages of a dissertation draft (on deterrence failure versus serial generated escalations) and went back to the drawing board to radically reshape the project. My final diss (and subsequent book) was much better than that first attempt, I know. So of course, I’d have liked to get to the final topic more directly. But I don’t know how I’d have done so. Failure in some research projects seems inevitable. But making sure you learn what you can from those failures is critical (and trite, but no less accurate).

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

Even at an R1, you will spend a lot of time teaching. In the classroom, prepping for the lectures, grading, guiding your TAs… TONS of time. Actively thinking about preparing for that part of your job is really important. Whether it is reading PS discussions on pedogogy, squeezing in a “Teaching and Learning Conference” that precede APSA, or just focussing on the mentoring opportunities you have as a TA while in grad school, I think all of it will be quite valuable as you start working the faculty ladder. And if you go another route, those are inherently communication skills aimed to develop deeper understanding (rather than just “inflicting a lecture”). I think that is tremendously important.