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10 Things You Should Know About the Jackson School Ph.D. Program

July 23, 2015

Jackson School student taking notes in class

As the founding director of the Jackson School Ph.D. Program, people always ask me what makes the Jackson School Ph.D. Program unique and different from so many others out there in international affairs, international relations, foreign affairs, and foreign policy. They also want to know how we differ from conventional disciplines like political science, sociology, history, geography and so on.

Well, I have had some time to think about this. And my answer is long. If you are even remotely thinking about a Ph.D. in the social sciences, please take some time to analyze and reflect on what I have to say below. Then make your decision about where you want to go and why. This is one of the most important decisions you will make about your professional life, and you should go into it with full awareness of the trends buffeting doctoral education in the United States.

To give you a little background: It took me about seven years – most of them spent doing grunt work (yes, sort of like writing the conventional dissertation!) – to conceptualize and launch the program. I have spent the past two years helping to implement and institutionalize it. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first accelerated and applied three-year Ph.D. Program in international studies in the United States. In our inaugural year in 2013, we got about 70 applications for a program we did not advertise, save for a website. In our second year, we almost doubled the applications to about 120, with modest marketing. In two years, we went from nothing to having one of the biggest profiles in the Jackson School of International Studies.

What makes the Jackson School Ph.D. program attractive? I believe there are ten elements that distinguish its profile from anything else out there, and these also have implications for wider debates about the future of doctoral education.


Our conviction is that topics and theories shift but countries and regions usually do not. That is why we built this niche on our area-based academic strengths, dating back to 1909. No matter what the fashion of the times, however, we do not privilege any one region more than another. This is consistent with the fact that we now lead the country with 8 Title VI National Resource Centers (NRCs), and that our educational mission spans countries and regions around the globe. Given our emphasis on a professionalized Ph.D., our niche resonates notably with the top-notch value placed on area studies in the real and policymaking world (


We reconfigured the approach to international studies. The field had hitherto been based on conventional disciplines such as political science, history, sociology, religion, law, psychology, geography and the like. After extensive discussions and revisions spread over years, we clustered our teaching and research interests into four adaptive cross-disciplinary foundational fields with which faculty, and subsequently applicants and students, then self-identify. These clustered fields are: Religions, Cultures, and Civilizations (RCC); States, Market, and Societies (SMS); Law, Rights, and Governance (LRG); and Peace, Violence, and Security (PVS) (

Our reconfiguration of intellectual boundaries in a cohesive and durable structure means that we can remain vigilant and adaptive to a variety of shifting topics in the real world. These four fields intersect with countries and regions, making up the new matrix of international and area studies at the Jackson School. Using it, we aim to train subject-area experts, those with in-depth knowledge of an area but with specialist know-how in a contemporary theme that resonates globally and across countries. Just as our program does not prioritize any one area so it is also not restricted to any one topical issue, such as religious intolerance (under RCC), sustainable development (under SMS), human rights (under LRG), or terrorism (under PVS) that come to define many programs. Rather, the matrix fluidly envelops newer topics as they emerge, say Nazi art looting in Europe (under LRG), extractive foreign investments in Africa (under SMS), the use of children as suicide bombers in the Middle East (under RCC), or maritime domain awareness in Asia (under PVS).


We do not privilege theory or methods, as is the vogue in most social science units. Rather, we put real-world problems and their solutions at the heart of our enterprise. We require working questions by our applicants and students that resonate with some concrete struggles on the ground and around the world today. Our students ask: Why are some Native American tribes more economically developed than others? How do differences in interethnic civil society in the Baltic states affect the prospects for Russian expansionism? What are the causes and consequences of China’s military diplomacy? What is the impact of social media on the future of politics in Japan? When and why are some NGOs more likely to bring electrification to rural areas in Peru? When are irregular migrants likely to demand greater political voice in their new homelands such as Israel and France? How might the changing economic Sino-Russian relationship affect geostrategic interactions between the two powers?


We are holding the line at a 3-year Ph.D. program, and fund no student beyond that time frame. No doctoral student should face indeterminate timelines, with their attendant financial and emotional costs. Our students come to us with previous graduate level work, extensive field experience, language skills, and contacts that shorten the time they have to spend in their countries of research. In cases, where students can secure external funding and require field experience or research, we extend for a maximum of an additional year. There is nothing about doing a Ph.D. that should make it inhospitable to the 3-year time constraint. For one thing, it is the norm in some European countries. For another, doctors, lawyers, and engineers are all trained academically in a 3-4 year span, fully professionalizing as they move to practice their skills in their respective jobs.


It is not enough to just initiate timely questions. We are changing expectations of what can be done with them. When students come up with them, how they attempt to answer them at a doctoral level, and what they aim to do with them is critical to our accelerated program. The expectation is that students work on their own dissertation research from the first day that they get here. Our entire curriculum and mentoring system speaks to that.


We do train students in research design and methods in their first year, but with a twist. The entire yearlong sequence – covering, in successive quarters, the logic of social scientific inquiry, quantitative data analysis, and qualitative case-based methods – is really applied in the service of a student’s dissertation proposal. Students are trained rigorously in the basics of all approaches, decide and advance more rapidly in those that work for their research, and have the building-blocks to come back to others should they need to in the future. They also have the option of specialized certification in either quantitative or qualitative research methods, leading to marketable skills in a variety of academic and non-academic jobs down the line.


The process also highlights another novelty of our program, a curriculum given impetus by a formally institutionalized tutorial-based system. From day one, each incoming student is paired with a primary Faculty Advisor (FA), who has the necessary substantive expertise to guide the student and who acts as the intellectual leader and mentor of last resort. In their first year the FAs and the professors from the research methods sequence also engage directly on each student’s research project, not just via coursework but more through individualized formal tutorials. They bring different competencies to each student project. To ensure that the substantive and method training is not working at cross-purposes, the professors communicate transparently in the form of advice summaries written up by each student after each tutorial. This ensures that students, under the tutelage of their FAs, focus on those frameworks and methods most suited to advancing the actual analytics of their dissertation projects. Students also showcase their progress, and receive extensive feedback, by formally presenting their draft dissertation proposals at the end of the first year in a public capstone workshop that brings together faculty and students.


We have a hybrid system of doctoral examinations that attempts to professionalize students from the start. We have conventional written and oral exams on the primary focus field and the country/region of interest in the middle of the second year. At that time students also formally defend their dissertation proposals in front of their committees. In addition, following some university models in the country, we have a portfolio system in place, resembling a dossier for tenure in which students put in, say, their publications, Bridge Lab pieces, or other items of interest starting from the day that they get here. This portfolio too is examined and graded by their formal committees when they defend their dissertation.


To ensure that each dissertation resonates beyond the ivory towers to the world at large, we initiated the bridge lab. This innovation speaks for itself, as it is designed to train students to bridge the gap from academia to the real world. As any academic who has written an op-ed, briefed a government agency, or consulted for businesses can tell you, these kinds of communications are very different in content and style from academic writing. Such practices require a skill-set that some academics venture to learn on the fly. But it does not make sense to focus on bridge-the-gap initiatives that have sprouted up focusing only on faculty and professionals. Enhancing this skill-set should be an integral part of training doctoral students as in our program. We take seriously our obligation to prepare students to meet the real world. We bring in professionals to give advice (such as a Foreign Policy editor) and to run workshops to better help our students gain the necessary communication skills. Attendance and presentation (by second-year students) is mandatory, giving them a sense of how their work is connected to service to their communities and beyond. They are also encouraged to send out their Bridge Lab pieces for publication in a variety of news-related venues. In the process, students are all socialized to deal early on with the “so what?” issue related to their dissertation research.


We aim to train scholars who can make real contributions within the ivory towers but also to governments and societies at large. We are explicit about encouraging our students to reach beyond the academic environments where tenure-track opportunities are drying up. Trained in the conventional rigors of a doctoral program, we are proud to say that our students might go into public service, or that they may affect on-the-ground realities in critical regions of the world through the work of businesses or NGOs. As the United States faces unprecedented challenges spanning all regions of the world, the need for “growing” young and expert human capital to be part of the understanding and solutions has never been greater. Academia has a pivotal role to play in this process by training the next generation of such subject-area experts. And our program is helping make that possible for our students.

Saadia Pekkanen
Founding Director, Jackson School Ph.D. Program
Job and Gertrud Tamaki Professor, Jackson School of International Studies
Adjunct Professor, School of Law
Adjunct Professor, Department of Political Science