Life Update: Starting a PhD

24 Aug

Many of you reading this may already know, but I’m starting a PhD in Political Science at Yale this fall. I’ll finish (hopefully) in 5-6 years. I’m writing this post both so that I can look back and see what I thought I wanted to study later on and as an explanation for why I want to start a PhD. For those only interested in the why, and not the minutiae of political science research agendas, you can skip the first two paragraphs.

At Yale, I plan to specialize in comparative politics with a second sub-field likely in political theory. Broadly, I am interested in issues of violence, governance, and state-building. More specifically, I’m interested in non-state governance, wartime politics, and civilian agency in conflict. I’m hoping that studying state-building and non-state governance together can create insight both on how historical cases of the phenomenon are interpreted and use those lessons to interpret contemporary cases. Civilians have largely been left out of studies of intrastate violence, and while there are some notable recent exceptions, I think there is still work to be done on their role in influencing broader conflict systems. I am also still interested to a degree in the study of mass atrocities, but hope to more rigorously connect that research agenda to related ones, such as civil wars. I hope that my work on these issues relates back to more fundamental questions of (how violence interacts with) power, organization, and identity/ideology. Additionally, I’m somewhat interested in leftist strategy and the role of intellectuals/ideas in shaping social change, but that will probably remain a side interest.

In terms of regional specialization, I have always been more attached to themes than a region, but if I had to choose one it would be sub-Saharan Africa (obviously some countries more than others). I’m starting to learn French in order to make research there more feasible. Methodologically, I see myself more as a social scientist interested in the questions studied by political scientist rather than solely a political scientist, so I hope to draw inspiration from a range of disciplines. I plan on primarily using qualitative methods such as ethnography and historical research in my own work, but still need to learn more about others.

Especially for those reading this that may not be interested in devoting at least five years of their lives to obtaining a doctorate, the major question is probably “why?”. I’ve been interested in political issues for as long as I can remember, and once I got to Swarthmore, I realized that there were broadly three avenues through which I could pursue my interests: activism, policy, and academia. I’m choosing the third because, to quote Vaclev Havel, I want to “live in truth.” In his essay “The Power of the Powerless”, Havel reflects on life after communism, arguing its primary power comes not through brute force, but through fear, censorship, and labyrinthine institutions that gradually ensure acquiescence. However, “living in truth” by refusing to follow the system’s diktats, upends the status quo and empowers the previously-dominated.

Fortunately, I have never lived in such a society, but I see Havel’s point as having broader implications about how people come to understand what social arrangements are just, and how those ends can be achieved. Outside of academia, I have found the institutional and social pressures to think in certain ways, some of which seem unjust, baffling, depressing, and very, very hard to deal with. I still strongly believe that plenty of people do amazing and necessary work in the activism and policy worlds, but professionally, I am not cut out for such a life. Academia is no panacea to these problems, but the time granted for intellectual inquiry and the norms of research and discussion offer greater possibilities to live in truth. Furthermore, if my time at Swarthmore taught me one thing, it is that positive social change is very difficult to achieve, and good intentions often result in negative outcomes. Well-crafted, well-communicated research can help ameliorate this problem. This belief, coupled with the realization that I have long admired and aspired to intellectualism more than other personal traits, has led me to Yale, and hopefully beyond.

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One Response to “Life Update: Starting a PhD”

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  1. Scattered Thoughts on a Tragedy | The Widening Lens - November 14, 2016

    […] enjoyed most and been good at. Especially given my frustration in the policy and activism spheres, it seemed like an obvious choice. I had long imagined that years of academic study would turn me into a better person, a more […]

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