The DC Game and Paula Broadwell

by Joshua Foust on 11/26/2012 · 4 comments

I’ve avoided crowing too much about the Paula Broadwell affair. The little commiseration I did took place over at my perch at PBS, and suffice it to say regular readers here will know I had identified her deficient personality quite a number of years ago.

While it’s been refreshing to see how the downfall of David Petraeus has suddenly made criticism of his policies more politically acceptable — too many years after the fact to have save many lives, I’m afraid — there is a more disturbing angle to this story as well. Paula in many ways typified how tangled one’s social and political relationships can get in the foreign policy community of Washington, DC. But Daniel Drezner zooms in on an even more interestikng angle:

If there’s anything you can learn from the rise and fall of Paula Broadwell, it’s this: do not, under any circumstances, think of a Ph.D. as merely a box to be checked on the way to power and influence in Washington.

Drezner has written at length of the pitfalls and perils of going for one’s PhD before, so he’s well suited to issue this warning. However, he’s wrong. If you want to succeed in Washington, a PhD is the quickest path to it. Anything less is just an uphill battle.

Back in May, I wrote for PBS about how the system of unpaid internships in Washington (and elsewhere) creates an uneven playing field — in essence, it restricts access to jobs not to the smartest, but to those with the most expansive debt profiles. In many think tanks and (increasingly) government offices, an MA is more or less considered a minimum requirement for an unpaid entry level position.

These MAs are frightfully expensive to acquire — many DC based programs cost upwards of $75,000 for a two-year degree. It’s a difficult for entry level workers to take on. Still, thousands of young people take just that plunge, and live in DC without income to try to get enough experience to break into the field.

Believe it or not, a PhD offers a better way for many. PhDs are usually funded, which means they cost nothing to the student (stipends may not be much, but that’s a separate matter — the financial loads are drastically different). They also take a lot longer, say 5 years minimum but more likely 7 if you’re young and right out of undergrad.

Even so, that PhD is more or less free. Entering the DC workforce with a PhD, instead of a Masters, is an instant leg-up. For organizations like think tanks, it instantly signals research skills; for NGOs it signifies a strong work ethic. And for many government jobs, contractor jobs, or jobs at IGOs like the World Bank or IMF, it is a basic minimum requirement for most non-admin jobs. In almost any field, having a PhD is a shortcut to the initial round of CV scrutiny — an easy and quick way to sort candidates.

There’s a lot to be said about this system (I am a freak of nature in my industry, for I have no advanced degrees whatsoever). And there’s a lot more that goes into getting a job in this town than one’s degree. But that is what it is. Over the last decade, education requirements and education costs have soared for what used to be basic tasks. That’s what happens during a gold rush for government work.

I don’t have any answers for how to make that better. My own background is also proof that still, if one scrambles and works incredibly hard and meets the right people, one can still break into the game. But it’s not easy.

I don’t fault Paula Broadwell for getting a PhD to check a box on her CV. Unlike my many friends in academia, I don’t see the PhD as some holy pursuit of pure scholasticism. It is a benchmark — one just as essential for long term success in the academy as it is, increasingly, in the policy world.

No, I fault Paula Broadwell for her relentless careerism, her amoral pursuit of the social ladder, and her unquestioning worship of authority. Those, far more than her pursuit of a PhD, are ultimately what undid her blazing climb up the ranks.

And for the inevitable question this blog always elicits? How do you break into the field of DC-based foreign policy work and/or Central Asia studies?

I’m afraid I have no set answer. Luck, as much as hard work, seems to play the biggest role. All I can suggest is that you not only do well at your studies, but you also participate in the larger community, reach out to people more senior than you for mentorship, and always, always, try to make what you write interesting to as large an audience as possible.

Which isn’t saying much. Sorry.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 4 comments }

AJK November 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm

I couldn’t agree with you more, but not all Ph.Ds are created equally, of course.

It’s relatively easy to tell which are the sorts that got their Ph.Ds in Working in DC Studies and which in a field they’re interested in. I’ve seen a ton of Ph.Ds in “security studies” or summat with no language skills, no field work, and basically stating nothing more than a Works Well With Others. These aspirational types are the ones who will be more likely to Broadwellify themselves for fame in DC circles (which are also like really, really, sad circles).

So go for a Ph.D, sure. Just make sure you know what kind of Ph.D. you’re getting.

AJK November 26, 2012 at 3:47 pm

or basically, if all you want are Twitter followers, that’s all you’re going to get.

Sarah Kendzior November 26, 2012 at 4:16 pm

I’m addressing this to readers interested in your question: “How do you break into the field of DC-based foreign policy work and/or Central Asia studies?”

Usually I’m cynical about these matters, but Central Asia studies is a field where the answer is simply: do good work. If you do good work, people will notice, because there is such a paucity of information about the region. Sincere efforts to contribute something new are appreciated. Learn the languages, spend time in the field, do original research, write clearly. Unlike that of other geographical areas of study, the Central Asian studies community is welcoming and there is a lot of collaboration between people working in academia, policy, journalism and development.

That said, jobs are still few and far between, but this is true everywhere.

Schwartz December 11, 2012 at 8:46 am

I can second a lot of what Sarah and Josh are saying here.

Luck: it plays a huge role. I was an aspiring Arabist and Medievalist when I landed my ongoing gig at NewEurasia, and as my organization gained traction internationally, so did my colleagues and I.

Community: I couldn’t agree more with Sarah. Inevitably there are a few nuts and holier-than-thou celebrities, but nowhere near to the scale of other fields (like Middle East studies, good Lord!). There’s also a decided lack of rancor, which is refreshing, and openmindedness for interdisciplinary approaches — with what other field besides media studies or anthropology could I be getting a Routledge publication on historical phenomenology? Seriously.

Like Josh, I’m a bit of a freak, in both journalism and area studies. I have abysmal language skills and, much to my frustration, limited field experience (I keep trying to rectify that, but for the last year and some months, every lead and opportunity turns dry). Still, the community forgives me and is patient.

The larger issue is indeed jobs. My dream is to get academic appointments in Central Asia or further east or south, because the West is just a mess, and will be for some time into the future. Alas, that requires delaying family indefinetely, not to mention reasonable income, but at least I know that “out there” my work will be appreciated. “Go east young man!”

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