So You Want to Study Political Violence?

By Joseph Young

Undergraduate students often ask how they can make a career in studying political violence. Below, I outline ways to chart a path through a career in this substantive area. To be clear at the outset, I know the academic world the best (I’ve been in two academic positions across several disciplines and in an embarrassing number of graduate programs), but I have dipped my toe(s) in other areas from time to time. If anything does not jibe with other’s experience, please add to the conversation.

Here are the take-home points. Get skills. Be useful. There isn’t one way of doing this. But there are less productive ways to go about it.

Get Skills

Whatever job you envision having in the next five years, the way to attain it is to be needed. Bring something to the party. Unfortunately for all of us, interest in international affairs, political violence, or a related subject is not enough.

There are at least three ways (I know of) to do this:

  1. Language/culture: speak the language(s) of the place that interests you. If you study Latin America, speaking Spanish is good. Speaking Spanish and Portuguese is better. Of course, there are other languages spoken throughout the region, but being conversant in the big ones is one way to be useful. I would argue the only way to really do this is to live there. Study abroad, go for a summer, and travel across the region.Taking classes or listening to podcasts is fine, but you won’t get fluent. Living in the region of your choosing is also the way to begin to understand the intricacies of the culture; something a book, a course, or a supervisor can’t teach you. If you were raised in a bilingual household, congrats! You have a comparative advantage. Everything will be a little easier for you, but still study abroad and travel.
  2. Quant: If traveling across a country that does not have your fast food restaurant of choice (but a lower drinking age) does not sound like how you want to spend your junior year, another option is to go quant. As in the language track, there are different pathways within in the track. Take stats, econometrics, GIS courses, calculus, computer programming, etc. Having a quantitative background will help you in grad school and/or in most entry-level positions in government that are currently dealing with political violence. The USG is driven by fad and buzzwords, and maybe the most popular current one is Big Data. Knowing how to generate, aggregate, or analyze data makes you marketable in both academia and policy circles (probably more so in the former than latter). Game theory/formal modeling and computational modeling sometimes get bundled with quant, but they are also distinct skills (even from each other), and probably deserve their own category. As a side note, if you ask most quant professors off the record what they should have majored in as undergraduates, they will likely say math, computer science, or some related field. Political Science, Sociology, Criminology, and other related undergrad majors are often too focused on current events and often (not always) don’t teach what these disciplines really do (see Phil Arena’s argument for actually teaching political science).
  3. Facts/history: knowing everything about Jordan and Egypt is nice. Understanding the relevant actors, their history, big events, and such is helpful, but likely less so than developing a strong skill in numbers one or two above. Of course, if you travel and learn a language, some of this knowledge of facts and history will follow. There are at least two reasons why I make this somewhat contested claim. First, these facts change quickly. Look at the huge changes going on within the Middle East/North Africa, the sweeping political and economic changes that occurred in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. Memorizing the people is ok, but this information becomes less useful much more quickly then having a command of the language and/or quantitative skills.


    The problem with this route too is that it is the path of least resistance. Anyone can pick up a book (even though they don’t or use a Kindle) and memorize facts. Understanding the nuisances of a language or culture and advanced quantitative skills need to be learned, and there are barriers to entry. In this fast world, staying ahead of obsolescence is critical.


Now that you have these skills, there are at least three routes to take with them: Academia, USG (civilian or military), and policy/think tank/NGO world. Each has its challenges and rewards. As I stated at the outset, I can speak most confidently about academia. The good news is that once you have a tenure track job and are applying these skills to your research, it’s a great though slightly underpaid existence. Given all the current changes and uncertainty, however, it is hard(er) to recommend this path for aspiring experts of political violence (see the Duck of Minerva for many articles on entering, surviving, and thriving in related disciplines; also see Sarah Kendzior on the challenges of the current academic job market and Jay Ulfelder on non-academic jobs for political science Ph.D.s). With that said, if you are useful and have skills, you will find a place in this world.


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