Michael KreponCareer Counseling

Once a year or so, I devote a blog post to career counseling. Aspiring wonks: this one’s for you. Those who have already been through this drill, feel free to weigh in.

The best reason to pursue a career in arms control is that you will engage in meaningful work, one of life’s great rewards. Beware of trying to save the world: the world is a very difficult place to save, and the more you seek peace, the less of it you may know in your personal life. It is a regrettable fact that game-changers related to the Bomb are more likely to be negative than positive. This is why success tends to be incremental, while setbacks can be immense and recovery can take so long. Patience and skill can be rewarded. If you are capable and persistent, you might help make the world a little bit safer.

Is graduate school a wise investment for those who seek this kind of a career? A case can be made that a bad entry-level job can teach you more than an expensive graduate school. I counsel otherwise: a good graduate school education can help you land a good entry-level job. Of course, if you are brilliant and driven, you can skip college as well as graduate school. But not all of us are Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.

Some graduate schools are better than others in this field. My reference points are most definitely not those used in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Instead, here are my overtly biased criteria:

1) Is the school situated in a location which is itself a learning experience? I went to graduate school (Johns Hopkins SAIS) in Washington, D.C. from 1968-1970. Outside the classroom, I majored in tear gas. Some of my professors were very distinguished and were working on important books, but Washington was a better teacher. If you are interested in international security and global affairs, it’s hard to beat Washington and New York for learning experiences outside the classroom. And, yes, it makes a difference if you go to school nearby, but not in, the big city. There’s no substitute for in-situ learning.

2) Take a close look at the graduate school’s faculty ratio between academics and practitioners in your area of interest. The practitioners are likely to teach you more than the academics. They are also more likely to help you find an entry-level position. But some practitioner-teachers are duds. Ask around before you enlist.

3) Does the grad school insist that you take statistics and calculus? Not disqualifying, but not a good sign, either. This is an indicator of a curriculum devised by academics that are certain they know what’s best for non-academic career paths. For some public policy fields, statistics and calculus are essential. For arms control, strong analytical, political, historical, regional and language skills, as well cultural sensitivity, matter far more than statistics and calculus.

4) Is there a prospective mentor at the grad school? If so, this can be crucial.

I’m also asked a great deal about whether a Ph.D. makes sense. I do not have one, so my answer reflects this bias, as well. A Ph.D. will take many years and could cost large sums. It’s obligatory for those who are committed to teaching at the college level. The downside here is that you may have to join a guild, most likely Political Science, that does not value functional expertise and security studies, and that dwells in theoretical pursuits. Some Ph.D.s manage to hook up with academic centers that do value public policy, and then use their university as a base for periodic forays into government. (The occasional law degree and law firm can also serve this purpose.) These are relatively rare opportunities. A Ph.D. can also help you become a principal investigator at institutions around the Beltway that rely heavily on government contracts.

A Ph.D. may not be worth the time and money if you are primarily interested in getting your hands dirty doing security policy. Very few staffers working on Capitol Hill have Ph.D.s. The same is true for the troops at the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy. If these jobs appeal to you, a Ph.D. doesn’t help and is likely to delay your career path. I’ve done a good deal of hiring over the years, and have had good luck choosing well-trained graduates without Ph.D.s. If you’re looking for comparative advantage in the job market for this line of work, whether in think tanks, the Hill, or the executive branch, I recommend good grades, “strategic” travel experiences, critical language skills, and developing expertise in a troubled region.


  1. Rob Nelson (History)

    ” from 1968-1970. Outside the classroom, I majored in tear gas.” …must be some interesting stories there!

    • MK (History)

      in due course.

  2. anon (History)

    I agree, almost to a line, with everything Michael said. I’d add in two locations for education: Palo Alto and Cambridge, Ma. I realize that these are not New York and Washington, but they do have a high concentration of people who work or have worked on arms control and security issues. And they are wonderful places to find mentors. But Michael’s caveat is worth repeating. Not all policy practitioners make good mentors. Some of them are more than a little arrogant and self-serving, and sometimes personalities don’t mesh. Then again, someone who totally grates on you in grad school may turn out to be a really useful resource a few years later, so its best not to burn any bridges.

    I also agree that a PhD is not necessary, unless you want to teach, on faculty, in a university. There are plenty of opportunities to teach, as a visiting scholar, without the PhD. Also, from my perspective, a PhD (which I could have, but didn’t acquire) would have taught me how to do research. I already knew how to do that, and I got far more out of the few years in the work force than I would have out of a few more expensive years in academia.

    I’d also argue that your first job isn’t going to matter much. If you need to take a higher-paying entry job so that you can pay off your loans, its not a career killer. Just stay plugged into the arms control community, go to meetings, get to know people, etc, so that your second job can move you closer to the middle. Or ask Michael for a living wage when he hires you into your first job.

    My best advice would be to “network, network, network.” The arms control community is a relatively small place, and most of us either know everyone else or know someone who knows someone, etc. I’ve rarely met anyone in this business who isn’t willing to share a little time and advice. I never have the ability to offer a paying job to people, but I’ll still talk to anyone who tracks me down…

  3. FSB (History)

    In this day and age, where ideology dominates analysis, I disagree that being a professional in arms control is really that meaningful job.

    In 1968 we listened to smart/technical/informed people — now these are the elites “we” disdain.

  4. Lab Lemming (History)

    Is a technical background (isotope chemistry, nuclear physics, etc.) helpful at all?

    • MK (History)

      absolutely. your technical skills are needed and they are your comparative advantage.

  5. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Michael, let me indulge some of the prejudices of my background.

    I would argue that calculus and statistics are a must for arms controllers. Your comment about them as an indicator of an academic bent in contrast to a practitioner bent may be correct, and I share your feelings about too-academic political science.

    But far too much that an arms controller might need to know has to do with mathematics. Calculus is the basis of the modeling that weapons designers do. Statistics is the means for determining weapon reliability. And many other things: weapons effects, health physics, and predictions of nuclear winter.

    A knowledge of how conclusions are arrived at, and the occasional calculation, are very helpful in understanding the veracity of a claim, where the exaggerations might be.

    The reaction to Fukushima contains elements that arms controllers should be watching. I’ve concluded that large numbers of people don’t understand the concepts of concentration and rate. That includes talking heads, who seem also to have lacunae in such things as heat transfer.

    Concentration is arithmetic shading into algebra and further into statistics. Rate is algebra shading into calculus. Heat transfer is calculus. Those varieties of mathematics are essential to thinking about what is happening, in Fukushima or a bomb, or in the heads of the weaponeers.

    • krepon (History)

      All excellent points. Not every wonk needs to know calculus and statistics — as long as you know people to rely on who do. Many different kids of background and expertise are needed for success in this field. Technical support is key.

  6. Konfetka (History)

    Could you perhaps give some advice on how to pursue a career in the arms control field after graduate school? I’ve found that it is incredibly difficult to break into the rather insulated arms control community.

    • MK (History)

      One way: Instead of asking for a job, full stop, suggest to your prospective employer why he/she needs to hire you. This takes some research. I got my first job on Capitol Hill by reading House Armed Services Committee hearings to make the case why he could use more staff support.

  7. Martin (History)


    (Long time listener – first time caller)

    I wonder if you might have any thoughts for those of us who have chosen the right school (we hope), taken the appropriate courses and done the necessary internships (limited to two) within arms control organisations – but are not American!

    Short of camping outside the Vienna International Centre, do you have any advice for your European readers. It is the first big jump after grad school that concerns me most.

    Many thanks

    • MK (History)

      Not sure how hiring works in Europe. But some techniques probably work anywhere: Which professors got to know you best and appreciate what you have to offer? Who do they know at the workplaces you are interested in?

  8. Martin (History)

    Well I am currently based in Asia. I am working as a research assistant while studying. The school is attached to a think-thank and there is the strong possibility of finding work there on graduation. That provides shelter for a year or two (ideally less as a personal preference) but after that you should be moving on to doctoral studies or have found employment. It is the international organisations I am really after and I should have been clearer about that.

    I have taken classes in nuclear politics, strategic industry & technology planning, energy security, management of defence technology, and various strategic theory and country/region specific classes.

    The school has brought in several American scholars as visiting professors whose work I am familiar with. It is all very well out-doing myself because of that, but I am only considering multilateral arms control as I won’t be negotiating with Russians or ‘playing the game’, more generally.

    I think the best option is migrating to one of the global cities in Europe (you suggested as much in your opening post) and to quote a friend who was successful after many years of trying; “keeping my face pressed up against the glass looking in . . . . for about ten years.”

    Could I also ask a second question because obviously it doesn’t seem like the ideal time to be moving to Europe or the U.S., but is recruitment or research grants and other funding in arms control cyclical or has it been relatively stable over the last 15 years?

    • krepon (History)

      Funding is indeed cyclical and topical. The Ford and Rockefeller foundations used to be stanchions in supporting arms control and security studies, but then lost their focus by defining security in emcompassing ways. Then they left the field entirely. MacArthur also drifted, but is now very much back, and Hewlett is becoming more of a player. The past couple of years, several funders invested heavily in the vision of zero nuclear weapons. Work on chemical and biological weapons is generally underfunded, and no major foundation now does grant-making on space security issues. But on balance, funding seems to have stabilized. The Peace and Security Funders Group has published a review of U.S. foundation grantmaking in 2008-2009, which you can check out on their website.

  9. DRP (History)

    Having worked and done some advising on hiring in the nonproliferation area at a government agency (albeit for only a few years), I too would agree with Michael on nearly everything. I would, however, argue strongly for the value of pursuing technical chops in either physics, chemistry, engineering or statistics in addition to policy knowledge and experience. Expertise in one or more of these areas can really help a job candidate set him or herself apart from a large and expanding pool of qualified and dedicated young people looking to get a foot in the door.

    As an alum, I would also be remiss if I failed to make a brief plug for a non-DC school. Spend any amount of time in the fields of nonpro, arms control or disarmament, and you are bound to run across a CNS/ Monterey Institute grad. There are some reasons for that that one could probe at length, but one place to start is a comparison of course offerings particular to arms control/ nonproliferation. Compare this lineup to that of any other graduate school:(near bottom of page): http://www.miis.edu/academics/programs/nonproliferation
    I would note that the aforementioned technical expertise would largely have to be pursued before or after a degree or certificate from MIIS, if one wanted to go that route.

    • CR (History)

      I’ve noticed that no one here has included whether relevant military experience is useful or helpful. I have ten plus years military experience in this area plus a graduate level technical degree. Does being older work against me or is it a help?

    • krepon (History)

      Thank you for your service… which gives you a leg up competing for positions in OSD Policy on these issues.

  10. CM (History)

    I was wondering if you could comment at all on the Scoville Fellowship, specifically how strong of an entry-level opportunity it is for recent college graduates. Would you view it as a foot in the door, or does the door really swing open? Are recipients sought after within the community, or is it more of a footnote on a job application? The experience looks to be fantastic, I’m just wondering how well recognized it is within the arms control community.

    • krepon (History)

      The gold standard.

  11. krepon (History)

    Lots of good advice here. Monterey and Stanford have outstanding programs and mentors. MIT’s security studies program is getting stronger (especially in South Asia). Harvard is Harvard. And Cambridge has the advantage of being close to Fenway Park.

  12. narender sangwan (History)

    i fully agree with you Mr. Krepon that to be a successful wonk one needs to have knowledge about regional conditions,Political situation,Historical currents,cultural sensitivities and strong analytical skills to amalgamate the results of the above stated things which are in no way mathematical.i liked your article about your visit via wagha border in the month of FEB.YOUR analysis of situation prevaling at the border and solutions suggested by you were quite practical,but there are some complex things that need deep application in this part of sub-continent.

  13. Fred Miller (History)

    If you want a career working to stop nuclear weapons, but something about being a wonk doesn’t work for you, there’s another option: activism.

    I’ve been a full-time activist for most of my adult life (25 years). The pay is poor to mediocre, but the work is very rewarding. Since the field is informal, educational requirements are nil, though you need to perform.

    And you don’t need to live in DC or NYC. Many of the best opportunities are in small cities scattered across the country.

    The most valuable skill sets are fundraising and bookkeeping. With most local peace groups, if you can convince them that you can bring in money (volunteer for a few months), you should be able to get on the payroll or get them to let you work on commission.

  14. Julian L (History)

    “For arms control, strong analytical, political, historical, regional and language skills, as well cultural sensitivity, matter far more than statistics and calculus.”

    Considering this, where would you say that the up-and-coming Singaporean schools fit in with all of the options above? I’m very close to ditching the conventional path in the States and whipping off to the S. Rajaratnam School. This was also recommended to me by two South Asia folks at the Carnegie Endowment. Having spent a semester at JNU in Delhi, I have to say that going local is extremely appealing. But there is this nagging feeling that those who hire and fire inside the Beltway may not value that experience as much as a DC or Cambridge, Mass academic background.

    Would love to hear additional thoughts on this option.

    • krepon (History)

      I can’t answer your question. How does this school fit into what you hope to accomplish? Are you interested in a functional issue and regional studies? What does the school have to offer in both?

    • krepon (History)

      It’s not about where, but why.

  15. Julian L (History)

    Thank you, Mr Krepon.

    What I hope to accomplish in the near term is to have as close to a mirror image of the concerns, fears, realities, and possibilities as I can of what the Asian security environment is facing. My particular focus is South Asia, but that seems to be bleeding in to Southeast Asia and China more and more lately. Thus, Singapore is a good perch from which to observe those movements. While I’m not exclusively interested in arms control or nuclear issues more generally, I feel that it is going to be the most necessary field to master (by a narrow margin) for that region in the coming twenty-five years or so.

    I’d like to work in the US government — DOS, DOE, DOD, etc.

    The school doesn’t have much of a comparative advantage in faculty over Georgetown, GWU, or SAIS, but it does put me in the middle of an Asian hub with a lot of smart and active Asia hands. Many of the reasons why I’d choose Rajaratnam for South Asian study have been listed by others above who’ve listed Monterey Institute for arms control — the curriculum is almost totally concerned with Asian security. The question is, even though this will benefit me personally, will it benefit me professionally? As I consider this school, I have premonitions of guiding those who may hire me in the US on how to pronounce its name.

    As for my long term hopes… Well, they’re the highest they can be. I’m counting on my skills and the way the future unfolds to put me where I belong. I just want to make the best decisions in the present as I can, and I’m willing to go way out of my way to do that. This is a Robert Frost-like road-less-traveled-by question. But if I’m going to exert myself, I want to make it count.

    Thanks again for this post. I hope that it helps to direct other young arms control wonks just as it’s helped me.

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