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History, Political Science, or Policy Degree?


USC95
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I've got a question burning in my soul.... Should I study History, Political Science, or Public Policy?

Here are my research interests:

- History of U.S.-China Foreign Policy

- History of International Diplomacy

- International Security Studies

- History of Humanitarian Intervention

I've been influenced by the works of Niall Ferguson (Harvard-History), Gary Bass (Princeton-Politics), Philip Bobbitt (UT-Law), and I am an avid fan of studying the biographies of the U.S. Secretary of State. I would love to research, write, and teach at the university level on the history and future of U.S. - China foreign policy, and perhaps even serve in a government advisory role some day. Personally, I feel that U.S.-Chinese relations will dominate the political and global scene for the next 50-100 years - a subject of which I am passionately interested.

Here are some personal stats for your reference:

- Out of school since 1995

- No current writing sample

- GRE: 800 Math/720 Verbal/4.0 Writing

- A lot of international NGO experience (14 years)

- Fluent conversational Mandarin

Thanks for any advice you might offer. I truly appreciate it!

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That's the big difference between history and political science. Yes, history can fall under Social Sciences but it doesn't use data as extensively as other fields under social sciences. So do you like math awfully a lot?

Put it this way, there's a security dilemma. What method would you use to figure out the results? Find similar events that has happened before and figure out the odds, or use studies of culture, society, and government action? If the former, go for poly sci. If the latter, go for history.

Also, when thinking about becoming a TA and professor, think about what kind of courses you'd like to teach. Chinese historians are expected to teach survey courses on the history of China, and perhaps Japan, and run seminars on East Asia. International history is still slow to arrive in history departments. In political science, you'll still teach a course on various governments of Asian countries and do others on security studies as well as introduction to IR. It seems to me that in your list of your interests, you may be better off in political science, if you're not really up to teaching ancient China.

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Re: History/Poly Sci, it all depends on how you like to do research. Are you more inclined to narratives or models?

I am much more inclined to narratives, and I tend to use quantitative data only as an exercise in rhetoric (to persuade). I consider models to be based on patterns of similar narratives and are very useful for understanding cultural/political movements. But I would tend to look at historical developments and complex human/cultural motivations to determine "what is really going on" before turning toward published sociological studies filled with stats and numbers. I've just seen stats abused too many times as an effective form of modern rhetoric.

That's the big difference between history and political science. Yes, history can fall under Social Sciences but it doesn't use data as extensively as other fields under social sciences. So do you like math awfully a lot?

Put it this way, there's a security dilemma. What method would you use to figure out the results? Find similar events that has happened before and figure out the odds, or use studies of culture, society, and government action? If the former, go for poly sci. If the latter, go for history.

Also, when thinking about becoming a TA and professor, think about what kind of courses you'd like to teach. Chinese historians are expected to teach survey courses on the history of China, and perhaps Japan, and run seminars on East Asia. International history is still slow to arrive in history departments. In political science, you'll still teach a course on various governments of Asian countries and do others on security studies as well as introduction to IR. It seems to me that in your list of your interests, you may be better off in political science, if you're not really up to teaching ancient China.

This really helps! Again, I think I'm leaning toward the history route based on your feedback. The phrase "figure out the odds" based on history is borderline heresy for how I consider international affairs. I am much more likely to consider historic motivations, culture, ethnicity, religion, economic factors, etc. when understanding tension between Taipei & Beijing or unrest in Tehran, etc.

Thanks for your comment on teaching about ancient China. Good reality check. I think I would enjoy it as long as I can tie those ancient developments into the cultural motivations driving contemporary foreign policy. I'm definitely more interested in security studies than how the Great Wall was constructed, but they are closely related. Thanks for bringing up that possibility.

Thanks so much for your help.

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I don't me to make this more complicated that it needs to be but...

There's simply not a lot of 'hard' diplomatic history done these days. Most of the people doing it are very old. Warren Cohen is the doyen of US-China relations, but he may have retired. So if you want to do, say, arms control, or nuclear weapon proliferation, then poli sci is the way to go. History is going to be focused on culture, images, perception, etc.

So, if you choose to be a historian, do you want to be a historian of US foreign policy that focus' on China, or do you want to be a Chinese historian who also does Chinese foreign policy? From my experience with the Middle East, people who do the foreign policy of the Middle East are by and large historians of US foreign relations that specialize in US-relations with the Middle East. Not everyone in Middle East studies writes a book on foreign policy, like Rashid Khalidi. So you will also want to think about who you want your competition to be for jobs: other historians of China, or other historians of US foreign policy. For the former, you will be competing with 100 other qualified people, with the latter, it will be 500 qualified people. Take your pick.

Hopefully this area studies/foreign policy divide will weaken in the future.

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I would like to echo Cooper's Street that not many people are doing diplomatic history and that you might have a hard time being admitted to a history program not matter what your stats or qualifications (which are quite impressive). The only person of which I can think in my department (top 10 history program) who works on foreign policy works on the Middle East, not China, and would be unlikely to admit someone with a different regional specialty than his.

You might want to check out this article from the NY Times on the state of the job market for people focusing on international and diplomatic history: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/11/books ... odayspaper

Personally, I would apply to a few history programs (perhaps the University of Toronto based on the above article and Harvard based on whom you have been influenced by) but focus my efforts on public policy programs, which seem less data-driven and would more amenable to the type of work you want to do.

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I won't start at Harvard for another month, but I'd strongly suggest that you make it your first choice. Not only does Ferguson teach there, but there's also a very strong focus on international history/world history in the department. You're encouraged to do archival work internationally and there are a ton of area-studies centers and institutes that provide funding and office space.

EDIT: The "hard" side of international history is pretty well-represented too, although I think intellectual history is somewhat stronger.

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I don't me to make this more complicated that it needs to be but...

So if you want to do, say, arms control, or nuclear weapon proliferation, then poli sci is the way to go. History is going to be focused on culture, images, perception, etc.

So, if you choose to be a historian, do you want to be a historian of US foreign policy that focus' on China, or do you want to be a Chinese historian who also does Chinese foreign policy? From my experience with the Middle East, people who do the foreign policy of the Middle East are by and large historians of US foreign relations that specialize in US-relations with the Middle East. Not everyone in Middle East studies writes a book on foreign policy, like Rashid Khalidi. So you will also want to think about who you want your competition to be for jobs: other historians of China, or other historians of US foreign policy. For the former, you will be competing with 100 other qualified people, with the latter, it will be 500 qualified people. Take your pick.

Cooperstreet,

I've never thought about it in terms of competition before... thanks for the perspective. My inclination is to focus on Chinese foreign policy, understanding how it has dealt with all foreign powers from a cultural point of view going back thousands of years and how such historic forces influence contemporary (and future) foreign policy. Of course, I am deeply interested in how the US and China will interact, but like you said - there are hundreds of qualified people from whom to draw US foreign policy research. This whole interaction is really helping me clarify my research interests. Thanks!

I am still a bit concerned that the issues you mentioned, "arms control, or nuclear weapon proliferation," seem to fall into the Political Science realm. This is the practical application of foreign policy, and such studies are intrinsic to my intended research. Would it make a big difference if I was in a History program with a strong PolySci emphasis vs the converse situation? Is a History PhD more/less marketable than a degree in PolySci, given that my research may be identical? What do you think?

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Personally, I would apply to a few history programs (perhaps the University of Toronto based on the above article and Harvard based on whom you have been influenced by) but focus my efforts on public policy programs, which seem less data-driven and would more amenable to the type of work you want to do.

I won't start at Harvard for another month, but I'd strongly suggest that you make it your first choice.

Amanda1655 & Slawkenbergius,

Thanks for your feedback. I would love to study at Harvard. Ferguson was gracious to send me an email in response to a book review I submitted, and it would be a honor to work with him (even if I'm not dogmatic follower of his ideas).

If I was to ever make it into Harvard, would you suggest going for the Kennedy School of Govt or the History department? Again, I would like to pursue an academic career with the option to "cross-over" into a policy advisory role - and I'm sure I could dive into my intended research in either school (correct assumption?) given the great resources in Boston - but what would you advise? Thanks for your thoughts!

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My inclination is to focus on Chinese foreign policy, understanding how it has dealt with all foreign powers from a cultural point of view going back thousands of years and how such historic forces influence contemporary (and future) foreign policy....

I am still a bit concerned that the issues you mentioned, "arms control, or nuclear weapon proliferation," seem to fall into the Political Science realm. This is the practical application of foreign policy, and such studies are intrinsic to my intended research. Would it make a big difference if I was in a History program with a strong PolySci emphasis vs the converse situation? Is a History PhD more/less marketable than a degree in PolySci, given that my research may be identical? What do you think?

Regarding the former: Anyone trying to explain a putatively "non-Western" state's foreign policy in terms of extremely long cultural trends is most likey going to be laughed out of the profession--it smacks of an Orientalist mode of thinking. Honestly, I couldn't even imagine what an arguement that a centuries long aspect of culture influenced foreign policy would look like. My suggestion to you is to read the existing literature on the subject and see what the current debates are. Warren Cohen is the doyen of US-China relations, and a more recent work is 'Mao's China and the Cold War'. I forget the author. Check out those books and their bibliographies--they would show what the current debates are. I suspect no one is arguing that, say, the memory of improving relations between chinese tribes 2000 years ago paved the way for Nixon's acceptance of China. If you want to see a work that deals specifically with how culture & perceptions influences foreign policy, there is nothing better than Mark P. Bradley's "Imaginang Vietnam & America".

I don't know what the job market is like in Poli Sci, but presumably a Poli Sci Ph.D would be more marketable in the private sector because of its quant component. As for Harvard, while its great, if you want to do International History there, you will study with Ferguson. Its up to you if you have a problem working with someone who things one of the most destructive and murderous entities to ever exist--the British Empire-- wasn't so bad.

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Cooperstreet,

Thanks for the insight. I'll definitely take a more critical look at my thinking, because I honestly do believe much of contemporary foreign policy is based in history - even ancient history. Maybe not so much for the U.S. proper (because we're only a few hundred years old), but we certainly have a strong inheritance of those imperialist motivations Ferguson tends to venerate, which can be traced back through most of Western Culture. I certainly don't want to get "lost" in ancient history since my interests are much more contemporary, but I don't think it is ethno-centric to consider cultural histories as affecting foreign policies.

And thanks for the tremendous references you've given me. I've got a good reading list ahead of me before I make any moves. I'm not applying to any school for this admissions round, and I'll use this next season to research those current debates you mentioned. You've been a great help.

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