Where to do a PhD?
September 22, 2005 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Suggestions for PhD study in International Relations within the English-speaking world?

I have a BSc degree in finance, and an MSc in IR, both first class degrees from London. I've now decided that I'd like to go on to do a PhD, within the field of international law in particular. I can most likely manage to get back into the University of London but recently I have been thinking of changing my life completely after 8 years in the UK... A university in another English-speaking country (US/Canada/Oz/NZ/SA/IE) might be a great experience since I am basically free to go wherever I want to (no kids or wife). However, having spent a lot of time on the websites of various universities, I thought whether some of you might have some experience and suggestions. I'd appreciate any ideas, whether it is of particular institutions, countries, red tape, etc. anything you can spare to make this decision easier. Even rankings of institutions would be helpful - I looked for some for Canada, but they vary a lot and there are a dozen different ones. In the UK I know the unis by heart, abroad I just do not know whether they are good or bad. Thanks in advance.
posted by keijo to Education (13 answers total)
Taking a ranking-based approach to this may end up leaving you very unhappy, as the foci of different departments and schools vary widely. For instance, if you were a quantitatively oriented neo-realist, you might well tear your hair out at some schools and be like a pig in slop at others.

I'm doing mine at American Univ. in Washington, DC. It's not a bad city, and the program is funded, if that makes a difference. But it could be completely wrong for you.
posted by piro at 10:01 AM on September 22, 2005

I started off in an IR undergrad, but changed my mind. Nevertheless, I did some research into good schools. The University of British Columbia (Vancouver) has an excellent international relations program. UBC is a major research university and well regarded both in Canada and abroad. Simon Fraser University, across town, has a good poli sci program with an IR option, too. However, SFU is smaller and more teaching oriented. (But I did my undergrad and grad degrees there and loved it.)
posted by acoutu at 10:06 AM on September 22, 2005

PhDs are, 99 times in a hundred, work certificates after long-term apprenticeships. If you want to do anything other than teach college and do research, I'd think real hard about a PhD.

What do you mean by wanting to do international law? I hate to be a jackass, but that's a minor red-flag for "I don't really know what I want to do, but international law sounds kind of sexy." I don't do IR, I do American politics, so I'm hardly up on who's doing what. I can think of IR people who study when nations keep their alliance agreements and when they don't. I can think of people, mostly judicial-politics types, who study war-crimes tribunals as examples of courts. I can think of people who study international organization and supranational agencies. But I can't think offhand of anyone prominent who does "international law" as such.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:08 AM on September 22, 2005

I think the answer to this question in the US and Canada has to hinge around what will be your topic of study. Top programs will often only accept students that will benefit from working with someone on their faculty (and more importantly, vice-versa). I have heard of wonderfully qualified students being turned down for positions in doctoral programs because a) there is no one at the school who can work with them on their course of research or b) that person exists, but already advises a full slate of PhD candidates.

I agree as well that in most cases a PhD should be considered professional training - so if that's not the profession you want to pursue, then I would consider finding another course of advanced study that might be more useful to you.

Also keep in mind that International Law as a course of study may very well be the preserve of lawyers. They can be stingy about sharing.
posted by mikel at 10:15 AM on September 22, 2005

More to the point:

Go to a school in a country you think you'd like to live and work in. If you want to move to Canada, go to a Canadian school, network within the Canadian system, and go to CPSA meetings. If you want to move to the states, go to a school in the states.

Don't go if you're not funded -- you should not pay tuition, and you should be paid a stipend (usually in exchange for RA/TA work). Being unfunded is a signal that either you aren't very competitive as a candidate student, in which case there's little point in slogging through a degree to get no job, or that the department is subpar, in which case there's little point in slogging through a degree just to watch people from better departments get all the jobs. There are exceptions for people who have to live in a particular area for one reason or another, or for some state schools that have funny laws about tuition waivers, but as a quick and dirty heuristic, it holds.

In the States, there are the usual suspects, Ivies and other highly elite universities. You should also look at flagship state schools, especially in the midwest, plains, and California (others are plenty good too). There are also progams you might not think of that regularly turn out IR people who get jobs, like SUNY-Binghamton.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:16 AM on September 22, 2005

Yes, decide what you want to do with the degree.
You may also want to look at joint JD/Ph.D programs- These will/may take longer, some people might think the Ph.D part is less rigoroous (if you want to be an academic) and may not be as well funded, but they may keep your options open if you decide you want to be a lawyer. Here's one at Georgetown, for example. Joint programs will mostly require you to be admitted to the JD and Ph.D. programs separately, so you need to be a strong applicant to each/both.
posted by cushie at 10:26 AM on September 22, 2005

I second checking out Georgetown. I don't claim any high level of knowledge concerning IR programs in the US but I have attended Continuing Legal Education courses on Customs and International Trade there and was impressed by the quality of the professors I met. John H. Jackson, who I believe is considered to be one of the foremost experts on the WTO, still teaches there.
posted by Carbolic at 11:21 AM on September 22, 2005

If I could do a PhD, and having your preferred subject matter in mind, I'd definitely want to do it at Princeton, under the auspices of Anne Marie Slaughter.
posted by AwkwardPause at 11:35 AM on September 22, 2005

If you want an actual job afterwards that isn't necessarily in academia, I knew some students at Columbia University's (NYC, Manhattan) S.I.P.A. who had amazing internships, etc. during their studies at the UN and other NGO's with offices in the NYC metro area. Columbia's law school is also top-notch, which means great cross-enrollment opportunities (I'm not sure if they do a joint degree).
posted by availablelight at 11:41 AM on September 22, 2005

I did my undergraduate degree and masters in Physics at Oxford, and then went to Australia to do a PhD, so I know the feeling. It's certainly the perfect opportunity to get out of the UK and see something of the world.

In what follows, bear in mind that I'm a scientist, so I may give undue wait to things that aren't so important to someone in the humanities like departmental prestige, equipment, academic community, size of school, other financial resources, travel, etc.

As it happens, I've withdrawn from my PhD in Sydney (for tedious physics-related reasons I will be restarting in Oxford in a couple of weeks), but I really can't recommend it highly enough.

Firstly, don't let anyone tell you its a cultural desert full of the worst kind of European backpacker and beer swilling idiots. Admittedly, it's got both of those in spades, but Sydney and Melbourne are fantastic cities. Sydney is easily the most beautiful city on Earth. Anthony Trollope: "It is so inexpressibly lovely that it makes a man ask himself whether it would not be worth his while to move his household goods to the eastern coast of Australia, in order that he might look upon it as long as he can look at anything". It's also a genuine world city. There's something to do every night. European and American bands even go there. I've never been, but I understand Melbourne has even more to do, but less beautiful things to see.

The other advantage in an Australian PhD is that it's the same as a British one, i.e. three years. You'll be perfectly placed to rejoin academia in the UK with a full head of hair, unlike American PhDs. It's just research: there is no compulsory teaching (unless your bank manager insists).

Having said that, Australia, and New Zealand even more so, have a unique problem which they refer to as the tyranny of distance. Because of the distances involved, you will likely spend almost all of the three years in one city (never mind one country). I don't imagine formal collaborations are so common in International Relations as they are in Physics, but they will tend to be telephone and email based, with a biannual conference chat, unless your collaborator is in your city.

If you're looking for exciting cities, I'd avoid New Zealand entirely (wonderful, beautiful country though it is). It's my (possibly completely unjustified) impression that New Zealand's universities are less prestigious, and they're certainly smaller and more remote than most in Australia and the Northern Hemisphere. ANU in Canberra is a very good university in an awful town. This may not be a problem for you.

If you like the look of Australia, the government offer an IPRS, which covers fees and health insurance. Individual universities also offer scholarships that enhance the IPRS or replace it with something more lucrative. For example, I was at Macquarie (which I note has a Department of Politics and International Relations). I had an International Macquarie University Research Scholarship. This is roughly equivalent to those offered by the research councils in the UK, i.e. fees and living expenses, but the cost of living is so low in Australia that I was very comfortable. With firsts from a good UK university and good references you shouldn't have any trouble getting one of these.

I was put off even applying to US insitutions by the red tape involved. The applications require you take a GRE, hand over not insignificant amounts of money, and fill in extremely long forms. And then there is the whole US visa thing to deal with. By contrast, my Australian application was as painless as my Oxford one. I just filled in a form, stuck a passport photo on it, and told my referees where to send stuff. Once I was in I had to get a chest X-Ray for my four year visa, and I was golden. Under the visa, I was even allowed to work 20 hours a week.

And finally, IANA International Relations expert, but it's my understanding that Oxford (see also: Chelsea Clinton) and Princeton have the most prestigious IR departments. But prestige and tables are no way to pick an institution for a PhD.

In Sydney, the prestigious universities are USydney (the oldest) and UNSW. Macqurie is financially well-off, but probably not so prestigious. All three are fine though. I don't know Melbourne so well.

However, don't overestimate the importance of institutional prestige at the expense of the importance of liking the department and the city. A PhD is hard and lonely. People are way more impressed by the fact that you've through it and produced a good thesis than what university you happened to be enrolled in while you did it. Bare prestige just isn't as important at this level as it is at undergraduate.

Ouch. That's a long comment. Well done for reading this far and good luck.
posted by caek at 2:09 PM on September 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm sure you've already done this, but a major part of the process is exploiting your pre-existing academic networks. Arrange a meeting with your Master's thesis/dissertation supervisor and ask who s/he knows who might be a good prospect for Ph.D. supervision in the countries that intrigue you.

I'm not by any means someone who knows much about IR. (The only person I know who went on to do a doctorate in the field went off to Belfast.) I can only add that caek's comments above about the 'tyranny of distance' in Antipodean universities are acute and on the money. A lot of people like to kid themselves that email and digital interconnectedness can overcome sheer geographical distance. The only problem is, if you shift your gaze from the monitor to the window, you're still on the other side of the world from most everybody else in your field. It can feel a little isolating, unless you find a good, well-populated and diverse department/university.

Going to conferences and seminars is an expensive and time-consuming business when you have to travel 20+ hours each way and spend several thousand dollars in order to get anywhere. On the other hand, this can make you hungrier and more intent on making the most of these opportunities.

By the way, if you head off to Canada, Oz, or NZ, you'll also be eligible for a Commonwealth Scholarship, which is a not inconsiderable sum of money, if you can wangle it...
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:25 PM on September 22, 2005

Whoops, Australia no longer offers in-bound Commonwealth Scholarships. Canada and NZ still do, though. Sorry about that...
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:36 PM on September 22, 2005

Just to throw something else into the mix, The Times Higher Education Supplement's World University Rankings list is recent and offers food for thought. Obviously, it focuses more on the undergraduate side, but it includes many institutions outside of the usual U.S./Western Europe axis, including quite a few in Australasia. (More information available to Times' subscribers.)
posted by rob511 at 6:44 AM on September 23, 2005

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