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SIS’s PhD program: rising in stature and prominence

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Sharon Weiner
Professor Sharon Weiner

Under the direction of Professor Sharon Weiner, the PhD program at the School of International Service (SIS) has been restructured and grown in external recognition over the past five years. Earlier this year, Foreign Policy magazine ranked it among the top-20 international relations PhD programs in the world, a first for SIS.

During her tenure as PhD program director, Weiner has worked with other faculty to introduce a more rigorous academic grounding in international studies, included additional research methods training in the curriculum, and both international relations and concentration comprehensive exams. "The program now has more structure, more rigor, and higher expectations of students, but also additional resources to help students achieve those expectations," said Weiner.

Recently named a 2018 Andrew Carnegie Fellow, Weiner will step down from her position as PhD director in June to pursue a year of research focusing on deterrence and the use of nuclear weapons. "When it comes to nuclear weapons, deterrence can lead to multiple answers to the same problems," said Weiner. "I'm researching what choices the US made to answer these problems, what those choices reflect, and why those choices became requirements when there were actually many options." Weiner's research will also involve using virtual reality to better understand how people make choices about whether or not to use nuclear weapons.

"Our PhD program has made impressive advances with Sharon Weiner at the helm," said Interim Dean Christine BN Chin. "Her work with the program and the SIS faculty has helped attract extraordinary PhD students and ensured our students' success after graduation. And I'm so pleased that Sharon has been recognized for her own work by the Carnegie Corporation. It shows our faculty's commitment to continuing to grow their own field's body of knowledge and to remain on the leading edge of scholarship."

Topping a list of the program's strengths is its multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature. While some PhD students may want to pursue a more traditional international relations degree, others may want to use research methods from a variety of academic disciplines. SIS offers the coursework and faculty support for both.

"To truly understand international affairs, it's great to pull from different perspectives from multiple disciplines," said Weiner. "When a PhD student comes to SIS, their dissertation committee could include an anthropologist, a sociologist, and a political scientist. We have faculty from various disciplines who can all help PhD students. That's something unique to SIS."

Professor Carl LeVan, the PhD program placement director who helps PhD students find meaningful employment after graduation, echoed the importance of drawing on the expertise found across SIS: "One of Sharon's most enduring contributions will be recognizing the challenges and strengths of SIS's program, coming up with strategies for leveraging that interdisciplinarity, and creating spaces where faculty and students can really talk to each other across our fields."

SIS's interdisciplinarity also provides students with choices in terms of what academic approaches they take, said Professor Boaz Atzili, the incoming PhD program director: "I think that's really exciting in terms of advancing knowledge, which is what we try to do in academia."

The PhD students themselves are vital to the SIS community. SIS admits eight to 10 new PhD students a year and has around 50 PhD students at any time. Those students aren't just receiving an education; they're contributing to the academic and intellectual community at SIS and preparing themselves to make change in the world.

"SIS attracts students who are committed, not just to a life of learning, but to learning with a purpose," said Weiner. "Some go on to work in academia, and others go to work in the policy community, but the thing that unites them is that they all think the world can be different, and they want tools to make that happen."

Anne Kantel, a fifth-year PhD student whose dissertation looks at legitimacy and compliance in natural resource governance in Uganda, said one defining element of all the students in her cohort is their interest in contributing to the wider world: "People come here because they want to achieve something beyond just getting a PhD for themselves. They want to be active members of political society."

Faculty, while perhaps thought of as the imparters of knowledge, also benefit from the strong cohorts of PhD students at SIS. "Beyond being teaching and research assistants, PhD students have intellectual curiosity and capabilities that keep faculty on their toes," said Weiner.

"The PhD program fulfills an important function at SIS," said Atzili. "It is the crux of the connection between teaching and research. Top-level research institutions must have a good PhD program to attract good faculty and produce cutting-edge research."

SIS faculty are involved in the PhD program on various levels, from teaching courses to serving as formal or informal advisors to students completing dissertations.

"Besides the students, a key strength of the PhD program is the faculty," said Weiner. "When you work with a PhD student, you're training them to be your colleague, and you're training them to be smarter and more capable than you are. It's incredibly rewarding, and it's a relationship you have with students, not just while they're at SIS, but for their entire careers."

Atzili, who will become PhD program director in July, noted that this is an exciting time for the program. While the recent Foreign Policy ranking has given SIS's PhD program more attention, Atzili said the school is now poised to achieve even greater exposure for its unique, interdisciplinary, and community-focused PhD program.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of leading the program, Atzili is most excited for working closely with the diverse and hardworking group of students. "All PhD students go through tremendous intellectual growth between their first year and graduation. I'm looking forward to being part of that process."