From theory to practice; PhDs in international affairs

This article was written by Alexander Borum
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Are you doing a PhD or have you recently completed one? Read Alexander Borum’s piece on taking your PhD into the more operational side of international affairs.  Alex is an Advisor on Political and Security Affairs for the Delegation of the European Union in Somalia. In addition to this article he will be bringing us a regular round up of IR career starters with ‘a plethora of interesting and highly relevant opportunities in international relations.’ The October issue is out now and contains 247 opportunities!

Like in most incredible adventures, the quest for one’s objective seldom manifests as a straightforward path. Rather than taking the protagonist from point A to point B without much hassle, the journey and the challenges along the way are what constitute the story. For those dreaming of a career in international relations, this is very much also the case, and for most, the heroic adventure requires more than simply kicking in the castle gate to rescue the princess; it instead requires you to slay a few dragons along the way, before actually reaching the treasure.

There is no single path into international affairs; for many, the road into this ever-intriguing career field is paved with challenges, competition and hardship. Having supported students, graduates and young professionals in the field for a handful of years now, it is clear that the entry requirements are steep and the process is quite arduous. While a lucky few people enter the field without facing many challenges, the vast majority will be confronted with a game of attrition, where standing out as a candidate with high potential can be tricky. Investing time and effort into oneself is quite simply a must, and pursuing a PhD can be an excellent means to stand out from the crowd by bringing something unique and tangible to the table.

While most pursue a PhD to remain in academia where they can focus on research and education, there is a good business case for leveraging a doctoral degree into the practical field where it is possible to bridge theory and operational considerations in policy design and diplomacy or cement oneself as a subject matter expert in an international relations subset with a more robust skill set than most other candidates in the field.

While a PhD by no means constitutes a requirement for working in international affairs, it goes beyond the checkmark nature of having only a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, which is, for all intents and purposes, just essential baseline requirements for entering the field. However, a PhD is a unique endeavour, and in the field of external relations, we can note an increasing number of PhDs in various demanding roles. Here the capacity to manage vast amounts of complex information is critical and, along with this, the ability to employ enhanced analysis and analytical skills to advance policy more comprehensively. A slight catch that could come into play is that the PhD title might make a candidate appear overqualified or too theoretical to some recruiters, overqualification is hard to deal with, but we are very much able to shape the narratives we build around our professional profiles if we want to.

These narratives need to leverage the fact that a PhD background is a valuable toolset in a pragmatic environment where many expectations are put on individuals, often with constrictive timelines. While working in the field, it has become evident that the expectations of diplomats, advisors and consultants are incredibly high. The demand for excellent performance under very stringent timeframes often favours those with solid methodological approaches. This is where PhDs can truly shine, especially when their CV has been balanced with good operational experiences proving their hands-on capabilities.

Going beyond the core of the field, it should be noted that international relations is a domain carried heavily by vast support structures. While less glamorous, many of these career paths enable individuals to impact policy, implementation or engagements significantly. Programme managers and analysts are examples of crucial roles that need to be filled by capable experts in the field. Here, an advanced academic foundation is increasingly valuable, as it enables a PhD to thread the proverbial needle by solidly building upon a research foundation by operationalising it in a more practical setting. At the onset of the career, the challenge will be to explain how the academic skills correspond to what is asked for in more practical settings, but critical skills such as analytical thinking, strategic overview, project and risk management skills, alongside a plethora of value-adding experiences luckily match well with the desired skills in the domain.

To this end, it always pays off to do a bit of homework, and a piece of common advice I give is to map out your field of interest, gaining a better understanding of the required and desired skills for attractive positions. This helps to form a fundamental gap analysis that can be addressed and balanced out through a bit of effort and helps to reshape an academic profile into something much more palpable by more operationally minded recruiters.

That being said, international relations remain a challenging field to get into, notably at entry levels. But as a PhD is commonly considered relevant working experience, it can help to ease the transition, especially with a good pitch prepared in advance of why the PhD skillset is particularly applicable to a given position. So, while a PhD might not guarantee a job immediately, it will serve as a robust enabler, both upon entering the field and down the line. Beyond that, a PhD will give many diverse opportunities down the line, notably by enabling shifts in and out of research and teaching, ensuring that state of the art remains current and pragmatic, and enabling an imprint of lessons learned in the field for the next generations of international relations graduates, enabling you to enjoy the best of both worlds by taking advantage of your hybrid profile.


Alexander Borum is an Advisor on Political and Security Affairs for the Delegation of the European Union in Somalia.

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