From attending the US Foreign Policy Conference to finding a PhD program: A personal journey

This article was written by Ellis Robyn Mallet
This article was published on

This September I’ll be starting a PhD in US foreign policy at the University of Surrey – this is the journey I’ve been on so far.

I completed my undergraduate degree in International Politics with History at the Manchester Metropolitan University, where I began to develop an interest in American politics, specifically foreign policy. As I reached my final year, I majored in politics and focused my modules entirely on US foreign policy, starting to really think about how I could take this interest further.

I then naturally progressed onto a Master’s programme at Lancaster University in Diplomacy & Foreign Policy. I looked primarily at the Obama administration and its foreign policy approach, with my 20,000 word dissertation addressing the issue of decision-making in foreign policy. I applied different elements of the foreign policy analysis models to decisions made by the US Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence in relation to US policy formulation in Libya and Syria. The findings of my research left me feeling as though there was much more to explore, so with this in mind, the next logical step was to consider a PhD programme so I could finish what I’d started.

Towards the end of the MA programme, I was approached by an academic from another university, who invited me to the BISA USFP working group conference as part of their commitment to provide master’s students with equal opportunities. Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive at first - I’d never done anything like this before, and the conference was the day after my master’s programme officially ended. But I took the plunge and registered to attend the two-day conference – it made sense, and hoping to progress onto a PhD programme it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

Each day consisted of multiple panels and round-tables taking place, whereby experts of US foreign policy covered a variety of topics and discussed their current research and collaborations, with short breaks in between. This gave me the opportunity to listen to topics I was already interested in, but also areas I wanted to learn more about. I listened to experts from institutions all over the world talk about American grand strategy, drone warfare, Trump’s America and so on.

Given my research interest, it was enlightening to see Dr Nicholas Kitchen (University of Surrey), Dr Adam Quinn (University of Birmingham) & Dr Gustav Meibauer (LSE) come together to discuss decision-making in US foreign policy through a Neoclassical Realist lens – coming from a ‘foreign policy analysis’ background rather than international relations, I was interested to see how they applied this approach to decision-making processes.

I spoke with academics who were new to Neoclassical Realism, as well as specialists in the subject, and left the conference feeling inspired and motivated to learn more. I connected with scholars of this specialism on Twitter, and made sure I was up to date on the most recent works relating to NCR. I then began putting together a proposal, developing the ideas originating in my MA dissertation with a Neoclassical Realist twist. I then made an effort to reach out to academics who were at the conference for feedback on the proposal.

By attending the conference, I was able to engage with some of the most cited academics in the world. As a result of making use of the contacts I’d gained by receiving feedback on my proposals, by taking advantage of the power of social media, by proving to potential supervisors I was dedicated to academia, I was granted the Doctoral College Studentship Award at the University of Surrey for a PhD starting in October 2019. I’ll be working with Dr Nicholas Kitchen as my lead supervisor (who was a speaker on the panel I attended surrounding decision-making in US foreign policy), researching Neoclassical Realism and Obama’s rapprochements with Cuba, Iran & Myanmar.

The conference was invaluable to me in a number of ways – first and foremost, I successfully secured a place onto a PhD programme; I discovered new and inventive ways of thinking, which directly impacted my own research; it put me in contact with people whose guidance I will be forever grateful for, and I made friends for life.