The MIT Security Studies Program (MIT SSP) recently interviewed MIT alum and Schar School associate professor A. Trevor Thrall for the school’s alumni profile section. We reprint the interview with permission.
1) What is your MITSSP degree and your dissertation title?
Ph.D. War in the Media Age: The Government/Press Struggle from Vietnam to the Gulf
2) What is your current position/title?
In my day job I am an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. I am also a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute.
3) As is often the case for SSP alums, when you finished your dissertation, you had an important choice to make between a position in the policy world and an academic career. What inclined you toward the option you chose? Do you have any advice to share with current SSP students as they weigh their career choices?
I went to graduate school primarily focused on academia, but I was always interested in contributing to national security debates. The more I learned about the relevance of security studies research to policy making while at MIT, the more I thought about pursuing the policy route. Eventually, though, I realized that a big part of the reason I always loved universities is that I’m terrible at following directions and I hate having a boss. I decided that my best role was going to be as an analyst working from the outside. I actually came close to taking a couple of jobs in government later on, but have never regretted sticking to academia.
My advice to current students is not to worry too much about trying to determine a single once-and-for-all career path. They are all good choices. If you feel a strong preference for something: Go for it. If not, figure out what feels like the best next step for right now, and be confident that down the road you will have opportunities to do other things. I have been amazed at how success in one venue, whether government or academia, opens up opportunities in other venues.
4) Would you say that your experience at SSP has continued to influence your current position? What key concepts or values from SSP have served you well in your current position?
The most obvious impact SSP has had on my career was to reinforce—and to enable—my focus on policy-relevant scholarship. I grew up during the Cold War, watched my parents argue about the Vietnam War over the dinner table, and worried about whether a nuclear war would end it all during the Reagan administration. I wanted to be part of creating a safer world and my graduate training gave me the tools to do so.
5) One of the primary premises of the MIT SSP is “War is an extension of politics. Politics causes wars. Policy must be the governing force.” Can you explain how, in your experience, this has been true or false? What has been your own experience?
I first realized that politics was central to security studies when one of my best friends and I found ourselves arguing about missile defense in high school. He, an ardent Republican and a supporter of Ronald Reagan, seemed to have little time for the scientific or policy implications of the SDI program. I was flabbergasted. Most of my career has essentially been an attempt to figure out why he felt and thought the way he did. Sadly, nothing I have learned since then has convinced me that war is anything other than an extension of politics.
6) What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why?
The answer to this question has probably varied over time for me, but at this point the most satisfying part of my position is working with graduate students. I had no idea when I started my career that I would come to love teaching and mentoring as much as I do, but I get a ton of satisfaction building relationships with our PhD students, helping them learn the craft, and getting them launched into their careers.
7) What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP been a part of that?
I am proudest of having helped so many students at George Mason get their PhDs by serving on their dissertation committees.
8) What, outside of SSP and your work here, has been the factor that has most influenced who you are now, and what your current research interests are?
I blame my parents. My father was a doctor in the Army for seven years during the Vietnam War, serving at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Hospital]. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my father is a fairly conservative and patriotic guy. My mother, on the other hand, was a flaming progressive, and her family would occasionally camp out at our house to make forays into D.C. to attend antiwar protests. My first political and security studies-related memories are of them talking about the war, usually disagreeing.
From my father I learned to respect the military and to realize the importance but also the destructiveness of war. From my mother I learned the importance of questioning the government and challenging easy assumptions about American power.
9) Looking back, what, if anything would you do differently?
The only thing I can say I would probably do differently would be to have spent a few years after college working instead of going right to graduate school. I could tell even back then that my older friends and colleagues were readier to handle the rigors of the process, did better communicating with faculty, and were more focused in their studies. I really enjoyed my time at MIT and in many ways was glad to have my PhD in hand relatively early, but I think I would have been even happier had I worked in D.C. for a few years first to get my bearings.
10) What is the key piece of advice that you would pass along to current SSP graduate students, or those just beginning their careers?
Life is long. It is not a race; there is no prize for “getting there” faster. Enjoy the ride. Your career will likely have many phases, so don’t be afraid to spend some time learning new things, even if it’s not obvious how they will benefit you later on. My guess is everything you learn will help create new opportunities for you down the road.