Cooper Brown trained as a U.S. Marine and devoted more than five years of his life to the Corps. Now he's training to be a peacebuilder, part of a diverse and growing movement of people pursuing graduate studies in peace and conflict issues.
"I saw a lack in overall creativity as far as the way people in the military, in particular, were looking at conflict, thinking about conflict," says Brown, a master's candidate at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana who served in the Middle East as an embassy guard. "It was very confrontational, very zero-sum."
With the spread of terrorism over the last two decades, and persistent wars, the academic field of peace and conflict resolution studies has expanded greatly; there are now almost 100 institutions in the United States that offer a graduate certificate or degree in peace and justice, conflict analysis, or dispute resolution, and a comparable number abroad. "We're not seeing a plateau," says Brian Polkinghorn, head of the Center for Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University in Maryland and author of a forthcoming book on the discipline.
The programs differ widely in scope and focus. Some emphasize theory or research, while others are geared more to the how-to's of practice. At Salisbury and George Mason University in Virginia, among others, degrees or certificates are offered through stand-alone institutes or departments; at Ohio State University, through the law school; and at other institutions, through departments of international studies, business, or education.
Nova Southeastern University in Florida is among schools that offer midcareer students a distance-learning option. George Mason, whose Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution serves about 300 grad students, was the first institution to offer a master's in the field, in 1982, and a Ph.D., in 1988.
[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Social Sciences & Humanities Schools.]
As peace and conflict studies has matured as an academic discipline, the nature of the coursework has constantly evolved, from traditional processes like negotiation, mediation, and arbitration to newer concepts such as "conflict transformation," which addresses the long-term root causes of disputes, and "restorative justice," which seeks to involve all parties, if possible, in repairing the harm.
Some courses, such as at the University of San Diego, a Catholic school, specifically address the role of religion in conflict and reconciliation. Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, founded by one of the historic "peace churches," offers a dual-degree option of adding a master's of divinity.
Job opportunities are wide-ranging as well. Many graduates are attracted to government diplomacy, international human rights, or humanitarian or development groups, while others become community-based mediators or conflict specialists in corporations or school systems.
"I'd be quite happy to work for a U.N. agency," perhaps dealing with crisis prevention and response, says Tom Richardson, 24, of Loughborough in central England, who worked on land rights and community peacebuilding in Cambodia and Sri Lanka before going to George Mason.
Practical skills are considered vital. A study for the U.S. Institute of Peace, released last August, reported that while career opportunities abound, graduate programs don't necessarily meet employers' needs, particularly regarding overseas experience, technical skills, and program management abilities.
[See why more graduate students are studying abroad.]
Recognizing this, some programs have built in an "experiential component," which might mean working in a mediation clinic or, at Notre Dame, doing a five-month stint abroad. Brown, 31, hopes to serve his tour in Uganda, pursuing an interest in reintegrating former combatants into society.
Some academics draw an analogy to a teaching hospital, in which students learn, investigate, and practice—and then go to work on improving the human condition.
Searching for a grad school? Get our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.