The Peril of Credential Creep in Foreign Policy

More and more foreign policy professionals are required to hold master's or PhD degrees to compete in their field.

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Cap, tassel and diploma

In the late 10th century A.D., China's Song dynasty expanded its civil service exams to select the best and the brightest to be the future bureaucrats of the expanding Chinese Empire. These examinations were rigorous and arcane, less concerned with management and more with Confucian metaphysics. Success catapulted a student into the ranks of the successful elite – but failure provoked an existential crisis, or even suicide. Contemporary observers were appalled by the fierce competition. "A healthy society cannot come about when people study not for the purpose of gaining wisdom and knowledge but for the purpose of becoming government officials," a Song-era Chinese philosopher wrote.

Of course, modern-day Washington D.C. is not Song dynasty China, but the comparison is certainly apt in terms of the fierce competition among the newly credentialed to join the bureaucratic elite. Many jobseekers – and their professors – were understandably appalled when Sen. John McCain's office announced it had hired Elizabeth O'Bagy, the disgraced former Syria analyst from the Institute for the Study of War, a prominent neoconservative think tank. The Institute fired O'Bagy after her employers discovered that she had falsely claimed she had a Ph.D. from Georgetown University.

To be sure, O'Bagy's ethical lapse in lying about her Ph.D. is obvious grounds for dismissal, so McCain's choice to hire someone with so little credibility is puzzling. However, the more important question is this: What could drive an otherwise solid researcher to lie about having a doctorate?

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The answer, as Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner points out, is that "in a community where the interns have master's degrees and the competition for remunerative jobs is fierce, the Ph.D. actually does count for something as a credential."

I know many newly minted master's degree holders in Washington D.C. who are barely able to find positions as unpaid interns; Drezner's analysis is sadly accurate. The foreign policy community in Washington D.C. comprises a wide swath of institutions: NGOs, think-tanks, government agencies, and private contractors, but it is still quite small. In such a tiny, insular community, the barriers to entry are high, and the competition is fierce.

A recent Washington Post study found that Georgetown, George Washington and Johns Hopkins Universities all awarded far more M.A.s than B.A.s – and demand continues to increase. If having a master's degree at the minimum is de rigueur in Washington's foreign policy world, it is no wonder many are starting to feel that the Ph.D. is a necessary escalation, another case of costly signaling to potential employers. As one recent Georgetown grad put it, "if you want to position yourself, you need to have at minimum a master's." In addition to expensive outlays in the form of degrees, those who aspire to influence our nation's foreign policy must undertake unpaid internships in one of the most expensive cities in the nation.

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The next generation of foreign policy leaders is therefore socialized in a hyper-competitive bubble, while voices from lower-income and minority groups are seldom heard since they can't afford to compete. In essence, those who aspire to affect one of the most important aspects of our nation – our relationship to the rest of the world – are part of a self-selecting community of those whose families are wealthy enough for them to develop credentials and connections. And even then, as the meteoric rise, fall and redemption of Elizabeth O'Bagy demonstrates, many no longer see those as enough. Another three letters behind one's name becomes seen as a career necessity. By all accounts, O'Bagy was a prolific policy analyst, even with a 'mere' Master's degree. To work in Congress, she has no need for a Ph.D., real or imaginary.

"Credential creep," the academic arms race to differentiate oneself from the competition, is certainly not limited to the foreign policy field, but the small size and perceived prestige of the field exacerbates the problem. O'Bagy's new position with McCain is certainly controversial, but it does prove that, unlike the Song dynasty, there are still jobs in our government that are available to those who can't afford to pursue expensive credentials.

Faris Alikhan is a national security fellow at Third Way.

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