Why A Research Program Is Important For Post-Docs

Stephen McGrail writes in his candid reflection on completing his PhD:


The scary truth is I’m not too sure where I find myself. Having taken time off post-PhD and more recently (this year) started to seriously look for work, I’ve struggled to focus my job search and identify jobs that I’m an ideal applicant for (i.e. able to meet all the key selection criteria). I’ve only seen one or two academic jobs I could apply for, which may suggest postdocs are my best option in academia. Moreover, I occasionally find myself feeling somewhat envious of others who have missionary zeal for a specific cause/idea or a very specific research agenda. They have focus. For example I recently read Fabio Rojas’s book Theory for the Working Sociologist (which is a good read) in which he summarises his research area as “the interaction of protest and organizations” (p.160). Six words!


In Good To Great (New York: Century, 2001) the management scholar Jim Collins writes of the Hedgehog Idea: a central focus that enables a manager or organisation to allocate resources effectively. Karen Kelsky (The Professor Is In) and Robert J. Trew (Get Funded) also emphasise the importance of a self-directed research program.


However, developing a self-directed research program is not always taught in a PhD program. Rather, it is often learned in the Post-Doc: a two-year or more period in which the new Early Career Researcher gains further specialised research training under the direction of an experienced mentor or team. This is often done in a university-based research Centre or Institute, and is increasingly aligned with their strategic research priorities.


My own Hedgehog Idea is the role of Metis (cunning intelligence, craft, skill, wisdom) in contemporary life. This can be obscure to understand. So, I talk about a research agenda of bridging the sub-fields of strategic culture and terrorism studies via causal inference methods such as counterfactuals and process tracing. A relevant research question for this might be: “Why do some terrorist organisations use shared, long-term ideas on the use of violence to achieve strategic objectives?” A more general form applicable to non-terrorist examples might be: “How do social change agents develop and use mobilisational counter-power to achieve their goals?”


It took me more than a year of reflection to condense this research agenda down into such research questions. I see other, related areas such as economic statecraft and nuclear deterrence where it might be applied. These are out-of-scope for my PhD dissertation and they may inform future research. It also took me awhile to identify relevant experts, specific journals, and relevant book publishers. I’m still an emerging scholar so I’m slowly building my networks and reputation.


This identity formation is important for Post-Doc roles. A Post-Doc is a period of intense and hopefully mouth-to-ear training. It does not necessarily lead to a sustained research career. Its two year time-frame is often really a year to 18 months once ‘revise and resubmit’ scheduling is factored in for publications. Centre and Institute Directors expect their Post-Docs to publish and to also apply for competitive grants. Furthermore, broader social engagement and impact is also now expected via The Conversation, media outlets, community consultation, and targeted social media (the source of ‘alt-metrics’).


This can be a disillusioning shock to new Early Career Researchers. They may expect an Ivory Tower and instead encounter the contemporary neoliberal university. Having a self-directed research program is necessary to navigate this competitive environment. It tells you what to focus on, who to collaborate with, where to publish, who your national and international funders might be, and just as importantly, what to say no to. Research managers can create data analytics for it. Consider your research program to be the equivalent of an entrepreneurial or investor slide-deck: you can even use the popular business model canvas to brainstorm it.


Even Fabio Rojas has a Google Scholar profile. His research program? Sociology.

A Draft Abstract For My PhD Dissertation

During the late Cold War period, strategic culture emerged as a comparative analytical framework in strategic studies and nuclear deterrence policymaking. Strategic culture examines the collective, long-term shared understandings on why adversaries may use violence to achieve strategic objectives. An under-theorised aspect is the possible existence of strategic subcultures: organisational or institutional coalitions that prioritise and shape the pathway into violence, and the specific operational contexts in which violence may be used.


Terrorist organisations are a national security threat for Australia. This thesis advances a new causal theory of strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations. It draws on current debates in two sub-fields: the fourth generation of strategic culture theory-building, and the terrorism studies analysis of terrorist organisations. Responding to these current debates this thesis focuses on how terrorist leaders formulate strategic objectives, allocate resources, and recruit and mobilise followers for campaigns.


A modified form of process tracing is used to examine two qualitative case studies: Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Three causal mechanisms are examined: the cultural transmission of religiously motivated belief systems for violence; the social learning that occurs between terrorist organisation leaders and followers; and folklore myths and narratives that shape internal worldviews. Combining these three causal mechanisms provides a rationale for strategic subcultures: it develops organisational counter-power to enhance the long-term survivability of terrorist leaders and their ideologies.


Both terrorist organisations were unsuccessful in achieving their long-term strategic objectives. Aum Shinrikyo used Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist cosmology to influence its renunciates whilst also hiding a covert, compartmentalised research program into biological and chemical weapons. ISIL used insurgent warfare to capture – and then lose – territory, people, and resources in Iraq and Syria. Both were motivated by apocalyptic worldviews that failed translationally in practice. Understanding these failure sources may help develop effective counter-terrorism policies and strategies.

Boko Haram and Islamic State

This article explains how al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-trained Nigerian militants split from Boko Haram and formed a new group called Ansaru in 2011 after consulting with AQIM. Ansaru leaders however reintegrated with Boko Haram and transferred their specialized skills in kidnappings, suicide bombings and media to Boko Haram and contributed to the group’s conquest of territory in 2013. Al-Qaeda did not benefit from these conquests because Ansaru leaders switched loyalties and helped arrange Boko Haram’s pledge to Islamic State in 2015. This article exploits primary source documents from AQIM, Islamic State and Boko Haram and contributes to the literature on splits and mergers and knowledge transfer between terrorist groups and al-Qaeda-Islamic State competition.

The Jamestown Foundation’s Jacob Zenn has a new article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism journal on how the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant provided ideological and media assistance to Boko Haram. Zenn’s contributions on the two groups are a step towards a broader and deeper analysis of strategic subcultures that may arise in terrorist organisations due to collaboration, knowledge transfer, and strategic rivalry.

Russian Strategy and Strategic Culture

The recent Russian approach to strategy has linked nuclear, conventional and informational (cyber) tools of influence into one integrated mechanism. The article traces the intellectual history of this Russian cross-domain concept, discusses its essence and highlights its destabilising effects. By analysing a case outside of Western strategic thought, it demonstrates how strategic concepts evolve differently in various cultural realms and argues for a tailored approach for exploring coercion policies of different actors. The findings of the study are applicable beyond the Russian case, and relevant to scholars and actors exploring, utilising or responding to cross-domain coercion strategy.

Dmitry Adamski expands fourth generation thinking in strategic culture to consider Russia’s ‘cross-domain coercion’ (conventional, nuclear, and informational) in a new Journal of Strategic Studies article (abstract above).


Adamski’s important article has several implications. It links strategic culture to the policy challenge of nuclear deterrence in a multipolar world. It considers Russia’s contemporary strategic doctrines: it offers a comparative view to the sub-field literature’s usual emphasis on the United States and Europe. It considers strategic culture’s role in multidimensional coercion and strategic bargaining. It reflects Adamski’s intelligence and national security experience.

On Early Career Researcher Grief

Erin Bartram’s ‘quit lit’ essay on leaving academia is emotionally powerful and resonates with many people. Here’s how Bartram – a United States-based historian who has had Visiting Assistant Professor roles – describes her decision:


I closed my laptop and walked out of my office. In that moment, I couldn’t bear to be surrounded by the trappings of a life that had just crumbled around me. The perfect reading lamp, the drawer of fountain pen ink, the dozens of pieces of scratch paper taped the walls, full of ideas to pursue. The hundreds of books surrounding me, collected over nearly a dozen years, seemed like nothing more than kindling in that moment.

I cried, but pretty quickly I picked myself up and started thinking about the future. The circumstances of the job I didn’t get were particularly distressing, so I discussed it with non-academic friends, explaining over and over again that yes, this is the way my field works, and no, it wasn’t surprising or shocking to me, and no, I won’t be able to “come back” later, at least in the way that I’d want to, and yes, this was probably what was always going to happen. And then I started looking forward.


Over the past 8 years I’ve interacted with about 80 Early Career Researchers (first five years after PhD conferral) at four Australian universities. I’ve seen some ECRs transform their research program and go on to be promoted to Associate Professor. I’ve seen some ECRs begin with optimism and then get weighted down by teaching and administrative demands. I’ve seen others like Bartram leave — and often go on to have successful ‘post-ac’ careers and fulfilling lives.


The academic job market is a ruthless microcosm of the neoliberal economy. Post-2008, career advisers like Karen Kelsky and Inger Mewburn have emerged to share how Faculty Deans and tenure track committees think when making hiring decisions. Career post-mortems – once the domain of risk managers – now encompass the entire grad school experience. Centralised Research Offices now regularly use analytics like Scopus and Google Scholar citations, Thomson Reuters journal rankings, and engagement and impact information to evaluate scholars’ productivity. It’s not quite GE’s infamous ‘rank and yank’ system of performance appraisal – but as Bartram observes, it’s close: each year many ECRs leave the higher education sector.


Unless you have an informed PhD Supervisor – or you have an ‘alt-ac’ career in university administration – this all may be invisible to you.


The ECR experience can be a period of heightened positive illusions. Bartram in her heartfelt post mentions many of these: the camaraderie of fellow ECRs; the excitement of conferences; and the joy of getting your first couple of publications. However, Bartram also notes some of the barriers: pay-walled journals, intense teaching loads, and an organisational climate in which doctoral expertise is reshaped to instrumentalist ends. The gap between the intellectual ideals of contemporary scholarship and the organisational realities are often very confronting. Consequently, ECRs may go through a period of disillusionment whilst they learn how universities actually work.


Career advisers like Kelsky and Mewburn are clear on how ECRs now need to self-manage their post-PhD trajectory. You need to have a fundable research problem with a 3-to-5 year outlook. You need to publish during and after your PhD to stand out competitively. You need to self-manage your public face via a professional website, LinkedIn, Google Scholar, and possibly Twitter for strategic, targeted outreach. The publications you write will create a track record that will underpin grant applications. You need to present at conferences and to organise a panel. You need to understand how journals’ editorial process works – which means cultivating a relationship as a reviewer and then as a writer. Some knowledge of intellectual property – copyright, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets – also helps.


Much of the ECR period – particularly in Post-Doc roles – is about developing an identity as an independent scholar and learning these institutional norms. Many universities now run seminar programs to share this knowledge. Having an informed mentor also helps. The ECR needs to manage several different roles: new teacher, emerging scholar, counselor, and, paradoxically, entrepreneur of their own research program. In reality, this transformative process often needs to begin at the All But Dissertation stage of your PhD.


As Bartram notes, ECRs are socialised into an academic, scholarly community. There is a gap between this ideal and how senior executives may view successful researchers: as revenue generators for the university. It is possible to balance the two: to build a community and also to generate income through grants, contracts, tenders, and panels. How to reconcile these two mindsets — and how to support those scholars like Bartram who decide to pursue ‘post-ac’ options — will be a challenge for university research managers. Bartram’s powerful post suggests that we need more Elisabeth Kubler-Ross or the Tibetan Bardo Thodol — as a counterpoint to Al ‘Chainsaw’ Dunlap-inspired downsizing, austerity budgets, and cost reduction.

Coercion and Strategic Culture



RAND’s Jack Snyder originally conceptualised strategic culture as a cross-comparative framework for evaluating adversaries’ use of force. Strategic culture’s potential for informing strategic bargaining remains under-theorised. Kelly M. Greenhill and Peter M. Krause‘s new edited collection Coercion: The Power to Hurt in International Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) offers conceptual, theory-building, and policy insights on particularly non-state actors in a multipolar world who use a range of military and non-military instruments. Coercion has important insights for scholars who wish to further progress a fourth generation research agenda in strategic culture.

Demanufacturing Consent

In the early 1990s, I was an undergraduate student in La Trobe University’s cinema studies program. The Cold War had just ended and Australia faced “the recession we had to have” (then-Treasurer Hon. Paul Keating). I was introduced to Marxist thinkers such as Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, and to critical feminist theory. Having grown up in rural Bendigo, I didn’t know my base from my superstructure. It was all way over my head.


Ironically, I was actually exploring Gramscian influences via Consolidated’s Nettwerk-released albums such as Play More Music. I read Noam Chomsky and long-form journalism in The Atlantic MonthlyThe New Republic, and The Nation. I saw the Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media in RMIT University’s video library. I briefly became involved in animal rights activism. I discovered that I really liked to write.


In October 1994 I ran for Rabelais student newspaper editor on a broad ticket. The on-campus progressives felt this was a betrayal, and ran a scare campaign (the successful ticket’s editors became notorious a year later). This experience chastened me: when I covered Chomsky’s 1995 lecture tour for Australia’s REVelation Magazine, I was critical of the activists that followed him.


Over the next decade I encountered various people and social movements with activist, utopian potential. I explored the Robert Anton Wilson, the Gurdjieff Work, and the Temple of Set. I wrote for and edited the Disinformation website, linking to sites like CounterPunchMother Jones, and Z Magazine. I spoke at and arranged panels for This Is Not Art: the youth arts festival held in Newcastle, Australia. I was part of the second student cohort in Swinburne University’s Strategic Foresight program which used critical education pedagogy.


However, many of the people involved in these activities did not enjoy a Gramscian ‘march through the institutions’. The dotcom collapse of 2000, the global financial crisis of 2008-09, and the Eurozone crisis of 2011 were turning points that led to the widespread adoption of neoliberal austerity policies. In 2008, I left Disinformation and retreated to a decade of academic publishing, research management work, on-going PhD research, and explored hedge funds and investment management.


This week I’ve been reflecting on how to reconcile critical, left-wing politics and wealth management. Some possible models:


  1. The activist or philanthropic hedge fund manager: George Soros or the more conservative Bill Ackman’s Herbalife ‘short’ and his interaction with social justice movements (see the Netflix documentary Betting On Zero).
  2. Continue to read the critical theory work of people like David Harvey, David Graeber, the late Mark Fisher, McKenzie Wark, Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams, Richard Seymour, and Charles Stross.
  3. Take Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s influential work and update it for an era of addictive social media platforms, agitprop memes, and information warfare doctrines.


We’ll see what personal synthesis continues to develop.


I’ve started a model portfolio that I will watch as 2018 unfolds:


  • AUMF – IShares Edge MSCI Australia Multifactor ETF (factsheet).
  • BAF – Blue Sky Alternatives Access Fund (shareholder site).
  • BLA – Blue Sky Alternative Investments Limited (shareholder site).
  • IHVV – IShares S&P 500 AUD Hedged ETF (factsheet).
  • IHWL – IShares Core MSCI World All Cap (AUD Hedged) ETF (factsheet).


The initial impetus for this emerged from reading S.M. Amadae, David Graeber, David Harvey, Michael Hudson, David Michael Kotz, Philip Mirowski, and James Rickards about neoliberal capitalism. These authors converged on the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) as a socio-economic elite that would continue to charge debt and economic rents, as rentiers.


Current and former colleagues have looked to innovations like the sharing economy as a way to deal with growing economic inequality. I came to different conclusions: I spent six years learning how hedge funds and proprietary trading works. The topics ranged from macro plays (Kondratieff winter) and fund flows (Richard D. Wyckoff’s influence on technical analysis) to using global markets to hedge against home bias, and the success of momentum-value combined strategies.


I’ve dubbed the model portfolio RentierCap as it benefits from the FIRE sector. The model portfolio aims to accumulate wealth over a longer period of time than a catalyst-based intraday strategy. It uses Smart Beta and Exchange Traded Funds. I’ve selected BlackRock ETFs (in a nod to the Adam Curtis documentary HyperNormalisation), although State Street SPDRs and Vanguard ETFs could be used, and may have lower expense ratios and management fees.

Michael H. Cresswell on United States Public Diplomacy

8 years ago, Monash University’s Dr Ben Eltham and I examined United States public diplomacy during Iran’s 2009 election crisis. 6 years ago, I wrote a critique of the Bush Administration’s Global War on Terror (GWOT) grand strategy.


Now, Florida State University’s Michael H. Creswell has a new paper in Studies In Conflict & Terrorism journal on the Bush, Obama and early Trump Administration experiences with public diplomacy and why GWOT still continues today.


Creswell observes that it is import to examine public diplomacy for effective policy (p. 9):


Examining this subject is thus important primarily for policy reasons. Over the years, the U.S. government has dedicated considerable time and money to SC-PD and related programs. Gauging the efficacy of these efforts is necessary to determine if the time and money devoted to them have been well spent. If these efforts are failing to fulfill their intended purposes, then the government is wasting taxpayer money, squandering political capital, and incurring opportunity costs as well.


After examining the Bush, Obama, and early Trump Administration experiences Creswell concludes (p. 41):


In short, the U.S. government ought to rethink the usefulness of SC-PD in advancing the national interest, which in turn ought to govern the time, effort, and resources devoted to it. The benefits of implementing SC-PD well are relatively modest, while the downsides are fairly steep when it is done poorly. Instead, the government should direct more of its efforts toward designing more effective policies and strategies, as opposed to just trying to make existing ones sound better. This approach will serve the country more advantageously than endlessly tightening the bolts on a machine largely unsuited to the task it was created to perform.

I look forward to the final publication version of Creswell’s interesting journal article.