On My PhD 1

From 4th March 2011 to 22nd November 2019, I was a part-time PhD candidate at Australia’s Monash University in political science. My doctoral thesis ‘The Development of Strategic Culture in Terrorist Organisations’ (currently under examination) drew on strategic studies and terrorism studies to advance a new understanding of how terrorist organisations can grow, evolve, and fail. My qualitative case study was Japan’s new religious movement Aum Shinrikyo. Here are some of the lessons I learned from some of the PhD Supervisors and academic scholars who I encountered along my doctoral journey:

Professor Arthur D. Shulman

I worked with Professor Shulman in 2008-13 at Australia’s Victoria University in a three-person Faculty-based Research Facilitation Unit. At the time, I was working on building a publication track record as a solo and collaborative researcher whilst also working full-time in research administration. Professor Shulman convinced me that I needed to do a PhD and he wrote a recommendation letter to Monash University. He also taught me about research programs, publications, ethics, and the Lazear-Rosen theory of “Rank-Order Tournaments as Optimum Labor Contracts” (Journal of Political Economy, vol. 89, no. 2 (1981): 861-864).

Dr Andrew (Andy) Butfoy

I had previously done a Masters mini-thesis with Dr Butfoy on the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn and North Korea’s covert nuclear weapons development program. Dr Butfoy was familiar with the strategic culture literature, particularly Professor Alastair Iain Johnston’s seminal contributions at the University of Michigan (in its doctoral program) and at Harvard University. Dr Butfoy oversaw my first chapter on the history of strategic culture in a United States think tank context (the RAND Corporation and the Hudson Institute), and an unused draft chapter on the history of terrorism studies. His novel Rogue Republic (London: Austin Macauley Publishers, 2018) captures Dr Butfoy’s wit and wisdom about strategic studies and Washington DC’s Beltway politics. After several years, Dr Butfoy left university teaching to pursue personal interests.

Associate Professor Benjamin MacQueen

Associate Professor Benjamin MacQueen contributed a strong grounding in Middle East area studies and research methodology to the preparations for my PhD’s confirmation of candidature milestone. My original PhD proposal had an overcomplicated approach that used six different research methodologies: in discussion with Associate Professor MacQueen, I eventually refined this down to a single qualitative case study that used process tracing. He provided critical feedback on my early chapters to strengthen their scholarship and their original contribution to knowledge. Associate Professor MacQueen left my PhD candidature to take up a senior administrative post, and contributed valuable feedback to my Pre-Submission Seminar/Final Review milestone.

Dr Luke Howie

Dr Howie began as an associate PhD Supervisor due to his interests in terrorism studies and critical sociology. He became my main PhD Supervisor throughout most of my PhD candidature. He challenged me to integrate my earlier period of New Journalism and Disinformation subculture search engine work into my thesis: I told him I wasn’t in that headspace now and wanted to write a more conventional United States-style thesis, with testable hypotheses, methodology, and case study analysis. One of our most important conversations concerned the timing of when to apply for academic roles in universities (being ‘on the job market’ after PhD submission), and how academic book publishing really worked. Dr Howie also taught me to integrate more data analysis into my thesis and its process tracing methodology.

Dr Zareh Ghazarian

Dr Ghazarian was an associate PhD Supervisor throughout much of my PhD candidature with expertise on political parties and the unique dynamics of micro political parties. This proved invaluable when considering Aum Shinrikyo’s failed political campaign for the Japanese Diet. Dr Ghazarian provided editorial feedback on my chapters, guidance on how to navigate candidature milestones, advice on journal article writing and publishing, and he is regularly cited by my Swinburne Online students in undergraduate Australian Politics. Dr Ghazarian’s regular appearances on the business and finance network Bloomberg highlight how to have an effective media presence when talking about your discipline or field of expertise.

Associate Professor Pete Lentini

I took Masters classes in 2005-06 with Associate Professor Pete Lentini. During my Mid-Candidature Review milestone feedback he advised me to look at Professor Ian Reader’s scholarship on Aum Shinrikyo: this was probably the most initiatory-aware analysis of founder Shoko Asahara, and the Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana-influenced “initiatory, religious sub-system” in the new religious movement. Associate Professor Lentini joined my PhD Supervisor team in 2019 to provide two rounds of solid edits on my thesis manuscript, guidance on two new chapters, advice on new religious movement and terrorism studies literature, and to oversee the administrative requirements for my final submission on 22nd November 2019. He also brought deep expertise about Russian and post-Soviet politics which was useful to several written but unused chapters that I may develop into future journal articles.

Professor Ranjeny Thomas and Helen Roberts

In 2017-18, I worked in Professor Ranjeny Thomas’s immunology lab team at the University of Queensland, and in the highly secure Translational Research Institute facility. I would occasionally see Professor Ian Frazer who developed the Gardasil vaccine. I shared an office with Helen Roberts who along with Professor Thomas spearheaded the research commercialisation company Dendright. This was in the context of a medical research environment that was different to my social sciences background. Amongst the lessons I learned from Professor Thomas was the importance of mentoring new researchers, and the definable legacy that this leaves over your academic teaching and research career. Professor Thomas’s immunology lab was collegial and high performance oriented. Whilst I had previously been trained in intellectual property, working with Helen Roberts provided many practical insights about how an IP strategy is implemented. She also taught me to use PubMed to search for the latest medical research.

Andrew Calder

In 2017, I worked in a contract consulting role for Australia’s private university Bond University. Andrew Calder is the Director of the Office of Research Services, which was a professional, team-oriented, and supportive environment. One of the insights I gained from colleagues in ORS was about the common psychological ups and downs of the PhD journey, and why resilience is really important to long-term success. At Bond, I learned how to use a Bloomberg finance terminal, read the latest literature on behavioural economics, and discovered MIT Associate Professor Vipin Narang’s scholarship in strategic culture in the context of contemporary nuclear strategy. This influenced my subsequent PhD write-up.

Dr Michael Cohen

In 2018 whilst at The Australian National University, I had the opportunity to provide research administration services to Dr Michael Cohen. Dr Cohen is an expert on nuclear strategy and we were able to discuss his use of cognitive biases and decision heuristics to study how leadership dealt with nuclear weapons. I learned more about academic publishing and how to structure a research program, how to develop projects to interest academic publishers, and how to use process tracing in the context of archival-based, historical research. This discovery was a confirmation experience that I could definitely use process tracing in my doctoral thesis, and could also expand the potential number of case studies for my post PhD research agenda.

Dr Andrew (Andy) Kennedy

In 2018 whilst at The Australian National University, I had the opportunity to provide research services to Dr Andrew Kennedy. Dr Kennedy was a doctoral student of Harvard University’s Professor Alastair Iain Johnston, and is an expert in the science and technology strategies of China and India. Johnston left strategic culture scholarship after what is called the ‘Gray-Johnston’ debate about competing methodological and paradigmatic approaches. In contrast, Dr Kennedy’s research agenda offered an illustration of what post-2002, ‘fourth generation’ scholarship on strategic culture in an emerging multipolar world might resemble. It also highlighted the importance of field research and languages, when gathering primary data and whilst studying other countries.

Associate Professor Wesley Widmaier

In 2018 whilst at The Australian National University, I had the opportunity to provide research services to Associate Professor Wesley (Wes) Widmaier. I had first encountered his political economy research whilst Associate Professor Widmaier was previously at Griffith University. At the time of my research services work I was writing up a new chapter for my PhD’s Pre-Submission Seminar/Final Review milestone, and was beginning to consider the new religious movement Aum Shinrikyo as both a terrorist organisation and a political economy phenomenon. Associate Professor Widmaier guided me to some of the relevant literature by John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minsky; his own research on cycles of stability, crisis, and change; and the International Political Economy section of the International Studies Association. In his research seminars Associate Professor Widmaier also stressed how theory-building and methodology could support each-other. Associate Professor Widmaier’s editorship of the Review of International Political Economy journal highlighted the importance of editorial peer review, and of a research publications strategy.

Dr Sara Bice

In 2018 whilst at The Australian National University, I had the opportunity to provide research services to Dr Sara Bice. Together with my colleague Simon Stack, I worked with Dr Bice to help scope her Next Generation Engagement Program of research into Australian infrastructure investment. Whilst I had previously worked with Alexander Osterwalder’s business model canvas tools, the opportunity to work with Dr Bice meant considering the impact and engagement of her research agenda for government policymakers and industry.

New Years Resolutions

Here are my New Years resolutions for my academic research:

  1. PhD Completion. 22nd July 2019 is my deadline for PhD submission. I have 27,500 words to write, editing, and references to sort out. I’m adding a new chapter on theory-building insights about strategic subcultures and Aum Shinrikyo. I’m also combing through over 250,000 words of working notes for relevant material.
  2. Use the Bullet Journal system. I’ll be experimenting with Ryder Carroll’s self and time management system (book) for PhD and other projects.
  3. Work on my next solo authored academic publication. I last published in 2014 – I’ve been focused on PhD research since then. I have several academic publications planned. I will be revisiting Wendy Laura Belcher’s system (book) for deveoping academic journal articles.
  4. Review for academic journals. I am getting regular invitations to review for leading academic journals including Contemporary Security Policy. I hope to continue this review work in 2019.

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.

Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk literature emerged as last week’s weak signal. Sonya Mann posted The Cyberpunk Sensibility at Venkatesh Rao’s Ribbonfarm blog. William Gibson turned up in the new Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation. Hachette Book Group reissued Amazon Kindle versions of Gibson’s influential novels NeuromancerCount Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

 

Whilst browsing this media I realised that Cyberpunk themes influence some of my post-PhD thesis research. Gibson’s transnational corporations reflect today’s networks, tax havens, and rising powers. Gibson’s databases and computer networks anticipate today’s hedge fund and wealth management platforms. Gibson’s characters foreshadow the sadder ethos of David Foster Wallace’s novels Infinite Jest and The Pale King.

 

This insight exemplifies how literature can inform research programs.

Lessons from MacArthur Genius Yitang Zhang

Some lessons from The New Yorker‘s profile of MacArthur Fellow and mathematician Yitang Zhang:

 

1. Immerse yourself in the research literature of your discipline. Zhang spent years reading mathematics journals about alegebraic geometry number theory at the University of Kentucky, and keeping a low profile: he had published only one paper, in 2001.

2. Choose a focal point or meta-question for your research program that will have a significant impact. Zhang focused on ‘bound gaps’ about prime numbers.

3. Organise your life’s tasks in order to pursue your individual research program. Zhang worked at a Subway and in New Hampshire in order to have more time to write and pursue his research program on his own terms.

4. Streamline your publication track record to focus on publications in high-ranked journals. Zhang submitted “Bounded Gaps Between Primes” in late 2012 to Annals of Mathematics after years of work.

5. Understand how the referee process works for journal articles. Zhang benefited from reviewers Henryk Iwaniec (Rutgers) and John Friedlander (University of Toronto) who were critical yet sympathetic to Zhang’s study, and Annals of Mathematics editor Nicholas Katz.

30th January 2013: PhD Confirmation of Candidature Document

Confirmation of candidature is a PhD project’s one year milestone. You can download the second, revised version of my PhD Confirmation of Candidature document here. It outlines my project scope, some of the relevant literature, key research questions, and methodological framework.

 

My thanks to Michael Janover, Pete Lentini, Ben MacQueen, Andy Butfoy, and Luke Howie at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry for their critical feedback.