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GSAS Alumni Spotlight: Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar, American Enterpise Institute

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What is your current profession/job? What did you study at Yale? When did you graduate?

Since 2004, I have worked as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, DC, where I focus on issues relating to the Middle East, diplomacy and terrorism. Also, as a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, I teach classes maybe five or six weeks each year on aircraft carriers as they cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on their way to the Middle East. Lastly, I do monthly analyses for a small U.S. Army office based at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and also teach classes to the FBI, both in Washington, DC, and at field offices across the country.

I finished my Ph.D. in History in 1999, focusing on Iranian and diplomatic history. I also went to Yale as an undergraduate, and received a B.S. in biology and history in 1994.

What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/ or rewarding?

It’s the best of all worlds. I can teach, lecture, and continue the same sort of research and field work in which I was engaged when I was at Yale, but I have been able to branch out into other fields probably a bit more than I would have been able to had I become a traditional academic. Being geographically stable is also great for my family, especially my two young kids. My brief stint in government—working in both the Pentagon and then in Baghdad—gave me insight into the nitty-gritty of policymaking and its execution that benefits my broader work. I also enjoy the ability to combine traditional academic book writing and articles with producing shorter analyses and op-eds and doing the media work to bring my field to a larger audience.

The most rewarding aspects of my work are seeing former students make good and also hearing from people pretty far afield who have read my work or built upon in. I also like working at a place like the American Enterprise Institute which isn’t suffocated by a large bureaucracy and where conversations among people from different fields of study are a daily occurrence. I love the travel opportunities. I’m usually able to travel to the Middle East, Europe, Asia, or Australia at least four or five times a year for research, meetings, or lectures. When I was a graduate student, I never thought I’d be able to visit places from Sarajevo to Singapore and from the Azores to Aden doing what I love.

The most challenging aspect? There’s never enough time in the day to get all the writing done I’d like to and, when news breaks in an area where I can contribute in the public debate, I can be on-call 24-hours a day. There’s also the problem of sleep when I’m on an aircraft carrier and the F-18s are at full throttle and being catapulted off the deck just a deck up from my rack.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory? 

Honestly, while I fell in love with the research, I also resented the compartmentalization I saw developing across fields and the narrowness of research within some of them. That said, in a market increasingly saturated with Ph.D’s and in a city like Washington where so many people seek out a British Ph.D. just to save time, I have consistently found that employers and colleagues recognize the Yale Ph.D. as a step above.

What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?

The year I spent reading for my Ph.D. comps is something I’d never give back. Really knowing the historiography has benefited me tremendously. The ability to travel across the Middle East as a student and experience it from the bottom up continues to pay dividends as does the breadth of coursework I was able to take at Yale. I might specialize on Iran, but coursework outside my immediate fields continues to give me a base which has served me well.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?

I looked at every summer as an opportunity to travel to a new place to either study or work. I had done a couple of State Department internships at the U.S. embassies in Bahrain and Tajikistan, for example, and studied language in Iran, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. All of that helped me gain experience and build a network outside of Yale. Yale was always a bit insular and there was at the time a stigma to considering non-academic careers and so I did most of my networking outside of Yale. It’s great if that stigma isn’t an issue any more at Yale.

What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?

First, learn to write clearly for a general audience. If you are truly passionate about your subject, there’s no reason why you can’t convey that to an audience of 500,000 for a large circulation newspaper, even while you simultaneously explore the details in a journal article that might have an audience of 50. It’s a different style of writing, but it’s valid and important to master no matter what your ultimate goal is.

Second, don’t be afraid to have an opinion and state it clearly. If you feel that you can’t say what you believe because academic politics can be constraining, engage in the debate from elsewhere.

Third, language ability, field experience, and internships are important; don’t neglect them.

And, lastly, get your dissertation done as quickly as possible. Figure out a topic that you have the resources to complete, and complete it. There’s a point of diminishing returns if you over edit.

GSAS Alumni Spotlight

This GSAS Alumni Spotlight is part of an ongoing series featuring alumni who have chosen non-faculty careers.