Life After DPIR: Roham Alvandi

Roham AlvandiRoham Alvandi (2007, DPhil in International Relations) is Associate Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has written extensively on both Iran’s modern history and the history of U.S. foreign relations. His current research focuses on human rights activism in Europe and the United States and the origins of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Here he tells us about his career journey so far as well as offering advice to current students.

Impressively, you moved directly from your DPhil at Oxford in International Relations into an academic career. Can you tell us how you made this successful first step?

My path was far from the norm amongst my peers. I was still finishing my DPhil when I applied for my current position at LSE. Timing is everything in life and I was very lucky that this job came along at the right time and matched my interests in international history so closely. It was the one and only academic job I applied for. I applied in order to get some experience with the process of recruitment, without any expectation that they would hire me. The process was fairly straightforward, but what helped was practicing my job talk with friends at Oxford and just trying to be my authentic self in the interviews. Having sat on the other side of the interview table, I can tell you that it is obvious when a candidate is a good fit for a role and a department, as opposed to when someone is pretending to be something they are not in order to meet the job specifications.

You’ve written extensively on both Iran’s modern history and the history of US foreign relations and now you are working on human rights activism in Europe and the United States too. What has led you to this broad range of regions, themes and periods of history to study in particular?

I am Iranian myself and my first interest was the history of Iran's international relations. I had the Persian language skills that allowed me to explore a topic like that, while at the same time engaging with newly declassified US documents. My interests generally revolve around Iran, but over the years I've been fascinated by the work of other scholars in both international history and international relations. My second great interest is the history of the Cold War, which developed thanks to my teachers at Oxford. I could see how scholars like Louise Fawcett and Avi Shlaim combined their interest in the Middle East with broader questions about the nature of international relations during the Cold War. I think, as your confidence and knowledge grows as a scholar, you naturally begin to branch out from your own wheelhouse where you feel safe and comfortable. Most recently, I've become interested in human rights history, both from an English School perspective that examines human rights as a new 'standard of civilisation', and from the perspective of historians who have examined the 'human rights revolution' of the 1970s. My current research project began by asking if it was a coincidence that the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution came on the heels of the explosion of human rights activism in Europe and the United States in the 1970s.

Sounds fascinating! Could you tell us a bit more about your current research?

One of the most interesting things I've come across in my current research is the question of how authoritarian regimes respond to human rights criticism. The idea of universal human rights had such salience in the 1970s as a 'standard of civilisation' that many states felt compelled to aspire to it, in order to enjoy the full benefits of membership in international society. There is so much research on Latin America and the former communist bloc that shows the transforming impact of human rights activism on authoritarian regimes. One of the fascinating questions for me is what are the dangers for regimes in trying to liberalise in response to such human rights pressure? It seems the lesson that many of today's autocrats have drawn from the human rights revolution of the 1970s is that it is best not to give an inch. Liberalisation quickly turns to revolution.

Teaching is a big part of your work and in 2018 you won LSE’s Excellence in Education award. How do you approach teaching – and what makes a great teacher in your eyes?

Most learning takes place outside the classroom. Students learn by actively engaging with the material, by asking questions, investigating, and writing. Rather than lecturing at them, I see my classes as similar to an Oxford tutorial - an opportunity for students to come together and discuss and debate what they have learned on their own outside of class. My job is really to guide, to provoke, to challenge. A good class is one where I don't do much talking and the students engage with one another, rather than just engaging with me. A good teacher is someone who pushes students beyond their comfort zone, who shares their enthusiasm for the subject, and who can challenge students to take their own ideas seriously. Teaching should not be an entirely comfortable intellectual experience for students or teachers.

Looking back to your days as a research student, even then your DPhil research sat at the intersection of history and international relations. How was your experience in blending different disciplines within international relations at Oxford?

When I did my DPhil, the study of International Relations at Oxford was still a broad church, very much in the English School tradition. Most of my tutors were comfortable with both history and theory and that was the way that the MPhil was taught, one complementing the other. Nobody ever said to me, you can't study that, or you must not use that methodology. In hindsight that may sound naive, given the quantitative direction that the IR discipline has taken, but this pluralism was what made the Oxford DPhil attractive compared to peer institutions in the United States. I was allowed to study what I was interested in and I had teachers who encouraged me and helped me get through the anxiety and uncertainty that is the norm for any research student.

If you could go back and change something about your educational decisions in graduate school, what would it be and why?

There is honestly not much that I would change. I had an incredibly privileged intellectual and social life at Oxford. The only thing I regret is that I was a little shy about reaching out to some of the big intellectual figures at Oxford. For example, Leszek Kolakowski, the great Polish intellectual and dissident was at All Souls when I first arrived at Oxford. I wish I had met him and spoken with him. I think it took me a long time to work up the confidence to be able to just write an email to one of the great and good and ask to see them. When I did, I discovered that most of them were very welcoming and happy to speak to a young curious student.

Is there a particularly memorable moment from your time at DPIR that you can share?

There are so many. I remember my MPhil in IR cohort, many of whom are still my close friends. They have all gone on to do incredible things. One of them sits in the House of Commons, another two work in the White House, one is a philosopher of ethics in Silicon Valley, and a few of us ended up as academics in various places around the world. My fondest memories of DPIR are of them. I remember debating IR theory in our MPhil seminars. I became the butt of jokes because I could quote Kenneth Waltz by page number! I remember taking our exam for the 'International History since 1900' paper in the Examination Schools and writing an essay on the origins of the First World War with the portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm glaring down at me. My best memories, which mainly involved the late bar at St Antony's, are sadly not fit for publication here.

What general advice would you share with current DPIR students?

The best advice I can give, with the benefit of hindsight and perspective, is to remember the joy of learning. I know that sounds very smug and romantic, but I think when academia becomes a career, rather than a vocation, you become so focused on climbing the greasy pole that you forget why you decided to do it in the first place. It is an incredible privilege to be able to spend your life satisfying your curiosity. A life of the mind sounds so pretentious, but is an ancient idea that has miraculously survived into the twenty-first century. Enjoy it. Once you get a full-time teaching position, you will never again have the time, freedom, community, and companionship that you have now at Oxford. Savour it.

For someone looking to enter academia, what specific advice would you offer?

Think twice. Then think again. Go into academia with your eyes wide open. I see so many academics who suffer from mental health issues because of the difference between their expectations of academia and the reality. I think the happiest people in academia are the ones who have a rich personal and professional life beyond academia. You cannot invest your whole self in your academic career. Your identity cannot become totally subsumed in your research and teaching. It is wonderful to have the security and stability of a tenured academic post, which is sadly beyond the reach of many, but the most rewarding and enjoyable things I've done as an academic have been using my expertise to be part of the world beyond academia, whether that is in journalism, broadcasting, think-tanks, or the policy world. There is a world beyond the cloistered life of the university where your expertise can make a contribution.

If you were not in your current career, what would you like to be doing professionally instead? 

I have recently become very interested in documentary films. I've appeared in a few historical documentaries for Persian-language television stations in London and I've worked as a historical consultant for an HBO documentary series on the Tehran hostage crisis. This is something I've really enjoyed because of the fascinating sources you get to work with and the potential impact you can have. I think if I wasn't an academic, I'd probably go into broadcasting or film-making in some way.