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Divisions Over Peace Studies

August 10, 2010

At a time when student interest is growing in nongovernmental organizations and conflict resolution, faculty members in peace studies master's programs and those who employ their graduates appear to have split on the direction these programs should take.

“In a nutshell, academics have a certain perception of what their graduates need, and employers have a specific need that is not being matched,” said David Smith, national education outreach officer for the United States Institute of Peace and co-author of a new institute report.

The study examined 13 relevant academic programs, interviewing students, alumni and faculty members -- as well as the organizations that employ graduates. Nearly 90 percent of surveyed faculty members agreed with the statement that students are adequately prepared for international conflict careers, but more than 50 percent of employers disagreed. One of the biggest shortcomings of the academic programs (to employers) is their inclination toward theory rather than practice, the study found.

Professors ranked the most important areas of knowledge, skills, and abilities in the graduate programs as: theory of conflict analysis, theories of conflict resolution, country- or region-specific skills, political issues, and applied knowledge and skills coming from internships or practicums. On the other hand, the five most emphasized skills from the employers’ perspective are: field experience, program management, country- or region-specific skills such as language abilities, applied conflict analysis and resolution skills, and sector-specific, practical expertise.

In addition, the study found that many academic programs only teach their students basic skills, and don’t offer enough opportunities for “advanced” or “specialized” training in areas like impact assessment, policy formulation, or foreign language.

Smith said this is the first time this gap is being examined in the field’s 25 years of existence, and not working to close it could prove dangerous for the field itself. If employers wish to hire someone who can go overseas and write up reports, hire employees, and manage a budget, Smith said they might end up looking for employees from different fields if the international peace and conflict students are ill-equipped.

There may be several factors contributing to these discrepancies. Smith said that there has been an explosion of programs in recent years, not all of which have the resources to be sustainable. “At the onset, it doesn’t necessarily need a lot of funding, a lot of connections overseas. But eventually, it needs to be able to take its master’s degree students and deploy them to Sudan working on peace-building processes as an internship – a lot of programs get into this, but they fall flat in developing the experiential part of the program because they haven’t thought it through,” he said.

Other reasons for the gap include the lack of a comprehensive definition for "international conflict," an ambiguously defined role for the academic programs, institutional limits on the number of classes students can take, and limited opportunities for overseas experiences, according to the report.

Employers are not the only ones with complaints, however. The research also points to faculty and alumni dissatisfaction with the employers, whose approaches to conflict seem outdated and who are not aware of what is currently being taught.

Randall Amster, executive director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, agreed with the findings and lauded the report’s recommendations for bringing more field-based education to the classroom and for employers adjusting the way in which they engage the programs' graduates.

“The [PJSA] would encourage a synergistic approach in which the perspectives of graduates in the field are invited straightforwardly into the policy-making and organizational frameworks developed by peace-related employers,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I would further urge that the field develop with due regard not only to needs of organizations and employers, but also to those of the graduates themselves and the academic institutions.”

Though only 13 programs were included in the study, many of them are leading institutions and the data is "very indicative" of the entire field, said Craig Zelizer, co-author of the report and associate director of the conflict resolution master's program at Georgetown University. He said there are about 30 master's and five or six Ph.D. programs in the United States.

But Leigh Morris Sloane, executive director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, said the findings of the report do not seem in line with the way such programs function at the 33 institutions in her association (where conflict resolution is one of a range of subjects studied).

“They touch on things that need to exist in a program, but APSIA member schools -- they do all these things,” she said. “It struck me as making rather sweeping generalizations…. I could easily see getting a completely different picture and story if you’d talked to a different set of actors.” She added that the report seems to place too large an emphasis on the institutions and the instruction, and to discount the variety of backgrounds and prior experiences students have coming into these programs that can greatly affect outcomes.

 

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