As journalists seek to understand the crisis in Ukraine and Putin’s next moves, they find themselves turning time and again to the same experts for insights and quotes. In the media, these same talking heads have bemoaned the dearth of junior peers and dwindling resources available to educate them.
While there are entry-level and high-level jobs, there is nearly no opportunity for incremental career advancement working on the former Soviet Union in Washington today. The lack of mid-level positions affords few chances to develop analytic and leadership skills or regional expertise. One either makes coffee and schedules meetings or writes books and talks to Putin. Frustration at the paucity of opportunities for growth pushes many young experts out of the field.
But these are symptoms, not the disease. The disease is a double whammy: a disregard for regional expertise and the disappearance of key rungs in the career ladder.
Think tanks, once regarded as elite universities without students, employ research assistants and senior fellows, but there is a nearly unbridgeable gap between them. Even if research assistants are loyal to the institution, publish furiously and earn a PhD, only rarely will they become senior fellows. There are few mid-level research positions in Washington think tanks and therefore no ladder to climb and no opportunity for advancement.
Here is the story of one man trying to find a "mid-level" policy job as a Russia expert. Here is a piece about the lack of Central Asia experts. Are there only one or two Russia scholars at Washington think tanks in there 30s?
Why do so many think tanks lack mid-level, mid-career positions? Is it because they are too expensive to house at think tanks (e.g., cannot raise funds compared to someone more senior but still have to pay them more than junior staff)?