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Department: Physics

Ohanlon Physics

Michael O’Hanlon ’82, *87, *91

Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Diverse intellectual interests

I studied physics in college (at Princeton, having transferred in from Hamilton College). I then taught physics in the Peace Corps (in Congo/Kinshasa, formerly Zaire) before returning to Princeton for graduate school. I began my graduate studies in the engineering school, with a research home at what was then called the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, working with Frank von Hippel and Harold Feiveson on nuclear arms control issues. But I later reconsidered and transferred to the Woodrow Wilson School (after getting a master’s in engineering) where I got my Ph.D. Since then, I have spent five years at the Congressional Budget Office and almost 13 at Brookings, all in Washington, D.C.

Physics I studied because I loved it, and thought I might want to work in physics research or perhaps some other technical field after school. But I may have slightly burned out on physics in college. Or perhaps I realized that (after seeing the quality of Princeton students) there were some people out there so much better at it that the research side of physics was not where I’d shine. And I had an enduring interest in various public policy issues, which both took me to Peace Corps and then brought me back to a science and policy mix to start grad school.

However, such mixes often don’t work, especially fairly early in one’s career. While I did well in my course work, the engineering school didn’t think I was doing sufficiently hard-core science to merit a Ph.D. with them, unless I changed research topics (and I’ve come to think they were right). Meanwhile all the things I needed to study to get better at policy—American politics and recent history, global history, politics and economics in key regions of the world, military matters—I wasn’t able to pursue given the preoccupation with science and engineering studies.

Finding my career path

So I had no master game plan, or at least I didn’t have one that survived contact with the hard-hitting world of graduate education. Where I wound up, doing my Ph.D. thesis with Aaron Friedberg and Josh Epstein, worked out really well, but it wasn’t something I had intended—and it wasn’t even something I could have intended at the starting line.

Looking back, there were still problems with my educational experience. To this day I feel I had to take too much international relations theory and a bit too much economics in grad school, and not enough history in particular. But having the strong science background gave me an angle on military issues that has provided me a “go to” strength throughout my career; since I did not have a background in the military, it was critically important that I have some such strength. I still regret not knowing history or global politics as well as some of my mentors and role models—Dick Betts, Steve Walt, Barry Posen, Dick Ullman. But I am catching up gradually (or at least I hope so), and at the current pace I may get to where I want to be come retirement age!

All in all, I did follow my passion early on. Then I followed a misguided game plan. Then, with my advisers, I figured out a better one. And by age 30 or 32, after a couple years on the job, I was finally feeling like I knew where I was headed and had found a way to make my background serve my career.

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