Mariana Budjeryn is a Research Associate with the Project of Managing the Atom (MTA) at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Formerly, she held appointments as a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at MTA, a fellow at Harvard Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and as a visiting professor at Tufts University and Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. Mariana’s research straddles nuclear history and international politics with the focus on nuclear nonproliferation, arms control, Cold War, Soviet collapse and post-Soviet transitions. Her forthcoming book Inheriting the Bomb: Soviet Collapse and Ukraine’s Nuclear Disarmament examines the history and politics of post-Soviet nuclear renunciation. Mariana’s analytical contributions have appeared in The Nonproliferation Review, Harvard International Review, World Affairs Journal, Arms Control Today, The Washington Post, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, War on the Rocks, and in the publications of the Wilson International Center for Scholars where she is a Global Fellow. She holds a PhD in Political Science and an MA in International Relations from Central European University (formerly) in Budapest, Hungary, and a BA in Political Science from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine.
DSPS alumnus Miklós Zala (Political Theory track, 2017) caught up with Mariana at the beginning of 2021 to talk about her experience at CEU.
Thank you very much, Mariana, for being available for this interview. My first two questions are how did you end up at CEU? And why did you choose the International Relations (IR) track?
In fact, I first ended up in Budapest, and then I learned that Budapest was also home to CEU. While it had been my intention to do an MA program, still some years passed without applying. Previously, I got into an MA program at LSE around 2003 in nationalism studies. I had an undergrad in political science from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine and worked for a Ukrainian thinktank on issues of international security for some time. That was the kind of milieu in which I was interested. So, I got into that program in London, but then I got pregnant, and I deferred for a year, and then I got pregnant again and again. Thus, I had to postpone my academic ambitions for a while until the opportunity presented itself—in Budapest. I applied for a tuition waiver at CEU, but I did not apply for a stipend because maybe other people needed that money more. But I did not want to pay for a program because I have three kids, and I just couldn't have justified this to my family.
So, you were in Budapest with your three kids and your husband—why were you in Hungary?
I moved to Budapest because of my husband's work, and because I was there already, I thought applying to CEU was a good idea. I got the tuition waiver! Had I not got a tuition waiver, most likely, I would not have gone to CEU. So, I was right there, and my kids were in the same kindergarten at that moment. So a lot of pieces came together for me to be able to do the program. And now, looking back, I think that there was only a handful of places in the world—certainly none here in the United States—where I could have afforded in my situation to do a postgraduate or graduate degree.
So can we say that being a mother and someone who was looking for a quality graduate program, CEU was just a great option to have?
Yes, it was an excellent option for me. Again, the financial aid I got was a great help, there weren't many other places where I could pull it off, and Budapest was a relatively affordable place where I could afford childcare and could afford to get this degree. So, it was a unique opportunity. Maybe there would have been other places in Europe, but certainly not here in the United States.
Did you know back then that you wanted to continue in the Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations (DSPSP)?
Going to the CEU MA program in international relations was my opportunity to launch myself back into the working world, and I thought maybe I could work. There is one of the UN agencies in Budapest; I think UNDP (United Nations Development Program) had a Budapest office. But I thought I would figure it out later. I didn't have a meticulously defined career plan. But this, for me, was an opportunity to get out of the house, use my brain, and relaunch myself into the world. And regarding that, I am infinitely grateful to CEU, George Soros, to Budapest for presenting me with this opportunity because I really don't know where else I could have done that.
Why did you choose the International Relations track?
My initial career goal was to be a diplomat way back then, and I got into an international relations program in my hometown Lviv in Ukraine. At the same time, I also got into a political science program in Kyiv. I thought I'd go to Kyiv, which was a great opportunity. While, I never ended up being a diplomat, moving across borders and cultures and different polities formed my interest in international relations.
To a great extent, my interest in politics and IR was formed by the living through the Soviet collapse. It was a grand political and geopolitical transformation which I was able to witness and live through in the early 1990s. During my undergraduate years, there was a powerful narrative that we, our generation of Ukrainians, are its future, we will be building up this country after the botched Soviet experiment, we’ll be the ones to take it out into the world and construct a functioning and fair democracy. With all the qualifications, this responsibility is still with me to some degree.
Before entering the MA program at CEU, I read a book by Ilya Prizel from Johns Hopkins. It was a comparative analysis of foreign policy, in the context of Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, on how national identity has an impact on their foreign policy. So, foreign policy, IR, plus questions related to national identity were the topics I was interested in.
It seems to me that you being a multicultural person who lives in various parts of the world, almost naturally gravitated towards international relations.
I think that's true. I was an exchange student in high school in the United States. I think it is like cultural diplomacy. I felt like I was the ambassador coming out of a country that wasn't even born yet. I left the Soviet Union, and I came back to Ukraine. So I had to explain to everyone that there's such a country, Ukraine, and no, it's not Russia. And I thought it would be cool to be the kind of ambassador for real, do diplomatic service. That was my interest in IR, as I mentioned. Then when my life took me out of Ukraine again, to London, Almaty, Prague, the United States again, and then finally Budapest, I felt I was always representing my own cultural background, being this ambassador for my country. I'm patriotic, and I feel very deeply for the fate of my country. Even when I did study IR, I never left the "ambassador" role behind.
As far as I can remember, this even reflects on your research topics. How did you continue in DSPS after successfully finishing your CEU MA degree?
True. I know that whatever I was going to do for research, it would have to do with Ukraine. Partly because I felt I had the cultural and linguistic competency, but also partly because of the responsibility I felt to contribute to things Ukrainian. While I did not initially plan to apply for a PhD, job opportunities were not abundant in Budapest at that time. I could hope to make roughly the stipend that CEU would have given me. And I thought, at CEU, I would still have a bit more flexibility, through the summers, with the kids. I decided to apply. I did, and I got it! So that was sort of a path dependency rather than a real plan. So once you get into that context, these are the menu of options you have, and you just kind of go for it.
So, you applied to the PhD program during your MA studies?
That's right. I think that helped me because now, looking back at my PhD proposal, it was quite terrible (laughs). I think it was just that the selection committee, knowing me from my MA studies, had faith in me.
I think it's true to many people; quite often PhD search committees are looking for unpolished gemstones. What was your impression of change from MA to the PhD? How did you find CEU as an environment in general?
Through my MA program, I was quite self-conscious because I wasn't a typical MA student profile. I was a good decade older than most of my peers; I had kids. It had been such a long time since my undergrad, and I was a bit out of touch with the academic environment. I think I once referred to a scientific journal as a "magazine," and the professor had to correct me.
So, I tried to be very conscientious in many ways through my MA program. I finished with the highest GPA in the class due to that conscientiousness, getting the academic excellence award. It was because I think I was so trying to do so well out of my pure insecurity.
Then in my first PhD year, I knew people and professors, and people knew me. So I felt less insecure, but I found my MA a friendlier environment and more supportive, in a sense, vis-à-vis the first year of the PhD program. But maybe it had to do with the personalities and the way they came together.
Could you be more specific about your last thought?
The environment wasn't hostile, but I felt that I could have received more support developing my PhD proposal. As I remember, maybe it was already in the second year when I did the departmental seminar with my prospectus, which I already put together. After I defended that I was doing a presentation on my project, that became a big battle between my supervisor and some other professors waging their own ideological war between positivism and post-positivism. I was caught in the middle, and I felt like I wasn't getting constructive feedback. It felt people were rejecting my project based on some ideological, epistemological, ontological grounds, instead of helping me make it better. It made me quite upset.
I had heard this before, when we were at the doctoral school, back in our years in the early 2010s. I think what you have described is somewhat specific to IR, not CEU. Even I heard about these endless debates among postmodernists and positivists within the IR faculty.
Maybe to a certain extent, it is both about these different camps and the professors' personalities. I try not to box myself in these theoretical frameworks as I moved more towards a historical approach. Partly because I saw how counterproductive these ideological battles are and how they can hamper, rather than advance scholarship, and partly due to the nature of political science as a discipline here in the United States, I have fashioned myself into more of a historian. I do qualitative research, archival-based research, I reconstruct and interpret historical events—this work is never a-theoretical, if you do it well—but I find it more rewarding than battling over theories that in the end, stand and fall on empirics anyway. I think it would help IR students to be less involved in these ideological conflicts.
What was your experience with the supervision of your work?
Fortunately, my supervisor was supportive of my project, but I also had the impression that he is not particularly invested in it. I think this was largely due to the kind of academic background and tradition of supervision which he himself had during his graduate studies. In general, he liked my drafts, but at the final stages when I was doing my write up, I was lucky to get an external sort of supervisor who was an expert in my narrow subject matter. He was Professor David Holloway from Stanford, who was very helpful. He read my chapters, literally, with track changes. Sometimes he even proofread my dissertation. He made comments in the text saying, "okay, this works well, but this is not clear," or "I'm not sure what you mean here". It moved me that he was doing it for me just because of his genuine interest in my research project and because he wanted me to defend and do well.
For many doctoral students, a hands-off approach to supervising is preferred. But there are real ways in which a supervisor and the doctoral school in general could step in to support their students, should they need such support. I’d like to think of myself as generally a rather independent researcher who does not need much hand-holding, but there were times when I wished I had a bit more support. It might have had to do with my particular situation. For the last couple of years of grad school, I moved from Budapest to the United States for personal and family reason. I found myself in the United States, without any academic contacts, away from my university and from direct contact with my supervisor, at times feeling completely isolated. So there were times when I felt I would just give up and at those times the encouragement to persevere came from my external supervisor, for which I’m very grateful. When I started the write up, I was also the one who organized my own defense, trying to bring together the schedule of my external in California, CEU in Budapest and my own on the U.S. East Coast. All of it was quite challenging beyond the extected challenges of dissertation write up.
It sounds quite challenging. Did you ask for some help from DSPS that you have this situation and you need some assistance?
I didn't ask for help because I didn't know if any resources could have availed of me. But I had to defend and had everyone lined up and all things considered, I think I was quite lucky. The department worked with me to accommodate this kind of special defense and helped speed up the process. I could submit the dissertation quite quickly, and then I had the defense. Then, literally, three days later, I was at the graduation, getting my diploma, shaking hands with George Soros, and I was done with it.
What would you recommend to change in the structure of the IR program?
Checking for what support students might need. Because at one point, I felt like I was pushing too hard for my own defense against everyone, like I was the only one interested in defending and graduating. I felt that I might have been annoying. So, just a bit more involvement in the success of doctoral students.
Something else that I found a bit suboptimal was the travel and research funding that we got. It was around EUR 500 back then. If you go to Brussels to conduct some interviews, e.g., with commissioners, that's perfectly fine. Now I had Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, three cases that required archival research. Five hundred euros got me barely to Kazakhstan with a flight. Once I had to finance a trip to Belarus myself. It can be adequate for somebody who's doing theoretical research and doesn't need to travel much, but people who do archival research need a lot more. It can't be like everyone gets five hundred.
So basically, you think that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work in the case of travel grants.
Really, it does not. I think you should be able to accommodate research projects whose field-work needs to be done outside Europe.
What was the topic of your dissertation/defense?
I looked at the role of the international non-proliferation norm and three cases of nuclear disarmament: Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. The idea was to make a theoretical contribution to the role of international norms in foreign policy decision-making. Also, to make an empirical contribution by looking at source material beyond the United States, as most of the previous accounts have been, and reconstruct the discourses from the interview data and archival material within these three countries. I was told that mostly the empirical contribution that mattered, not the theoretical. Although since then, I've been told by many people that the theoretical contribution is significant as well.
Did you have any publications coming out during your doctoral studies?
I published one peer-reviewed article before the defense in the Non-proliferation Review on the case of Ukraine. It's not a top ranking one, but it's a very well-known and well-regarded journal. The article came out in 2015, and I defended it in 2016. But I also published quite a bit of commentary on the events in Ukraine because it just so happened that after 2014 it became a hot topic as Russia annexed Crimea. So I published in the World Affairs Journal quite a bit, in Arms Control Today op-eds and essays, etc. I got involved with the group of nuclear historian at the Wilson Center in DC and published some working papers with them. Later, during my post-doc years I published in the Washington Post, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, War on the Rocks, etc. In 2016, World Affairs Journal transitioned to become a peer review publication, they published one of my submitted articles but it didn't go through a peer-review process.
You finished your PhD in 2016—what was your first job market experience?
I moved to the United States in 2013. Around 2014, I was applying for pre-docs, that was not successful. I kept applying. One place was Harvard's Belfer Center, another was MIT, but I targeted many programs on nuclear issues. But nothing panned out. In 2016 I began applying again, but this time, I knew I was going to defend. Then I applied for postdocs, and on April 1st, 2016, I got a letter in the mailbox from Harvard. I was like, "here comes another rejection," and opened it up. But that was an acceptance letter! I even thought it might have been a cruel April Fools' joke (laughing). That was an amazing moment in my life. And at that point, I knew I had to defend sometime that summer, and I better stick with the defense date that I planned.
So, right after your defense, you started at Harvard.
Yes, I started the postdoc in autumn 2016 as a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow. The position was funded by the Stanton Foundation. In the beginning, I didn't realize it was a very prestigious fellowship, administered only by a handful of top academic institutions, including the Belfer Center at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.
You work for a research center. How do research centers operate at Harvard?
Harvard looks like a matryoshka doll. So, there's a Harvard University, and then there are different schools within it, including Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Within HKS, there are academic master's programs in public administration and public policy and a research center – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
The Belfer Center has many different research programs, such as human rights, climate change, Middle East, etc. On of them is the Project on Managing the Atom (MTA), closely affiliated with the International Security Program (ISP) (the fellows get a joint MTA/ISP appointment) that leads research in all things nuclear—weapons and energy—and attracts people from various academic backgrounds, technical people, nuclear scientists and engineers, as well as political scientists, IR scholars, historians, even anthropologists.
I think I can allow the joke that Mr. Putin has been my best friend through all of this because, before 2014, I had to defend why we should care about the topic of post-Soviet nuclear disarmament at all. I stopped having to defend that because Mr. Putin does that for me. I think it helped generate interest for my project at the MTA and get accepted for a fellowship there.
Not an ordinary support, indeed. I also think that having so many different people who approach the same topic from very different perspectives might be a very productive community.
Indeed. Again, I found it refreshing to see that people from such diverse intellectual backgrounds can all work together and respect each other's work. Maybe it's cultural in the United States that you had to respect the diversity of opinions and backgrounds. At least, well, until the Trump presidency. And I appreciate it very much.
How did your CEU education help you in getting at Harvard and performing there well?
I arrived here with a disadvantage, as I had no contacts in the academic field. I had to create a network for myself. It's something I think CEU faculty could try to improve, to help young scholars acquire networks, introducing them to relevant people. Currently, this is one of the most important ways to be successful in academia, as in many other fields. I had to learn the ropes myself from scratch. I knew nobody here.
So, you think there should be more emphasis in DSPS on mentoring and providing students' networks.
Definitely, that would have been very helpful. There is a great deal of truth that an institution's output is not just the research that gets published, for the real output is people. We want them to succeed, and we want to prepare them to succeed. Also, since people sometimes branch off like me, keeping them in the loop would be vital.
What are your future plans? I guess they are somewhat limited due to your particular situation. You can't go anywhere, wherever and whenever you want.
That's part of the challenge. I have a book contract with Johns Hopkins University Press now, that is my short-term plan.
And what is the book about?
It is based on my dissertation, the provisional title is Inheriting the Bomb. It’s about Ukraine's nuclear disarmament after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus, the focus has shifted more onto Ukraine. It consists of two parts. The first part examines the Soviet nuclear collapse and different issues that stemmed from that, such as who will inherit shards of Soviet nuclear arsenal in international legal terms. The second part is squarely on Ukraine. The last chapter of the first part is about Belarus and Kazakhstan, as reference points for comparison. Those two cases are, in an abridged version included in the book, but it's mostly about Ukraine. I also have one article that's coming out, and that's an empirical summary of the dissertation in the Journal Cold War Studies, which will be out in the next issue of the journal. So that will be my second peer-reviewed publication. Then I have another article, a work-in-progress for a while, provisionally titled Covenants and Swords, which is the theoretical bits from my dissertation that are not covered in the book. It's a half-baked article at this point, but it's there. And I'm hoping to submit it to International Security, which is published by the Belfer Center. I have these works in the pipeline. So, finalizing these are my short term academic plans. In terms of career plans, it will be a year now since I'm in this new position.
When did you start your new position there?
I started on July 1st, 2020. So that's my permanent staff position as a research associate with the project. Before that, I was a postdoc on these rolling one-year terms.
Those one-year postdoc positions were also at the Belfer Center, right?
Exactly. So it's, it's the same place basically where I have been for the last four years, except for one year, when I moved across the Harvard yard to a different institution, the Davis Center for Russian Eurasian Studies. But then I came back to Belfer and MTA, and that's where I am now, on a more permanent staff researcher position. Thus, I have had more or less a secure position so far. But with the understanding that my situation is probably on a two-year horizon while I'm looking for something else. Now I still have many applications out there from last spring when I was applying to academic jobs. Also, there's a couple of five-year research positions. One is at Stanford, where you do research only, which would be perfect.
That's a dream job…
Actually, I got the dream job at ETH Zürich, a five-year researcher position. But my children are in high school now, and there would be a significant language-barrier that makes the whole idea unfeasible. So I had to forego the dream job.
That's a huge compromise. When did you apply to that?
Last spring. I know somebody else was offered the job, and then because of COVID, they declined, and they reopened the search, and finally, instead of this other person, they offered the job to me. It was really one of the hardest decisions in my life because I would have loved to make my way back to Europe if there is an opportunity. But at this point, it was just not feasible. And, you know, I was lucky enough to have my current position.
How easy would it be to leave Massachusetts and go to Stanford in Palo Alto, California, given your family is in Boston?
Going to Stanford would be easier because it's a research position. I think I could even commute because it's a very flexible thing. Moreover, the kids are older now. They're independent and self-sufficient. But, of course, I cannot just leave them behind. But this situation would be definitely more comfortable to navigate through than moving all of the family to Zurich.
So, I don't know what's next for me, but now I'm happy to have the job I have, to have health insurance, and all these practical things. But I would love to have a teaching job, an academic career, or a research position where I could advance my own projects, not be forced to work on some topics I’m less interested in.
I can understand that. Final questions: what do you do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
Running. I run a lot, like 20-30 kilometers in a week, on a slow week! I have even been running up to 50 miles in certain weeks. I took up dancing whenever there's a studio open these days. I also took up an ice climbing class. So I'm just trying to keep myself moving. And you know, to keep my spirits up through the pandemic. In terms of hobbies, that's probably it. Ah, I started making bread from a sourdough starter, like the rest of the world; it's like having a pet in the fridge, you have to feed it (laughs). I also like to read fiction. I always try to make sure that I keep an eye on literature. I am a subscriber to New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the Paris Review of Books. So I am just trying to engage a little bit outside of the narrow confines of my discipline. I missed that since my MA years—to get a bit of a breadth of things. As you advance in your career, there is a tendency to more and more narrow things down as you become a specialist in political science, IR, nuclear politics, nuclear security, you name it. Reading literature widens your horizon.
Mariana, thank you very much for the interview!
Thanks for having me!
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