Graduate Student Profile: Aidan Milliff AB’15, MA’15 on graduating with a joint BA/MA from CIR

Anjali Anand

As an undergraduate, Aidan Milliff AB’15, MA’15 knew he wanted to major in political science but was considering what to do after graduation. After learning about the joint BA/MA degree offered by the Committee on International Relations (CIR), Milliff realized that the program – a one-year masters completed concurrently with an undergraduate degree – could help him make the decision.


“My experience with the BA/MA, and in CIR, confirmed for me that academic research is something I love doing, and something that I want to do for a long time in the future,” Milliff says.


Now a PhD student in Political Science at MIT, Milliff is exploring the sociological and political dimensions of political violence. He studies when and why ordinary people decide to participate in political violence, as well as state rationales for fighting insurgents, militias, or separatists. His curiosity about these topics originated in a course called Civil War that was taught by CIR Chair Paul Staniland, and that Milliff describes as one of the most rewarding and challenging classes he took at the University.


Milliff notes several other classes that shaped the way he approaches his core research interests. Machiavelli’s Discourses and the History of Florence, a course taught by political theorist John McCormick, informed his thinking on states and violence. “The texts and interpretations we read in McCormick’s class have deeply influenced my thinking on two topics,” Milliff says. “How violent institutions affect normal politics, and also how emotions affect political behavior and states try to manipulate them.”


Milliff’s course experiences also highlight the importance of UChicago’s interdisciplinary environment in his education. A statistics course at the Harris School prompted his excitement at the possibilities of data driven political science and, he says, made him a better reader of quantitative social science in general. He was also a regular participant in the Program on International Security and Politics (PISP), an interdisciplinary workshop based in the Political Science Department and known for its demanding format and tough questioning of presenters.


“PISP participants always pushed the presenter hard to make their theory clear and concise, and to really defend their assumptions,” Milliff says. “I learned a lot of great lessons about presenting and about theorizing in social science through PISP.”


Milliff credits Political Science professors John Mearsheimer and Robert Pape with further sharpening his theoretical contributions in class and in papers, and says Mearsheimer, Pape, and Staniland all offered invaluable advice as he applied to PhD programs. “I think I avoided the ‘shock’ that some new PhD students feel the first few times they get comments back on papers,” he says. “Chicago gave me some practice at being pushed to defend my assumptions, tighten my theories, and deal with objections.”


Staniland says, “As Aidan’s experience shows, CIR encompasses real-world expertise and scholarly rigor. We prepare students for top-tier academic programs, and we are also a proven path for those interested in other careers, included policy-related positions in Washington DC and abroad.” 


Asked what advice he would give to others considering the joint BA/MA degree, Milliff says that students should leverage their inside knowledge of what the Division has to offer and determine early on which professors they want to work with. Knowing the rigors of coursework at Chicago, he emphasizes that it is important to give CIR “the time and attention it deserves. CIR’s courses, with their mix of MA and PhD students, are another level up.”


Milliff graduated in 2015 Phi Beta Kappa and with honors on his MA. Following graduation, he had an opportunity to work on the political economy and security policy of South Asia, topics he had first explored in Staniland’s civil wars course. As a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Milliff spent the next year working with Ashley Tellis and Milan Vaishnav on projects related to nuclear deterrence and the military balance in South Asia, as well as domestic state capacity and governance in India. He recently completed a preliminary round of fieldwork in India for his own research, during which he interviewed government and military officials about their views regarding the ongoing counterinsurgency and state-building efforts in the northeast of the country.


Influenced by his CIR experience, Milliff hopes to continue working in a university setting so that he can pursue his research agenda as well as engage in teaching. “New ideas come through the door every year with new students,” he says, “so the environment is always lively and dynamic.”