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Why do wonks lie about having a Ph.D.?

Until yesterday, Elizabeth O'Bagy was a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and an increasingly prominent expert on the Syrian rebel groups. Then the institute announced the following:

The Institute for the Study of War has learned and confirmed that, contrary to her representations, Ms. Elizabeth O'Bagy does not in fact have a Ph.D. degree from Georgetown University. ISW has accordingly terminated Ms. O'Bagy's employment, effective immediately.

O'Bagy's exact academic status was unclear in the reportage. According what O'Bagy told Politico, "she had submitted and defended her dissertation and was waiting for Georgetown University to confer her degree." However, according to BuzzFeed, "O’Bagy has a masters from Georgetown University and was enrolled in a Ph.D program, but had not yet defended her dissertation." So there was already some confusion from O'Bagy's initial explanations.

Zack Beauchamp, however, suggests that O'Bagy's "representations" were a bit more extravagant than the distinction between defending a dissertation/receiving a diploma:

O’Bagy was enrolled in the Arab Studies Master’s program, which only partners with three departments for joint doctorate programs: Government, History, and Arabic Language, Literature, and Linguistics. Given her purported topic, she would have partnered with Government — according to one Georgetown PhD student who met O’Bagy, she had claimed a distinguished member of the Government Department as her adviser.

She is not listed as a PhD student on the Government department’s website. She does not exist in the university directory. A search of the entire Georgetown website turns up only one hit, a congratulations notice for her Master’s graduation.

There is “no evidence that she is associated with our department in any way; she’s not among our students as far as we can tell,” Daniel Nexon, a Government Professor who served as the Director of Admissions and Fellowships for all but one of the years she could have applied. The professor who was supposedly advising O’Bagy’s dissertation has never heard of her.

When I asked Kagan about the evidence of O’Bagy’s initial, ongoing deception, she demurred. “That I actually need to refer you to Georgetown for.”

My deep network of spies sources at Georgetown confirm Beauchamp's account, telling me that there is zero evidence that O'Bagy was ever enrolled in any Ph.D. program at Georgetown.

So what? Why does this matter?

A few reasons. First, there's the Syria issue. Back to Politico:

O’Bagy’s Aug. 30 op-ed piece for the Journal, “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” was cited by both Kerry and McCain last week. McCain read from the piece last Tuesday to Kerry, calling it “an important op-ed by Dr. Elizabeth O’Bagy.” The next day, Kerry also brought up the piece before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing and described it as a “very interesting article” and recommended that members read it.

But the piece had also come under fire for misrepresenting her affiliations. Originally the op-ed only listed O’Bagy, 26, as only “a senior analyst” at the ISW, later adding a clarification that disclosed her connection to a Syrian rebel advocacy group.

“In addition to her role at the Institute for the Study of War, Ms. O’Bagy is affiliated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit operating as a 501(c)(3) pending IRS approval that subcontracts with the U.S. and British governments to provide aid to the Syrian opposition,” the WSJ added in its clarification.

Or, as CNN's Jake Tapper pithily put it: "It's all part of the weird world of Washington – a doctor who is not a doctor writes an op-ed testifying for the rebels, without disclosing that she is paid for by a rebel advocacy group, and her words are seized as evidence by experts – Kerry and McCain."

So there's that. It is certainly possible that O'Bagy's WSJ op-ed is 100% accurate. The thing is, misrepresenting one's affiliations and credentials go to credibility, and O'Bagy now has two strikes against her.

The other thing is why O'Bagy felt the need to misrepresent her credentials, and why the hell it took so long for Kagan and the ISW to ferret this out.

To answer this question, let's go to this recent Duck of Minerva blog post about how to land a policy position in D.C. Some telling portions:

All interns in this city are smart. Really. All of them. So there is a lot of competition about “who’s smarter than who” or “who produces more".…

In all reality, you don’t need a Ph.D at this town at first- though an M.A. is a near-must.... The people who need Ph.Ds are at the fellow level- and these are people who also have about a decade of government experience. Coming in with a Ph.D and no government experience means you price yourself out of the Research Associate market without the value added of experience....

Whichever way you go with grad school/law school/experience, start to carve out your own voice. Have a “thing” that you want to claim as your little slice of expertise. The strange thing about this town is that what you claim to be an expert on, your are perceived to be an expert on until proven otherwise (which can be a really good thing or a dangerously bad thing!) (emphasis added)

And here we get to the heart of the matter. In a community where the interns have master's degrees and the competition for remunerative jobs is fierce, the Ph.D. actually does count for something as a credential, no matter how much pundits and textbooks like to mock it. But going to get a Ph.D. in political science comes with lots of sacrifice and great risks as well as great rewards. [And for those of you who immediately react by thinking "this is what's wrong with a pseudo-scientific discipline that values the credential over real-world knowledge," let me assure you of two things: Political science Ph.D.s actually do accumulate a healthy amount of "real-world knowledge," and political science is hardly the only profession where people have exaggerated their credentials.]

O'Bagy is hardly the first person to misrepresent her academic credentials -- nor is she the most egregious example. And everyone "embellishes" their accomplishments on a CV or a résumé. But this episode suggests that maybe, just maybe, think tanks and consulting firms in Washington should do a little more due diligence in their hiring. And for those 20-somethings thinking about faking it so they can make it, bear this parable in mind about the possible consequences.

What do you think?

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