Dr. Graham Cornwell leads the Elliott School’s research portfolio. He earned his Ph.D. in Middle East History from Georgetown University, where his research was supported by an ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellowship, a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad, and an American Institute for Maghrib Studies Long-Term Research Grant. Prior to coming to GW, he was a visiting researcher at Centre de Recherches en Histoire Internationale et Atlantique (CRHIA) at the Université de Nantes. He served as a research consultant on the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States at the United States Institute of Peace and helped manage the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, sponsored by the US Embassy-Baghdad and hosted by Meridian International Center. He is a proud alum of the Elliott School with his M.A. in Middle East Studies, and he holds a B.A. from Carleton College.
When did you realize you wanted an international career?
I moved to DC to work in government affairs for the pharmacy industry. I liked the job and learning about the legislative process, but I found myself sneaking off to Foreign Affairs committee hearings and Middle East-oriented events at Brookings, etc. Finally, my boss caught on to me and said, “Maybe you should look into a new field.” I applied to jobs and graduate school in hopes of making the switch, and found a program in Middle East Studies that was a good mix of policy with more traditional scholarly or academic coursework here at the Elliott School.
Describe your current position and what are your favorite aspects of the job?
I am currently Assistant Dean for Research at the Elliott School, having come back here last fall after eight years completing my Ph.D. in Middle East History at Georgetown, doing some work in international education programs, and some research and consulting for USIP. During my Ph.D. work, I was always most interested in the research side, even in the initial planning and proposal-writing stages. I applied to every halfway relevant grant I came across because I found it helped me really refine my particular research angle as I pitched to different audiences. I even applied to the Herb Society of America for a grant to study the history of the tea trade in North Africa. They politely said no, but it was a good learning experience. In my current job, I get to work closely with faculty research at the beginning of new projects and then at their completion, when they see the light of day as fully realized scholarship. I’m amazed at the breadth of our scholarly expertise here at the school, but most importantly, I’m impressed by how deeply our faculty probe into the most pressing issues facing the world today. In getting to know faculty research, I’m constantly learning about new fields, methods, and parts of the world.
What are the current trends driving the future of your career field and what advice would you provide an Elliott School graduate student that is interested in your field of work?
My work really falls in a handful of fields, but primarily I would say I work in higher (and international) education and in the foundation and philanthropy worlds. For foundations, it is getting more and more competitive to procure external funding—that trend is nothing new. But we’re also seeing shifts in the kinds of issues and programs that foundations want to fund, and how foundations are adapting their strategies to deal with new problems or gaps previously filled by federal funding. I would advise someone interested in the field to gain experience writing grants, whether for personal research or for larger, programmatic or capacity-building awards. These opportunities abound – you can even take grant writing as a course at the Elliott School – and evidence of success will be a big boost on the job market. It is an art and a science: you have to learn to be creative and ambitious but still realistic, all while working in different sets of parameters set by each sponsor organization.
How does your current position compare to what you thought you would be doing when you first started your degree at the Elliott School?
I thought I’d do an MA here and stay in the legislative affairs field, so it is not very similar to what I do now. But I worked in academic programs here at the Elliott School during my MA, which gave me good exposure to higher ed administration and also allowed me to really engage with all the resources and opportunities that a university like GW provides. I was on campus, so I got to attend events, get to know faculty better, explore all the possibilities of the library, go to film screenings and concerts. The university is a really dynamic place, and continuing to work in that environment appealed to me.
If you were a beverage, what would you be and why?
Even though I’m currently writing a book about the history of tea drinking in Morocco, I would probably be pastis. It is incredibly hot and sticky here in DC right now, which to me means pastis season. In my own research, I’m interested in transnational connections, and I love how pastis is just one variety of a very unique (and off-putting, to some) flavor of drink that spans all sides of the Mediterranean. Also, and this can’t be understated, but I find pastis transporting. I can take a sip and be where I want to be, which is almost always late afternoon in a café in Marseille looking out over the port.
The #ElliottProud series highlights Elliott School MA alumni and seeks to answer common questions posed by prospective, current, and incoming students. The views expressed by alumni profiled do not necessarily represent those of organizations they work for, are affiliated with, or the Elliott School of International Affairs. Find out more about this program by creating a CustomViewbook!
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