As a core part of the curriculum, LBJ School students undertake a year-long capstone project called the policy research project (PRP). This project pairs teams of students with a client to address a complex policy issue in a real-world context.
LBJ School students who took part in the PRP “Reinventing Diplomacy,” led by professors Robert Hutchings and Jeremi Suri, explored how countries have changed the way they recruit, select, prepare and train diplomats in today’s global environment. Their client, President of the American Foreign Service Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, was deeply engaged, helping to design the PRP, visiting Austin twice and hosting LBJ School students in DC in December 2016.
“While the class is based in Austin and taken for a letter grade, the responsibility of the coursework becomes elevated because we are serving a client organization in Washington, DC,” said Annika Rettstadt, an LBJ School dual-degree student studying MGPS and Middle Eastern Studies. Rettstadt is part of the PRP’s team of student researchers.
During their recent visit to Washington, Rettstadt and her classmates met with a variety of stakeholders, including veteran diplomats, experts from other countries’ diplomatic services, think-tank representatives and the Department of State’s Bureau of Human Resources. During these meetings, students had the opportunity to present their findings regarding the various roles that diplomatic services play.
"This PRP gave students an opportunity to engage with diplomats at the highest levels—and to offer compelling recommendations for strengthening the U.S. Foreign Service,” Professor and Ambassador Hutchings said. “This is the first comprehensive study of eight key diplomatic services, so students have broken new ground. Their work is a perfect example of how serious, policy-relevant research can inform current policy.”
Since the Fall 2016 semester, students have researched eight different diplomatic services around the world, Rettstadt said.
“This research was a collective effort to create a comprehensive study on these services to better understand the certain diplomatic practices that work, and those that do not,” she said. “While the project only focuses on eight diplomatic services, it lends us insight into how different countries prioritize and organize their government, which could prove useful for the State Department and other services in the future.”
"[These] students have broken new ground. Their work is a perfect example of how serious, policy-relevant research can inform current policy.” —Professor and Ambassador Robert Hutchings
Bryce Block, an MGPS ’17 student who worked on the PRP, said he hopes this work spurs additional study into how the U.S. Foreign Service can adapt to evolving political climates.
“Our project prepared a comparative analysis that has never been researched before,” Block said. “The work is foundational to analyzing the success and abilities of Foreign Service Ministries and their impacts on global policy.”
The research is also timely, Ambassador Hutchings continued. “The State Department needs compelling, fact-based research to counter the current Administration proposal to slash the Foreign Service budget.”
Early findings show that entry into every service requires a highly competitive examination process, and that the United States is an outlier in terms of the number of political appointees occupying high-level positions within its foreign ministry. Students have been spending their second semester incorporating the findings from their briefings and following up on new leads.
“Our project prepared a comparative analysis that has never been researched before. The work is foundational to analyzing the success and abilities of Foreign Service Ministries and their impacts on global policy.” —Bryce Block, MGPS '17
“We live in a world of rapid and disorienting transition,” Professor Suri said. “Preparing the best diplomats is a priority of every major country in this turbulent time. This project uses deep comparative research—the kind of work only done at first-rate universities—to help the State Department redesign our nation’s diplomacy.”
Students will present their final report to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) at the end of the Spring 2017 semester. AFSA intends to use the findings to help shape a proactive advocacy agenda on Capitol Hill and with the Department of State to attract high quality candidates and ensure a Foreign Service unmatched in presence, skill and ability.
Block said the PRP not only gave him and his fellow students an opportunity to develop a sustained project over many months, but it also helped them build their professional networks.
“The projects build teams of colleagues separate from any other class or organization at LBJ,” he said. “Students learn to adapt to different working styles, but more importantly, foster successful connections with others that will continue well into our careers.”
“This course has been incredibly significant to me and my classmates. We feel we are making a meaningful impact on policy outside of the LBJ School.” —Annika Rettstadt, MGPS
About the Policy Research Project
Master of Public Affairs and Master of Global Policy Studies students cap off their academic experience at LBJ with a year-long policy research project designed to provide students hands-on experience in policymaking and effect real-world impact. Read more about current and past projects.