AN INTERVIEW WITH BARBARA KOREMENOS | by Katrin Bernsdorff and Theresa Schmitz



Name: Barbara Koremenos
Field: Political Science
Country: United States of America
Occupation: Professor of World Politics, University of Michigan
Research Interests: International Law, International Institutions


 ▐  Barbara Koremenos is currently Professor of World Politics at the Department of Political Science, University of Michigan. Her path to and within academia is anything but straightforward. Yet, coming from generations of risk-takers empowered her to strive towards her goals with passion, perseverance and detail-orientation. Koremenos was the first to receive the National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research in international relations and law. Because of this, she was granted (early) tenure by the University of Michigan before ever having published a book and with only a handful of articles – an outstanding achievement, especially in the USA where more often than not a book is deemed crucial to getting tenure.   


    Looking back, Barbara Koremenos says: "It was a very interesting, curvy route to get to where I am. Attending Graduate School and becoming a Professor was something that I decided much later in life which I think can also be inspirational to some […]. You don't have to figure it out right away. You can really do it at any point in life."

From a young age, Barbara Koremenos was interested in the world and curious to understand how it works. During middle school, becoming a diplomat seemed, for her, the obvious solution to tackle this vast matter, but it was still an unusual dream at the time for the granddaughter of mostly Greek immigrants to the US. "For a lot of Greek Americans of my generation, if they were to go to college the typical profession, especially for women, was a professional degree like a a dentist, but not a diplomat or something that involved international politics."

   "It's really the field political economy,
   economics and politics combined,
   that interests me."

   Feeling obliged to take over the family business that had given her so much, she decided to study economics which could be combined with her general curiosity of international affairs. She loved economic theory and at that point politics was not on her radar - that is, until her first position as a research assistant at the Brookings Institution right after college. The Brookings Institution is a prestigious think tank in Washington DC that, should a democrat be in power, often acts as counsel to presidents of the United States. "I was working on international economics and that was always what I found most challenging - and most interesting. But at Brookings something clicked in my brain, like: "Oh economics is too narrow, nothing is anything without politics. I realized it's really the field political economy, economics and politics combined, that interests me." 

However, her passion was not only to understand how the world works but also to get involved and make the world a better place, especially locally. Therefore, instead of considering Graduate School, she became a social worker in Chicago, freelancing as an editor in her spare time to make ends meet. In both jobs, Koremenos wasn't satisfied with the structural organization, be it of a research paper or with the bureaucracy of social work. But she didn't have the credentials to do anything about it. She needed to educate herself on the topics, which was why she ultimately decided to attend Graduate School for a Masters in Public Policy.

This experience sharpened her perspectives on research: "I feel like being a little bit older, maybe even coming from the background I came from, there better be a reason we're doing this (research). I wouldn't do just abstract theoretical things. I know that that can be very valuable but that didn't make sense to me. I always wanted to make sure that what I did had real tangible relevance. But even though I wanted to be doing policy-relevant work, I felt I really needed to get my PhD, not to stop at an MA, collect data and get it all right."


   "I always wanted to make sure
   that what I did had real tangible relevance."

   The recurrent theme in Koremenos' research is her unwillingness to give up and believe those that criticize her. "Social Science is messy and you can't measure things easily. You always have doubters that say: 'That can't even be measured, I don't believe it.' But at the same time, there were people who would say: 'We have been talking about these theoretical concepts for decades and no one has ever even tried to measure them so good for her for trying to do it carefully and systematically'". She believed in her theory yet was not able to prove it since no data existed that could back her up: "I don't want to pretend to know something if I don't have data to back it up."

Therefore, she decided to take a risk that would rule her life for over a decade: collecting the data she needed to prove her theory even though all those years of hard work could have, potentially, not corroborated her theory after all. "What I was doing was so new that I was willing to take risks and really commit to these moral convictions that I need to do it right. Even when people would say: 'You can't do that', I wouldn't believe them. My father started out very poor and built a successful business and he kept taking risks, not stupid risks but very calculated risks. I think those are the moral reasons for why I embarked on something that I really would never have done otherwise."

   Convincing people of the importance of international law is another defining theme in her academic career: "I had advisors telling me: You will not even get a job interview if you study the details of international law […]. But I said 'No I don't believe that. I think this is where the field needs to go'. They challenged me in an extremely important and positive way - that I needed to show how a detail of international law, a simple provision about how long a treaty could last, was important." She thus started with showing the importance of the duration of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty after the Second World War, illustrating how without the finite duration provision, the treaty would not have gotten off the ground. She then coded the duration of a random sample of international treaties and the results were a breakthrough for her. After that, she broadened her agenda to study monitoring, voting rules, punishment, withdrawel, etc. "It's really what we call baby steps. And I was always thrilled when it worked out. Obviously you're always a bit nervous but that means there's integrity in what you're doing. I didn't cook the data. But there is a little bit of nervousness like: 'Ok is it going to work out here? Is it going to work out there?'"

   Combining her life experience with her love for teaching, she comes to two conclusions on what doctoral students need to be successful: "One is a very romantic notion about your dissertation and the other one is really more practical: First, you need to be passionate, practically in love with your topic, because sometimes you'll be the only one who believes in it. Second, you need to write at least 15 minutes every day because then even if you have a very bad week, you've written for about 2 hours. And even if some of it is bad, some of it is good and you don't lose momentum. It's like keeping yourself in shape. You can't climb Mount Everest if you don't train every day."



// Interview: Katrin Bernsdorff / Editing: Theresa Schmitz, Katrin Bernsdorff







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