Political Science Now

Meet 2017 Carnegie Fellow Richard A. Nielsen

Richard A. Nielsen is an assistant professor of political science at MIT. He completed his PhD (Government) and AM (Statistics) at Harvard University, and holds a BA from Brigham Young University. His forthcoming book, Deadly Clerics (Cambridge University Press), uses statistical text analysis and fieldwork in Cairo mosques to understand the radicalization of jihadi clerics in the Arab world. Nielsen also writes on international law, the political economy of human rights, political violence, and political methodology. Some of this work is published or forthcoming in The American Journal of Political Science, International Studies Quarterly, Political Analysis, and Sociological Methods and Research.

The Andrew Carnegie Fellowship frees up time for me go on research sabbatical to do sustained thinking and writing for a book called Islamic Authority in the Internet Age.  I couldn’t be more grateful.”

How will the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program impact your research and overall career?

Nielsen: It’s a tremendous honor to be one of the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Fellows.  Time is a precious resource and university life presents stark trade-offs for junior faculty about how they spend it.  I’ve been tracking my work time down to the minute for the last four years.  As you might expect, I’ve found that my research time is inversely correlated with the mundane day-to-day tasks that pile up every semester, and the university and disciplinary service I’m asked to perform.  Some of this work is important (graduate advising, journal reviews), but too much of it is not (paperwork, endless emails).  I’m not a good multi-tasker, but I try anyway, which mostly leads to frustration when I look at how much (or how little) research I complete each semester.  The Andrew Carnegie Fellowship frees up time for me go on research sabbatical to do sustained thinking and writing for a book called Islamic Authority in the Internet Age.  I couldn’t be more grateful.

What research topics do you primarily focus on? How can people access your work?

Nielsen: I’m currently fascinated by the politics of religion in the Muslim world.  My forthcoming book, Deadly Clerics, explores why some Muslim clerics become jihadists while most don’t.  The book isn’t available yet (hopefully it’ll be out later in 2017), but there is a summary and some related fieldwork photos on my website.   The main finding is that would-be clerics who don’t make it in Islamic academia because their ambitions are blocked are at risk of turning to Jihad.  Perhaps I should have known this going in, but I was surprising to realize that Muslim clerics see themselves as academics and are influenced by academic politics in ways that are surprisingly relatable.

The Carnegie fellowship is supporting my follow-up book project on how the Internet is changing Islamic authority.  It’s still in the early phases, but a preview of where I think the project will go is here.

I’ve also published on foreign aid, international human rights agreements, and topics in political methodology. All of my research is available on my website.

Do you have any advice for students in political science, including tips on how to find funding and support for research projects?

Nielsen: The context of this interview is that I’ve won a phenomenally generous fellowship, so I suspect that it’s easy to think that I have good advice about how to win fellowships.  I don’t.  For every fellowship, grant application, or article I’ve had accepted, I’ve gotten at least five times as many rejections.  Some of the work I’m most proud of has gotten the harshest rejections, so I’m clearly a bad judge of how peer review is going to go.  I guess this means the only advice I can credibly offer is to put a lot of work out there.

I will say that I’ve tried to improve my writing over last two years, and I think that helps with fellowship applications that are assessed by interdisciplinary committees.  Clear, vivid writing, without jargon, is your best bet.