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Susan Rice

Former National Security Advisor (2013-2017) Former US Ambassador to the United Nations (2009-2013)
Class of 1986

Thesis: I didn’t complete my undergraduate thesis, but I did do a lot of work towards a thesis. It was on the role of African-Americans in the Bay Area’s shipbuilding industry during WWII. Many of them had come from the Deep South, Texas, and Louisiana during the Great Migration and got decent-paying jobs in shipbuilding. My research was also an exploration of fair employment practices—it was interesting!

“The writing, research, oratorical, and analytical skills that are all important parts of a History education were very helpful in my career. Best major I could have picked.”

Career Highlights: Former National Security Advisor (2013-2017), former US Ambassador to the United Nations (2009-2013), former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1997-2001).

Currently serving as Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC, Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, MA, and Contributing Opinion Writer for the New York Times.

First Job after Graduation:

After graduating from Stanford, I got my master’s and doctorate degrees from Oxford in international relations. My first full time job after that was as a management consultant (“Associate”) at McKinsey & Company in Toronto, Canada.

How did you end up pursuing your career? Do you have any advice for students contemplating similar career paths?

I had always been interested in public policy and, when I was at Stanford, I expected that I would go to law school and work in public interest law. I viewed the History major as excellent preparation for almost any career path, particularly for law. It gave me a very broad and important knowledge base, but also strong analytical, writing, and speaking skills.

However, after completing my doctorate in international relations and working at McKinsey, I ended up on a different path that was narrowed from public policy to the national security field. I had the opportunity to work in the Clinton White House on the National Security Council staff as a Director for International Organizations and Peacekeeping. My career progressed from there under two Democratic administrations—Clinton and Obama—and in between I worked at the Brookings Institution as a scholar in foreign policy.

In terms of advice, I firmly believe in studying what you love, following your passion, and not being rigid about your choices. Very few people know what they want to do with the rest of their lives at age 21. Be willing to try new things, change course, and follow a path that may not have been obvious or set by you in advance.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were an undergraduate?

Too much. But again, it’s valuable to be open to new directions that you may not have anticipated. You should do what you’re doing as long as you love it and, if you don’t love it, do something different. I never regretted deviating from what I thought I was going to do as an undergraduate and probably had a more interesting career path as a result.

Has your History training helped you along the way - and if so, how?

History has absolutely been helpful. When you work in national security and foreign policy, it’s obviously important to have a sense of what has come before. And the writing, research, oratorical, and analytical skills that are all important parts of a History education were very helpful in my career. Best major I could have picked.

Do you have any particularly fond memories of the History Department?

Yes, many. I took an interesting variety of courses—a lot of American and European history, but also some African, Russian/Soviet, and Chinese history. Many of my courses were with great professors, but my favorite was “America in the 1960s,” taught by Barton Bernstein and Clayborne Carson. It was fascinating because Bernstein is a historian of the Cold War, and in particular of the decision to use the atomic bomb, and Carson is the nation’s leading scholar on the civil rights era (because of him, Stanford has all of Martin Luther King’s papers!). But I really didn’t have a bad professor in the History Department.

I strongly recommend the History major to anyone who’s interested. It’s excellent preparation for many, many different things and it’s a great overall department—then and now. I’m a little concerned that at today’s Stanford, the humanities and social sciences are undervalued and under-appreciated by students. There’s pressure to be in the hard sciences, engineering, or computer science. But it’s a huge mistake not to value disciplines like history. I, for one, am a huge proponent.