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Since graduating with a Master of Arts (Strategic Studies) from The Australian National University (ANU) in 1997, Malcolm Davis’ career within strategic and defence policy has gone from strength to strength. Now a Senior Analyst in Defence Strategy and Capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), he spoke to us about his professional highlights, studying at ANU, and why the ANU Masters of Strategic Studies program is simply the best qualification an aspiring strategic thinker can have on their resume.
How would you describe your career so far?
It’s been a steady move forward since I completed my Master of Arts (MA) in Strategic Studies at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) in 1997. I went on to do my PhD in Strategic Studies at the University of Hull in the UK (completed in 2002), and secured the position of Lecturer in Defence Studies with Kings College London (KCL) at the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College in Shrivenham. I then spent five years with the Department of Defence, initially in Navy HQ and then Strategic Policy Division, where I gained valuable experience within the policy community. From March 2012 to January 2016 I was a post-doctoral research fellow at Bond University, which was a useful time to focus on one issue (Chinese military modernisation) before starting at ASPI in January 2016.
I think the opportunities and challenges in my career have really helped me to become able to contribute to the strategic and defence policy debate in this country, and engage on an international stage. At 55 years old, I have no intention of slowing down or stopping, and have plans for at least the next twenty years looking ahead.
What have been some of the key moments in your career?
The apex (so far) was being offered my current position at ASPI, which is Australia’s premier think tank on defence and strategic policy issues. The chance to work here was matched by two other high points – the chance to do my (second) MA at SDSC, and secondly gaining my PhD after years of hard work.
I also thoroughly enjoyed my time at KCL and found interacting with the military students and my KCL colleagues to be highly rewarding. I was one of fifty KCL academics providing professional military education to the UK armed forces – in much the same way ANU do at the Australian Defence College. My time at Defence was also a learning experience for me - having come from an academic background, it really pushed me to change my mindset to understand policy, which I think made me a better policy practitioner.
Put yourself back in your shoes before you started studying the Master of Arts (Strategic Studies). What was your mindset and what did you hope to achieve?
Before I started at ANU, I was a bit ‘lost’. I’d done my first Master degree at Lancaster University in the UK in International Relations and Strategic Studies, and it had been my intention to do a PhD then, back in Australia, or work for Defence. For various reasons, neither of those plans worked out, so I ended up as an Adjunct Teaching Fellow at Bond University for a few years. When my role at Bond ended in early 1995, I returned to Canberra hoping to do a PhD with SDSC. However at the time, SDSC wanted me to do their Master degree and then look to do the PhD. I had no problem with that idea, and it gave me the path forward that I was looking for.
I think I went into the SDSC MA with a positive mindset, and I enjoyed the course immensely. Ultimately, I didn’t end up doing my PhD through SDSC because federal funding for higher education had been cut and SDSC couldn’t guarantee supervision – so I ended up heading back to the UK in mid-1997, and it’s turned out well in the end.
What were your expectations before starting the degree and how did they differ from your actual experience?
I felt that the SDSC MA in Strategic Studies would be a great complement to my existing degrees, and most significantly, I’d have the chance to learn from and work with SDSC staff at the time who I knew were world class and among the best strategic thinkers in Australia. It was a chance to dive deep into Australian defence and strategic policy thinking that would shape my career from that point on. The course met and exceeded all my expectations, and really helped me to grasp some of the issues confronting Australia at that time, as well as establish networks which to this day continue to be valuable to me.
What was a highlight of your time at ANU?
I think it was the chance to discuss emerging strategic policy issues with not only the faculty, but also with students as we all tried to come to grips with a fairly challenging strategic environment. In 1996-97 China was just becoming a significant military actor, and we were still grappling with what the post-Cold war era meant, so the way forward was pretty nebulous. I think the challenge – and highlight – was the debate on what the challenges and risks were going into the future. None of us really were focused on major power threats at the time – looking back how things have changed!
How has studying the Master of Arts (Strategic Studies) helped you achieve your aspirations and career goals?
I think it helped me to learn how policy was formulated, and most importantly gave me a better understanding of strategy – what it is, why it’s important and how it contributes to policy formulation. The program is highly regarded both nationally and internationally, and I don’t think I would necessarily have gotten my current position at ASPI had I not had that qualification on my resume. I think the chance to work with the nation’s best strategic thinkers was a huge benefit to my career.
What advice would you give those who are thinking about studying the Master of Strategic Studies (the current iteration of the Master of Arts (Strategic Studies))?
Let’s start with the good news… and then the bad news. The good news is that you are doing the right course in the right place at the right time. The bad news is that given the rapidly deteriorating strategic outlook, Australia’s future strategic and security circumstances are going to be much more challenging and dangerous. We need people with expertise in strategic studies, and you are our future key thinkers in those challenging decades to come. It’s 2019 now – the parallels in history are clear – the mid-1930s demanded good strategic thinkers and we need the same now, as we confront the risks of the 2020s and beyond.
With that in mind, an ANU Masters of Strategic Studies program is simply the best qualification you can have on your resume as you take your next steps, whether it’s government, or academia, or into a think tank like ASPI, or the private sector, or the intelligence community.