SAIS Classes & Takeaways

This post covers every SAIS class I've taken, key takeaways, and my rating from 1-10, with 1=useless and 10=perfect. Class titles are hyperlinked with syllabi. Student evaluations are available here for SAIS students.

Pre-Term Statistics for Data Analysis, with Professor John Harrington (Summer 2022)

  • Basic statistical tools and methods, including including confidence intervals, hypothesis testing, standard deviations, poisson distributions, z-values, and t-values. Chebyshev's Theorem, Bayes Theorem, and Central Limit Theorem.
  • Pros: It was helpful taking this "Pre-Term" class to get back into the student mindset. I also appreciate how Professor Harrington keeps all his lectures, notes, and "cheat sheets" available online.
  • Cons: We focused so much on how to conduct certain tests that we didn't consider why they're used in the real world. This is a common critique that I have with undergrad/grad school STEM classes.
  • Rating: 7/10

Net Assessment, with Professor Thomas Mahnken (Fall 2022)

  • Net assessment is, according to Andrew Marshall, "A comparison between the U.S. and some rival nation in terms of some aspect of our national security activity." Counting the number of soldiers, tanks, or ships on two sides is necessary but insufficient. Net assessment requires deep comparative analysis of cultures, bureaucracies, technologies, and people. It identifies challenges and opportunities, but does not offer a proscription of policy remedies.
  • The modern net assessment framework includes: (1) How to think about the balance, (2) Objectives, (3) Trends and Asymmetries, (4) Red's view of the balance, (5) Strengths and weaknesses, (6) Scenarios, and (7) Implications.
  • We finished the class with a major deliverable, our final net assessment that we we worked on throughout the semester. I also enjoyed Professor Mahnken's teaching style of splitting the first class to focus on theory, and the second half to focus on a case study that applies theory.
  • Rating: 8/10

U.S. Defense Budget Analysis, with Professor Travis Sharp (Fall 2022, half credit)

  • The U.S. Department of Defense is transparent about its investments. However, the ability to understand and organize publicly available data is rare.
  • Professor Sharp's lectures were great, and he's very helpful. I thought the grading was harsh and it being a half credit class meant few opportunities to really dig deep on defense budget analysis.
  • Rating: 6.5/10

Operations Analysis, with Professor Jacob Heim (Fall 2022, half credit)

  • Operations analysis falls between net assessment and tactical decision-making.
  • I enjoyed some of the key lessons, e.g., data visualization and presentation is as important as the analysis itself; beware of PowerPoint and how presentation format shapes analysis. I also like Professor Heim's prepared (read) remarks for every lecture. It was strange at first, but it ensured we benefited from every minute. That said, I learned this semester that I just don't enjoy half credit classes—they move too fast.
  • Rating: 6/10

Theories of International Relations, with Professor Andrew Cheon (Fall 2022)

  • I studied IR paradigms (i.e., Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism) at Tufts. I did not learn much from this online, required course. The readings are good for students with less familiarity and enough time to reflect on them.
  • Rating: 2/10

International Economics I, with Professor Ryan Kim (Fall 2022)

  • I took a similar class at Tufts. I did not learn or retain much from this required course.
  • Rating: 2/10

Cyber Operations, with Professor Melissa Griffith (Spring 2023)

  • You cannot understand cyber strategy or operations without some basic understanding of the technology and practices, e.g., network architectures and intrusion tactics.
  • Cyber operations are most effective in "shaping" the environment. They are less effective in direct attacks.
  • Professor Griffith's teaching style is fantastic. Her use of Mentimeter made classes very interactive, filled with surveys and pop quizzes. She also divided class a few times to make us debate on certain sides, and gave enough time to debrief on our thoughts.
  • Rating: 8.5/10

The First Nuclear Era: Strategy, Force Structure, Nuclear Crises: 1945-1998, with Professor Eric Edelman (Spring 2023)

  • Context is key. Do not overgeneralize the lessons from crises. Recall Colin Gray's warning—every conflict has a unique context with its own path dependencies. Not every crisis is equal.
  • The goals of national strategy do not always shape force structure. Global and domestic politics, special interests, and bureaucracies are obstacles to change.
  • Mirror imaging is a critical danger. The adversary may not see the strategic environment the same way you do. Relatedly, intent is difficult to convey to domestic audiences at peacetime, let alone adversaries during a crisis.
  • Deterrence requires credibility and capability. As discussed by Schelling and Reed Polly, U.S. leaders are very reluctant to use nuclear weapons. The U.S. conventional advantage is also very high. These factors decrease U.S. credibility, thus decreasing U.S. nuclear deterrence despite high capability.
  • "Limited" nuclear war is unlikely to stay limited.
  • Professor Edelman's assignments were excellent. I appreciated his edits/feedback on my three memos, and that he only graded the second copy. His class made me a better memo-writer. But the class itself could get boring. He lectured for most of it, and there were few opportunities for students to speak up or converse amongst each other.
  • Rating: 6.5/10

Business Strategies for Global Financial Institutions, with Professor John Kocjan (Spring 2023)

  • I took this class because I thought I could connect business strategy to the defense world, just as Dr. Andrew Marshall had done at the Office of Net Assessment. Unfortunately I did not get as much out of this class as I had hoped.
  • Professor Kocjan is a kind professor. But his teaching style did not fit my learning style. I did not enjoy the multiple group projects, which took significant time to organize but resulted in little learning.
  • Rating: 3.5/10

International Economics II, with Professor Christine McDaniel (Spring 2023)

  • I focused on my other classes and did not learn or retain much from this online, required course.
  • Rating: 1/10

Econometrics, with Professor John Harrington (Summer 2023)

  • Initially reviewed the same material from Statistics for Data Analysis, including confidence intervals, z-values, and t-values. We later discussed homoskedasticity & heteroskedasticity, tests for both, how to adjust analysis based on heteroskedastic data, and how to use STATA.
  • I have the same complaint here as with Statistics for Data Analysis: We focused so much on how to conduct certain tests that we didn't consider why they're used in the real world. Or when we can't apply them. We're not statisticians, so the class should have focused more on how to understand good/bad statistics.
  • Rating: 5/10

Congress and Foreign Policy, with Charles Stevenson (Fall 2023)

  • Congress should be leading legislation, including on foreign policy. It has largely forsaken that duty in recent years.
  • Congressional members may approach votes as a delegate of their community (community view comes first) or an advocate for their community (supporting good policy comes first).
  • Professor Stevenson is the ideal practitioner-scholar. He broke up his lectures perfectly with group activities, including group discussions and several congressional simulations. His assignments included a trip to a congressional hearing, which I deeply enjoyed. He is a tough but fair grader.
  • Rating: 9.5/10

International Staff Ride, with Professor Eric Lindsey (Fall 2023)

  • Everyone starts a staff ride as a researcher; everyone ends it as a logistician.
  • You need to boil down the key events, themes, and takeaways in a staff ride. But show, don't tell.
  • Rating: 8/10

Leadership, Ethics, & Decision-Making, with Professor Adam Szubin (Fall 2023)

  • Briefers should focus on toplines/takeaways and avoid overloading their principals with details, unless asked for them.
  • Support your colleagues in group meetings, but do not speak out of turn unless you're prepared to take over their agenda. Do not state basic, well-known points without prefacing with "As you know..." as a disclaimer.
  • Finish tasks for your boss—do not add to their workload.
  • If management gives you objectives that are impossible to achieve or disrupt team harmony, create overlapping but better objectives and share them.
  • There are various styles of leadership. But all leaders should be empathetic.
  • This was the best class I've taken at SAIS. Professor Szubin is brilliant, his simulations were fascinating and thoughtful, and the readings were easy and short but impactful.
  • Rating: 10/10

Clashing Information Orders, with Professor Henry Farrell (Fall 2023)

  • The United States, China, and Europe have different approaches to information orders. This raises tensions in global regulation, trade, and media.
  • I attended the first class, watched the online lectures (but not review classes), and wrote my weekly blog posts as required. I was taking five classes this semester and worked as little as possible for this one. If I had engaged with the readings more, I may have enjoyed it, but unfortunately I didn't have the time. That said, I had fun with the final assignment and wrote a pretty wacky paper, which Professor Farrell seemed to enjoy.
  • Rating: 5/10

CityLab Catalyst: Business Innovation for Social Impact, with Professor Lindsay Thompson (Fall 2023, half credit)

  • City livability can be broken up into five key themes: Habitat, Health, Community, Citizens, and Prosperity.
  • The Metropolitan Police Department has significant powers and limitations. Their limitations have increased in recent years, and is a likely cause of higher criminal activities.
  • This class is what you make of it. Professor Thompson is very patient and understanding, and even though my final product was lacking, I enjoyed the process of making it.
  • Rating: 7.5/10

CityLab Practicum: Social Impact Project, with Professor Lindsay Thompson (Fall 2023, half credit)

  • There are significant tension and policy issues between the Metropolitan Police Department, DC Council, DC Mayor's Office, DC Attorney General's Office, and U.S. Congress regarding local crime and policing.
  • Professor Thompson lets you do whatever you want to do in this section. It was a great opportunity.
  • Rating: 10/10

Strategic Studies Research Seminar, with Professor Thomas Mahnken (Spring 2024)

  • TBD
  • Rating: 8.5/10

Anthropology for Strategists, with Professor Brady Cusick (Spring 2024)

  • TBD
  • Rating: 8/10

Honorable Mentions

There were many classes that looked interesting, but that I couldn't take due to schedule conflicts, waitlists, or credit limits.

  • BU.300.620 Managing Complex Projects
  • AS.470.728 Fundamentals of Nonprofits and Nonprofit Management
  • AS.470.734 Organizational Leadership and Ethics in NGO Management
  • AS.470.788 Monitoring & Evaluation for Nonprofits/NGOs
  • AS.475.607 Grantsmanship, Grant Writing and Evaluation of Grant Proposals
  • ED.893.628 Games and Simulations for Learning
  • ED.893.708 Technologies and Creative Learning
  • SA.600.790 Rough Magic: Shakespeare on Power
  • SA.502.104 Conduct of Foreign Policy

How I chose classes

I tried to pick classes that were (1) small, (2) scheduled in the morning/afternoon, (3) focused on memo-writing or interesting projects, (4) led by well-rated professors.

I tried to avoid classes that were the opposite: (1) large, (2) scheduled in the evening, (3) required long, non-publishable projects or group papers, (4) led by poorly-rated professors.

I also considered the following questions:

  • Does this class introduce me to a new research methodology or public policy field?
  • Might it change the way I think about a subject?
  • Will it help me develop specific hard/soft skills?
  • Will I produce something that I can possibly publish, or have interesting conversations about?