University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

A World of Work

Patrick Murphy and Aung San Suu Kyi
Patrick Murphy '85 and Aung San Suu Kyi


A world of work

When W. Patrick Murphy ’85 joined the United States Foreign Service in his late twenties he planned to stay a few years and then move on to another new challenge. As it turned out, Murphy, now a senior level diplomat, would spend over two decades with the U.S. Department of State—traveling the world aiding refugees, tackling an HIV-Aids epidemic, helping Iraq transition to democracy, and organizing historic visits to Burma by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, among other assignments.

“I didn’t start my career as a company guy, so the notion of doing something for several decades was kind of an unusual thought back then,” says Murphy, who speaks French, Spanish, Cantonese, and Burmese. “I knew I needed varied experiences, but what I didn’t fully appreciate was that the Foreign Service experience itself was a series of transitions. Every couple of years it’s like assuming an entirely new job in another country or region, which has made it incredibly exciting. It really keeps the mind sharp and ever-evolving.”

Since joining the Foreign Service in 1992, Murphy has primarily been focused on increasingly senior-level policy positions, including several associated with Burma. In 2011, he played a leading U.S. government role in charge of Hillary Clinton’s visit—the first for a secretary of state since John Foster Dulles in the 1950s—and again in 2012 when Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Burma.

“It was quite an honor, but also very enriching and professionally satisfying, because I’d been working on Burma issues on-and-off for the past fifteen years,” says Murphy. “The president has made it clear that this is the beginning of a very difficult process and the transition to democracy is far from complete, but the changes have already been quite dramatic. I’ve been able to experience that firsthand living in Burma during very difficult days of authoritarian military rule with some of the most severe oppression anywhere in the world. And yet it was very compelling to see the Burmese people aspire to something very different, and now seeing them get that opportunity has been quite an incredible process to be part of.”

Murphy has served in some of the most oppressed and dangerous countries in the world across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It’s in these places, he says, that Foreign Service officers and local Foreign Service nationals put their lives on the line to help those in need. “The stereotype of the diplomat going to cocktail parties dressed in a pinstripe suit is an anachronism,” he says.

One of Murphy’s most challenging assignments was in Northern Iraq, where he partnered with Iraqi authorities to help with the transition of governance and on development issues. Working alongside members of the U.S. military as the head of an interagency provincial reconstruction team, Murphy frequently traveled off base, or ‘outside the wire,’ into the highly volatile city of Mosul in heavily armored convoys wearing full body armor.

“As a leader I took the safety of my personnel very seriously, but we all wanted to engage with our Iraqi counterparts to help them make progress. I think it was such compelling work that we didn’t fear for our lives even though we were aware of the risks. Serving in Iraq was one of the most professionally enriching experiences of my career.”

Political science major’s dream

In 2010, Murphy joined the small percentage of officers who are promoted into the Senior Foreign Service (the equivalent of a brigadier general in the military)—an honor requiring Senate confirmation. He’s also been awarded the Department of State’s Superior and Meritorious Honor Awards, the Department of the Army’s Superior Civilian Service Award, and was the runner-up for the Secretary of State’s 2005 Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award. He credits much of his success to a “series of evolving experiences” that included a double major in political science and Canadian Studies and a year abroad in France at UVM; three years in the Peace Corps in Cameroon; and  graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the National War College.

“I’ve taken the multi-disciplinary approach to studying a country that I learned in Canadian Studies and applied it to all of the countries I’ve worked in,” says Murphy, who credits geography professor Edward Miles for running a strong CS department as chair. “My career has been a political science major’s dream because there are aspects of other careers like academia, think tanks, journalism, and development work involved in the Foreign Service, but also components such as decision-making, policy formation and implementation, and crisis management.”

Murphy’s connection to UVM started in high school under the guidance of Thomas O’Brien ’50, a World War II veteran who chaired the social studies department at Brattleboro Union High School after attending UVM on the G.I. Bill. He encouraged Murphy to get involved in politics and participate in programs like Boys State, which led to Murphy qualifying for Boys Nation and a trip to Washington D.C., where he met President Jimmy Carter. Sixteen years later, Murphy would cross paths with the former president again when Carter was in Guinea; Murphy worked facilitating the visit and spent several days with Carter. “I told him that his mother, who was also a Peace Corps volunteer, had been an inspiration to me,” Murphy recalls. “We had some good talks about policy issues, so it was sort of like coming full circle.”    

Looking back, UVM faculty influenced Murphy even before he enrolled. With Thomas O’Brien’s encouragement, he contacted professors Frank Bryan and Sam Hand about a high school research project he was conducting on the Vermont political system. “Much to my shock, they wrote back to me. What a thrill it was as a young high school student to hear back from these academic giants. They wrote thoughtfully and gave their opinions, and pointed me to other resources. That was very enriching for me,” says Murphy, whose next assignment, joined by the constant companionship of his family, will be as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand—one of the largest diplomatic missions in the world.  “I won’t leave you under any illusion I had my life mapped out at that age while at UVM. I was a liberal arts major for a reason, with an interest in everything, but these inspiring people and a series of enriching experiences played a major role in my personal and professional life.”

Jon Reidel G’06   



Contact UVM © 2019 The University of Vermont - Burlington, VT 05405 - (802) 656-3131