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Advice for Grad Students

I advise students in political science and international relations, mostly, but not always, on topics connected to my research interests. If you would like to discuss your ideas with me, send me a note or stop by during my office hours.

Five Rules for Grad School

Your chances of doing well in a Ph.D. program (at least in political science) depend, in my opinion, on how closely you stick to the following five simple precepts:

  1. Do what you love. You didn’t come to grad school to impress anyone but yourself, nor did you come to grad school to game the system. If you enjoy gaming the system, go to K Street, Wall Street, or main street. Or a casino.
  2. Write all the time. Your goal in grad school should be one and only one: to get out of grad school successfully — i.e., to get a good tenure-track job. Because what comes afterwards is just like grad school but with a better salary and some more (though, if you’re the kind that’s inclined to self-doubt, not much) self-esteem. And all you need to get out of grad school is a good idea laid out in two or three good chapters of your dissertation; not a multi-volume work; not a good lit review; not encyclopedic knowledge of your field; not a five-page CV.
  3. The only reason not to be writing is to be reading in order to write. Not taking courses on that oh-so-exciting topic; not working on that side project that will earn you a Nobel prize; not discussing these oh-so-important topics in the grad student lounge; and not browsing the internet…
  4. When in doubt between reading and writing, write. If the question “should I write or should I read more on the topic” even pops up in your mind, it’s because you’re ready but, alas, afraid to write. Go write.
  5. Good is the enemy of done. Print it and tape it to your computer screen. I did.

Of course, you will feel there’s a conflict between rule number one and the other four… Keep calm and carry on. The feeling will go away. (Or not…)

The academic job market

The job market can be a harrowing experience, so you should go in with your eyes wide open. A few guidelines:

  1. When to go? Early. Schools hire on one of two criteria: potential or accomplishment. It’s easier and less risky to get hired on potential. (You need to have less done and you don’t run the risk of running into a research roadblock and having to explain what you were doing during all those years.) Plus, with a tenure-track job in hand, you have better conditions with which to produce the “accomplishment” — research assistants, a salary, that kind of thing. Of course, you’ll have a terribly stressful tenure-clock time, but that will always be the case…
  2. How much is enough? Two chapters of your dissertation. These have to be really good. And really polished. Remember Fred Astaire’s shoes? That polished. Plus a third chapter in case the school writes back asking for more. (This is better than sending three chapters and not having anything up your sleeve because, one, the third chapter is unlikely to make that much of a difference and, two, when schools call asking for more it’s usually because you’re on the borderline of being invited for a campus day, so you want to have something that will move them towards inviting you rather than having the skeptical member(s) of the hiring committee ask “Oh, s/he didn’t have anything else to show?”)
  3. Where should I apply? Simple: apply to any school you’d be willing to go to if you had been on the market for three years and this was your only offer. In principle, you can always write your way up from a lower-ranked school.
  4. What should I do once I apply? Polish that third chapter. And prepare a killer presentation. Deliver it to anyone with a brain between their ears who will be willing to sit through it. (Yes, that includes your pets.) Get comments, polish it, and deliver it again. Remember, if you get a call from a school, your research has gotten you as far as it can — now it’s up to you and your ability to perform during campus day. You should also have an elevator version of your project. By this I mean you should know it by heart — and the answers to the five most likely follow-up questions, in three sentences or less. Finally, come up with a second-project idea, if you haven’t already. You will be asked, it will matter a lot, and you can impress people at a relatively low cost. (Plus it’s a fun respite from working on your dissertation!)
  5. What about the campus visit? Here James Baker’s “Five P’s Rule” applies: previous preparation prevents poor performance. Be sincere; but be enthusiastic. Don’t try to put up a persona — it’s not a good idea to be hired by colleagues who think they’re hiring someone you’re not. Try to be engaging. Your interviewers are hiring a colleague, so you have to make sure you pass the airplane test: would they be willing to sit next to you during an intercontinental flight?

One final note of caution. One of the unfortunate aspects of academia is that non-academic careers are often frowned upon. So in case you’re considering a career path outside of academia, keep it to yourself until you have made your decisions. Otherwise, your dissertation advisers — who will be writing your recommendation letters, which are crucial in bringing your application to the attention of hiring committee members — may feel less committed to writing you a good letter. Ideally, your committee members would be open to non-academic options, particularly after a couple of unsuccessful seasons on the academic job market. But you don’t want to run the risk.

Feel free to offer your comments and share your experiences below!

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  1. iago says

    “Good is the enemy of done”, just need to read this today. I was getting a lot of pain to close a chapter of my thesis. Thank you!



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