Advice to Graduate Students from a Faculty Member

In one of my last posts I put together advice to junior faculty. That advice was largely cobbled together from other people’s postings. Here I thought I would do the same thing, only with a focus on Graduate students. Whatever advice I have to offer obviously comes from the perspective of a faculty member – not as a graduate student. This advice has more to do with expectations on the part of faculty (or at least this faculty member). I gloss over, ignore or am ignorant of a lot of problems facing graduate students. Advice from your peers is plentiful on the Web.

For aspiring undergraduate students considering graduate school, you might want to read the advice offered by Justin Esarey on The Political Methodologist.  Likewise, the ever present Chris Blattman offers very useful advice that should be consulted. Becoming a graduate student is a lot like joining a Guild. You will be apprenticing yourself for a long period of time. These days this is something that someone shouldn’t do lightly (or treat as a default option because no job was forthcoming).

Alternative sources of general advice include Stephen C. Stearns  and Ronald T. Azuma. While these are a bit old, they are still worth the look and, as a plus, entertaining. A more recent perspective on professionalization can be found here and here .

Your job. As a graduate student you have one main job. Learn to be the best scientist you can. I know that there are demands for grading, being a research assistant and teaching. But all of those are secondary to your primary task, which is to learn how to be a scientist. As an apprentice you will be expected to watch faculty, ask questions about what they are doing, bring up new and interesting studies that you have stumbled across and learn the tools necessary to join the Guild. Pick your advisor wisely.  Sometimes the seemingly slow pace will frustrate you. Other things will compete for your time. Just don’t lose sight of your goal.

Work. Do your work and do it on time. I am amazed that “incompletes” are given to graduate students. If you can’t get your work done in the time allotted, you need to think about why that is the case. You may be cultivating a life-long habit of procrastination (which is a bad habit). You may be trying to do far more than can be done and/or was intended. A graduate research paper is designed to train you in how to carry out research. None of us expect that it will become a publication. You shouldn’t either. Don’t take incompletes. As Barry Weingast (then an Assistant Professor) once told me “Dean’s don’t give incompletes.” Incompletes are not a good habit to cultivate in graduate school and is certain death when you get a job.

Read. You will spend a lot of time reading, so learn to read smart. Do you really have to memorize the coefficient size for the third variable on Table 4? It would make more sense to understand the point behind Table 4 and whether it is critical to the argument. Why not start by reading the introduction and conclusion? What is the main contribution and how does it fit with the literature? Do this before you plow into the article. You will be reading a good deal of technical material that will be very taxing in terms of time and energy. Don’t let it wear you down. Take the time to read broadly and generally – preferably material that is not required on the syllabus. You never know where you are going to find inspiration, so don’t be afraid to read outside your field (or even outside your discipline). Read fiction sometimes. it might help you with the next point.

Write. Writing is like learning a new language. If you don’t practice it, you’ll lose it. It takes practice and to get good at it you have to do it routinely. You should be able to write 1000 words of reasonable prose each day. Blogging might be a good place to practice (I know, some faculty regard it as a waste of time – but I think of it as honing your communication skills). Re-writing is just as important as writing. Your prose can always be improved. I rarely write anything for publication that doesn’t go through 10 or more drafts. Read and re-read a good book on writing (I am partial to Helen Sword’s book).

Publish. I won’t kid myself and claim that publications don’t matter when going onto the job market. They will. However, it is unlikely that all of your seminar papers will be ready for publication. You are better off joining with a faculty member and learning how to write a research article. If you think that one of your solo papers is ready to be sent off to a journal, please ask a faculty member to give it a quick read – offer to buy him/her coffee when it is read and you’ll find that you will be able to get 15 minutes of quality advice. As well, ask where the manuscript should be sent (although you should already have a good idea of where you intend to send it). If the faculty member gives a thumbs up, great. If not, you should decide whether to keep working on the piece or move ahead with further training and learning. While your first inclination may be to send the manuscript to AJPS, think twice (see my advice here).

Rumors. You’ll never have so much spare time as you do in graduate school. This may seem impossible, but it is true. Having spare time means that you spend plenty of time with your peers. This can be good in that you learn from one another about many new tricks in the discipline. But at the same time close proximity to your peers can lead to the usual human sport: gossip. While gossip is not a bad thing (it helps enforce norms), most graduate student gossip focuses on faculty. Most of it is widely incorrect. I do not think about you and your research projects every hour of every day. I have plenty of my own work to do and that gets the lion’s share of my attention. Reading my intentions for an off-handed comment (or worse, your peer’s reading of my intentions) will be great for the rumor mill, but not so good for getting at the truth. If you have a question, why not go to the source and ask? I have no problem with students asking me questions about their career or work. I don’t, however, have time for idle chitchat or gossip.

Time. It doesn’t matter if you work 80 hours a week. What matters is whether you finish your work. My guess is that your 80 hours of work was probably inefficient. How much time was spent on social media? How much time checking your email? How much time was spent re-reading the same paragraph because you are exhausted? As an apprentice to the Academy you should learn that you are in charge of your own time. Now is a good time to develop efficient work habits. It is also important to leave yourself time for yourself. Graduate school does the best it can to stamp out individual creativity. However, you should reserve time for creativity. It will clear your mind and make you much more efficient. Being creative may involve playing a musical instrument, making art, reading fiction, biking, etc. Go have some fun!

Career. What do you want to do when you grow up? Obviously you want to get an advanced degree, but to what end? You might want to go outside the academy. That can be an excellent choice with some very good payoffs. You might decide that you really enjoy teaching and want to go to a small liberal arts college. Don’t be put off by your peers who are going to rate you by whether you are “serious” and looking for a faculty position at R1 institutions. People differ in terms of their interests and their relative skills sets. Understand what you want to do early on and prepare yourself while still a student. If you want to go into a think tank, seek advice for the best set of tools that will allow you to be a success. Ignore your peers who might look down at you for not going to an R1. They probably won’t be going either and you’ll no doubt be happier.

Dissertation. There’s only one kind of dissertation: finished.

While graduate school may seem interminable, make use of it. Again, I see it as learning the norms, the skills and the knowledge to join the Guild. Good luck.


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