What to Expect in Graduate School: A Primer

Editor’s Note: This post is co-authored with Andrew P. Owsiak, Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia, and is cross-posted at Relations International.  It also owes a debt to our colleagues in UGA’s Departments of International Affairs and Political Science that participated in the Graduate Student Professionalization seminar on September 12, 2014.

Last week, we, along with several of our UGA School of Public and International Affairs colleagues, met with graduate students in our program to talk about graduate school expectations. For first year students, this was an introduction to graduate school. For those past their first year, it was a refresher. Over the course of the meeting, a few points were raised that we feel may be of broad interest, and so we have listed those points below. Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive graduate school survival guide.  For more guidance on these issues, you should check out the recent posts by Amanda Murdie and David Shorter on the topic.

You will have existential crises.

You will ask yourself why you chose graduate school. You may even contemplate quitting. It is normal to think about this. You’re making a large career decision by going to graduate school, and it makes sense to ask yourself along the way whether it is really the path you want. As you ask and answer these questions, though, talk with other graduate students and (if appropriate) faculty members. Your thoughts may be motivated by a short-term issue (e.g., not understanding the political science jargon), which remedies itself over the longer-run.

Likewise, students also tend to believe that everyone around them “gets it” more than they do in the early stages of graduate school.  Indeed, most political scientists have stories about the moments in graduate school when they were convinced that everyone else in their classes knew more, was better prepared, was getting more sleep and exercise, had better ideas, etc.  In the vast majority of cases, these things simply weren’t true.  Those students that seem to “get it”?  They likely feel the same way that you do.  This is yet another reason to get to know your fellow graduate students, talk with them, and work with them.  You are all in this foxhole together, and graduate school is much easier when you help one another through the hard times.

The initiative is yours.

You control your own success – in courses, in getting published, and in getting jobs. If you want help with an assignment, you will need to seek help. If you want to get published, you will need to produce an article to submit somewhere for review. If you want to get a job, you may need to find an internship, prepare job market materials, or research positions in which you’re interested. The onus is on you.

Of course, faculty members are definitely available to assist you. Yet they are often pulled in many directions – courses, research, student interactions, advising/mentoring, committees, etc. This does not mean they don’t want to interact with you; it just means that you need to seek them out. Feel free, for example, to contact those faculty members with whom you share research interests or to forward papers to faculty members for feedback. If and when you contact faculty members, however, we’ll offer four guiding principles:

  • Keep emails and/or in-person meetings as short as possible. The earlier you are in your career, the shorter these communications/meetings will generally be.
  • Use scheduled office hours if you can. Faculty members expect to talk with students during this time.
  • If you’re meeting in-person about something, send the faculty member an “agenda” and any related documents they need to review a few days before the scheduled meeting – even if during office hours.
  • If your question is long or might require a long response, meet in-person instead of using email.

Overall, keep in mind that faculty members are busy, tired, and flawed human beings just like you.  As such, if you are going to get the most out of your interactions with faculty members, you will need to learn to engage in some “upward management” of the type discussed by Chris Blattman and Macartan Humphreys.  Further, remember that there are many resources to assist you besides faculty members. Other graduate students – especially those ahead of you in the program – will often share their insights about comprehensive exams, publishing, teaching, the job market process, and so on. Indeed, if you want to understand the best ways of working with a certain faculty member, there are few resources better than the graduate students that have previously worked with that faculty member. There are also a number of campus offices that might assist you – e.g., Center for Teaching and Learning, Writing Center, Career Center (for those not going the academic route). To increase your chances of success, use all the resources to which you have access.

The atmosphere is more professional than undergrad, and expectations therefore rise.

One common mistake students make is treating graduate school as an extension of their undergraduate education. They attend class, complete (most/some) readings, and turn in their assignments – expecting that this is sufficient for success. Yet coursework is only one part of graduate school – and arguably, not even the most important part.

In any discipline, graduate school is about professional training (e.g., law school, medical school). PhD programs in political science are no different (minus the cadavers) – regardless of whether your aim is to be in the policy community, the non-profit sector, or academia. To get the most out of this training, treat it as a job. We’ll explain what we mean by this, and then we’ll add two caveats.

Treating graduate school like a job requires you to think of it like a “job” – in terms of time and scope. In terms of time, for example, consider the business world equivalent. One of us held an office job before graduate school, and this required being at a desk from 9am to 5pm. No flexibility, no excuses. You’re present, or you’re not paid. You can impose a similar (perhaps looser) mindset on your graduate school experience. Are you working your 8 hours/day, or is it closer to 5 or 6? In other words, are you “showing up” and “working,” or does the flexibility of graduate school mean that non-work related things (e.g., Facebook, social events, etc.) tend to dominate your schedule. If you aren’t “showing up” and “working,” you can’t reasonably expect success, in this or any other career. In terms of scope, think beyond coursework. As a student, most departments will expect you to attend departmental speakers (e.g., job talks or visiting scholars) and any departmentally organized “brownbag series” (i.e., usually a speaker series in which different members of the department present to each other as a way to get feedback on their work). Furthermore, they will want to see you attending (at first) and presenting (later) at professional conferences in the field. Attendance at these is usually “voluntary” – which in graduate school means that you do not have to go, but that faculty members will notice who is or is not present and engaged. This last point is important. During graduate school, you become a colleague of your faculty members (just like after graduating medical school, everyone – faculty and students – are doctors). If you want to be seen as a colleague (and later want the faculty to recommend you as a colleague for employment elsewhere), you need to act like a colleague.

Two caveats are in order. First, we recognize that students often hold research/teaching assistantships and/or second jobs. We’ve done this too. Ultimately, though, you’ll need to find a balance. The more time you spend on graduate school-related tasks, the better for your degree progress and professional success. Second, some people will argue that graduate students must work 60-80 hours per week to succeed. This may be true. We also think, however, that students can work “smarter.” Time between events – e.g., classes – is often lost. You might try setting up a calendar in which you block time for reading for particular courses or writing specific assignments/papers. It sounds simple, but knowing what you will work on when means that you do not have to decide what to do when the time comes. And, of course, schedule personal time away from work – to provide some balance so you don’t burn out.  More on this below.

There will be a high volume of reading, and you’ll be expected to know and discuss it.

Graduate syllabi demand a lot of reading. On top of this, students are expected to discuss this material in depth in the classroom. And because many graduate seminars are small, there is nowhere to hide! This means you need to be prepared (see previous point). Faculty members can tell when people are “faking it” – even if they don’t call you out in the middle of the seminar.

So how do you get through all the readings you have to complete? The best strategy is to learn the “shortcuts” to reading academic work faster. This does not mean only reading the abstracts, introductions, and conclusions. It does, however, mean knowing what to prioritize (i.e., where to spend more time). For example, most academic books have a “theory chapter.” Articles also have a “theory section.” The argument might be summarized elsewhere (e.g., abstract, introduction, conclusion), but its details appear here. Spend much of your time thinking about and dissecting the argument.

Books and articles also have “results sections” and “research design sections” (although oftentimes, these are merged within books). As you become immersed in the field, you can read results tables (if the study is quantitative) and see the author’s findings in a snapshot. Less time is therefore generally needed here. This is not to say that you should “blow off” these sections – only that you should read them faster.

Of course, reading and understanding scholarly research is a skill, and it will continue to develop over time.  You will not be as good at this in your first year as you are in your third.  Further, if you want to save yourself a large amount of time down the road (1) take good notes on your readings and (2) keep them as organized as possible.  The things you read in your first year of grad school will continue to pop up throughout your career.  If you take good notes now and keep them organized, there is a good chance that your future self will benefit a great deal from your present self’s conscientiousness.

Your work will be criticized, so develop a thick skin.

Graduate seminars often involve criticizing scholarly work. Where are the logical problems or inconsistencies in theoretical arguments? Where are the opportunities for improving a work? Does the research design adequately match the theoretical argument? Are methods used appropriately? The goal of these questions is not to “trash” the authors or their work. Rather, we, as a field, seek ways to move research forward. The best way to do this is to be critical.

As a graduate student, we train you to be consumers and producers of knowledge. On the producing end, this means that we will ask you to conduct original research. Then, we will criticize that work to improve it.  Two things are worth remembering about this process. First, nobody writes a perfect first draft. If you don’t believe us, look at the first footnotes of peer-reviewed journal articles. This is typically where authors thank others for offering them feedback. What you’ll notice is that even the “big names” receive feedback – meaning that their first draft work is not perfect. Second, faculty members get no benefit from telling you that your work needs improvement. Reading drafts and providing goods comments is a time consuming activity. A faculty member that truly “didn’t care” about you would therefore not spend their time giving you critical feedback. In contrast, the vast majority of faculty members do this because they want you to succeed. For example, addressing any weaknesses within your work before it enters the publication process gives you a greater chance of getting that work accepted for publication.

In short, the best thing you can do as a student is learn to separate criticism about your work from criticism about you as a person. Then, seek out constructive criticism to make your work as strong as possible.

Success is partially a function of hours logged.

We wish there were a short-cut to graduate school success. There is not. How do you become an expert in “the literature”? Spend time reading. How do you become an expert at doing research? Spend time writing. How do you become better at methods? Spend time reading about and working with them.

This relates to treating graduate school as a job (see above), and we wish to underscore it here. The first year of graduate school can be disorienting. People are asking you to do things you’ve never done and are often speaking a language you do not understand (e.g., endogeneity, multicollinearity, theoretical mechanism). Brute force – that is, logging hours – can go a long way toward helping you learn what to do and what language to use. And this skill, once developed, becomes important later on too. In academia, department heads/chairs don’t force you to clock in daily or show them finished products weekly or monthly. You have to log the hours, and you have to produce the work. Otherwise, you won’t succeed.

Self-care isn’t selfish.

It also isn’t lazy, wasteful, or any other pejorative you can throw at it.  While it is certainly important to put in the hours necessary to get the most out of graduate school, it is very easy to let work take over your life and crowd out the things that keep you healthy.  As such, it is important to establish healthy habits early in your career.  When you take an hour to exercise, make a healthy meal, go to the doctor, or spend some time with your loved ones, it is likely that a little voice will emerge in your head, screaming about how you should be working at that moment.  That drive can be useful, but it can also be destructive.  Take time management seriously, make time in your schedule for yourself, and take your own mental and physical health seriously.  There’s no point in pursuing a career if you won’t be around to enjoy it.

Take time to enjoy and savor the experience.

Graduate school will sometimes feel like an all-consuming black hole from which you will never escape.  However, it is important not to let that feeling overtake the entire experience.  If you are in graduate school, you hopefully enjoy what you are studying.  It will be a long time before you will have this much opportunity to explore and grow as a scholar again.  Take advantage of it.  Get to know your fellow graduate students, write as much as possible, and pursue your passions.  A time may come when you wish you could return to graduate school days and the flexibility and growth they offered.  Do your best to make the most of them now.

We are sure there are important points we’ve missed.  If you have any ideas or suggestions, please feel free to bring them up in the comments.

K. Chad Clay

About K. Chad Clay

K. Chad Clay is an assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia and co-director of the CIRI Human Rights Data Project. His research focuses on the impact of international factors on human rights practices, political violence, and economic development. He received his PhD in political science from Binghamton University in 2012.

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