realist Posted March 4, 2008 Share Posted March 4, 2008 Advice from an actual PhD I am a tenure-track assistant prof in political science at a large state university. I was just informed of this forum by one of my students who has been active on it. In reading through the threads, I couldn't help but think about all the things that I wish that I had known before entering my PhD program. So with that, I thought that I'd give you some advice. While some of this may be hard to read, I offer it as-is, with only the thought that more knowledge is better than less knowledge. CHOOSING GRADUATE SCHOOL Your graduate school choice is probably the most important choice that you'll make in your career. Do not take this lightly. There are many reasons, but they boil down to some uncomfortable truths. 1. Only the best schools place students in academic jobs. While there are thousands of universities in the United States, there are many many many thousand more political science PhDs. 5-7 years is a very long time to spend in a low-paying job (which is what graduate school is) only to realize that you have chance for promotion. Even at top 10 institution, a good half of entering students do not end up with a PhD and a tenure track job. Is it fair that this is the case? No. Are there very smart graduate students that are not at top departments? Absolutely, there are literally thousands of them. But this is how the world works. And you have no chance to change it from "the inside" unless you are already at a top department. 2. Advisers are fickle beings. Especially outside of the top institutions, they are busy and pressed for time, and they cannot offer you the type of guidance and support that you may believe that you are going to get. I had a very close relationship with a very influential adviser, and saw him for about 10 minutes once every two or three weeks. This is the norm. Do not think that you will have a different experience. Moreover, good scholars are often terrible advisers. I think that one of the worst aspects of our profession is that at middle-range departments, top scholars often will not even acknowledge graduate students. 3. Graduate school is an unequal partnership between students, who receive very little and give very much, and faculty, who have many other things to do but rely on students to do things that are in the university's best interests. Graduate students are (1) essentially powerless and (2) extremely cheap labor. Universities have an incentive to keep a lot of graduate students around to fill instructor slots and TAships. This means that they will keep on a lot of graduate students who will never have a chance at a tenure-ladder job. This is a pathological system of incentives, and I find it repugnant, but this is the reality. So what sort of advice does this lead me to give? First off, above and beyond almost anything, you need to go to the best possible graduate school. It doesn't matter if you don't like Ann Arbor as much as Athens or Austin, graduate school matters tremendously for your future ability to get a job. At nearly every university or college, a PhD from Michigan will get your file looked at when applying for jobs. I know that this sounds harsh, but for most jobs, a job file from a school out of the top 25 won't even be considered. It will just go on the trash. Let this sink in. As a corollary, you need to think long and hard about graduate school if you do not have the opportunity to go to a top one. You should understand that you may not have a good chance of landing a tenure track job. The one's available to you, moreover, will likely be at "directional institutions" (think Northern X State) or small, low-ranked liberal arts colleges in the middle of nowhere. Even there, you will be competing with Harvard and Berkeley PhDs for a job. It's hard. It's not as hard as English or History, but nevertheless it's really hard. You should know this and plan accordingly. Do not choose graduate school based on who you "want to work with." Graduate students very seldom "work with" an adviser. If they do, this is *at best* as a second author, and even this is rare, and almost never enough to get you a job. This also assumes that your research interests don't change (RARE) and that your adviser is a nice and approachable person (OCCASIONAL). Remember, they are approachable during recruitment because you provide them with an unlimited supply of discount labor. They have their own worries and incentives, and these rarely align with yours. Likewise, funding matters. My general advice is that outside of a top 25 institution, you should not go to graduate school unless you have a full ride and a stipend large enough to live on. Without these, graduate school is a long and expensive process with little reward. There is a constant demand for doctors, so doctors can pay for medical school and still come out ahead. $200,000 in debt and only qualified for a very low paying job is a terrible situation that many PhDs find themselves in. It is tempting to think that a potential advisor's kind words mean that you are special. You are special, but so are many many others. Wherever you are, you will likely not even be the smartest or most successful member of your cohort. Do not fool yourself into thinking that you are the one who will buck the trends that I have described. It's just not likely. Finally, I have made a big point about top 25 schools. We all know that Stanford is and Purdue isn't, but what's the definitive list? Simply put, if you have to ask, your school is not in the top 25. YOUR CAREER If you decide to go to graduate school, congratulations. I mean this sincerely. You are embarking on the most intellectually rewarding period of your life. (Of course, intellectually and financially rewarding are not the same, as I mentioned previously.) Here are some brief tips. The best political scientists are the following five things: smart, creative, diligent, honest, and nice. Smart is obvious. The rest are not. The best political scientists are creative. They look at old problems in new ways, or they find new problems to look at. A good way to land a middling job (or no job) is to find a marginal improvement on an existing estimator, or take lessons from Paraguay and apply them to Uruguay. The best political scientists show us how our estimators are incorrect, or better yet, find new things to estimate. The best political scientists are diligent. They think about problems for years and years, they rewrite their draft papers repeatedly, they collect giant datasets from scratch, and they go into the field, learn the language, and stay there until they have learned something. There are no quick research trips, there are no obvious philosophical points, and there are no datasets that you can download with results you can write up in a week. The best political scientists are honest. There are many points at which you might fudge your work: creating a new dataset from scratch, during fieldwork, in writing up your results. You will be astounded at how frequent this is in our profession. Don't do it, for it always hurts you in the end. Being wrong and honest about it is OK. Being wrong and hiding it never works. Finally, the best political scientists are nice. It is tempting to be prickly to make yourself seem smart or to protect your ego. But the same person you criticize today might be in a position to give you a job tomorrow. As they say, make your words soft and sweet, for you never know when you may have to eat them. ************ I hope this helps you all. I wish you the very best of luck with your careers. gellert, jerpderplin, DwayneCarter93 and 5 others 2 6 Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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