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Things I wish I had known the first time around


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Without going into too many boring details, I went into a PhD program straight out of undergrad and decided a few years in that it was not a good fit for me and that it was time to move on. I am currently in the processing of reapplying to PhD programs and this experience, along with my time in grad school, has demonstrated that I had no idea what I was doing the first time around. That said, I figured I would share what I have learned in the hopes that it might help some people out there who like me were, whether they realized it or not, in over their head. That said, I begin with the caveat that I can only speak from my own experiences and those of the people I know from grad school so this is an inherently biased sample.

1) Rankings are useful, but they should not be the sole determinant of where you apply. I made the mistake of applying to only top 25 schools in a specific geographic region. In doing so I missed out on a lot of good schools that would have been a great fit. More importantly, the rankings, especially at the top, can be entirely uninformative. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. could not place a single student at an R1 for a number of yeras and they would not drop out of the top 10. Similarly, there are mid ranked schools who do a great job of training grad students and have amazing faculty and placement records that will never crack the top 15 (for a number of reasons). Lastly, some top schools have a large number of graduate students. This can be both a blessing and a curse. It can be a curse if there are 3-4 people in your market year who all do the same thing and want to work with the same people.

2) Placement records can be misleading. What you really want to know is where their PhDs have received tenure. There are many people who get top 15 or top 25 jobs and then fail to produce and are denied tenure. While the school may not be at fault for this, if there is a repeated pattern of this it may well indicate that students are not properly trained.

3) Look for schools that offer a research design and dissertation writing class. I have known a number of people who have struggled to write or even formulate dissertations because they had no idea how or where to begin. Having a course that forces you to think about what you want to do for a dissertation and then helps you make progress toward that goal can be invaluable.

4) Lastly, do not be afraid to leave graduate school or look into other programs if you are not happy. I know that this is not exactly cheery, but it is a piece of advice I really wish someone would have given me. A lot of very smart capable people, some of whom are very successful political scientists, have attended multiple PhD programs. More importantly, there are a lot of smart people who have, for whatever reason, decided that grad school is simply not for them.

I apologize if this is a bit disorganized and rambling, but I really do hope it might be helpful for at least a few people who are new to this whole process.

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