An Open Letter from the New DGS

by on 2014-07-02 in Duck- 12 Comments

Greetings, PhD Class of 2019.  Welcome.   We are excited for your arrival on campus later this summer.  As you enjoy your summer, I thought I’d take this opportunity to write you with some advice for your next adventure.  My comments are just based on my personal experiences but I thought maybe they would be of use to you as you start your PhD.

My first set of comments all revolve around one basic point: this isn’t an extension of undergrad.  The early course work you do in preparation for your PhD should be thought of as something completely different from your past experiences.  Even though the campus might look like your undergrad institution, even though there might be a football team and drink specials on Thursday nights – your days as a high-achieving undergrad are over.  For some of you, you might be 10 or 20 years post-undergrad. You might have multiple master’s degrees and real-world experience.  For others, you might have graduated just this summer.  For everyone, however, graduate school – at this program – is just beginning.  There are going to be lots of differences from your past experiences.  Let me highlight a few:

  • 1.  Be warned: there is a lot of grade inflation in PhD programs.  An A- is no longer a good thing.

 Most PhD programs in political science in the United States give two basic grades: A’s and everything else.  At MU, we use the +/- system.  You are going to want to strive for A’s and see anything less than an A- as a real signal of problems with your course performance.  These problems could make the comprehensive exam process difficult for you.  In our department, anything less than a 3.4 GPA can result in a loss of your funding. I’ve seen multiple letters of recommendation for academic jobs from professors where B’s on transcripts had to be explained.  You don’t want to be in that situation.  Understanding what a good grade actually is in grad school will help you understand the feedback you are receiving early on in the program.

  •  2.  You need to realize when to talk in graduate seminars. 

In undergrad, you can get a good grade without speaking up in class.  In a PhD program, that isn’t going to happen.  You need to prepare to speak about the course readings for every class.  You should read each week with that in mind. If you aren’t talking in seminar, you are hurting yourself.  It might be uncomfortable but you are going to have to work on this as part of your career preparation.

Some of you might have the opposite problem: you might be too used to speaking in seminar about things that are not directly related to the readings.  You’ll want to watch for feedback from your professors that could indicate you are dominating the discussion with things that are tangential to the main point of class.

  • 3.  Attendance is often mandatory (although, it might not be stated that way).

First off, do not miss class.  You need to see class times as work times and only miss in dire situations (and, typically only after talking with your advisors and instructor).  Also important, however, is your attendance at department events like brownbags, mock job talks, and lectures by outside scholars.  These events give you an indication of what life in academia is like and will help you prepare for your career.  Although these events may not be stated as mandatory, you really need to be in attendance.

  • 4.  You’re going to want to keep good notes and records.

The first few years of a PhD program involve a lot of reading.  You won’t be able to remember what you need to remember if you don’t develop a note taking procedure that (a) works with your learning style and that (b) you can use in the future.  I still refer to notes I took about articles during my first few years in grad school.  It is a great time-saver and will help with comps.

Also important are the record-keeping practices you develop about your research.  Research transparency is a requirement: you need to develop and keep records of how you work with datasets and how you code information.  When your work gets published, you will have to hand over the replication files for your research.  Developing good practices about research transparency now can help you in the future.

Further, you want to start keeping records of your emails and discussions with faculty advisors.  It’s just a good practice for your later career.

  • 5.  Now is not the time to be dogmatically for or against any research approach. 

I started grad school with a general idea that quantitative methods were the death of political science.  This idea, probably from some well-meaning undergrad instructor, kept me from fully embracing what I needed to be learning.   Be open-minded, especially when it comes to developing your research skills.  My early-on dogmatic leanings were probably somewhat linked my math phobia.  Now is the time to brush up on your math and statistical basics.  Don’t let your own hang-ups stop you from success.

With those basic ideas about success in grad school laid out, let me move on to more long term concerns.  Many of you may have only vague ideas about what PhDs actually do – I for one had no clue about what a professor actually did or about how a PhD could help/hurt me in terms of non-academic jobs.  Even though it may seem like a long time in the future, my next set of comments all concern your well-being at the end of the PhD process.

  • 6.  Your  preparation for getting a job should have started yesterday. 

A PhD program is not a 5 year “time-out” in terms of paying back your student loans or thinking about getting a job in a struggling economy.  You need to begin to understand the possibilities and the difficulties that come from trying to get any job with a PhD.  Be proactive about getting a grip on the academic and nonacademic career options you have.

  • 7.  Publish.   

The only way I know to drastically improve the chances that you get any job at the end of this process is to publish in peer-reviewed academic journals.  I like to encourage our students to send something out by the end of the fall of the third year.  Publishing is difficult.  Regardless of the type of school you would like to teach at or whether you even want an academic career, publishing is going to signal that you have the skills employers want to see.  You need to start talking to me and your advisors about publishing during your first year as a grad student.  Many times, students take their manuscripts to academic conferences.  I encourage you to think about attending a conference in your third year of graduate school.  We want to make sure that any conference experiences you have help you make your personal brand known to the larger academic community.

  • 8.  Your love of Topic X will sometimes not be enough. 

I can’t tell you how many times prospective PhD students have told me how much they love studying war or how much they just love learning –  many times students think this is a justification for getting a PhD and will help them succeed.  I’m not that sure it does.  We all love what we study but people who watch cable news also share our same passions.  Loving research may help you do some initial research into a topic.  That alone however is not going to help you do the multitude of revisions that are necessary to get a project published.  This career takes tenacity.  This brings me to my next point:

  • 9.  You ARE going to think about leaving the program.  

It’s common to have doubts at all stages in academia.  I remember seriously thinking about dropping out of academia many times in my career.  This is normal and, quite frankly, if you realize that this isn’t what you want out of life, you should feel empowered to leave.  Life is short.  A PhD can be the beginning of a great career.  Don’t let it become a hang-up, however, to something you could be doing that you would like better.

  • 10. Your health should be a priority. 

Academia can be a lonely place that can exasperate unhealthy habits.  Getting the career you want at the stage you want (ie for academics, this could be post- tenure) is a long process.  Be proactive about your health and well-being.  Bad things will happen in the process.  Your attitude can help.

In short, the next few years are a roller-coaster ride.  You’re going to have times where it is a lot of fun and times where you wonder why you are here.   I care about your personal and professional success and want to help you succeed – in whatever way you define success.  You alone, however, are responsible for your path. Please feel free to contact me with any concerns you have.


Your Friendly DGS






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  • Amanda Murdie

    A friend in the discipline sent some more advice to share:

    1. If you’re obnoxious and abrasive, few (if any) people will want to work with you no matter how smart you are. Tenured faculty may be be able to get away with such behavior, but that doesn’t mean you will. If you’re unpleasant to work with, people will look elsewhere – there are always people as smart or smarter.

    2. The relationship between grad student and professor is, for better or for worse, a very asymmetric one. Which is to say, you have to meet their deadlines – but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily feel obligated to reciprocate. And you will spend a lot more time worrying about what your advisor thinks of you than s/he will spend actually thinking about you.

  • Ginger

    I think in point 6 you mean “Your preparation” not “You’re preparation”

  • Amanda Murdie

    Thanks! I’ll change that now! Whoops!

  • Andrew Szarejko

    My friendly DGS,

    Thanks for the tips! You mention that a PhD program is not a 5-year time-out. Any recommendations on ensuring that we do indeed finish in 5 years?

    Member, PhD class of 2019

  • David

    Some discussion of nominal vs. real time to degree might be instructive. Do your students really finish in five years, or do you just hope/say that they will? Certainly taking a very long time to finish can hurt on the job market, but most candidates in our searches have been in grad school for six to nine years. Students need to be realistic about their health and especially their finances if it’s very likely going to take longer than the program pretends it will take.

    Then again, maybe the DGS has to take the party line. But prospective graduate students should ask how long it really takes at each prospective institution or with each prospective advisor.

  • W. K. Winecoff

    Amanda, nice post! Very useful. I completely agree that getting something out by year 3 is key.

    Andrew, in my experience — one year removed from my PhD defense, which I completed in 5 years b/c I wouldn’t have funding if I didn’t! — this came from simply following the program’s guidelines. That will often be: an MA thesis or bypass paper by the end of year 2. Comps in year 3, plus finishing a bit of coursework and making headway on a dissertation topic. Defend the dissertation prospectus no later than early Fall of year 4. Write the dissertation in years 4 and 5. You can get all that done if you diligently follow your department’s track even if you do some fieldwork. Certain research programs will require longer periods of time in the field that could push things into a 6th year, which isn’t uncommon, but past 6 years I’d start to ask questions about where the time went.

    If you write a 3-article dissertation this basically means writing 50 pages per year in years 4-5 while taking zero classes. It could be a bit more or less, but either way it’s certainly doable: that’s one page per week. If you write a book as your dissertation this breaks down to about 1/2 page per day for 2 years. Again, this is doable.

    One trick is to try to make all your early-year work useful towards the end goal. Use your seminar papers as dry-runs for your MA thesis and dissertation prospectus. It’s not useful to survey literatures that do not pertain to your research projects, so do your best to avoid that. Learn methods that are appropriate for your research questions and use your methods classes to learn what data are available, how good it is (and whether you’ll need to collect more for your dissertation), how to clean/code/reshape as needed, etc. If you do this, by the time you’re writing for real you’ll know the deficiencies of the literature, the data/methods that are commonly used (and hopefully how they are deficient as well), and how you can make a contribution. This will help you write an MA thesis that is publishable, a dissertation prospectus that is defendable, and a dissertation that is salable in a job talk.

    David, my sense is that across the discipline funding for years past 5 is becoming rarer, absent some kind of justification that goes beyond “I’m just not finished yet”. In my case the department had agreed on this principle beginning with the year I matriculated, and they were very clear about it. This seems to be because of the computing revolution — which makes source-search and computation much less time-consuming — and increased competition in the face of increased scarcity.

    Having recently come through a top-15ish program in 5 years, for me a 9 year PhD better have multiple publications and/or a truly ground-breaking dissertation — in addition to a good teaching portfolio and several demonstrable advanced skills — to get a long look. Many who finish in 5 will have to submit their tenure files after 5-6 years as APs, so I would compare the CV of a 8-9 year PhD to someone who has been out for at least 2-3 years. Put another way: given an extra 3-4 years, how far along would the 5 year PhD be given the track record they’ve established so far? That seems like the appropriate metric. One or two publications probably isn’t enough unless they are really big, and maybe not even then given the CVs I’m seeing from ABDs these days. FWIW I look at non-teaching post docs the same way.

  • Ryan_Enos

    I wonder if we sometimes put emphasis on #7, publishing, without good evidence that it actually matters. When we stop and consider it, the act of publishing is going to be endogenous to doing good research (in theory anyway), so we might be attributing a benefit to publishing that isn’t real. Of course, all else equal, a publication is better than no publication and it can provide a signal, but a job candidate’s best work is going to be read by a committee whether it is published or not, so the marginal cost of publishing might not be worth it. Of course, what I just said is more true of high-ranked programs where the candidate’s application will get a serious look, regardless of publications – nevertheless I often worry that we put too much pressure on publication for graduate students, which can have some negative results, such as rushing research and publishing in low-quality outlets, which might be a negative signal.

  • Mary Manjikian

    I’m wondering you could tell us a bit more about the ‘three article dissertation’. It’s a phrase we’ve begun hearing, but I”m not familiar with it. In what schools is this becoming the norm and how exactly is it structured?

  • Zachary Shirkey

    I think it depends a bit on where the PhD is from and what sort of job you want. A teaching institution with a 4/4 load isn’t going to care all that much if you published in grad school or not. A more research oriented place will want to see publication or a dissertation that shows signs of producing a lot of publications. An R1 place might insist upon it, if not officially, in practice because they get lots of applicants with at least some publications. In my experience, more and more job applicants even for non-R1 type jobs have publications–in good outlets–so I think it is becoming more and more of a need. And if you want a research oriented job and aren’t going to school at a top 20 program, publication in a good outlet is a must.

  • Alexis Henshaw

    There’s some really good advice here, especially regarding the need to decide on a dissertation topic as soon as possible, and then make all your seminar papers, etc., point in that direction. However, I’d add that the program also has a responsibility to enable students to get to completion timely by providing solid advisement and manageable TA workloads. A program that has its advanced students teaching solo courses of 40 or more students every semester just isn’t going to see most of them finish in five years.

  • W. K. Winecoff

    I think it varies a lot by department and by subfield within departments. IR seems to be more diverse than other subfields. In some places, the thinking seems to be that because articles are the currency of the discipline giving yourself a chance to get 2, 3, or 4 publications out of your dissertation can be worth it. I believe that some people really dislike this, as it might push students to ask narrower questions or engage less with thick theory, but it seems to be more common than it used to be.

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