Author Archives: Andy Owsiak

What to expect in graduate school: a primer

Editor’s Note: This post is co-authored with Chad ClayAssistant Professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia, and is cross-posted at Quantitative Peace. 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.

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The Hard Way #2: the Challenges of Writing

Part of “writing stuff down and sending stuff out” (see Post #1 here) is developing good writing habits. I by no means think I have this down. Nonetheless, I thought this series offered a good time to share my experiences – most of which I learned the hard way. What follows, then, are the things I learned about how to be a productive writer.

1. Set aside time consistently to write. This sounds like “obvious” advice. Yet when life happens, I often find writing to be one of the first things that I neglect. The reason is clear: ignoring my writing has no immediate repercussions. If I fail to prepare a class, miss a committee meeting, close down office hours, ignore the pile of grading, do not register grades, or postpone responding to my email, there may be various angry constituents banging on my door. The same does not happen when I delay the writing of a paper. At most, another day passes without progress (although the tenure clock keeps ticking).

I probably don’t need to make the case for establishing consistent writing time, but I will nevertheless share two benefits of this strategy to me personally. First, it re-connects me with the topics I love to study. Writing therefore makes me more enthusiastic about my job. And being consistently enthusiastic has positive effects on how I handle my other, various job duties. Second, when I step away from writing for too long, it takes me a significant amount of time to get back “into the groove” when I return to it. At these return moments, I find myself re-reading what I wrote and wondering what I was trying to say; re-visiting “do files” and deciphering code to determine what models I ran and what remains to be done; and (if relevant) re-connecting with co-authors to ensure we’re both headed in the same direction again. This re-familiarization costs me hours of work time that might be used elsewhere. The better, more efficient solution is to do something – no matter how small – on my current project every day. (Note: I regularly fail at this, but I keep trying to do it anyway.)

I suppose the next logical question is: how does one do this? As with all writing advice, it’s personal. But I can share my process. As I get busier, I become more absent minded, so I rely more heavily on my calendar now than ever before. On my calendar, I block off 2-4 hour sections of time for a project on 4-6 days/week. This marks the time as “busy” for me, but it also prepares me psychologically for the writing task at hand. I know that from 1-5pm on Friday, for example, I will be working on Project A. When that time comes, there is no indecision about what to do. I know what to do.

2. Set goals and deadlines. Some writers (e.g., Stephen King) enforce a daily word quota and then work (however long) until meeting that quota. This strategy does not work well for me, as I find that I can either write well or a lot, but not usually both. Nonetheless, there are other ways to set goals. For example:
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