An Open Letter from the New DGS

2 July 2014, 1552 EDT

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