Tag: graduate school

Rule Number One For Graduate School Applicants

Spring (where it exists) is the time of year when applicants to PhD programs find out the outcome and decide where, if any place, to go.  While there are many factors that one must take into account, including what might happen if your preferred adviser leaves (Will Moore’s take and mine), there is something far more fundamental: are you going to get funding?*  If the answer is no, then the decision is painful but easy: don’t go.

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10 Steps to Finishing a PhD Thesis (or book) in 6 Months

Most academics will admit to themselves and students that the majority of dissertations and books are written in a 6 month block of time (the remainder of the post focuses on a PhD process, but it can be easily applied to book writing). I’m talking here about the WRITING process- not the research, figuring out the question, organizing the chapters etc (no wizard can do all that in 6 months- at least not this wizard). But once you’ve done your (field) research, reading, thinking through the chapters, taking notes etc. it really should only take you 6 months to finish the thesis. For PhD students this is referred to as the end of the faffing about/procrastination/reading gawker and people.com daily/existential crisis about the structure of the thesis phase and the start of the “time to suck it up, close the office door, shut off the email, and just f#$@king write” phase.

So how can one get a complete draft of the thesis done in 6 months? Here is the 10-Step Process to Completion.

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When is it rational to leave graduate school?

Among the many interesting things about graduate school is its propensity to spark greater drinking than I ever thought possible. After preparing (most of) a three-hour talk on using R, I definitely found that celebrating America’s greatest brewer-turned-patriot was useful. (For the benefit of readers who are serious snobs, my favorite beers are much more hoppy and more indie than anything brewed by such a large producer.)

I’m more interested, though, in the thoughts of those who have problems that can’t be solved by the sweet release of Mr. Adams’s brewery. In particular, Dan and I would like to hear from students who are either at the end of their rope with graduate school–or who have already passed that point, and decided to leave.

There’s no way around it: Grad school sometimes sucks. For those who left: when did you decide it was too much? For those who are struggling with whether to stay in: What keeps you going? What pushes you out?

Please post via comments or feel free to email me with your stories. I hope it goes without saying, but anonymity is super guaranteed.


Wednesday Morning Linkage

Dan Nexon is not responsible for
today’s links.

Dan is traveling today, so it’s the Duck of Minerva’s version of Assistant Editor’s Month (or, perhaps, assistant to the editor‘s month):


A warning to parents

Just say no to theory.

Parents: Are you worried that your college students aren’t interested in the real world anymore? Are they growing distant from conversations about foreign policy at the dinner table? Are your college students getting involved with international relations theory? Could it lead to a destructive path toward an M.A.–or even a Ph.D.?

If you’re worried that your child could become a graduate student, you need to know the warning signs:

  • Abstracting too much.
    Real foreign policy professionals resist the urge to generalize, unless they’re doing so as part of a doctrine named for a president. IR students spend too much time trying to understand international politics without reading the New York Times or Council on Foreign Relations task-force reports. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy–and all theory and no facts make Jack, Ph.D., unemployable.
  • Upsetting the conventional wisdom.
    Is your son or daughter spending all of his or her time trying to disprove the proposition that 1648 marked the beginning of the modern states-system? That’s unhealthy. Why spend time obsessing over such historical minutiae when the European Union is in trouble today?
  • Learning about methodology.
    True, some exposure to methods can provide useful, marketable skills.
    Qualitative methods leads to better writing; quantitative research can help your child land a job in predictive analytics, data science, or data visualization. But too much exposure to methodology turns them into asocial neurotics, blabbering about improper uses of “process tracing” or “Mahalanobis distances.” In terminal forms, this interest can lead to drawing distinctions between “methods” and “methodology” that even most practicing researchers don’t recognize.
  • Obsessing about originality.
    When you share a well-written Nicholas Kristof or Tom Friedman piece from the Sunday Times magazine with them, does your child mutter something about “N of one” or “neoliberal shibboleths”? If so, they may be in danger of becoming graduate students.

If your child is displaying any of these tendencies, there may still be hope. We recommend a thorough course of treatment here at the Duck of Minerva’s Institute of Medicine, where one of our skilled quacks will diagnose the severity of the symptons and place your child on a route to employability.


New Page: Academia and Graduate School

I’ve put together a collection, albeit not a comprehensive one, of posts at the Duck of Minerva that focus on what might be called “the profession.” The link is now a tab (Academia and Graduate School) below our banner.

The rationale? Many of our most consistently popular pieces — including ones that still get significant hits years after their publication — fall into this category, so I think it might be a good service to try to consolidate links to them.

In theory, post labels should do that, but after seven years of myriad bloggers our “labels” are a disaster. We have over a thousand; they seem to break the blogger widget, which I have been unable to reinstall.

The page remains a work in progress. We’ll add more posts over time. Noticeable absences include Brian Rathbun’s cutting pieces on the discipline.


Applying for a PhD in Political Science

I get a lot of emails asking for advice about putting together their graduate-school applications. I also get a lot of emails asking how to “improve” an application to make it “more competitive.” I suspect that these emails come to me because I am Director of Admissions in the Government Department, and people assume that part of my job description is “helping them get into graduate school.”

Nonetheless, because I like to think of myself as a “nice person,” I try to answer these queries with the sage advice that comes from many years on admissions committees. But it grows tiring to write the same basic words over and over and over again. “Perhaps,” I think to myself, “I could put my advice in a blog post and simply provide a link?”

General Issues

1. I teach at Georgetown and not at, say, Harvard or Princeton. We have a solid PhD program with excellent students, but we are not as competitive as the so-called “top tier.” Yet we routinely receive, for example, over three hundred applicants in the subfield of International Relations. And two fellowships. In some years we will let in twenty people aiming for a class of five. Do the math.

That’s right… you have a slightly better chance of getting into our IR PhD than a high-school senior has of getting into Harvard. Some years your chances are worse. The odds of being offered a fellowship are significantly lower.

Given that our pool is already rather self-selected, this means that the number of people who apply and are “above the bar” greatly exceeds the number of spaces we have in our program. As college admissions officers sometimes say, we could throw out everyone we admit and still come up with a perfectly good entering class–probably two or three. So check your ego at the door, mate, because otherwise you risk getting it needlessly crushed.

2. Despite this wealth of qualified applicants, the admissions process is fraught with error and uncertainty.

“What?” I hear you think. “Didn’t you just say that you could put together many good classes out of your admissions pool.”
“Ah, yes,” I respond. “I forgot to mention that these classes are on paper.”

Well, here’s the funny thing. Being ‘smart’ or even ‘brilliant’ is not the same thing as being a successful academic. That requires:

  • The capacity to self-regulate such that you work without much in the way of adult supervision;
  • The ability to ‘produce knowledge’ and not simply excel in taking exams and writing collegiate papers;
  • The willingness to accept that you will make less money than most people with comparable educational profiles; and, most important
  • That special something (perhaps arrogance, perhaps imperviousness, perhaps non-neurotypical cognition) that enables you to continue on in the face of rejection… after rejection… after rejection.

It is extremely difficult to recognize which of the many otherwise successful, well-recommended, high-achieving applicants would make decent academics. In short, serving on an admissions committee is to operate in a high noise, low signal environment.

Implications for your Application

Your application has four central components: your grades, your test scores, your research statement, and your letters of recommendation. They are important. That’s why we ask for them.

1. Grades. Higher grades are better. Good grades in political science classes, cognate classes, and statistics are important. Other points:

  • If you have some questionable marks on your transcript, try to get a recommender to contextualize them.
  • If you went to a school that doesn’t suffer from an epidemic of grade inflation, gently remind your recommenders to note that fact. You cannot rely on admissions committee members to know or notice. 
  • Many admissions-committee members cannot make sense of foreign transcripts, so ask your recommenders to contextualize your academic performance.

Do you notice a pattern here? Good. If you don’t, stop reading. Graduate school is not for you.

Not everyone who would make a reasonable academic does well in college. My grades were a bit of a shambles. Nonetheless, it is increasingly difficult to make it through the process without strong grades.

If your grades are not strong and you are hell-bent on getting a PhD in political science, try doing well in an MA program. But keep in mind that most MA programs have very compressed scales, such that “doing well” often involves a grade point average pushing 4.0. Also, don’t get an MA degree just to get a PhD degree. That’s a massive waste of money.

2. Test Scores. Applicants seeking to “improve” their portfolios often ask me if they should try to bring up their GRE scores. Unless doing so is mathematically impossible, the answer is “yes.”

While some of us question the fixation on high GRE scores, we are a minority. Moreover, administrators and the National Research Council think that average GRE scores indicates something about the “strength” of a PhD program. At least some members of admissions committees get the message.

3. The Research Statement. Here’s an interesting fact: students’ dissertations rarely resemble what they wrote about in their research statement. Here’s another interesting fact: research statements matter a great deal.

A good research statement does two things.

First, it demonstrates that you have a clue about what political-science research is about. This means being able to lay out puzzles or problems, relate them to general literatures, and say something vaguely plausible about how you might address them. However, recall that the committee knows that — with the possible exception of your regional interests — your research statement will be totally obsolete after a year or two in graduate school. Thus, you should avoid being overly specific lest you (a) come across as crazy and (b) zero out the number of professors we think you might wind up working with.

So, for example, you might say that you are interested in “international organizations” and provide us with a plausible story about how you developed this interest. You might then list a few specific, and related, dimensions of international organizations that you think are puzzling and thus worthy of study. You would show that you know some of the current literature, and mention how you intend to address the problems in that literature.

Second, it strokes the ego of the admissions committee by making them think you really want to study in their department. Be sure to explain why [[Department]] is an excellent place for you to pursue your research. Describe how the work of [[Professor]] and [[Professor]] on [[subject]], as well as [[Professor]] and [[Professor]] on [[other subject]] is a good fit for your plan of study. But try to make it look like you aren’t cut-and-pasting. And do a bit more than just glance through the website. We can tell.

At places like Georgetown, you also want to pay attention to the difference between units. For example, listing people who you really want to work with that are non-tenure-track faculty in the School of Foreign Service? Bad idea.

4. Letters of Recommendation. For some of us, recommendations are the most important part of the package. A letter that effectively signals your potential can make an enormous difference. Thus, at least two of your recommendations should almost always come from college professors who are familiar with your academic performance. People with academic experience in government, think tanks, or other vocations are okay, but only if they understand that their recommendations must speak in an informed manner to your suitability for a successful academic career.

Your boss might think that you are the most awesome employee she’s ever had.

We don’t care.

Your platoon leader may think that you are the best soldier he’s ever led.

That’s nice.

The CEO of your company may think that you will make a great college professor.


Your politically influential connection may think, as she recently told her best friend (who just happens to be on our board of directors, she writes), that you really must be admitted to our PhD program.

Drat. This means that  I will have to spend a few minutes writing a short note — in which I explain why we denied you admission. 

But now I’m going to walk the snark back a bit.

If your college professors aren’t an option, try to minimize the number of letters that fall into the above categories. Try to find people who have academic experience. Choose recommenders who can, and will, speak specifically to analytical and research capabilities.

There is, however, an exception to this rule. If you have been out of school for a while you will want to aim for two academic letters and one letter from a manager who knows you extremely well. Under these circumstances, the non-academic letter gives us an indication of how you’ve developed since you graduated and serves as a reality check for the faded memories of your professors. But make sure your boss, platoon leader, or whatever understands that, in addition to commenting on your character and professionalism, we really need to know about your ability to work on your own and your analytic skills.


Writing an undergraduate thesis is a major plus. This process, along with writing an MA thesis, is the closest you will likely have had to writing a dissertation. It sends us a signal that you have some idea what you are in for and that you can produce a substantial research project.

At Georgetown, we do admit unfunded students. Some of these students are our most successful. In general, though, I agree with the consensus: it doesn’t make sense to attend a PhD program without funding. I followed this route, but I had a spouse who made money, help from relatives, and a nasty debt burden afterward.

Do not badger Directors of Admissions and Fellowships. They are slow to anger but their wrath is terrible to behold.

Questions or contributions? Don’t be an idiot, this is a blog with a comments section.

UPDATE: the comments section already has excellent additions on the subject of signaling academic potential by presenting at conferences and the like; the fact that, unlike college admissions officers, we generally don’t care about your extra-curricular activities; and so on.

Also: see Dan Drezner making similar points a few months back.


The tradeoffs of getting to graduate school in political science

This is the nerd equivalent of a dad joke.

A pair of posts today from political scientists I admire prompts me to postpone my musings on the Hunger Games and to talk about how to get to graduate school in political science again instead. In an effort to convince you to read on, I’ll name the authors of the two posts: Dan Drezner and Chris Blattman.

Dan Drezner writes about how a post-graduate (non-Ph.D.) degree can help you to get into the doctoral program of your dreams. I’m surprised, by the way, that Dan doesn’t address the burning issue of whether it’s a good idea to go directly from undergrad to grad school. Ten years ago, when I first began thinking about turning pro, the standard advice from my professors was to wait a year or two. They argued that a year or two of work experience helped you mature after the unstructured bliss of college, and furthermore that it was pretty easy to give up money and security in principle but that giving up those things after having had them represented a deeper, truer commitment to the academic vocation.

But Dan’s post is useful nonetheless, because he addresses the fact that many of us in grad school didn’t decide we wanted to do this until we were well on our way out of our undergrad institutions. Some of his advice is obvious–do well on your GREs, write a good personal statement, and so on–but some of it is not, such as whether it’s a good idea to get a terminal master’s before going to a Ph.D. program.

Yet I think Dan neglects one important point, which stands out all the more clearly when this post is read in conjunction with part one of his series. As political science becomes more scientistic, undergrad training in techniques (game theory, math, and so on) is ever more critical. In other words, if you’re a junior applying to graduate programs next year, it’s time to load up on stats and math right now–and if you’ve been out a few years, you might actually find that your preparation in computer science and other symbol-manipulation fields has been insufficient to prepare you to do cutting-edge research. But the converse of this professionalization, as Blattman notes, is that vast chunks of political science are being dismissed–and professors may find that their grad students can write R code in their sleep but can’t tell Tocqueville from Trotstky. Continue reading


If At First You Do Not Succeed

Lots of posts these days about whether to go to grad school for a PhD, including by Dan DreznerDrew Herrick has a nice post that not only presents his views but heaps of links to past posts by various folks (including myself) on this topic.  What these blogs have largely omitted is any discussion of what happens to the aspirants who do not get in or who get in but without funding (which most folks then say “run away!”).

When I was applying to grad school in a galaxy far away, in a time long ago, I didn’t get into several schools, and those were the ones that notified me the most quickly.  So, I remember the panic that ensued.  The first bit of consolation is this: about half of the folks who got in (or more) will not be finishing.  So, if you choose to end the quest now, you will be saving time and stress far sooner than those who go and then do not finish. 

Okay, not much consolation there.  The good news is that there are many ways to pursue your interest in poli sci and/or IR even if you do not get a PhD.  I had friends who got into the CIA and State pretty much out of college.  They might be exceptions, but there are government jobs that will engage that curiosity and interest in ways that writing heaps of seminar papers will not.  Likewise, there are think tanks, lobbying groups, non-profits and all the rest.  And the good news is that if you can find a good job, it will probably be in a place where your partner/spouse/whatever will be more likely to find a job (unless they are an academic).  As I always harp on, the best way to lose control over where you live is to get a Phd and become a professor.  So, if you do not end up being a prof, you may end up having more control over the rest of your life.  The bright side of globalization is that more and more firms have an interest in that stuff over there, so they will need to hire folks who have an interest in that stuff.  An MA might be a good idea as that might open doors into the policy world, journalism, and alternative careers.

If you are really committed to getting a Phd, check out this site.  Ok, you are back–has that changed your mind?  While the profession is not chock full of horrible people, they often do occupy key nodes and serve to make people miserable.  Job security often means for the horrible people a license to do damage and for the people nearby a lifetime of enduring.  There are real penalties for working a career with limited mobility.

Ok, let’s imagine that I have not persuaded you that you are better off not going to grad school for a PhD in political science/IR.  What should you do to get into grad school?  Good question.  I guess the obvious stuff still makes some sense and figure out the weaknesses in your application:

  • If your grades were low or you didn’t have much poli sci in college, then an MA might be the thing you need to re-set your grades, demonstrate competency, and get a new set of potential letter-writers.  This is a big, big investment, but if your undergrad grades are lousy, this is the only way to change their impact.  There is enough competition that someone else who has demonstrated an ability to do poli sci well is a less risky bet.  
    • Don’t expect the MA to reduce the number of courses you take for your PhD or the time to complete it (this is all written for North American programs). Most departments will insist that you take the core courses, even if you have had them at the MA level.
  • If your test scores are low, then work on improving them.   Seems obvious, right?  Well, changing your GRE scores is a whole lot easier than changing whatever your grade point average is.  You can re-take the GREs, but you cannot re-take college.  Some places really care about GREs, others less so, but you can work on test-taking and you can work on the math and the rest.  
  • Work on the letters of recommendation: if you do not have any profs/employers who know you well, then work on the relationships so that they can put a bit more time in your letter.  And no, I don’t know you well, so don’t ask me, please.  Oy, what I am doing? 
    • Give them more info about your plans, your strengths and examples of those strengths so that they can more easily make the letter more personalized.
    • The standard stuff also applies–give your letter writers more time–a rushed letter is not a good letter.  
    • Don’t over-tax the letter-writers.  If you apply to 20 programs, the chances that all of your letter-writers are going to take care of all of the letters declines.  You can even ask the letter-writers where you should apply.  They might tell you to apply to places where they know people.
  • Have your friends and letter-writers read your existing proposal, sample and whatever else you send in.  The one or two page research statement is one of the few things you can control at this point (your grades are mostly fixed, the test scores will be whatever they end up being).  
    • Make sure it is well-written, concise, interesting.  That it demonstrates that you have a creative mind and the ability to think theoretically.  Not that you have to demonstrate you have a paradigm you love, but that you are interested in developing and extending and applying generalizable theories.  The funny thing is I wrote something about studying arms racing even though I didn’t know much about it and they had no one who did such stuff at the time.  I still have no clue why they admitted me.  
    • Do your research on where you are applying so that you fit the program.  Saying you want to do field research but not numbers at a place that is known for producing quantitative scholars is probably not a wise thing. 
  • Which speaks to the big issue–apply carefully.  Figure out programs, not individuals, as my experience is that individuals do not make admissions decisions but committees do.  So, figure out where your profile would play best, where you would excel the most.  If you write your app to fit a certain strength of a program, be sure it is still a strength.  For instance, don’t apply to McGill next year hoping to do the IR of ethnic conflict as I am not going to be at McGill.  There is some movement, but places do not update their websites that quickly.  So, do take care and research as much as you can.  
    • There is stuff you will never know–that some departments will filter apps so that problematic advisers do not get more students, for instance.  You can only know what you know. 
  • Update: I didn’t include the following advice: get policy experience.  This was an unintentional oversight but was reminded of this by a tweet this morning.  Getting some really cool experience somewhere might help, but if you are getting a really cool experience, I would suggest sticking with that.  Anyhow, I am not sure how committees view such experiences as they go through hundreds of files. I would assume that such experiences matter more to policy schools.  Dan Drezner will be posting later this week on getting into grad school so his experience/perspective might be different.
  • Update 2: One strategy to take is to gamble. Apply to a program that you think is underrated but is on an upward trajectory.  This is, indeed, a gamble since places may not actually get a better reputation or improve their training.  I think this partially answers my own personal mystery–that I got into UCSD when it was rising.  I highly doubt that my record from 1988 would get me into UCSD in 2012. Rely on your advisers to help you figure out where you might have a better chance but proceed with caution.

One thing to keep in mind–the odds of getting in these days are against you.  McGill would get 100 apps for eight spots (and spread out among the subfields relatively evenly).  So, this may seem depressing, but you should also realize that it is not so much about you but about others who fit better.  And, of course, committees get things wrong–just as some team will draft the wrong player despite investing millions of dollars in scouting, departments may admit lesser candidates because their file played particularly well for a particular committee member or two.

This is just my take.  I have not been on the admissions committee for a couple of years, and the process, like grading, causes brain damage.  So, tell me if I am wrong, tell me what I am forgetting.


Should I get a Ph.D.?

Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip is required
by federal law to be posted in all grad student
lounges. There’s a reason for that.

By now, acceptance and rejection letters (or emails) have begun to filter back to graduate school applicants.

I want to offer some advice for people who want to be graduate students. I begin by making it clear: I’m loving graduate school; it’s been on balance the best time of my life; and nevertheless there have been times when (to quote a colleague) I’ve wished I’d taken the blue pill and kept my job. (Most of those times were during coursework.)

Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage has a useful post for students who have been accepted and are weighing competing offers. I agree with almost all of his points, and all of the major ones. You absolutely should choose a program, not a professor. You shouldn’t focus on irrelevancies during the search process. If the graduate students at admitted students’ weekend are miserable but the food is nice, then you shouldn’t go there. Similarly, if everybody at Prestig University is deeply into political economy and you’re big into critical theory, it’s a waste of your time and theirs to enroll there. And you should absolutely examine the methods training that a school offers. The more methods training, the better. And that means methods in a wider variety of subjects than you knew existed, unless you were an undergrad at one of the handful of universities that actually teach research skills to undergrads.

On the other hand, I disagree with Erik on his last point: “Think carefully about where you want to live. This is six years of your life!” I don’t think that most students should consider “where you want to live” as an important variable. The calculus is simple: Grad school is professional training; better training means you have a better chance of getting a job; and getting a job will contribute to your quality of life for decades. So go to Gloomy University instead of Sunshine U if Gloomy is higher ranked. (True, if you’re a superstar and you get to choose among top-ranked programs, then you can let this back in, but otherwise your decision rule should be easy: go to the best program for you that gave you funding.)

The other point is that Erik is right that grad school will probably take six years. This matters a lot if your program only offers five-year funding commitments (as mine does). So, plan accordingly. You should also realize that this means that at least one Major Life Event–marriage, childbirth, death of a close family member–will take place during this period, which is a sobering realization.

But let me offer a few additional pieces of advice. First, if you’re still thinking about accepting any grad school offers at all–or you’re thinking about applying next year–you should read Tim Burke’s Should I Go To Graduate School? and More on Going to Graduate School.

Second, you should think really hard about money. I’m going to repeat something that Tim wrote: “With rare exceptions, no Ph.D. program that is primarily or exclusively aimed at an academic career is worth pursuing if the applicant is not given a tuition waver upon admission.” Taking out loans for a Ph.D. program is a dicey proposition. Those loans are nondischargeable in bankruptcy, which means that although the federal government would have helped you make your debts disappear if you’d spent $100k buying clothes on your MasterCard, they will never release you from your obligations to pay back the $5,000 in tuition for that extra seminar on The Politics of Exotic Birds, even if you’re adjuncting for the rest of your life. (A corollary to “think hard about money” is “think hard about what the job market for academics is like.”)

This is more important than you think now. If you’re 23 or 24, then the notion of “home equity” or “retirement savings” are pretty distant from what you’re doing. But when you arrive at 29 or 30 and all you have to show for years of effort are a few lines on a CV while all of your friends who got jobs (you know, maybe the ones whose homework you used to do, or the ones who learned keg stands while you learned econometrics) are living in really nice places in really fun cities and unselfconsciously talking about their vacations in countries that you only know from datasets … well, all I can say is that, you’ll notice then. After a point, genteel poverty is still poverty.

Third, you should think really hard about what makes you happy. Do you only want to be a professor if you can be a hip prof in New York or the Bay Area? Then don’t go to graduate school. You are statistically almost certain not to get that job. So unless you’ve come to the conclusion that you’d be just as satisfied working for years to take what your mentors will refer to as a “Good Job” in a state that voted for Santorum instead of getting the Best Job in the discipline, then you’re pretty much setting yourself up for failure.

Fourth, if you’ve been admitted, you almost certainly have the raw talent necessary to play the game. You’re likely to be deeply depressed at some point in your first semester, though, because it will seem as if everyone in your program knows more about everything than you did. That’s extremely unlikely to be true, but it will nevertheless feel that way. So make friends quickly. The best advice I ever got about grad school was on the first day, when a senior Ph.D. student informed our entering cohort that nobody can write a dissertation on their own. So be friendly, be nice, be charitable, and be generous. The dividends are well worth it.


Dear Admissions Committee

Inspired by the post below on the broken letter of recommendation system, I began to think about the difference between what I write and what I mean. Here are the results. Please fill in your own personal favorite euphemisms below.


Dear Admissions Committee,

I am delighted to write a letter of recommendation for Nicolette Mediocrides, who was a student in my class on international relations in Fall 2009. Nicolette was a very good student, receiving a B+. She was particularly involved in class discussion, frequently posing trenchant questions about the class material.

Nicolette is applying to both law school and programs in health policy. I am combining these letters because I believe that this ambition shows her multifaceted interests. I believe that Nicolette will excel in either. Her ability to secure a prestigious unpaid internship shows the drive necessary to be a successful lawyer. She has also dedicated time to read to underprivileged children at the local library, which shows the caring we need in the health profession. Nicolette also has a diverse background and will bring significant international experience to your campus.

I believe that she will be a fantastic addition to your program. If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me.


Brian C. Rathbun


Dear Admissions Committee,

Can we be honest? Nicolette Mediocrides has asked me to write a letter of recommendation. She was a student in my class on international relations in Fall 2009. I found her in my Excel spreadsheet of grades. She appears to have gotten a B+ in my course, which is pretty good but she is not going to win a Nobel Prize or anything. Don’t get your hopes up. I do in fact remember her face, so that probably means she was at least somewhat engaged. I forget the ones who don’t participate. Still, I don’t have detailed notes or anything. I don’t know why she chose me except that a perusal of her transcript suggests that my course was one of her higher marks. Or it could be that all of the other professors are meaner.

Nicolette is applying to both law school and programs in health policy because she has no job after graduation and frankly no earthly idea what she wants to do. But really, who does at this point? – only the really annoying Tracy Flick-esque ones. I am writing this joint letter because I really don’t have the mental faculties to keep track of all the various permutations. Nicolette has significant experience with the Xerox 2027 copier from her internship at the County Sheriff in her home town. She had to go home for the summer because she couldn’t afford to live unpaid in Washington, DC, unlike 90% of your applicants. She seems like a nice girl – I noticed she has lots of pictures of kitties on her notebook when she came to ask for a recommendation. Nicolette has an ethnic background. She is from a large Greek family and has visited her grandparents for summers for a couple of years. Do we still count the Greeks as ethnic? Do we still use the word – ‘ethnic’?

Still, I do recommend her for your MA program. Yeah, I don’t know her so well, but no one else knows the students they are recommending either. And really, none of this forms an informed basis for a decision on your part. You know that; I know that. It is just a roll of the dice. I am not so sure I would recommend your program to her, in which she will take two to three more years of advanced undergraduate classes that give her no more practical knowledge of her chosen field than the last four years, all with a six-figure price tag. But it is you that has to sleep at night. And I didn’t say anything to her. Your secret is safe!


Brat H. Bun


Recommendation Letter Rant (piling on)

Erik Voeten is spot on with his post at The Monkey Cage today on the flaws in the current recommendation letter system:

There may be all kinds of things wrong with law schools but they sure have figured out how to run an applications process. You submit one letter for a student, answer a few questions about how to rank the student compared to others, and that’s it!

By contrast, each policy school and PhD program has its own application process. I am sure this is annoying for students. It’s equally annoying for professors. If you have ten students who each apply to ten programs, then you need to follow one hundred links that are e-mailed to you separately. And it’s not like you can just download your letter at these links. No, each program will have its own way of asking you the same questions. Some go as far as to ask you to rate applicants on twenty slightly different dimensions. Anyone who believes this creates meaningful unique information is delusional.

Thank you, Erik! Well said.


Graduate school and the culture of conformity


No sooner do I pen an intemperate, semi-coherent rant about the culture of pretending-to-know-things among graduate students, then Nawal Mustafa makes a probing comment:

From the student side of things Dan, it strikes me as a deeper problem that transcends the academy. Certainly, I concur students should take responsibility to ensure they are actually learning, and not view their seminars as merely an exercise in impressing others, or securing great letters of recommendation by purporting to “know” the material. That said, there is a deeper problem where success and achievement, even from a student’s early years, is equated with perfectionism, control, risk-aversion, and there is a genuine fear of making mistakes in the process of learning. Students are encouraged to be safe and risk-averse thinkers because that provides better pay-offs. I’ve referred others to Sir Ken Robinson’s rather infamous lecture on the matter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY.

As Robinson notes, “What we do know is that if you are not prepared to be wrong, you won’t come up with anything original.”Our schools are not teaching students to embrace this, but actively encourage them to avoid it. Whether it be the K-12 system, or the university, dissent is disciplined, conformity rather than creativity is the order of the day, and the academy is no different.

In my own graduate seminars, I’ve observed students who hesitate to question a professor’s particular standpoint because “that’s too much effort,” or he/she “won’t listen to what I have to say anyways.” Whether that assessment is correct or not, the point is there is a general pressure to conform and take the “safe” route. Students then write essays that they think are more agreeable rather than contrary, and refrain from providing their authentic, creative voice on exams given the fear that this will jeopardize their academic track record, unless they luck out and happen to have professors who agree with them. Sure, there needs to be standards, but true dissent, the willingness to take a gamble and be “wrong” is disciplined out, from an early age and especially at a more advanced level.

The other problem is incentives. If students have a negative experience where one professor does not encourage such creative, dissident thinking, it will likely not matter if they have other teachers who do so. The challenge at the PhD/graduate level is twofold: how to encourage graduate students to retain their sense of self, their creativity, and yet recognize the process of gradual professional socialization which does take place, and there are obvious tensions that exist between those two objectives, and secondly, how to encourage professors/advisors to still foster creative voices, while trying to steer their students professionally, which entails making them aware of the academic politics and unfortunate practical aspects involved in the profession. The general problem is that even scholars themselves struggle to embrace being “wrong” and attempting to be creative in an environment which often hinders such dissent. Not to say being creative entails making mistakes, but I contend originality is not necessarily possible without the latter.

I understand the temptation not to admit ignorance –especially when everyone around you refuses to admit ignorance. This is a pretty straightforward pareto-inefficient outcome, albeit one rooted in a mistaken understanding of the payoff structure of the “seminar game.” The unwillingness to challenge professors, on the other hand, befuddles me. It never occurred to me not to let my professors know when I disagreed with them; I went to graduate school with a number of people who had the same attitude, including PTJ. I’m pretty sure that we all learned a great deal more through the resulting, sometimes agonistic, discussions.

I have heard stories about senior professors complaining about a growing culture of conformity among graduate students. I had my pet theories about the causes, but if it (1) isn’t getting worse and (2) plagues British academia, then I’ll probably have to discard some of them them. At the same time, the fact that this culture doesn’t operate everywhere — it certainly wasn’t the case at Columbia in the 1990s, and I know of at least two major programs in the United States where the graduate-student culture is closer to my ideal — suggests that professors can successfully foster a culture of respectful intellectual contention.

One thing I’m not convinced by is the “one bad apple” argument. I know that some students will overgeneralize, but my sense is that even at places with a culture of conformity graduate students are savvy enough to distinguish between professors who like being challenged and those who don’t. Of course, there’s a secondary level to this, which we might think of in terms of a “range of tolerance.” Some professors are terrific about fostering a creative atmosphere, but only within a very circumscribed understanding of proper inquiry. Others are less effective, in part because they admit a broader range of perspectives into the classroom. The question is: how to combine the two.


UPDATE: Courtesy of Becky S., Erin Feichtenger’s “Grad School Explained” Chart:


Yes, yes! A thousand billion million times yes!

At his own blog, PM writes:

So why were my undergrad classes so much more educational for me? The simplest explanation is just that this was the second time I’d gone through the material, and so the review made clearer connections that had been obscure. The more profound difference, though, is that undergrads are more incentivized to ask questions. Graduate students are vastly more risk-averse about asking dumb-sounding questions, not least because their professors will also be their colleagues and one simply doesn’t want to make a bad impression. (The reverse calculation–that failing to learn something correctly will lead to catastrophically bad impressions down the road–almost never seems to be made, which I leave as an unsolved puzzle for rational-choice theorists.) Accordingly, a great many people in every seminar–I will wager 80 percent of students in 80 percent of seminars–are faking it, or, worse, wrongly confident in their abilities. And 100 percent of students fall into those categories at some point.

I absolutely, positively, hyperbolically cannot emphasize enough how right this is. One of the most frustrating things about PhD seminars? The inability of graduate students to admit that they don’t know something, let alone ask questions of the kind that the class can work through so as to learn that something. All this posturing does is obscure what specific topics I need to make sure we address.

And, to make things worse, these bad habits persist for the rest of many academics careers. This is one reason why, for example, a great many very smart people say really frakking stupid things about IR theory–whether in class, on panels, or in published papers. What we have is a form of intellectual dysgenics: the passing of wrongheadedness from academic generation to generation, with each iteration accumulating more and more misrepresentations of terminology, frameworks, and theories.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with students trying terminology out, taking it for a drive around the block, and kicking its tires without fully getting it. But they should never, ever assume that just because their peers are doing this that their peers know what their talking about, and that best way to impress me is to play along.

I did the same thing for my first two years of grad school, and admitting I didn’t know what I was talking about was the first step to learning the damn stuff (as PM can testify, I’m perfectly happy to ask graduate students for guidance about stuff I don’t understand, whether it be their new-fangled techniques or social theorists I’ve never read).

So just knock it off, okay?

Embarrassingly enough, via.


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