Some encouragement from Kindred Winecoff over at IPE@UNC has persuaded me to take a shot at a post outlining the mistakes I made during my career (such as it was) as a graduate student. This will not be a now-I-reveal-everything sort of post -- I've chosen to blog under my initials, after all -- but I think I can manage to convey some points without going into too many specifics and details. (Well, having written it, it turns out I have gone into some details. I also realize that I probably don't come off as a paragon of wisdom and scholarly wonderful-ness in this post. So be it.)
My situation was unusual from the start, because I was considerably older than most Ph.D. students when I began grad school. I had gone to law school (also a mistake, btw, but never mind that now) almost right after college (I took one year in between them), and then after law school worked for a number of years -- not, for the most part, practicing law, though I did do that briefly, but rather working in fairly conventional go-to-an-office-sit-at-a-computer-edit-and-write-stuff type of employment (it wasn't journalism as usually understood but somewhat more specialized). I eventually got bored with that, decided I didn't want to spend the rest of my working life doing it, and decided to go back to school.
I applied to a couple of M.A. programs (not simultaneously but in succession). The first one was a rather prestigious one that I didn't get into. The second institution not only admitted me to its M.A. program but ended up -- for reasons that largely had to do with some idiosyncratic factors not worth going into -- offering me a place in its Ph.D. program.
Mistake #1: I should never have accepted that offer without (i) thinking longer and harder than I did about whether I really wanted to get a Ph.D. and (ii) if so, whether I wanted to get it at that institution.
The institution in question was not a traditional political science department (my Ph.D. says International Relations, not Political Science), but the majority of faculty members were political scientists. The program was closer to a "big thinking and deep theorizing" (Kindred's words) type of program than to what Dan N. calls an "overprofessionalized" program. I had to take exactly one quant methods course, which was fairly worthless, and that was it. (At the time that was fine with me: I stopped high school math after 11th-grade trigonometry and analytic geometry, or whatever the course was called, and never took calculus, anywhere, though I certainly could have.)
I actually enjoyed aspects of my first couple of years as a PhD student, despite the heavy reading/writing load. Perhaps partly because, as I've already said, this was not a traditional pol sci department, the required first-year seminars were along the lines of Big Books and Big Theory (not exclusively but to a fair extent). So in my first year (this was the mid-'90s, btw, just to give the time frame) I read, for instance, Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (much of) Polanyi's The Great Transformation, re-read some of the Marx and Weber that I'd read in college, plus a bit of Kant and Plato and Hobbes and Grotius, plus, of course, standard IR theory stuff: Waltz, Theory of International Politics; Carr, Twenty Years' Crisis; Oye et al., Cooperation Under Anarchy; Snyder, Myths of Empire, etc. (Wendt's Social Theory of International Politics hadn't been published yet. I read that later, on my own, when I was writing my diss.) Plus I took a course with a respected historian on U.S. diplomacy in WW2 and the Cold War and wrote a paper on Kennan. That was fun. Wrote another paper for which I read some of the lit. on civil society and social movements. Also did an independent reading course (this was the second year, I think) for which, among other things, I plowed through all of Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the space of a few days -- don't recommend doing that unless you have to. One gap in the first year, though, even on its own Big Theory terms, was the modern literature on comparative politics. (Note: The program's curriculum has been modified in various ways in the intervening years.)
Now this was all fine but I really had no idea what I was going to write my dissertation about. At the time that seemed not to matter much, even though the then-Dean of the school had asked all of us entering PhD students for our tentative dissertation topics in the second week we were there. (I told him, in politer language, that I hadn't the slightest f***ing idea what my topic was going to be.) Anyway...
Mistake #2: I did not really think about my training in relation to the job market. I figured if I was finding grad school reasonably interesting and learning something, that was enough.
Mistake #3: When it came time to choose a dissertation topic, I chose one that was not going to help me on the job market. If I had been attending a marquee institution -- a Columbia, Berkeley, Princeton, perhaps (even) Chapel Hill [still with me, Kindred? :-)] -- I could have gotten away with the topic I chose, but the combination of topic and institution was not good. (It was a historically-oriented topic, though of course I had to connect it to the present, since it was an IR diss.) Plus, frankly, my execution of it was ok but not stellar. It passed muster as a dissertation but that's about it. (I'm sure the administration's attitude was: Are you still here? Defend your ******* dissertation and leave, already.) Afterward I thought about trying to get some journal articles out of it, began to write one, but then decided I was really too sick of the whole subject to be able to do that.
Mistake #4: Sticking it out and finishing was probably, under the circumstances, Mistake #4. Obviously I did finish, even though, for reasons not entirely (though mostly) my fault, it took me a long time. I went on the academic job market after doing a bit of adjunct teaching (because I hadn't done a lot of teaching as a grad student; just one semester's worth), but I didn't have to send out a huge number of applications in order to discover that no university or college was much interested in hiring me -- and, all in all, I can't really blame them too much. I'm not sure I would have hired me, given the presumed competition.
I'm not wealthy, certainly not in the sense in which most Americans use that word, but, without going into detail, my circumstances are such that I don't need a job to survive, at least for the time being. Which is good, because no one is exactly beating down the doors to hire me. I don't have a narrow, focused policy specialty (e.g., environmental issues, nonproliferation, etc.), truly deep regional knowledge, or tech (statistics etc.) skills. In other words, I'm a generalist, and in a field where the demand for them is not very high. I could probably be a decent teacher but I'm not so desperate to teach that I'm enthusiastic about adjuncting; I don't need to do it to eat and I don't really like teaching the intro course, which is all I've ever taught. So if/when I do need a job I'm probably going to have to pound the proverbial pavement (even if I have to take some stuff off my résumé so I'm not rejected as overqualified for whatever I'm applying for).
I will conclude with an anecdote: last month I gave a guest talk in a friend's intro IR class. I enjoyed doing it, there was a lively discussion, the students asked good questions, etc. At one point I had occasion to remark: "Most of you are not going to become IR theorists," and then I added "I hope." My friend, the class's prof, looked surprised, but grinned. I pretty much meant it: Parents, don't let your children grow up to be IR theorists.
Well, this post has probably not contributed all that much to the sum total of wisdom in the blogosphere but writing it has been more enjoyable, believe it or not, than the post on growth, poverty, and inequality that I'm supposed to be writing. That will appear when I get around to finishing it.
Clarifying addendum (tacked on later): My point in this post is not to argue that all pol sci grad students should load up on quant methods, nor am I defending "over-professionalization" in graduate training. In my own case, going the quant route would have been rather absurd. I'm just saying as a practical matter that grad students have to be conscious of how their choices will affect their future chances of employment etc. In comments at DofM, PTJ has repeatedly made the point that one doesn't need a lot of quant/stats background to get an IR academic job in the U.S., provided one is willing to go outside the urban centers, major research institutions etc., and he cites some of his own students who have gotten jobs as examples. I think PTJ is right on this, but I would point out that many (or some) of his students may have written on interesting or 'hot'-ish topics, which helps; moreover, being acquainted with PTJ, as I am, I would imagine -- I don't know but I'm guessing -- that he really 'goes to bat' for his students (in a way that not all advisors necessarily do), and that's also got to help.