Monday, April 16, 2012

How to f*** up grad school (among other things), in a few easy lessons

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.


Kindred Winecoff said...

Some great stuff here. Thanks for writing it.

I'm also from a somewhat strange background. I.e., I didn't go to school until college -- I was home schooled/ self-educated -- and it took me nearly a decade finish my undergrad degree. I started when I was 16 at a community college but without a clear sense of what I wanted to do (thought journalism at first; thank Christ I got over that after working as a journalist for awhile), had some health issues, some ennui/wanderlust, and eventually found my way into social science more or less accidentally. Then i applied to grad schools in a field different than my undergrad major. Sort of on a lark. Maybe more like a hunch.

I think that hunch was right enough although it's led to some pain down the way. But from what I read, I went to grad school for the opposite reason of you: I couldn't really conceive of doing anything else. I didn't fall into... I wanted it. I knew that I wanted to have a career that involved high-level writing, serious inquiry, and being embedded in a community of thinkers. I've been disappointed in each of those to greater or lesser extent but I still think it was the right choice for me.

I did want to go to a department that would "professionalize" me, even though I'm very interested in "big thinking and deep theorizing". That's because I believed (and still mostly believe) that some degree of professionalization is a prerequisite for *good* big thinking and *good* deep theorizing, at least in my case and the case of most people around me. That professionalization doesn't have to be neopositivist, but there are pragmatic, aesthetic, and philosophical reasons for thinking that that should be a part of it.

What I'm really skeptical about is where you ended up with in this post. Nexon starts from the assumption that less professionalization will, ipso facto, lead to more interesting theory. I've been skeptical of that assumption all along and your post hasn't convinced me that I'm wrong in that. You suggest that your dissertation was potentially interesting but, in the end, disappointing. As a good neopositivist I know not to generalize from n=1, but it jives with my general impression: it's really tough to expect the modal grad student to produce really awesome theory right out of the gate.

That includes me.

LFC said...

Thanks for the comment. First paragraph esp. interesting.

I would agree with your description of my diss. as "potentially interesting but, in the end, disappointing." However, I also am wary of generalizing from n=1. So for the time being I will remain somewhat uncommitted on Nexon's view about less 'professionalization' leading to better theory -- but I do understand your position.

Also, as I'm sure all would agree, the 'outcomes' in grad school depend on other things besides the formal curriculum -- e.g. the relation btw. a student and his/her advisor, the student's own temperament and inclinations, etc. And these may be even more important than the structure of the program and how much relative emphasis is given to 'technique' vs 'substance' and so on. So I think this is an area in which generalization is difficult. Anyway, thanks for prodding me to write the post.
I should also acknowledge that in summarizing PTJ's views at the end, I left out his pt about the world beyond the US being more pluralistic and hospitable to varying approaches, which is true.

bro said...

Four thoughts from someone who knows the blogger well. This gets pretty personal but hey, that's what blogging is all about right?

1) I didn't really know much about what you did in grad school other than write the diss. Sounds like you actually enjoyed some of the reading and papers. Good!

2) You don't say so, but it sounds like you chose a good program from the point of view of your interests (big thinking/deep theorizing). The problem (as you note) was doing a non-hip topic in a non-marquee program, a double whammy that did you no favors on the job market later.

3) A lot of what you are saying boils down to a single mistake, one you suggest unconsciously with the phrase "my career as a graduate student." You thought of grad school more as a career than (as you note) leading to a career. That's fine in college but not so fine in grad school, which is by definition "professional."

4) One thing that comes up again and again in your post, but only around the edges, is the lack of direction provided by your program/adviser. Grad students are admitted for their smarts, not their practical knowledge of what topic will be promising in either intellectual or practical terms. It is the job of the program and adviser to guide the student to such a topic. Grad schools are supposed to teach you about the profession, not just the subject. The fact that you were asked about your topic right away suggests the program was eager to abdicate that role. And your adviser did not prove to be an exception. That may be the main way in which you chose the wrong program (although it is very hard to know these things about a program in advance): your relative lack of self-direction, especially of a practical kind, combined with the program's lack of guidance to produce...another double whammy.

bro said...

And four more thoughts...

5) I have a hard time believing that you really think sticking it out was a mistake. Getting a PhD is a major achievement, and I can't imagine you would have been happy with yourself for dropping out, plus you might well have ended up underemployed anyway. You did a great job IMHO, and it left you with something still worth thinking about.

6) "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." I disagree. Sending out a huge number of applications is exactly what grads, especially of non-marquee programs, have to do, and (at the risk of being overly literal again) it is exactly what you would have had to do to "discover" that "no" college or university was interested in you. Failing that, you commit the fallacy of generalizing from N=1 or N=12 or whatever. Sample size too small. I may be an artsy type, but that much quant method I know.

7) I imagine the reason you did not send out more applications had to do with a combination of self-defeating skepticism about your real-world value and lack of motivation, which is as much of a double whammy as the first one (#2 above). This is too bad because you really like teaching (which I think is the main point of your concluding anecdote, whatever its ostensible point).

8) I think your debate with Kindred about the value of professionalization in producing good theory is a red herring, or at least a sideshow. He seems to think that was your concluding point, but I didn't get that. What I took away from your exchange was exactly how unlike (non-kindred) you two were in approaching grad school. As he says, hitting nail on head, he had the "opposite reason" for going: he really wanted to go, and he knew what he wanted to do with it. That does not guarantee non-disappointment (as he notes) but it IS conducive to a basic level of success and happiness, summed up by the ringing phrase "It was the right choice for me."

Being able to say that about anything in life is, well, a blessing. But the catch is, being happy to begin with seems to help one make happy choices. As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, "The right thing happens to the happy man." What the hell, here's the whole poem. Good luck figuring it out!

Let others probe the mystery if they can.
Time-harried prisoners of Shall and Will --
The right thing happens to the happy man.

The bird flies out, the bird flies back again:
The hill becomes the valley, and is still;
Let others delve that mystery if they can.

God bless the roots! -- Body and soul are one!
The small become the great, the great the small;
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Child of the dark, he can out leap the sun,
His being single, and that being all;
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Or he sits still, a solid figure when
The self-destructive shake the common wall;
Takes to himself what mystery he can.

And, praising change as the slow night comes on,
Wills what he would, surrendering his will
Till mystery is no more: No more he can.
The right thing happens to the happy man.

LFC said...

A couple of quick things:
(1) the debate on professionalization etc. was something being conducted across several blogs and sparked by a post at DuckofMinerva (which, b/c you ['bro'] don't have any reason to read the IR blogs, you didn't see). But there was a context for the dialogue here betw. me and Kindred.
(2)For the record, I sent out considerably more than 12 job applications. Don't recall the exact # nor am I going to go back and count (it was several yrs ago, anyway). There are of course different views on how to approach the academic job market, a topic I don't esp. want to go into further here. But 12, I agree, would have been too small a sample size.

LFC said...

Re your pt. #4 on 'lack of guidance':
It's reasonable to expect a certain amount (indeed, quite a lot) of self-direction from PhD students, I think, so I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that it's the program's responsibility to guide the student to a "promising" topic. ('Guide' can be given stronger and weaker senses, of course.)

Note that in the UK system, which admittedly is rather different, I believe students aren't typically admitted to do a PhD or the equivalent without having a quite specific idea of what they want to work on (and with whom in terms of mentor/advisor). But the US system is arguably caught between the notion that PhD students should have a quite wide grounding in their field (hence the ritual of comps/general exams) and the idea that they should also have a very specific focus from reasonably early on.

Anyway, I think there is a limit to the usefulness of this sort of discussion without getting much more specific, which, w/r/t my own case, I have no intention of doing here.