Career Advice for Graduate Students

At the Southern Political Science Association’s annual conference I chaired a roundtable entitled “Career Advice for Graduate Students: What Every Graduate Student Should Know.”   The fact that this roundtable was highly attended can be attributed to two factors: the distinguished list of panelists and demand among graduate students for varying perspectives on this topic.  For both reasons I thought my notes would be useful if posted in a public forum.  So here is my summary of each panelist’s comments.
John Aldrich—The Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science at Duke University

By my count John Aldrich had the most individual pieces of advice.  One thing that surprised me (and the audience I suspect) was his revelation that he still takes graduate courses from time to time (I believe he recalled taking a series of course in the business school during sabbatical).  This, he said, helps build his “foundation” (see point #4).  Here are his points:

  1. Use your graduate school peer contacts.  Keep in mind that your PhD cohort will be in the discipline with you after you get those letters.  He recalled how his contacts from Rochester were important throughout his career.
  2. He asked a rhetorical question: “Why do grad students work with old people?”  Aldrich suggested that graduate students should try to work with junior faculty with the freshest research agendas and hottest methodological skills.
  3. Aldrich echoed Leighley’s comment about finding happiness.  He said that in his career he never considered nor was concerned about getting tenure; he was simply doing what he liked.
  4. Aldrich emphasized the need for strong methodological skills.  You need a “foundation” with which to build a clear tenure case.
  5. You need to standout in your career.  Don’t be afraid to say something contrarian and get rebutted.  It’s better to be talked about.

Jan Leighley—Professor of Political Science at American University

Professor Leighley offered three pieces of advice:

  1. There are different ways to be happy in academia.  As doctoral students at R1 institutions, there is pressure to publish and gain employment at other R1 institutions.  She reminded the audience that teaching, service and geographic location all contribute to your job satisfaction.  Ultimately this quote summarized her point: “You don’t owe your PhD institution anything.”
  2. Remember who your audience is.  She stressed the importance of doctoral students traveling to conferences.  She said social interaction is very important, telling the audience of mostly graduate students to hang out in hotel bar or lobby and talk shop.  Further, you should foster good relationships with colleagues.
  3. Professor Leighley also said that young assistant professors with ticking tenure clocks shouldn’t think of themselves as an assistant professor.  Instead, imagine that you need to work much like a graduate student.

Jon Bond—Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M

Professor Bond had many quotable pieces of advice.  He began his remarks stating that as a graduate student “he had it all figured out.”  The difficulty, he said, was implementing what he knew.  He offered the following pieces of advice:

  1. There are 2 types of dissertations: “them that are done, and them that aint.”
  2. It is key for doctoral students to learn how to do research.  It is important that doctoral students interact closely with their advisor but also they should make sure to get a solo piece.  He reminded the audience that after 3 coauthors the citation becomes “et. al” (and you don’t want to be an et. al).
  3. Bond reminded the audience that you only get one chance at a journal.  Carefully craft manuscripts before sending them out.  Don’t hesitate to start at the APSR and work down.

Michael Jones-Correa—Professor of Political Science at Cornell

Professor Jones-Correa offered 4 pieces of advice:

  1. As a graduate student your focus becomes narrow.  Always remember that you have a much broader skill-set.  That skill-set can translate into other careers.  Moreover, you can be very happy outside the R1 world.
  2. Because of your methodological skill set and substantive expertise you will be asked to do many things during your career.  Thus, time diminishes as you achieve success.  So his advice is that you need to learn to say “no” to requests.  His advice (which he admitted he sometimes doesn’t follow) is to wait 24 to think about any request.
  3. You should fulfill your career in various ways.  There isn’t one career path.  Ultimately you want to be valued in what you do.
  4. Remember that your community is larger than the department.  Be constantly expanding your network and increasing your potential collaborators.

John Garcia—Director, ICPSR Resource Center for Minority Data

James Stimson was slated for this spot, but had a last-minute trip overseas.  Fortunately John Garcia was in the audience and willing to share his thoughts on the topic of the roundtable.  Here is what he had to say:

  1. Always remember why you wanted to be in graduate school and make sure to remind yourself of these reasons.  For example, ask whether you still have a passion for your research topic.
  2. The first year as a doctoral student is really critical for your socialization.  You need to learn what it means to be a professional.
  3. Establish relationships.  Get to know the faculty in your department and your cohort as well.  He also pointed out that you don’t usually have just one mentor (so don’t constantly look to one person for advice).  Furthermore, he discussed the importance of conference activity for the exchange of ideas and getting known in the discipline.
  4. Engage in other activities and interests.  Incorporate other activities into your research.
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