How to Thrive in Graduate School (Whatever That Means)

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

In addition to thematic panels, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference offered a wide range of roundtables on professional development including practical discussion of fieldwork and research tools and bigger debates on pedagogical practices and public engagement. Here I want to focus on the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series and highlight common themes and advice that came up across panels.

Research

Coming up with worthwhile research questions, conducting research, and writing up results is a major draw to the academic lifestyle. While many political science PhD programs offer coursework in research design and methods, it’s not exactly clear how to ask a good question and make sure people hear the answer. Allison Quatrini of Eckerd College assured the audience that there’s no single best way to do research, but that when choosing a dissertation topic, it’s better to pose a big question than to show off methods skills to address a narrow topic.

To figure out what the big questions are, several panelists suggested keeping either a digital or analog journal with ideas that come to mind while reading for coursework and comprehensive exams early on in the Ph.D. process. Cynthia Duncan Joseph from the University of South Carolina explained that she writes a daily “wonder list” where she jots down anything she’s wondering about – academic or otherwise. She mentioned coming back to her wonder list every so often for research ideas.

For those who have found their question and have started collecting data, panelists discussed the best ways to promote their findings. While some are concerned that political scientists aren’t doing enough to communicate their research to the public, strategies for becoming a public-facing academic were a popular topic throughout the series. Gregory Collins from Yale University said that translating academic research for the public or policymaking communities is important, especially for theorists.

But how to do that? No format is necessarily better than the rest, according to Kimberly Turner from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Op-eds, academic blogs, and podcasts can all be excellent platforms for sharing your ideas. “You get to tinker, so play — enjoy yourself and explore different formats to see what grabs your attention,” she told the audience at the Friday morning session.

Teaching

While research is often the focus of conversations about graduate students’ work life, panelists agreed that teaching is just as important and deserves as much attention.

When it comes to deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. at all,  Allison Quatrini suggested asking what the teaching assistant (TA) experience looks like. There is a wide range of potential teaching assignments, from only grading assignments for a professor to organizing recitation sections or building your own class entirely.

At the graduate students’ perspective session, multiple panelists emphasized the need to pursue your own professional development. Luisa Turbino Torres from the University of Delaware explained that she is proactive about sitting in on undergraduate lectures and asking professors she admires to share their syllabi. Turner agreed and suggested that graduate students attend teaching and learning conferences, whether organized specifically around questions of teaching or sessions contained within bigger conferences like MPSA or APSA. Turner said she learned a lot about writing a syllabus and learning how to control a classroom, both of which she described as “crafts no one teaches you to do.” These skills are especially crucial for political scientists, given that we are talking about “something as incendiary as politics.”

Mentorship

Panelists across the sessions agreed on the importance of triangulating mentorship. They spoke about developing vertical and horizontal ties, emphasizing the importance of diversifying the range of perspectives and opinions. When it comes to picking an official advisor and building a committee, panelists recognized the need to balance department politics with interpersonal dynamics. “You don’t have to pick the obvious person,” Hannah Alarian from Princeton assured the audience. “Choose a mentor and be willing to fire them.”

In the Friday morning roundtable highlighting graduate students’ perspectives on succeeding in a Ph.D. program, panelists mentioned building relationships with grad students at other universities. Twitter and MPSA working groups like the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Midwest Latino/a Caucus, and the Caucus for LGBTQ Political Science provide a great space for horizontal networking and creating a feeling of home in the discipline.

Mental health

The psychological stress of balancing imposter syndrome, teaching loads, research projects, and side hustles takes a serious toll on graduate students. Collins said that there are less frequent validations of success in graduate school, compared to other professions; this adds serious psychological weight to completing graduate study, he said.

The conversation about mental health continued into the Friday morning panel. Michael Widmeier from the University of North Texas lamented the stigma surrounding mental health challenges in academia. The energy and vulnerability required to communicate with one’s advisor and department administrators about mental health make it especially difficult to accommodate. Turbino Torres agreed and said she felt a huge relief after meeting other students and professors who are open to talking about anxiety and depression.

Success

With so much advice about conducting research, teaching, and taking care of your mental health, anyone in the audience should be able to thrive in graduate school just as the series title promised, right? But success is hardly a fixed concept, and panelists stressed the importance of setting your own terms for flourishing in a Ph.D. “Success looks different for everyone,” Alarian. “But shared tenets exist.”

One of those shared tenets: building a personal life and identity beyond your department. Widmeier’s comment that “Personal life is… a thing” was met with laughter, but the panelists tried to offer concrete suggestions for developing a healthy work-life balance. Pursuing hobbies, making friends outside the university, and focusing on family can all offer perspective and alternate sources of validation.

The “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series was certainly not the first time these conversations were hashed out, and it hopefully won’t be the last. Open discussions about struggles and success like this are crucial for uncovering academia’s hidden curriculum, and it is reassuring that MPSA continues to revisit these questions year after year.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

 

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