Matthew Charles Wilson
Assistant Professor of Political Science
West Virginia University







Making the most out of graduate school
Or, using your seat cushion as a flotation device.
Depending on the branch, basic military training—colloquially referred to as "boot camp"—lasts between eight and thirteen weeks. In contrast, graduate school endures for five to six years. Though they are as different as apples and oranges, Ph.D. training has all the appropriate elements for challenging and shaping the minds of only the most serious adherents—demanding workloads in structured class environments, ongoing scholastic and professional criticism, and the unspoken expectation of personal intellectual growth beyond the classroom. The latter attribute is perhaps the most difficult, because a lot of what is required of a graduate students is rarely articulated by professors. The course of obtaining a Ph.D. is punctuated by several arduous benchmarks that delineate cohorts by defacto and constitute "rites of passage" over which many academics bond. Like military service, therefore, doctoral training is highly esteemed, highly specialized, and not for everyone. As of 2013, only about half of Ph.D. students finished their programs. Good advice can go a long way toward the completion of a Ph.D.

In general (based on my and others' experiences), a five-year Ph.D. program involves two years of coursework that culminate with the student writing a Master's thesis. The third year is spent reading massive amounts of books and articles in preparation for a written exam called comprehensive exams or qualifying exams. The purpose of the tests, which comprise anywhere from eight to twenty-four (or more?) hours, is to discern the student's knowledge of sub-fields in the discipline. The student must demonstrate a wide breadth of understanding in the dominant concepts, theories, and research agendas pertinent to his or her area of interest. To pass the exams is to "qualify" as a Ph.D. candidate and transition from classes and guided research to conducting research of one's own. Upon passing comps, the fourth and fifth years are usually dedicated to writing a dissertation and preparing it for defense.

Although advice on nearly every stage of graduate school is ubiquitous on the webs—such as successfully completing coursework, preparing for comps, and writing the dissertation—below are three general pieces of advice that I have for graduate students (and aspiring students) based on my own experiences:

1) Apply for everything.
With everything else that graduate students are expected to do, applying for grants and external funds is not something one usually has an inclination for. The immediate gains from doing so are fairly obvious—winning grants and fellowships frees up the student's time by taking the place of an assistantship, giving him or her the opportunity to do personal research. However, the motivation to apply to so many is confounded by the relatively low odds of actually receiving funds from any of the competitions for which one might apply. Some applications, such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, are highly competitive and require considerable effort. At the same time, money tends to beget money; having received funds from anywhere increases your chances of receiving funds from elsewhere because it sends a credible signal of your competency. Thus, although it may seem like a gamble, it is one with both immediate and long-term gains. As a result, one would be well advised to solicit often. Even if one never wins any real money from doing so, however, there are significant reasons to apply to multiple sources of funding. The practice of crafting and polishing descriptions about one's personal background and their motivation for pursuing graduate studies, as well as their research experience and ideas, help the student to better articulate exactly what they want to do and how they plan to achieve it. Putting one's goals and ideas into written form thus not only provides pieces of material that might be incorporated into other projects, it also supports the development of a solid and well thought-out research agenda.
For advice on applying to the NSF GRFP, refer to the Resources page or click here.

2) Go to lots of conferences.
Like applying for grants, going to conferences is an optional extra-curricular activity that can be both time- and money-intensive. For those who are intent on remaining in the field, however, it is worth starting early when it comes to going to professional conferences such as the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. Going to conferences and sitting in on panels provides exposure to norms of professionalism and keys students in on current research agendas. Some conferences actually schedule sessions in which graduate students and first-time attendees can interact and get advice. In addition, participating in a panel (or multiple) not only signals motivation and competency, it informs the student about whom they should expect to interact with in the future. Many of the peers with whom you present in panels turn out to be future reviewers, panel organizers, and members of hiring committees. Because of this, one of the primary benefits of going to conferences is the ability to network (or to learn how to network). It is not always clear who the dominant actors are likely to be, but making acquaintances and reinforcing academic relationships has valuable returns. It varies by institution, but in many places the financial burden of going to conferences is offset through travel support provided by the department or the graduate school. Students and first-time attendees can also apply to receive travel support from the conference organizers.

3) Make every assignment accomplish multiple objectives.
If someone is applying to lots of fellowships and going to lots of conferences, how are they supposed to get their coursework done? Research papers and critiques aren't going to write themselves, right? Perhaps the most important piece of advice that I can give to students is to always try to identify the potential uses of every project or assignment. Use every part of the animal—a course paper can be used as a conference presentation, and both generate feedback that can help turn it into a journal manuscript. With every application essay, one is refining material that can ultimately help draft materials for going on the job market. As an example, while drafting my Master's thesis I submitted it (with permission) as the final paper for two different courses. I fairly quickly turned it around and submitted it as a journal manuscript, which resulted in my first publication. Almost every chapter of my dissertation constituted the basis of a conference presentation, which kept me to a strict deadline and added experience to my CV at the same time. It requires a little foresight, and assumes that the student has a solid idea of the direction that they want to go. However, finding ways to create "cross-references" in one's CV through each project and course assignment means the difference between having simply completed the required classes and having done so with conference presentations, fellowships, and publications under your belt.

As with any advice, sometimes it is easier said than done, and everyone's experience is about as unique as they are.
Nevertheless, the above suggestions are what I would have said to my younger self, and they will continue to be the advice that I have to offer to my future students.