Reflections on the First Year as a Political Science PhD Student

Last week, I wrapped up papers and final exams for my first year as a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Florida.  Here are some of my reflections on how to make year one successful.

#1 PEOPLE HAVE BEEN INVALUABLE TO MY SUCCESS

I have to say that the program here is quite impressive for those of us who are interested in African politics.  First, the staff in Political Science broach a broad range of specializations and fields, but they are all very amenable to crossing between these and adept at finding ways to make nearly everything applicable to every students’ particular research interests.

Second, the Center for African Studies has offered a refuge when I needed to “just talk about Africa” and has provided a gush-worthy resume of speakers throughout the year (Daniel Posner, Pierre Englebert, and Leonardo Arriola to name a few).  Not to mention, the campus has some friendly faces in residence, like Goran Hyden, Renee Lemarchand, and Staffan Lindberg.  Lots of hob-knobbing was to be had.

Third, mentors that I’ve managed to convince I was worth keeping in touch with (paying for research, co-authoring papers, and inviting to conferences) have been incredibly helpful to keep some outside-the-bubble perspective and avoid catching “swamp brain”.  Kim Yi Dionne and Gina Reinhardt in particular have contributed invaluable assistance in this regard.

Lastly, and perhaps most proximally important, my colleagues in the program here have provided an enriching environment where discussions and debates are consistently enlightening, challenging, and yes…”Mensch-like”.  My cohort in particular has made this year one of the best in my short life.  You’ve listened to me ramble, laughed at my (not all that funny and oh so nerdy) jokes, accepted me for who I am (semi-positivist and all), and encouraged me every day to work and think harder.  You are amazing and I could not have done it without you.

Advice: Develop a Community and Cherish it

As an academic, it is too easy to become a loner and forget about the people in your life who are there to support and challenge you.  Don’t neglect your network and your community.  Be a part of it in as many ways a possible.  These are the people who will bring you through the tough times and share a pint with you after finals are finished.  They are the ones who will forward summer job opportunities your way or hire you to code data when you’re fellowship runs dry.

#2 PASSION HAS MADE EVEN THE MOST TEDIOUS TASKS INVIGORATING

This semester, I’ve managed to nail down a pseudo-dissertation topic.  This has helped a great deal in getting through some of the more dreary assignments.  By bringing everything back to the context of my big puzzle, my passion, I’ve been able to redefine my question from a variety of perspectives and angles.  This semester, I developed an initial dataset that I will hopefully use in my dissertation, and ran some initial models for a term paper.  I also got the opportunity to work on a mock prospectus and get feedback from my peers (see #1).

Advice: Find Your Passion

The first year should be about finding what you are passionate about (if you don’t already know) and started to ask questions related to it.  By starting early, you can begin crafting your question and working on sections of your dissertation as course assignments.  This doesn’t mean you need to settle on a dissertation question right away, that will likely change over time.  But knowing what you are passionate about and then working on that will make the workload seem easier and your outputs of a higher caliber.

#3 WORK HARD, PLAY HARD

This semester has been much more hectic than the last, with co-authoring a paper, working as a tutor for the athletics association, developing a database, and scrambling to secure funding for the summer and next year.  Whereas the first semester was a bit reminiscent of my MA program, this semester, I often found myself reading, coding, or writing until late in the night at least 5 days a week.  The amount of free time I had suddenly reduced to nothing and I realized that (at least) half the work of being a PhD student isn’t found on any syllabus.  That being said, I also found a balance this semester between work and play.  For example, after a crazy weekend getaway to Mardi Gras or a mini-vacation to Destin, I found that my outputs were greatly improved. Even just taking a night off to hit the Top or Maude’s with a handful of friends was enough to put things back into perspective and allow me to refocus on whatever task was at hand.

Advice: Don’t Get Lost in the Cave

As an academic, it is easy to get trapped in the STATA vortex or spend all your time reading the collected works of Max Weber, Sam Huntington, and Karl Marx.  The cave can be alluring, otherwise you wouldn’t be in a PhD program.  But, your brain needs variation and a break.  Take time to step away from the cave every now and then.  Remember the community of people in your life and spend some time with them.  Leave room for some fun in your day…or at least your week.  Your outputs will be better for it.

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