Succeeding in Political Science Ph.D. Comps

Few parts of Ph.D. education in political science and international relations are as stress-inducing as the comprehensive examinations.

Generally, doctoral students value doing well in school, and generally that means they value doing well on tests. For students that fall into that category, the idea that there’s a test which, if you fail, means you might have to leave graduate school is bad enough. More to the point, this is a special kind of test, one that students will likely have to take only once or twice and with a format that can be maddeningly vague. Yet well-meaning people also often advise that you shouldn’t try to do too well on the exam, because you have other things to do.

High-stakes and ambiguous? That’s a formula for extreme tension.

That’s the spirit!

Ideally, students arrive at the comprehensive examination after a well-integrated curriculum provided by a supportive faculty who have made their expectations clear. Not everyone can expect this: some departments are dysfunctional, sometimes faculty are busy, and sometimes a pandemic strikes. If you’re floundering, or even just worried, I hope this post will provide you with the mentorship and advice you need.

What I Want From Your Comp

Let me begin by laying out what I, a faculty member, want from graduate students’ comps experience. I don’t want you to fail! Neither do most faculty members. Failure is costly for students and for the faculty. It sets back graduation timelines, adds to workload, and suggests that we as a faculty made a mistake somewhere–whether in admitting a student, engaging and supporting students, teaching students well, or somewhere else. I want students to succeed well enough that I can sign the paper attesting that they displayed enough knowledge about the field to pass.

But I don’t want to pass someone who does not display that competence. If a student is struggling with the comprehensive exam, then by definition they are not meeting one of the requirements for graduation. At a minimum, that should require students and faculty to re-assess the student’s present course. It may be that their trajectory can be saved; it may also be that doctoral education is not a good fit. Comps can force conversations that can be unpleasant but which can result in something kinder than deferring difficult talks about whether graduate school is the right fit. Saving someone years of their life and lifelong bitterness is a kindness, not a cruelty, no matter how it may subjectively appear at the time.

What Does Success Mean?

The first task is to explore what the meaning of success in a comprehensive examination is.

The easiest answer is that success means passing. So what does it take to pass? When I assess comprehensive examinations, I am looking for students to hit two major points.

Demonstrating Command of the Literature

At a minimum, I am looking for good, clear answers to the questions that demonstrate a command of the relevant literature. That normally involves some sense of the historical development of the field, the major theoretical arguments, the relationship between real-world events and academic theory development, and the strengths and limitations of major methodological developments and how they have contributed to the development of the field. This should draw upon but go beyond the coverage of these topics in seminar courses. (It’s important to note that what people are capable of will depend on the specifics of your department and comps format.)

Thus, a question about realism might begin with Morgenthau, progress to Waltz, give an overview of Mearsheimer, and then engage seriously with one or two of the more recent and useful debates. You could also engage questions like whether theories must be testable and why that proposition is or isn’t useful, or whether realism is a degenerative research project, etc. And you could address how theory relates to real-world tests like the end of the Cold War, the long-term decline in conventional warfare, critiques from feminist and other scholars, and so on. (Note, by the way, that an appropriate answer could also be constructed using none of these elements; I’m just giving a flavor for what I would like to see.)

By the same token, a question about what methodology IR scholars should employ would address the similarities and disagreements among major methodological approaches, as well as survey some approaches that have been discarded and some that are on the rise. This would involve understanding not only what methodologists prescribe but also how applied researchers have employed those tools and the relationship (close or loose fit) between theory and tests. These days, for instance, I’d expect to read something much more than a refried qual vs quant debate. I’d want to hear about different varieties of qualitative methods and distinctions between observational statistical methods, text-as-data approaches, network methods, experiments, and so on.

Throughout, the goal is not just to regurgitate classical citations, but to relate those enduring debates to the paths that have been taken, the paths taken but abandoned, and the paths that we could take.

Making an Argument

The second part is whether a student can actually devise and present an argument rather than a summary. This is a, perhaps the, key distinction between undergraduate and graduate work.

I take it practically for granted that students should be able to competently and correctly summarize and synthesize earlier work. Failure to do so is pretty much an automatic failure (and a pretty good sign that the student is not fit for this business). This isn’t Political Science Jeopardy where we test whether you can match the author to the argument. You should be able to do that, of course, but you should also be working toward a clear goal and target in your writing. This isn’t just a literature exam, it’s a true literature review in which you draw on evidence from what you’ve read to make a real argument.

What I would like to see is that evidence marshaled in favor of a thesis that answers the question fully and directly. A great answer would also lay out ways that the student could build upon it in her own work (whether that be teaching or research). So that answer to the hypothetical question about realism could build to an argument about why one or another strand of realism should be discarded or enthroned, about why materialist arguments should be discarded altogether, about why the debate about the paradigms is not worthwhile, etc, and then lead to the conclusion about what I should do next. (These can become the basis for literature reviews and undergraduate lectures later on.)

Demonstrating a command of the literature without putting that command toward the construction of a compelling, or at least competent, thesis is useless. As one commenter on a draft put it, “a good comp answer identifies what the big divides in a literature are, and attempts to adjudicate which side is right (or at least less wrong).” Beyond that, originality and a point of view can be valuable. What I’d really like to see is an argument that makes me think about these questions differently. (Indeed, when I write questions for comps, sometimes I write questions that I’m of two or more minds about!). The model should be the review essays in World PoliticsThe Annual Review of Political Science, and International Studies Review.

Modulating Expectations

Again, though, the point is to pass. It is much easier to pass than to impress me or change my mind. And passing doesn’t require you to do that! Despite the name “comprehensive”, your goal is not to have a thorough knowledge of everything in the discipline: your goal is to be competent enough to pass.

To be sure, in chess, I was taught that it’s bad to play for a draw. Doing so is likely to put you in a position to lose. If you want to maximize your chances for a draw, you probably still want to be looking for ways to win. In the same way, it’s hard to say what it takes to pass instead of to pass with honors (or whatever your local equivalent is). Nevertheless, focusing on these two major points does, I think, clarify where marginal effort should be put: past a certain point of preparation, you are probably better off working to find ways to make arguments that answer likely categories of questions (and using those outlines to guide your prep) than trying to read another book.

To tie this together: you can’t expect to gut this out without studying, and you probably can’t bullshit your way to a pass. But if you put in the effort and approach studying for the exam in an organized way, it’s unlikely that you will fail. (And if you do, that points to a larger problem with the department or other agents beyond the scope of this essay.) The question, then, is how you should organize yourself to succeed.

How to Prepare for Comps: In General

This two-step definition of success should be reflected in preparation for the comp.

It is a good beginning, but only a beginning, to read and understand the comps reading list (if one is provided for you). I will note that the reading list tends to be itself a beginning, by the way. I certainly expect to see at least a few citations from major journals and books that aren’t on the reading list, especially from journals like International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and International Security (although not limited to this list). (My preference is for more recent stuff rather than canonical works, although this is not universal and you should check.)

The goal of reading all of this is, again, not to memorize a disjointed list of abstracts and keywords. Rather, the point of this reading is to acquaint students with major debates and give them the raw materials they need to develop a sense within the student of what in the field is working and what is not. Indeed, my interest is not really that the student passes comps; at this level, passing comps is the expectation. Rather, my interest in how the student can use comps to orient herself toward something that seems promising and away from arguments that seem played out. Ideally, this leads to a better dissertation (and career).

The more one is contact with work recently published in major journals, the easier this is; similarly, work from the fringes of the discipline can also be useful because it is work outside the paradigm that will, eventually, supply the basis for overturning the incumbent paradigm. (Just because something is published in IO doesn’t make it right, and just because something is published in a lower-ranked journal doesn’t make it wrong.)

Okay, but how can you read all of this? By now, I hope it’s no surprise that you’re not expected to read every word on every page of every book (or article). You need to read with a purpose and you need to read like a graduate student. For standard academic books, that means reading the introduction, theory chapter, conclusion, and one or two empirical chapters. For articles, it means reading the abstract, introduction, and then the sections you’re most responsible for. (Yes, you shouldn’t even be reading all of every article.)

In fact, you shouldn’t be reading the entire list at all. You should be prepping with a group of at least one other and as many as three or four other grad students. Divide the readings among yourselves and share your notes. Similarly, parcel out the likely questions among yourselves and share your outlines. You shouldn’t outsource everything (and you certainly shouldn’t all turn in identical answers!) but you should be thinking about how you can focus on your strengths while letting others help you through your weak spots (and vice versa). In other words, the logic should be that everyone does some foundational work but after that it’s comparative advantage that should guide you. Prepping for comps should not be a solo endeavor–it’s a group project.

(As one reviewer notes, like all group projects, there is a risk of free-riding. My advice here is to practice both ex ante and ex post screening: be a little selfish about whom you choose to work with, and be willing to be firm about having people live up to commitments. Having just one partner who’s great can be better than having three mid partners.)

As you read, you should be continually iterating through answers to likely questions. This should be one of the things you talk about with your group and with the faculty members you’re close to. As a professor, I’m much more interested in having conversations with students about critiques and arguments than about summaries of books. Developing arguments involves making drafts, testing them against counterarguments, and revising in response–and that revision, in turn, should guide your engagement with the recent scholarship that’s not on the reading list just as it guides your review of the works on that list.

In other words, you should not arrive at comps eager to find out what argument you’re going to make. You should arrive at comps with a suite of tested, revised argumentation lines that you’ve debated with your peers and (for at least some) with one or two faculty members. Since the precise questions will be a surprise, there’s going to be a lot of work to adapt these, but many of the subsidiary lines should be relatively pat.

Incidentally, this should suggest that your preparation for comps begins with your choice of coursework and with your note-taking and paper-writing for courses. You should be familiar with a solid core of the literature from your seminars. Go back to the syllabi and your notes to re-acquaint yourself with those arguments (and now might be a good time to look at some of the optional readings). That, in turn, should guide your approach to comps. (I really hope this isn’t a surprise but I’ve had some experiences that suggest that it may be to at least some readers.)

Note: this isn’t middle school. If your takeaway from coursework was that some major approach is deeply flawed or that there’s a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk should the field only adopt this or that approach, then develop that! You’re not really supposed to be in the business of repeating what other people have said before. Know, however, that this is a riskier approach (after all, your insight might turn out to be, uh, dumb). It may be a better idea for you to try to make a softer version of the critique in comps as you attempt to pass and develop your idea as a review essay or original article later. After all, pubs > comps.

How to Prepare for Comps: Specific Tactics

There are some specific tactics you can employ to prepare.

  • Extended summaries. Prepare extended summaries of books and articles so that you can systematically record their main argument, methodology, evidence, major interlocutors, and caveats. Use a spreadsheet or Google Forms to capture this; leave a text box for your own thoughts and questions and for rebuttals and connections to other readings as you come across them. This is a great way to organize your group’s work, by the way.
  • Flash cards. Yes, I’ve said before that recall isn’t the point of comps, but it is part of the formula. Using flash cards or flash card apps to associate your notes with the citation can work wonders. This is one reason I encourage you to take your notes in some sort of spreadsheet-esque format: you can simplify the process of merging your notes into study guides and flash cards.
  • Book reviews. When you read books–especially major books–grab two or three capsule book reviews from major journals, especially reviews by major authors in the field. It’s okay to use others’ critiques! Just make sure you cite them.
  • Zotero. It’s time for you to use structured bibliographic and note-taking software. Your first (and I hope last) stop will be Zotero. You should be building the core of the bibliography you’ll be using for your dissertation and publications as you go through comps.
  • Get the old questions. This should be one of your very first tasks. Make sure you have as many old questions as you can from previous years’ comps in your department. Analyze them. Are there certain categories of questions that get asked on a given cycle? Are there ways you can predict what you’ll be asked about?
  • Get old answers. It’s time to talk to the people who are one to three years ahead of you. Ask students who have passed for their answers. Privately review them and critique them. You should use this to build up your sense of what “passing” means in your department.
  • Use databases intelligently. At a minimum, talk to a librarian about how to use database tools to find articles that cite each other. You should ideally be able to use Web of Science, Google Scholar, and similar tools to find connections among
  • Read literature reviews as well as the literature. There are a number of resources that you can and should be using to help organize your thinking. These may not show up on your department’s reading list, but they probably ought to. In particular, you should be reading the Oxford Handbooks for relevant topics, Annual Review of Political Science, International Studies Review, and similar review articles. These are not neutral summaries of the literature: they are interventions in debates. As such, they both model what you should be doing and also give you a good sense of what the major arguments are right now. Moreover, they also point to the new research and emerging trends that your coursework may have only hinted at.
  • Most important, practice writing your answers. As one commenter on this piece noted, “Comps are evaluated on what you write. [It’s] easy to keep focusing on reading more, rather than practicing writing.” Comps shouldn’t be seen as a reading comprehension exam–that’s the first stage of Bloom’s taxonomy. We’re at the top of that ladder, and synthesis and creation are way more important here. Reading is an ingredient, but practicing turning your reading into arguments is more important. Being able to match authors to arguments is necessary but far from sufficient. Actually stringing together sentences will give you a lot of feedback about where your preparation needs tork and what type of prep you still need. Eventually, that needs to go beyond writing outlines into actually writing timed practice exams. Ideally, that would happen with faculty feedback–that may not always be possible, but you can ask. I will say that a combination of courtesy and faculty willingness to schedule things well in advance they may not otherwise agree to means you should ask for this a couple of months ahead of time.

Why Comps?

I’m not writing this essay to defend or critique comps. If you’re reading this, then you’re probably at a department where that question has been answered for you. I do, however, want to leave you with a few thoughts about why this test–the last test you may ever take!–could be justified as a part of doctoral education. That is to say, there’s a reason, or many reasons, why many departments for decades have had students take a giant pass/fail exam.

  • Practicing academic skills. You’ll be writing a lot of literature reviews in the future. You should be able to do this. Comps acquaints you with the literature and the general approaches to doing this.
  • Socialization into the discipline. Learning more about what the discipline has done and what it’s decided not to do is important. This is socialization! You should be able to develop a sense about how the literature has and will evolve that will extend your horizons beyond your carrel and your department. (One reviewer notes that they called core courses “Rituali socialization through collective mortification”, and there’s something to that for comps as well.) That said…
  • Socialization into the department. Comps is also a time for you to learn more about the faculty nearer to you. It’s time for you to really learn what your faculty members do. You should make a special attempt to acquaint yourself with at least a couple of pieces by everyone on the faculty of your department. Cite at least some of them in the answers (and have a plan to cite them, uh, positively). But this also means learning about their approaches. Will Professor Jones veto anything that doesn’t acknowledge realism? Will Professor Chekov object to anything that hints ethnography will be useful? Well, if Jones or Chekov is going to be reading your answers (and, yes, you can ask), then you should know and plan accordingly. Since it’s unlikely you’ll have taken courses with everyone who’s going to be eligible to grade your answers, it’s time to stretch your wing.
  • Socialization into your cohort (and prior cohorts). Much as methods courses provide bonding experiences through trauma, so too will comps help generate the glue that holds your cohort together. This should also extend beyond your cohort: you should make a point to talk to the older students in the department about the process and their experiences and advice.
  • Discovering a topic. One of my professors told me that comps was great for developing a dissertation topic because you’re likely to find something that makes you angry. Well, anger might not be the only valid emotion that can lead you to a topic (there’s also fascination and annoyance), but the point remains. You should be reading not just to pass comps but to feed your dissertation work, whether that means refining your literature review for the prospectus or finally figuring out what you want to do.
  • Using comps to build your personal literature reviews. Courses are important, but they barely do more than scratching the surface of what’s important. Comps represent the last time you’ll have an incentive to read broadly outside of your niche. Quite a lot of what you know about the field will come from this experience. Wherever possible, err on reading things you’ll need for your research rather than breadth of the field. Again, you’re not in graduate school to excel in comps: you’re aiming to write the best scholarship you can. So make sure you know enough of the canon and the field to pass, but you should still be favoring the topics, subtopics, and sub-subtopics that you need.

Some institutions may approach comps as a hazing ritual. I disagree with that, as do many others; I think that comps need to align with your interests. They do, however, also serve a role in making sure that you’re not wholly captive to your (and your adviser’s) interests. If you’re in a hazing department, well, my apologies–this is not something you’re likely to be able to fix. You can, however, pay forward the kindness you wish you’d received to future graduate students, both those junior to you in your department and those that you’ll mentor in the future by making their experiences more helpful.

Thanks to Jason Reifler, Robert Marchini, and Jenna Sindle for feedback on an earlier version. All errors and omissions are my own.

Your Academic Journal Website Sucks

As part of maintaining the Political Science and International Relations Journal Listing, I’ve looked at a lot (almost all!) of the websites for academic journals in political science and international relations. Some are very good. Many or most have the information I’ve needed to answer basic questions about them. Some have been confusing or ludicrously out of date. Very few have been what I’d describe as “easy to use”, and the vast majority have been designed with little thought for what their purpose or user is.

I get it: running a journal is difficult. By the time someone is an editor, they’re shouldering big burdens in teaching, research, and service; they’re also likely a decade or more into a career. They aren’t newbies and they don’t have a lot of time. Some people view this as a no-nonsense job; others have dreams of transforming the field, or at least the journal. But few people shoulder the burden because they really want to spend time on the nuts and bolts of communicating with potential authors. After all, doesn’t everyone in the field know what the Ruritanian Journal of Informatical Politics look for in a submission?

As a user and (still!) early-career researcher, however, let me tell you that it’s possible to be pretty well versed in the discipline and savvy about the profession but still find many to most journal websites to be–at best–cumbersome. At worst, they can be confusing or wrong. That matters a lot, and not just because we should always try to do a good job in our endeavors. Rather, poor website communication by journals wastes the time of editors, reviewers, and authors. If authors don’t know if their piece is a good fit; if reviewers can’t easily find guidelines for their review; and if editors have to manage the frictions and damage that result, then it seems like everyone is shouldering an even larger burden than they really have to. Journal webpages need to be written to be read, and read by people who have the least time to waste on a mistake: early-career researchers and others for whom publication is a career necessity.

Photograph of young woman looking frustrated with laptop
Don’t worry: your journal is wonderful, it’s all the other websites I’m complaining about! Photo by

Here’s the biggest ways to fix problems I see in journal webpages:

  • State the mission up front and briefly. Great journal webpages have a succinct, easy-to-read synopsis of their mission and editorial fit. How brief? Well, if editors think that journal articles can be summarized in 150 to 200 words, it’s not out of place to suggest that a journal mission–which is broader–can be done in the same length or shorter. Specifically, this paragraph should indicate the disciplinary, methodological, and substantive scope of the journal, while being clear about whether it errs on inclusion or exclusion. It can link to a more detailed description (ideally including keywords), but 90 percent of potential authors should be able to know whether they’re in or out within one paragraph.
  • Describe article types fully and briefly. Most journals run at most three types of peer-reviewed publications: research articles, review essays, and research/theory notes. (They may run rebuttals, capsule book reviews, invited essays, and the like, but that’s not in scope for this discussion.) Journals should state the requirements for these fully but briefly. A website that describes the ideal review essay is far more useful than one that just lists “review essay” as a type of submission.
  • Non-standard is fine–as long as it’s clear. I’ve been doing this job, off and on, since 2008, and I had not ever heard of a “state of the art” essay until two weeks ago. More frustrating: the journal I first encountered it (I then found another the same day!) did not describe what it is. Nor could I find anything helpful online. I assume it’s a review essay, but I don’t know. Similarly, from time to time, journals list other non-obvious forms like “country notes” or “election reports”, again with no additional clarity. Editors may think that the answer is to refer people to earlier issues of the journal, but that’s the opposite of helpful: it’s putting barriers in front of researchers rather than removing them. We need more nonstandard output types! But we also need to define them and explain them in a standardized format.
  • Be specific bluntly. Requirements are not the time to be cute or to hedge. Some journals suggest page lengths in forms of word counts; others, in forms of pages; others, in word count or page lengths but prefaced with the deadly ambivalence of “about”. Crisp guidelines should be preferred for initial submission, and word lengths should be preferred over page counts. If page counts are used, typeface, font size, and margin size should be stated directly. (It’s always preferable to supply Word and TeX templates.) Arbitrary guidelines are annoying but ambivalent guidelines are invitations to frustration.
  • Write a human-readable summary that fits on one page. By”one page” I don’t mean “one webpage that scrolls infinitely”, I mean that one 8.5″ x 11″ or A4 page of standard 12-point, Times New Roman with 1-inch margins should be able to fit everything you think authors need to know about submission type, formatting, editorial fit, and the editorial board. You can always expound on these summaries using hyperlinks; you can always have several pages throughout your website that explains all the finer points for final submission. Fine. But I’m aware of one political science journal that has editorial instructions that run nearly 3,500 words: this is just inviting authors to trip up at submission. Be a good regulator, not a red-tape enthusiast: write the rules that you need and that users can understand.
  • Keep your website up-to-date. Blessings upon those who maintain accurate webpages; plagues upon those whose website bears no correlation to the actual process of submitting to journals. (Have I personally encountered journals where I’ve diligently followed the rules laid out on the website only to have a submission kicked back? Yep.) This also includes keeping up-to-date your editorial board and editors’ information, including affiliations.
  • Mean what you say. If you list research/theory notes on your website, but you don’t direct reviewers to specific reviewer instructions for research/theory notes, then you don’t really accept research/theory notes. Failure of editors to communicate and/or failure of reviewers to understand the notes format is universal among the ECRs I’ve spoken to regarding this issue. This is a journal problem, but it’s a harm that falls disproportionately on people who believe your website reflects editorial policies (which it should).
  • Make it shorter. Your journal is special. Your journal website isn’t. Resist the urge to embroider the website by loading everything with more text. Use hierarchical organization to ruthlessly shove nice-to-knows (or nice-to-says) into subordinate pages, while keeping the top pages open only for need-to-knows.

Writing the Faculty Job Application Cover Letter for Political Science Ph.D. Students

It always comes down to old-fashioned letter-writing.

Ph.D. students in political science, international relations, and other social sciences dread writing cover letters for their job applications. As part of a panel in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst political science department, I put together some notes about what to do in assembling these. This is aimed at Ph.D. students (ABDs) and very recent graduates.

Here’s the key takeaways:

  • The goal of the cover letter is to move you from “reject” to “consider”
  • A great cover letter can’t save a weak application, but a weak cover letter could sabotage a strong application
  • You must demonstrate your fit for the position (a function of, first, the job ad and, second, the institution type)

The goal of the cover letter

In the entirety of your application, the cover letter is your only chance to tell an overarching narrative about yourself and why you fit the job.

  • Other parts of the application will let you discuss e.g. teaching and research trajectories, but those do not add up to a complete package about yourself for this job.
  • The narrative needs to be exciting, compelling, and demonstrate how you fit the needs of the institution and the position
  • When the search committee does their initial reviews, members will spend less than five minutes per packet. Your cover letter and CV (sometimes only the CV!) will get attention in this round. The search committee’s task is to cut an overwhelming number of applicants into a manageable number. They are looking for reasons to ding you, not to save you—there are more than enough fish in the pond. Demonstrate in the cover letter that you merit further consideration in later rounds of deliberation.

The structure of the cover letter

The structure is a very simple formula:

  • Begin with a quick introduction of yourself and list the job to which you are applying. State your qualifications in summary.
  • Describe your major research project (which will normally be your presentation). Now is not the time to be humble, but don’t bore anyone. Just stick to the highlights and remember that at least one member of the search committee won’t be in your field (much less your specialty). Make sure to mention publications or publication plans.
  • Describe your next or secondary research project.
  • Talk about your relevant teaching experience. Describe two or three courses you have taught or could teach, including one introductory course, one seminar, and (if relevant) one graduate seminar.
  • Customize your letter to the needs of the department and college. Show you know where you’re applying and why. Make sure to list the college name correctly.

Keep this all to two pages, but go no smaller than 11-point text.

The limits of the cover letter

The cover letter isn’t magic. It can’t make up for flaws or gaps in the rest of your application.

  • If you don’t have publications (or credible evidence of forthcoming publications) at a research-oriented job, you will not be in contention regardless of how good your cover letter is
  • If you don’t have teaching experience (not including TA work), the bulk of institutions will disregard you (if you’re competitive for a job at Harvard, you can disregard this; but if you’re competitive for a job at Harvard, you aren’t reading this anyway)
  • The goal of the cover letter is, minimally, to make sure that the hiring committee knows that you have research potential, teaching experience, and the ability to Google their institution and department. Maximally (and this should be your goal), it’s to make them excited about your bold new research (or teaching) contributions

Mass-customizing your research letter

  • The cover letter should reflect institutional type. For teaching-focused positions, go heavier on teaching experience and competence; for research-oriented positions (including top SLACs), stress research potential and evidence of research success. Some people think that you should adjust the order of the teaching and research sections of the letter to reflect institutional priorities; others disagree. Whichever you choose, you should spend
  • The cover letter should address the specific requirements of the job ad. If they are an R1 but need someone to cover Introduction to Basket-Weaving, make sure you mention the Intro to Basket Weaving. If they are a liberal-arts college and need a college debate coach, talk about your debate coaching skills. Remember: they’re looking for reasons to cut you, not to love you, so you need to show you meet their qualifications.
  • Customize your cover letter just enough so that it’s not cookie-cutter, but don’t spend too much time on this. People talk about spending hours and days customizing these things; just spend enough time to know what the department is doing and suggest some possible connections you could make within the department and to relevant centers and similar non-departmental organizations on campus.

Student Reading Presentations

From time to time, college instructors assign students to lead a discussion about readings in class. What do instructors want from this?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. After a decade of assigning and grading these assignments, I have some clear expectations. This guide should be useful for students in political science, sociology, anthropology, history, literature (especially literature criticism), and any discipline in college in which professors ask students to take part in leading course discussions.

Your presentation is about the reading

One reason instructors assign presentations is to make sure that at least someone in the class has actually done the reading. It’s a terrible feeling (and a waste of a lot of money!) to try to run a class where only a couple of students know what’s going on. So the first principle is to make sure that you clearly summarize and explain the reading. That means, in particular, that you

  • identify the thesis or argument of the piece (in your own words, ideally)
  • describe the contours of the author’s argument
  • explain the supporting evidence the author provides
People meeting and talking
A representative, multiracial, gender-balanced group of people wearing earth tones and engaging in PMC banter

Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading

Yet the assignment is rarely that students should just offer a summary of the reading. Instead, you should seek to connect and to critique the reading.

The first way to succeed here is to connect the reading to the theme of the class and to what the class has done so far. How can you make clear the connections between this reading and the course? You could try to explain how the reading advances particular themes or arguments, and whether it offers illustrations of particular concepts or particularly compelling pieces of evidence. The piece could also be trying to rebut or refute the larger arguments of the class, and in that case you should make that clear. If you’re very lucky, then the piece directly takes on another reading, and in that case you should make that very clear.

The next way you can succeed is by offering a critique of whether the author has actually succeeded in their goal. Did they make a persuasive argument? Does their evidence actually support their theme? Could they have anticipated objections to their argument? Are there obvious rebuttals or flaws that they should have done more to guard against? Make these points clear — and then go on to consider whether there are subtle issues or arguments that could have been addressed.

I want to be clear that you’re not just looking for a knockout blow here. You’re also looking for the hundred-dollar-bills on the sidewalk–the points the author could have made but didn’t that would have strengthened their argument.

The next level is to address whether what the author couldn’t have known (such as subsequent events or more recent discoveries) have strengthened or undermined the author’s argument. A brilliant piece about how countries will never go to war because the costs of war are too high may be persuasive and airtight–but if an author wrote it in 1913, a year before the First World War, well, there may have been some holes in it.

The advanced move here is to show how a seemingly obvious refutation or contradiction wasn’t, by the way–for example, the costs of the First World War were inordinately high, and it was in some ways the belief of national leaders that the costs would be low (or lower the earlier war came) that shaped their behavior, which is a more complex point than just saying “hurr-durr world war”.

Your presentation is about the reading, but not just the reading, and really it’s about what it means for the class

The final big step you should try to accomplish is to bring both the author’s argument and your critique back to the goals of the class. This is the masterful move your professor most wants to see: what’s the bottom line for the class? What do you think that the piece brings to the discussion, either as a positive or negative example or both? Being able to display your ability to talk about the strengths and limitations of a reading, and to relate both sides of that balance sheet to the goals of the course, is the real mark of someone who has “done the reading”–and it’s a lot more than just offering a rote summary.

The real goal here, after all, is to spark a good class discussion that everyone can benefit from. You want an opportunity to open up discussion rather than closing it off, and offering your thoughts (especially your strong thoughts!) can be a great way to do that. Identifying clear areas in which there’s still room for debate can also help the course.

Organizing a 5-minute presentation

So how should you organize a five-minute presentation?

Ideally, 30 seconds or show should lay out your summary: X piece says this, it’s supported by that, and it relates to our discussions about the other thing. It has these strengths and flaws, and it means this big takeaway for us. Then spend about one or two minutes each on the summary and the connections/critique to build out your points. Finally, spend the remainder of the time (at least 30 seconds, but more ideally 60) making your original argument that you already previewed.

PhD Students Should Think About Publishing From Day One

Accurate view of graduate school socialization. Via Pexels.

Once again, I’ve been invited to give my advice to graduate students about Graduate School and The Market, the two topics that occupy the anxious discussions of years 2 through N in a young scholar’s career. A quick note: I recommend reading my earlier post with job-market advice; this is an update and a companion to that piece.

There’s an inevitable selection problem when talking about how someone’s career succeeded. We don’t see the counterfactual outcomes, nor do we observe the shape of the probability distribution of success given the variables that went into the probabilistic determination of success and failure. It’s likely that the single largest factor in my succeeding in getting a job where and when I did was the composition of the search committee at UMASS-Amherst the year I was first on the market for tenure-track (t-t) jobs, coupled with the specifics of the job ad: a committee with an Americanist chair and a job ad that needed someone who could teach Honors courses in a joint appointment at a public university spoke to several of my key skills and accomplishments unusually well.

So it’s possible that my success is a fluke, and should be judged accordingly. But I have been around; I’ve now been on a search committee; I’ve been through additional searches; and I know a little bit more than I ddi when I was a graduate student. Indeed, I may be at Peak Advice, since my personal experience as a job candidate closely overlaps with my service as a committee member, and I really have seen this market at close hand. I hope, then, that this lets me talk about what worked and what didn’t work for me. I should caveat all of this by bounding my advice a little further: the dynamics of hiring at top-5 research universities and at teaching-intensive universities are very different from “ordinary” R1 jobs.

What Worked

As the title of this post suggests, what worked was publishing. As both an applicant and as a search committee member, this was the single biggest qualification that I found relevant. I had early publications in Comparative Political Studies and American Politics Research (both with fine co-authors!). Publications will not get you a job, but not having publications will make it much harder to get one. It is not uncommon to hear that search committee members won’t even look at CVs that lack publication, and these days committees can be picky enough to insist on publications in good places as well. There are other factors in play, of course, and even an R&R at a good enough journal can be a substitute, but this is the single biggest factor.

Continue reading “PhD Students Should Think About Publishing From Day One”

Additional Notes on Undergraduate Success

Literally a generic, rights-free stock photo of “success”. Your success may look different.

Some additional notes on undergraduate success prepared in advance of a reprise of meeting with UMASS students about settling into college.

Last year, I wrote some notes for undergraduates about how to succeed in college–and how to conceive of “success” itself. This year, I’ve been asked to reprise this advice, but with some additional points on how to connect with faculty, how to find research and internship opportunities, and how to ask for a letter of recommendation.

How to Connect with Faculty

UMASS is a big school, and my advice is going to reflect my experiences here. Advice for students at other kinds of colleges would be different. At Amherst College, for instance, much of what I’m going to say wouldn’t apply because faculty are expected to be more involved in student affairs than at UMASS; surprisingly, maybe, the same would also be more likely to hold at a community college, where faculty focus almost exclusively on teaching.

So what makes UMASS different? It isn’t, really, that the faculty don’t care less than their colleagues at other kinds of universities. It’s instead that their jobs focus primarily around research. Now, I’m speaking mostly about full-time, research professors here. That’s mostly who I think you’ll have in mind. Broadly speaking, almost anyone who is a “full” professor, an associate professor, or an assistant professor–like me–will be on a contract in which (whatever the percentages say) research is our primary responsibility. There are other folks, who include lecturers and adjunct professors, for whom the story is a little different. But I want my advice to reflect my experience, which will still help you a lot.

Continue reading “Additional Notes on Undergraduate Success”

Presenting: From Bad to Good (1 of 2)

Attention conservation notice: Advice on how to give better academic presentations for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members–anyone who has to convey academic research (especially in the social sciences) to non-hyper-specialists at conferences or other situations.

Most people are bad at presenting

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: most presentations you will see are bad. As we’ll see later on, there are many ways that we can interpret the word ‘bad’, and there are many more ways to interpret the word ‘good’, but I think there are some consensus traits to labeling a talk as ‘bad’:

  • going over the allotted time. This is a deadly sin–maybe the deadliest–because it not only affects you but the other presenters and the audience.
  • lack of clarity. By the end of the first 60 to 75 seconds of close to 99% of all talks, the audience should know
    1. your research question/puzzle,
    2. your answer,
    3. the significance of your answer, and
    4. the methods you used to discover your evidence. (In a pinch, you can omit #4.)
  • elementary failures of presentation. Is your talk monotone? Are you too shy to make eye contact (or at least pretend to, using the failsafe ‘look at their foreheads’ method)? Do your slides have more words on them than the average paragraph? Did you read your slides?
  • failure to practice. Is the first time you’ve given this talk the ‘live’ presentation?
  • reading a paper. Sorry, political theorists: this is just as much a failure as submitting a PowerPoint deck to a journal would be.
  • not recognizing an audience’s reactions. Are you so wedded to your outline/script that you can’t change even when the audience is plainly confused?
  • disrespecting yourself. Are the first words out of your mouth “I’m not really an expert in this”? If so, then please don’t waste our time anymore. If you’re really not an expert, then shut up. If you are an expert–at least in this narrow corner of human knowledge–then why would you disqualify yourself in the audience’s eyes?

In my experience, a solid majority of academic presentations, and obviously a much larger share of undergraduate presentations, fall into at least one of these categories, and often more than one.

Three Rules To Give ‘Good’ Presentations

This is not a bit of advice about how to give The Best Talk Ever. This is a simple intervention to stop me from wanting to just Twitter the entire time during bad talks. Here are the three rules:

  1. Practice with a timer until you routinely finish within 90% of the allotted time.
  2. Practice your first 60 seconds two to three times as much as the full talk.
  3. Prepare your presentation as a text distinct from the paper.

Continue reading “Presenting: From Bad to Good (1 of 2)”

Advice for Ph.D. Job-Seekers in Political Science

Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone

One surprise of having recently been hired as an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst is that now I’m the guy that Ph.D. students (sometimes) ask for advice. That’s weird, and probably counterproductive for both me and the student. In seriousness, I’m not really seasoned enough to be giving advice–and I have no standing whatsoever to offer advice to anyone outside of the IMRAD-paradigm fields (so I cant say anything about the job market for theorists).

In general, my view on the subject is that students should recognize:

  1. The job market for political scientists is not very good, but also not very bad: eventually, most people from a reasonably ranked Ph.D. program will, if they persist long enough, get a job as a professor of political science at some university.
  2. Many fewer people outside of top-ranked programs will get a job as a professor of political science at a doctoral/very high research university (an R1).
  3. Even fewer people will get what are, in some ways, the even better jobs on offer at highly selective liberal arts colleges (Williams, Wellesley, Amherst, etc).
  4. The limiting factor for almost all programs outside of the community college sector is research productivity. Teaching quality is hardly universal but most programs don’t want excellence: competence is more desirable (and sustainable). And teaching competence is, in fact, becoming pretty common; it will not distinguish you for having it but it may disqualify you if you don’t.
  5. You should discount any individual professor’s recommendations pretty strongly, since all of our advice is merely biography presented as wisdom, and that means you’re getting only a partial (in both the incomplete and the biased sense of the word) view from any individual scholar.

Continue reading “Advice for Ph.D. Job-Seekers in Political Science”