Tag Archives: career advice

To Choose or not to Choose: Should Students Choose the Topic of their Theses or Should Supervisors Do This? (an update)

Year after year I see a lot of BA/ MA/ PhD students struggling with finding and delineating a topic. If my memory serves me well, I had similar problems when I was a student. It can be overwhelming to choose a topic and then ‘slice it and dice it’ in a way that lets you finish in a realistic time scale. The problem is less one of motivation, students always have an idea what they are interested in. The real trouble lies in making the topic small enough to be feasible, but big enough to remain interesting for the student. [Spoiler alert: eventually, all feasible topics are minuscule] Students often have problems identifying the relevant scholarly literature (let alone identifying a gap therein). Which data to use, which sources, methods?

Etruscan civilization. Two-faced Janus head, from Vulci, Montalto di Castro, Viterbo Province, Italy.,De Agostini

Etruscan civilization. Two-faced Janus head, from Vulci, Montalto di Castro, Viterbo Province, Italy.,De Agostini

Ironically, most of the students end up with spending too much time on thinking and designing their research idea/ proposal/ sketch and too little with doing the actual research. I have seen many theses that have a lot of thoughtfully written introductions/ literature reviews/ ‘research frameworks’ but very little flesh to these bones in terms of evidence/data/criticisms/analysis etc. If it’s somewhat frustrating for the supervisors to read this, it is clearly an ordeal for the students who wrote that.

In other sciences it is not uncommon for the professors to suggest topics. This prompts the questions whether social sciences should also endorse such a practice. As with any interesting choice in life, this doesn’t come as a free lunch. There are clear benefits letting the supervisor choose the topic:

o Better matching of interests and hence better counseling
o Less time spend looking, more time spent doing research
o Going deeper into stuff

However, there are also clear disadvantages

o Students may end up being a lackey for the professor
(this is a particularly pertinent problem in German-style education systems)
o For the professor it becomes hard to dislike the project and to remain neutral
o It limits the creativity and one of the most important job skills:
making decisions without having lots of time.

Thus, it is hard to give general recommendations, but I have some observations to make: For PhD students I distrust to a certain degree a model in which the supervisor practically designs the project. I have seen cases where PhD students had to defend the poorly developed research design of their professors in the doctoral defenses. This creates a lot of conflict of interest and even academic feuds among colleagues with the biggest victims being the students. Such a system creates citation fabrics for professors, but it is not always helpful for the student. There are obviously successful cases in which the professor and student work closely together to mutual benefit (e.g. joint publications). But I think this only happens if there are clear boundaries. Essentially the student needs to bring in his or her creativity and develop material sufficiently independently. In cases where students and professors become project partners it is very advisable to have an exam system which respects that: the supervisor should no longer be part of the (voting) evaluation/ exam committee.

In the case of BA/ MA theses, as long as similar boundaries are respected, I think it can be a viable alternative to let the supervisor suggest the topic. The supervisor often knows the literature much better, is better trained to identify gaps, puzzles and problems. He or she may also know interesting data sources or contacts. Of course, students need to be very careful and also realistic. Getting the topic doesn’t mean getting an excellent grade. But the more the topic is of mutual interest, the stronger the synergies for both sides involved.

For a list of topics I am personally interested in please contact me directly.

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How to ask for a letter of recommendation

It is this time of the year again. People ask me to write letters of recommendation. It’s part of my job, thus I must not complain, but there must be a way to make this more efficient. I thought about writing a blog post. But there are already people who have done this, so I just refer to one of them.

Hence please, students, before asking me to write an LoR read what Chris Blattman has to say about LoRs:

http://chrisblattman.com/letters/

thank you very much in advance

AK

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New comparative report on PhD education in Political Science

One of our students, Norbert Sabic, and I wrote a short comparative report on PhD education in Political Science (Sabic_Kemmerling_report). The report is very rich in empirical details, and provides an overview of trends across many countries as well as five in-depth case studies. It is meant to be for ‘practitioners’ of higher education.

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How to Apply to our PhD Program (and Probably Others, Too) – An Update

Since I was head of the Doctoral School in Political Science, International Relations and European Studies, and Public Policy (yes, the name is really that long…) at CEU Budapest, I get a lot of questions how to apply to our program. It seems that it is particularly difficult for overseas students to understand the logic of European/US American graduate schools. There is a lot of useful information about how to apply to Phd schools from people working at political science programs elsewhere (eg. Blattman, Drezner on applications, and on proposals). Let me digest some of the FAQs we usually get. I will focus on ‘strategic’ questions, for technical questions about the admissions procedure at our university see here. Most of my points are probably applicable to other Graduate Schools, too.

1.) The program has a strong training component in the first year. So it wise to check out the lists of courses required and offered to get an idea, whether you want to apply and to which of the academic fields (the five tracks, as we call them).

2.) The program is research intensive, with an idea that many of our students will continue their career in research or ‘research-near’ institutions. This is important for your letter of motivation. We are not only interested in knowing how you want to change the world (that’s an important part of CEU’s mission, but not the only aspect). A short but succinct motivation using normative concerns or ethical problems is not bad at all, but it is insufficient to make a clear case for why a PhD and why with us. This also means that you need to do some research on CEU and the program.

3.) It is highly advisable to check out the lists of faculty and research groups, projects etc. of the three departments involved (and related departments) and try to identify people with whom you might want to work in the future.  This is especially relevant for the Doctoral School to identify potential supervisors. Be cautious: though it may sound like a good idea to pre-establish contact with faculty at CEU beforehand, please don’t bombard them with questions, especially if your questions consist of asking stuff that would be readily available on the web. For instance, faculty cannot answer very generic questions (‘Professor, do you think I my topic is interesting?’) neither can they revise entire research proposals before your applications. So be careful and, if you need to ask something, thing twice what and how to ask (see again Drezner for that).

4.) Make sure that your letters of recommendation do not hurt you more than they help! One way is to tell people who write these letters what you need: how does the referee know you; why does he or she thinks you would do fine in our program (etc.)?

5.) Please make sure that you add transcripts of your academic records that explain well (or, if necessary, use the letter of motivation) the  grading system of your home university. It makes life of the reviewer much easier, and a happier reviewer might be a nicer reviewer!

6.) Please focus in your proposal on key aspects that show us that you know how to produce an academic piece. This includes demarcating a topic clearly, give a motivation (normative problems are usually not enough, you also have to say why this should be interesting for a larger academic debate, preferably but not necessarily with a counterintuitive spin (= a puzzle)), posing a (preliminary) research question, a decent survey of the academic literature in the field (don’t underestimate the importance of accurate referencing!), and an idea how to answer you question (theories, hunches/hypotheses, methods, data ec.).  Obviously, details for the proposal depend on the academic subfield and the topic, but understanding how to place yourself into the academic community is a key aspect for evaluators. I find this illustration of what a PhD aims to achieve (and what not) extremely helpful.

7.) Some additional remarks about the proposal: One of the question I get very often is: “Is this a good topic for your PhD program.” The answer is easy. Almost any topic in the realm of social sciences with some relation to policies, politics or polities can be a suitable topic for our school. The devil lies in the details. As exposed above in point 6.), a good proposal needs to address a topic from a scholarly angle. Furthermore in some of our tracks we deal with comparative issues. That means that although a study on and for a single country may be feasible, applicants need to make sure how to relate the knowledge generated for their (usually home) country to the broader public. How does your problem in your country relate to other countries’ experience? Can we learn something out of this case for others? Since we get applications from all over the world, you need to defend the case why your country is interesting. This is much easier if you can relate it to a general debate/ theory/ issue.

Let me know if I have forgotten an important question that might be relevant for many of you!

 

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How to Apply to our PhD Program (and Probably Others, Too)

Since I was head of the Doctoral School in Political Science, International Relations and European Studies, and Public Policy (yes, the name is really that long…) at CEU Budapest, I get a lot of questions how to apply to our program. It seems that it is particularly difficult for overseas students to understand the logic of European/US American graduate schools. There is a lot of useful information about how to apply to Phd schools from people working at political science programs elsewhere (eg. Blattman, Drezner on applications, and on proposals). Let me digest some of the FAQs we usually get. I will focus on ‘strategic’ questions, for technical questions about the admissions procedure at our university see here. Most of my points are probably applicable to other Graduate Schools, too.

1.) The program has a strong training component in the first year. So it wise to check out the lists of courses required and offered to get an idea, whether you want to apply and to which of the academic fields (the five tracks, as we call them).

2.) The program is research intensive, with an idea that many of our students will continue their career in research or ‘research-near’ institutions. This is important for your letter of motivation. We are not necessarily interested in knowing how you want to change the world. A short but succinct motivation using normative concerns or ethical problems is not bad at all, but it is insufficient to make a clear case for why a PhD and why with us. This also means that you need to do some research on CEU and the program.

3.) It is highly advisable to check out the lists of faculty and research groups, projects etc. of the three departments involved (and related departments) and try to identify people with whom you might want to work in the future.  This is especially relevant for the Doctoral School to identify potential supervisors. Be cautious: though it may sound like a good idea to pre-establish contact with faculty at CEU beforehand, please don’t bombard them with questions, especially if your questions consist of asking stuff that would be readily available on the web. For instance, faculty cannot answer very generic questions (‘Professor, do you think I my topic is interesting?’) neither can they revise entire research proposals before your applications. So be careful and, if you need to ask something, thing twice what and how to ask (see again Drezner for that).

4.) Make sure that your letters of recommendation do not hurt you more than they help! One way is to tell people who write these letters what you need: how does the referee know you; why does he or she thinks you would do fine in our program (etc.)?

5.) Please make sure that you add transcripts of your academic records that explain well (or, if necessary, use the letter of motivation) the  grading system of your home university. It makes life of the reviewer much easier, and a happier reviewer might be a nicer reviewer!

6.) Please focus in your proposal on key aspects that show us that you know how to produce an academic piece. This includes demarcating a topic clearly, give a motivation (normative problems are usually not enough, you also have to say why this should be interesting for a larger academic debate, preferably but not necessarily with a counterintuitive spin (= a puzzle)), posing a (preliminary) research question, a decent survey of the academic literature in the field (don’t underestimate the importance of accurate referencing!), and an idea how to answer you question (theories, hunches/hypotheses, methods, data ec.).  Obviously, details for the proposal depend on the academic subfield and the topic, but understanding how to place yourself into the academic community is a key aspect for evaluators. I find this illustration of what a PhD aims to achieve (and what not) extremely helpful.

Let me know if I have forgotten an important question that might be relevant for many of you!

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