Tag Archives: political science as a discipline

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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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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Statistical vs. Substantive Significance

Many pundits, journalists, and interested laymen confuse two important but very different scientific concepts: substantive vs. statistical significance. They are hardly to blame, since scientists often make it very difficult for them to understand what scientists do with statistics. Sometimes scientists do this on purpose because they want to obfuscate, but often it is the result of their own ignorance or sloppiness.

What is at stake? Well, simply said substantive significance is about the size of a relationship/ an effect, whereas statistical significance is about measurement precision (usually based on a sample). These two concepts are answers to two very different questions. Substantive significance asks how much, statistical significance asks how sure we are about it. If you think about it statistical significance is much less interesting for the general public, because it essentially only tells you one thing: the ‚finding‘ a statistician identified is pretty certain. We still don’t know whether the finding is interesting, it may be way too small for you to bother!

The two concepts sometimes are related to each other with substantive significance often implying statistical significance. But they don’t have to. Stephen Ziliak and Deirdre McCloskey have written a fascinating book on the topic showing how the confusion between the two concepts can lead to some fatal consequences. They give examples about medical research in which a statistically significant reduction in depression is substantively too small to justify the purchase of the more expensive drug. In another example, research funded by pharma industry even suppresses fatalities just because there were too few of these to be counted as statistically significant.

But it is not only about health, it happens in all kind of research from natural to social sciences, from engineering to linguistics. In my own field, political science, it seems very frequent, and I don’t deny that I myself get sometimes confused. Media coverage is full of examples. It often starts with ‚new research shows X‘. For instance, new research shows that home teams in football are more likely to win. For a statistician it is important to show that the home advantage is precisely measured and identified. For a club owner this is only of secondary importance. True he also needs to be sure that the statistician did his job well. However, for him it is much more important to know how large the home advantage is, and how safely he or she can rely on that. Do I have a 50% higher chance of winning, or just a 5% chance? In both cases home advantage may be statistically significant, but the substantive difference decides on championship or relegation.

Test yourself. How would you interpret the following sentence full of statistical jargon? ‚In a randomized controlled trial we find that the difference between income levels of those who participated in a microfinance program and those who did not was statistically significant at the 1% level?‘ If you answer here something like microfinance makes a huge difference for people, you were a) wrong because we cannot know on basis of this sentence, b) clearly you are not alone as this happens to many. What this sentence should have read is something like this: ‚We compare income levels between those who participate in a microfinance program and those who don’t. We find that the average difference is large, about 200 Euros, which is equivalent to roughly half the average wage in society X. We also have found that this average difference is not a result due to chance, i.e. it is statistically significant, and not due to other distortions. Hence, we trust our findings.‘

What to do? Well pundits, journalists, policy experts need to sharpen their critical reading of scientific literature. They need to vex scientists to tell them quantities of interest which are easy to interpret. As for us scientists, we need to communicate our findings more clearly.

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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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How to teach economics vs. Dilbert (with Dilbert winning)

I have recently given a talk (Kemmerling_Presentation) on the problems of teaching standard 101 economics to policy students.

In the talk I revisit some common deficiencies in the standard teaching in economics: too little theoretical diversity (especially comparing 101 econ with advances in the field), too little empirics and methodological diversity (if at all, exclusively regression based), too little normative diversity (underplaying the true normative complexity of economic decision making). I plead for making economics a softer science and for taking away illusions of grandeur and, as some would call it, physics envy.

But Dilbert is much better: Dilbert comic strip on macroeconomics

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