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Recent Ph.D. offers advice on
how to succeed in graduate school
November 16, 1998

Elizabeth T. Smith practiced what she now preaches.

Smith, a visiting assistant professor of political science who earned her doctorate at UConn this year, urges graduate students to keep their "end game" in sight from the start of graduate studies and stay focused on where they want to be in five or 10 years.

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If the goal is a teaching and research position, Smith urges graduate students to become "socialized" to their profession, a task that should not be postponed until they've completed their graduate work. She recommends that students begin the task in their first year of graduate school. That, and subscribing to professional journals, will give a graduate student a feel for the contemporary scholarly debates in his or her field.

"Go to the national conferences," Smith said. "During the first few years of graduate study, go to listen and figure out what the conversation is about. You start meeting people. Then, when you finish your general exams, go there to give papers."

In this regard, Smith is giving advice that she herself followed.

She recalls that Janet Blasecki, then a member of the political science faculty, remarked that a paper Smith wrote should be shared with the profession. She says Blasecki helped with revisions and "schooled me in the basic etiquette of the professional meeting."

"I had never heard of the New England Political Science Association," she says. "When I started graduate school, not coming from an academic background, I had no idea there was a whole world out there, that there was a national conversation going on about political science. ... The paper was accepted by the conference. I got wonderful feedback. She said to send it to journals, and I got great feedback. I learned the basics about the nature of scholarship. There are no books written on this. You don't learn it in the classroom."

Smith says professional conferences are an ideal place to meet people who are willing to help graduate students. "There are many wonderful professionals out there who are willing to be mentors. But you have to be there to get that advice," she says. "They know what it takes to find a job in the profession, and they'll give you that advice as well as giving you the benefit of their scholarship."

James Henkel, associate vice provost and associate dean for academic affairs for the graduate school, says the University encourages graduate students to join associations to meet professionals in their field. There is no formal program to do that, partly because academic disciplines are so different. "But we do remind the campus community that these things are important," he says.

Smith especially recommends attending regional conferences, which tend to be smaller and less formal than national meetings.

"You can get to know people. You meet the people who are doing research in your area. When you begin to give papers, you can get feedback from people who are now your peers."

Smith says it's also helpful for graduate students to identify a dissertation topic as early as possible.

"When I started here I got a great piece of advice from Gary Clifford, the director of graduate studies in political science. He said to me, 'Don't wait until you pass your general exams before you decide what you want to do for your dissertation. He was absolutely right. I identified my dissertation topic in my first semester."

Smith used to select pieces of the research that could be presented as class papers and later incorporate them into her dissertation.

Smith says graduate students hoping for an academic career face a dilemma deciding how to spend their time.

"I still think the most important thing students can do is to be serious and do excellent work," she said. "There's no substitute for that. Perhaps the most controversial question is to teach or not to teach, particularly at the ABD level."

She said graduate students should have a few course evaluations from undergraduates, but not at the expense of the dissertation. "Teaching is excellent training, but there is a point at which it can become really a block to finishing your dissertation."

She stopped teaching and spent a year only doing research for her dissertation - "The Supreme Court and the Spoils System: Political Patronage in the Aftermath of the Rutan Case."

Smith recalls the advice of another of her mentors at the New England Political Science Association, Professor Robert Wood.

"I was struggling through my dissertation and he said, 'What do you mean you're not done yet?' I talked about how perfect I was trying to make it. He leaned over to me and said, 'Listen to me. Your dissertation doesn't have to be perfect. It only has to be done.'"

Ken Ross