Advice for Undergrads

By the end of four years of exhaustive studying and an up-tempo party schedule you should emerge from our cherished system of liberal arts education with a head full of impressive dinner party trivia, the capacity to rigorously analyze causal phenomena, and the ability to effectively communicate the results.  Only the former will impress your friends, but all three conspire to give you a leg up in the job market.  By every conceivable measure, the degree you come away with will be to your betterment.  It will improve your earnings potential, provide an added layer of protection when the economy goes sour, give you greater command over your career and professional destiny, even advance your life expectancy.  

But succeeding in the post-graduation game requires hard work and drive.  You have to be like a boxer before a championship fight: lean andhungry.  The world is shrinking.  Work is becoming more knowledge-intensive and the prerequisites to professional success more arduous.  Unemployment for young people is 14%, slightly below the historical norm but still noticeably higher than the national rate.  Meanwhile, the average level of education amongst cohorts entering the workforce has steadily increased.  Add to this the remarkable explosion of developmentin the global South over the last two decades, leaving the world awash in cheap brainpower.  The job market is as competitive, in other words, as it has ever been.       


These facts should not alarm you.  The rest of the world getting rich is a good thing all around.  So too is it great for society that you and your peers are so well versed in theory and knowledge.  Aristotle would have wept at such intellectual abundance.  But competition cares little for laurels.  You should therefore be aware of the magnitude of the task that lies ahead. 


Having gone through a few of these trials and tribulations myself, I offer a few basic suggestions.  First is to recognize that learning is now a lifelong enterprise.  Whenever you think you’ve written your last exam, you haven’t.  It is therefore prudent to think hard about how to make your future learning as efficient as possible.  To this end I encourage you to devise your own ‘system’ early on.  Find the tools and strategies that work best, then integrate them into a common approach.  For example, sort your notes not by class but by area of interest.  Ensure different courses and different assignments work towards the solution of common research questions—questions that actually stir your own interest.  Understand fully who has already written on this topic, what value their arguments hold, and what gaps in the literature remain.  Embrace a rigorous methodology no matter how small the project.  Consider competing causal relationships and test the most plausible.  Determine the best way of measuring your causes and effects, and be perfectly honest about the inevitable imperfections.  Collect interesting data, carefully sort and store it, and apply it in different settings.  Draw conclusions that are both grounded in evidence and suggest policy prescriptions.


Technology is your friend in all of this.  I collected over three thousand bibliographic entries in an Excel spreadsheet through two grad degrees before I figured I’d give citation management software a try.  Do not make the same mistake; start now.  A writing program like Scrivener will help manage large writing projects, breaking up each chapter up into manageable parts.  Numerous online programs offer to guide the selection of quantitative techniques for those not mathematically inclined.  Meanwhile the ‘big data’ revolution has made primary research available to everyone.  Organizations ranging from Statistics Canada to the World Bank have opened their databases, providing a wealth of free data just a click away.  No longer is there an excuse for making claims without evidence.  With luck, the nascent ‘open journals’ movement will achieve similar success, further aiding the struggle against the pervasive ills of sloppy argument and unsubstantiated screed.


Alas, gadgets cannot do all of the work for you.  Like a carpenter’s tools, they have to be used properly.  This will likely require you to push yourself into developing new methodological skills.  If you come from a qualitative background, take time to learn about numbers.  The story they can tell about social phenomena can be powerful.  Teach yourself Stata and boast about it to your historian friends.  If you don’t like writing, read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and start a blog.  Seize every opportunity to submit an article that passes by.   Good writing takes practice, but the reward is worth it: no argument was ever won by numbers alone. 


Efficient research is not just a matter of having the right tools.  It also requires effective planning.  Each project should have a clear publication goal in mind, even if the piece is a simple classroom assignment.  The earlier you get into the mindset of constantly thinking about where to submit the final product, the easier time you’ll have with the writing process, the better your chances of getting your work published, and the more society will gain from the fruits of your labours.  Not even your parents read your term papers.  Thus if you want policy relevance—if you truly want your work to matter—you need to communicate with a broad audience.  Even the best ideas attain little traction when left on a shelf to gather dust.


Publication itself requires one of two things.  The first and most certain is to create an interesting and new data set, alongside both a clear thesis and a practical, carefully-reasoned means of testing it.  Do this well and editors will be unlikely to turn you away.  A slightly more risky strategy is to conduct a literature review, examining current research and uncovering its flaws.  Note that while not every journal is keen to publish yet another critical essay on a theory and its critics, exercises of this nature may be extremely useful for your own intellectual development.  A thoughtful stroll through a discipline’s peaks and valleys can never be considered wasteful.  In either approach, think hard about exactly what you’re trying to do, what journal you’re aiming to publish in, and what (at least marginally topical) issue you want to address. 


If grad school is something you’ve considered but remain on the fence about, my suggestion is to do it.  A master’s degree in particular incurs relatively minor opportunity cost in return for substantial growth in potential earnings.  The scholarly rewards are similarly assured.  The focused nature of the program allows you to hone in on your specific areas of interest with greater intensity than the broad strokes associated with undergrad.  Plus, you’ll make a good deal of friends and have a great deal of fun.  If you decide to go, however, make sure you apply for SSHRC or any other available funding.  Doing so takes a clear research agenda and plenty of advancing planning.  Contact me if you need someone to bounce ideas off of.  


A PhD is a more difficult decision.  There is not nearly the same relationship to improved earnings and the opportunity cost is much greater.  A significant amount of career advancement can take place in the four years you’ll be away from the job market, meaning many of your friends will obtain corner offices while you’re off hunting for the noontime seminars that provide sandwiches.  That being said, a doctoral program comes with some great perks.  You will never have so much fun working so hard in your life.  You will become an expert on a particular question.  Your alarm clock will fall into disuse.  And the methodological toolkit you take away will be of lifelong value no matter where you end up afterwards: academia, government, business, the NGO community, wherever.  Teaching yourself about vast bodies of literature—the comprehensive exam process—and guiding your own research project—the dissertation component—are skills welcomed far and wide.    


That being said, a good education requires more than a classroom.  International Studies students in particular need to travel and volunteer, but the rule holds more broadly as well.  There are refugee camps, wildlife parks, and soup kitchens that all need your help.  They offer in return invaluable lessons not found in books or the blogosphere.  Keep in mind that it is easier to be more generous with your time when young, since pre-existing commitments tend to be fewer and your schedule subsequently more malleable.  It is difficult, for example, to rumble about rural Africa in a Toyota Land Cruiser with small children in tow.  In a similar vein, few bosses will take a request to disappear for six months or a year without reservation.  It is therefore useful to strike out during what the British call a ‘gap year’, a culturally-ingrained tradition where adventures are undertaken either before undergrad or between two degrees.  Immediately following graduation is a useful time as well; you can use the pause to recharge your batteries and plan your next steps.  But regardless of when you go, make sure you travel far, then stay there for a while.  Planting yourself in one spot long enough to at least receive mail gives you a better chance of catching the nuances and rhythms of a place.  Make local friends, dive into local politics, and do good work in the community.  Doing so will cultivate deep interests and build strong ties that will stay with you long after you return home. 


Unfortunately, travel is expensive, which is why it is always best to get out on someone else’s dime.  In Canada, CIDA is the most helpful in this regard.  They provide fully-funded overseas placements, usually covering basic transportation and living costs, asking only time and volunteer labour in return.  It is a win-win all around.  But even without the help of others, travel today is not hard.  The internet, discount airlines, and cheap local bus services have taken the logistical hardship out of foreign adventure.  Costs are manageable, and a little bit of savings transforms into months spent at exotic locations with remarkable ease.  As speakers of English, there is no reason to fear getting around, either.  For good or ill, English has become the lingua franca of our age.  I know hardly two words of Arabic, Cantonese, or Kinyrwanda, but never did this prevent me from wandering around the countries where they dominate with nearly-unchecked freedom.  It is a big world.  Go out and enjoy it.


When it comes time to make the leap to the ranks of the gainfully employed, do so with a steady confidence.  I can guarantee you this process will at times seem unfairly daunting, and that it will by no means follow the path you anticipate.  Yet despite the associated worries and uncertainty, rest assured: you will land on your feet.  Doing so of course requires you to be reasonable and flexible, but also not to sell the skills you have acquired—at great personal and state cost—short.  There is nothing in this world more universally sought than those who possess the ability to think critically and communicate effectively.  When coupled with hard work, these talents will always leave you in good stead.  

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Comments: 9
  • #1

    seanmclark (Saturday, 20 July 2013 18:29)

    I wrote this for the UofS International Studies program (my alma mater). They were interested if alumni had any thoughts or suggestions based on their experiences during and post the IS degree. My thanks to Tara Weisgerber, IS Society president, for the opportunity.

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