How to Win at Being a Grad Student – Part I

It’s that time of year again. Summer is almost over and classes start in just a couple of weeks. Soon, NPSIA will be greeting many new MA and PhD students. In order to help incoming students adjust to life at NPSIA, I asked the faculty to provide some advice on how to win at being a grad student. They were very helpful. The result: a blog series on the dos and don’ts of grad school as per your professors. Below is part one. It outlines the art of academic reading. Yes, there is a right way and a not-so-right way to do it and doing it right should help you better manage your workload and get the most from your courses.

Learning to Read: Words to Live By

Prepare yourself! At NPSIA, there may be a lot more reading than you are used to. These fall basically into two types. The first type, textbook reading, will be familiar to you. For this material, you are expected to read every word and remember the key concepts described in it. Detailed note-taking may be helpful. These types of readings will be in the minority but will predominate in Statistics, Methods and the core economics courses.

The more common type of reading, whether an article, a book chapter, or a whole book will be argument based. Unlike the textbook type reading, these are organized around a core argument. Even a 500 page monograph contains one core argument, around which all those pages are organized. Your most important task here is to figure out what the core argument is. There is no point in having detailed notes from a 50 page article if you haven’t identified what the central argument is. So here, reading strategically to identify the core argument is more important than reading every word. It helps to start by reading the intro, followed by the conclusion, before reading the body of the piece.

Our seminars are discussion-based and in a seminar, students are expected to discuss the core arguments of the assigned readings. For examples, which of the week’s readings are in fundamental disagreement?   Which are mutually compatible? Once you’ve figured out the core argument, you can move on to assessing the quality of evidence in support of the argument. Or discussing whether the policy prescriptions offered follow logically from what the author claims has caused the problem. These types of questions make up a lot of seminar discussion.

As a result, the rational strategy for managing a heavy reading load of argument-based material is to begin by skimming all of the week’s readings, looking for the arguments of each piece. That way you’ll get a sense of how all the pieces fit together. (There is almost always an underlying logic to what the prof has assigned). This is preferable to spending all your time reading only one piece in great detail. The seminar is often about a debate or dialogue between different points of view in different pieces for a particular week.

Preparing by doing the readings is important, particularly for the seminars. A seminar is not an exposition or summary of the assigned material: the focus is clarification but mostly discussion. So if you haven’t done any of the readings, you may leave class none the wiser.

Text contributed by Anonymous NPSIA Professor 1


3 thoughts on “How to Win at Being a Grad Student – Part I

  1. Pingback: How to Win at Being a Grad Student, Part II | Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

  2. Pingback: Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

  3. Pingback: How to Win at Being a Grad Student, Part III | Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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