PhD Student/Faculty Retreat

Yesterday was the first official meeting of my post-graduate academic career.  It was an all-day affair at the Country Club of Fairfax and could be otherwise described as “orientation”.  It was definitely good to be able to put a face to names I had only read about before (more about that later).

Before describing the day’s events, let me say that the food they served was very good and there was lots of it.  They fed us breakfast, lunch, and dinner … with snacks between and an open bar at 6:00 PM.  This would lead one to believe that it be hard to leave the retreat without feeling extremely full.  Hard, yes, but not impossible.  There was so much conversation during the meals that while the food was plentiful and very good, it wasn’t where we focused most of our efforts.

Upon arrival and registration, we were each issued a stack of papers which included, among other things, an agenda of the day’s events and a bound copy of the 2010-2011 handbook (which governs our time in the program).  Then it was time to pose for individual photos before breakfast.

Part I:
The first part of the day was introductions.  There are 21 incoming PhD students and there were at least that many faculty at the retreat.  Hearing all the areas of research that the faculty are involved in was a bit overwhelming.  It really does cover the spectrum of interest.  We had a couple of breaks and I was able to speak with many of the faculty including my advisor and the author of a book I’m reading for one of my courses.  Back to my “more about that later” reference, I experienced my very own “celebrity sighting” yesterday.  Bill Schneider is on faculty now with the School of Public Policy.  I remember watching him regularly on CNN … and now he’s on faculty in the school where I’m studying.  Very cool!

Part II:
The second part of the day consisted of a panel discussion on policy research and a presentation on ethical issues in policy research followed by a group photo.

Part III:
GMU’s School of Public Policy has a new dean this year – Dr. Edward Rhodes.  The students and faculty were divided at the beginning of the third part of the day.  Dr. Rhodes spoke to the faculty while Dr. Pfiffner (Director of the PhD Program) and Beth Eck (Assistant Dean for Program Management) spoke to the students about the curriculum and student services.  Then a panel of current students spoke to the incoming PhD students about how to succeed in the program.

What did I learn during the retreat?  Quite a bit, actually.  There were a lot of administrative issues that were explained to us and it was good to have as many questions answered as there was time to answer.  One of the most valuable takeaways of the retreat, however, was not to choose a dissertation topic too early.  Many of the incoming PhD students (myself included) have expressed strong interest in particular topics that could become dissertations.  We received the recommendation that we should explore many different possible areas for research before focusing on one – preferably at the end of our first year.  So that’s what I’m going to do; I will keep my initial interests in mind, but I will also consider (not rule out?) other possibilities for my research.

I left the retreat a bit overwhelmed by the breadth of what we had covered, but also quite motivated.  I’m really looking forward to getting started next week!


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