Research Morning for Continuing Students

Today, George Mason University’s School of Public Policy held a research morning for PhD students who have passed the comprehensive qualifying exam (CQE) and are in the field stage of the program.

To refresh your memory, there are three “phases” to earning a PhD at the School of Public Policy.  In the first phase, students take core courses and move to the next phase by passing the CQE.  The second phase (fields) is highlighted by elective courses and the students assembling a field committee and writing a field statement.  This phase ends with the successful completion of the field exam.  The third phase is the dissertation proposal, writing, and defense.  Although students can be in more than one phase simultaneously, they must be completed in order.

The session was outstanding!  Six members of the faculty, led by the PhD Program Director, discussed the way forward through the field and dissertation phases of the program.  We covered the following:

  1. “Finding a research topic and asking a research question
  2. Putting together a doctoral committee
  3. Preparing your field statement and exam
  4. Preparing and defending your dissertation proposal
  5. Writing your dissertation
  6. Making use of your dissertation research”*

The Institutional Review Board also came in and discussed human subjects research and the associated rules.  Finally, the Assistant Director of PhD Student Services capped off the morning with the discussion “Creating a schedule/next steps”*.

We then had a light lunch, courtesy of SPP, during which we were able to further discuss the process in small groups and one-on-one sessions with faculty members.  Additional faculty made themselves available during this time.

I must admit that, although I previously had a cursory understanding of the process, I feel much better having attended this session.  I have a better understanding of what is expected during each step, what common pitfalls to avoid, and even what things I should be doing.  I’m now confident that I know enough about the process that I will be able to press on through the rest of my academic career at SPP and finish in the timeframe provided by my employer.

I want to thank the faculty and staff of SPP for offering the research morning and I highly recommend it for everyone going through the program.  Well done!

* – All titles excerpted from the session agenda.

Year 3 Starts Tonight

The summer kind of got away from me. I meant to write a post this weekend looking forward to the upcoming academic semester. Now, I will have to write a more complete post after the first week of classes is over.

This semester, I will be taking 3 courses – 2 800 level courses and 1 700 level course. Tomorrow is a research day; it will be my first.

Here’s looking forward to the semester – more to come soon!

Another One Bites the Dust!

Last week saw the official end of my fourth semester as a PhD student.  Grades have been posted and all is well!  I’ve also submitted a draft of my Field of Study Plan that will be updated over the coming months.

So what’s next?

This summer will be spent reading in support of updating my Field of Study Plan and creating my Field Statement.  The Field of Study Plan is a brief document prepared in anticipation of the Field Statement.  It enumerates the elective courses I intend to include in my studies as well as a description of what area of public policy I intend to cover in my fields and ultimately my dissertation.  The Field Statement builds upon this plan and further narrows my focus while increasing my expertise in my chosen area (nuclear proliferation policy).  It will also help me understand what other areas of public policy are influential in the conduct of nuclear proliferation policy.  Although I have no coursework this summer, it promises to be a busy one.

Before you know it, August will be here and semester #5 will begin.  Stay tuned for updates!

Nearing the End of Semester #4

It’s crunch time. There’s one week of classes left in the semester and everything is coming due at once. To close out the semester, I have to submit three papers. One is due next Thursday, and the other two are due the following week. At that point, I will have completed four full semesters in my PhD quest.  Woohoo!

There is one more administrative issue that I must address before the “official” end of my fourth semester. My Field of Study Plan is due. What is a Field of Study Plan? The GMU School of Public Policy student handbook states, “The Field of Study Plan (maximum 1000 words) will describe a Concentration or a proposed research area, including citations relevant to current research in that Field. The Plan must identify three substantive courses and at least one advanced methods course that the student intends to take that will serve as a foundation for the Field. The Plan must be approved by both the student’s Field Committee Chair and the Director of the Ph.D. program.”  As we are expected to update our research interests every May, it is my intent to submit an approved Field of Study Plan by the second week of May.

Assuming all goes as planned, the upcoming Fall 2012 Semester could be the last semester of coursework. I have two classes selected for next semester, but I’m still on the fence about which should be my third. Look for an update in the coming weeks in which I’ll share my schedule.

Over the summer months, I’ll be reading quite a bit as I work to put together my Field Statement (more on that in an upcoming post) and I’ll also be working to finalize my Field Committee (again, more to come later).

Anyway, it promises to be a busy couple of weeks – I’ll see you on the other side!

First Annual Graduate Student Research Conference

Today, GMU’s School of Public Policy held its First Annual Graduate Student Research Conference. What a day! Students at the Masters and PhD levels from George Mason University, Catholic University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Webster Worldwide made presentations. I took the day off work to attend and I’m glad I did. The agenda was packed – from 9:00 AM to 5:45 PM. In all, there were 33 presentations and I made it to 11 of them.

Dean Rhodes kicked the morning off with an introduction and welcome to the day’s festivities. He spoke of the three great events of this academic year: the dedication of Founders Hall earlier in the year, this conference, and the upcoming graduation events in May.

After Dean Rhodes’ remarks, we broke out into our first two rounds of breakout sessions. Each round of sessions focused on different tracks; some rounds had three sessions, while others had two sessions. Each of the sessions had multiple presentations grouped together by a common theme. For the morning rounds, I chose the sessions on Regional Policy Issues and Government & The Presidency. The presentations were as follows:

Regional Policy Issues
– Highway Underfunding and User-pays Systems: A Case for Raising the Federal Gasoline Excise Tax
– The Human Dimensions of Contemporary Renewable Energy Actions in the Washington D.C. Region: Policy, Political Economy and Culture
– Trust and Police Legitimacy

Government & The Presidency
– Congressional Caucuses – The Invisible Committees
– Politics and Transparency Policy: Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama
– Modeling the Effect of Photo Identification Laws on Voter Turnout

After the morning sessions were over, it was time for lunch and the keynote address by Dr. Pfiffner, the Director of the Doctoral Program. Dr. Pfiffner is an exceptional scholar and I really enjoy hearing him speak. Today was no different. He recounted the origins of public policy as a discipline (the practical application of political science and law together) and then the genesis of independent schools of public policy within universities.

After lunch, there were two more rounds. This time, I chose the sessions that focused on International Trade & Financial Policy and International Affairs & Security Policy. These sessions covered:

International Trade & Financial Policy
– International Currency Competition: Are there Alternatives to the US Dollar?
– Does Free Trade Agreement Increase Trade Flows? Bilateral Free Trade Agreements and Trade Volume in Services
– Overcoming the Adverse Effects of Geography: A Cross-Country Analysis of Information, and Communication Technology (ICT) Diffusion on Economic Development

International Affairs & Security Policy
– The Social Construction of President Bush’s 2006 Visit and India’s Nuclear Separation Plan
– The Durand Line’s Role in the Afghan Taliban Insurgency

Following the final round of sessions, we all got back together for the closing reception – a fitting end to the day. As I said, I’m glad I took the day off work to attend. There was an awful lot of information shared in what seemed like very little time. I’m not sure I’d change anything – the presentation lengths (about 15 minutes each plus 10 minutes for Q&A) seemed about right and all the topics were interesting. The food was good, and the conference was run very well. In the end, it was definitely a worthwhile endeavor, and I’m looking forward to next year’s conference!

Moving Right Along …

I met with my prospective Field Committee Chair today. We talked about my coursework for the semester, what I should look into taking next semester, and how to formulate my field statement. We also spoke of the reduced schedule I will be starting at work next semester and how that will affect my schedule. I learned at work today that I have a maximum of 6 consecutive (including summer) semesters in the reduced schedule program and must submit my dissertation for prepublication review. This does change my approach a bit, but not drastically.

My goal is to have my dissertation ready for prepublication review very early in 2014 – I’d still like to graduate in May 2014. How do I get there? In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be putting pen to paper and drafting a schedule with milestones and deliverables that will produce a completed dissertation in the early 2014 timeframe. Concurrently, I’ll be narrowing my area of study from “nuclear policy” to something more digestible and more appropriate to a dissertation. I also need to find one more member for my committee. I’m taking a course in the Public and International Affairs Department, and I plan to have the professor teaching that course on my committee. We’ve spoken briefly about it and will have another meeting in the next couple of weeks to finalize that commitment. That leaves just one more member. My successfully finding that committee member will be highly dependent upon my narrowed topic, so I need to get cracking.

I ran into the Assistant Director for PhD Student Services today at the “Coffee and Cookies” social before meeting with my prospective Committee Chair. We agreed to meet this coming Monday to go over my progress and determine how many courses I have left to take – I think I’m within 3 after this semester is over. During the course of our conversation, she revealed that SPP had discovered this blog – so now I guess I’m famous (at least slightly … or something). I started blogging my GMU SPP PhD experience because of another blog I had found when I was applying to the program and thought it was a unique way to provide insight into the experience. I’ve found it helps me keep my perspective as I read back on my previous entries. Anyway – hello to all from GMU SPP who’ve discovered this blog!

A Banner Day!

On January 5, we started the Comprehensive Qualifying Exam – our first real “checkpoint” through which we have to pass as students on our way to earning a PhD in Public Policy. Four days later, we turned it in and the wait began. The exam is basically a pass/fail measure which covers the material from our core courses and requires that we apply it.

I won’t bore you with the details of the test other than to say I was very happy to turn it in; not because I knew I did well, but because I was glad I could come out of my four-day sequestered state. We were told that it would take about two weeks for the faculty to score the exam and let us know how we did.

I have to say that waiting for my score was excruciating! Each passing day was worse … would this be the day I got my results? … what if I failed? … what could I have done differently? … did I answer everything they asked? As the days went by, the self-doubt mounted. There were points in time when I had resigned myself to having to take the exam again in May. There were others when I thought I probably did “ok”. But I never knew.

That all changed at 4:16 PM today. I got my results – and I PASSED! HOOAH! It was a great feeling of relief knowing that I had successfully maneuvered through the first gate.

But that wasn’t the only bit of good news for the day. Back in August, I had applied (for the third time) for a program at work that would allow me to split my time between work and school (20 hours at work, the other 20 allocated to academics). It’s a pretty competitive program and only about a dozen applicants are selected each year. In return for the reduced workload, the program requires a 3-to-1 payback of the time spent devoted to academics. It’s a pretty good program if you can get into it.

Three semesters as both a full-time PhD student and a full-time employee have been pretty trying. By the end of each semester, I’m usually exhausted; both mentally and physically. All that is about to change!

I learned that I was accepted to the program. I don’t have any of the particulars on when I’ll start my reduced work schedule, but just knowing that I’m now in the program has lifted a great weight from my shoulders.

So … great news all around – a banner day!

Core Requirements Complete!

After three semesters of full-time study, I’ve now completed all the core course requirements for the PhD program – woohoo! Although I feel a sense of both relief and accomplishment, I won’t have much time to relax. The comprehensive qualifying exam is next – and is actually just around the corner. We receive our reading packets on January 5th, and a mere 2 weeks from today, I’ll be sitting in Arlington for the in-class portion of the exam. By the following Monday evening, another milestone will be in the books and I’ll be able to focus on my fourth semester.

Speaking of my fourth semester, I’ll be changing focus from the core course requirements to courses that support my fields. I know I’ve been wavering back and forth between information technology policy and nuclear policy, but this is the point in the movie when things get serious and I need to choose. So I will be focusing my research on nuclear policy. I do enjoy the idea of information technology policy, but I’m definitely much more passionate about nuclear policy. I’ve chosen a chair for my committee, and the search is now on for two more members.

As for the academics, what’s in store for the upcoming semester?
PUBP 754 – GIS and Spatial Analysis for Public Policy
PUBP 710 – Science and Technology for Public Policy
PUBP 713 – Policy and Program Evaluation

This is the schedule so far. I am considering GOVT 739 – Nonproliferation and Arms Control. If I do pick up this course, it will affect the courses above, but I’m not sure how just yet. At this point, I’m just considering the course and will be able to focus more on whether it will be a part of my schedule after I’ve completed the comprehensive qualifying exam.

Well, that’s it for now …

Goals / Research Statement

In my most recent post, I mentioned  the need to update my goals/research statement.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what direction I’d like my research to take.  When I wrote my Statement of Purpose (SOP) during the admissions process, I was convinced I knew what my research would be.  Quoting from my SOP:

I believe that the GMU PhD program in Public Policy (with a concentration in Organizational and Information Technology) would be of great value in my efforts to achieve the understanding necessary to increase organizational effectiveness.  It would provide me the ability to focus my analytical and management skills in analyzing government’s Information Technology challenges and would possibly open new areas for research.  Upon completing the PhD program, I would like to apply my newly acquired skills to discover new and innovative ways to affect organizational structure and policy within the government.

I think this is still a rich area for research – and it *is* something that interests me.  But I’ve also come to realize that there are other topics that interest me.  I’ve rediscovered the nuclear world – a place I spent 5 years.  My time as an international arms control inspector gave me a real appreciation for reducing the nuclear stockpiles that exist around the world.  In addition, there’s the discussion of finding a permanent solution to the issue of spent nuclear fuel, perhaps closing the nuclear fuel cycle in the United States, and nonproliferation.  It’s an area of public policy that truly fascinates me.

Through discussions in classes over the past year, I’ve discovered and rediscovered interest in numerous other areas of public policy.  At times, I feel like a kid in a candy store; at other times, I feel overwhelmed with the variety of choices available to me.  Although the dissertation looms in the distance and is not of immediate concern yet, it’s important to narrow down my topic sooner rather than later.

We’ve been told on more than one occasion that the best dissertation is a done dissertation.  We’ve been cautioned not to “hover” – that is, not to succumb to analysis paralysis when choosing a topic for our dissertation.  Those who hover take much longer to write and complete.  The first time I heard that advice, I thought it was pretty cynical; now I agree with it.  It makes sense.  Our goal as PhD students isn’t to discover something Earth-shattering; it is to contribute to the world of human knowledge in some way and write a dissertation about it.  A classmate relayed some advice he received recently: take all those disparate interests you have and put them in a box.  Focus on one topic, write your dissertation, and when you’ve earned your PhD, then go back to the box and explore your various interests.

I still have some thinking to do before I submit my revision to my goals/research statement.  I plan to meet with my advisor soon and get his advice.  Part of our conversation will be guided by what courses are available next semester and in what combination.  I’m considering courses that are broad enough that they can be applied to many of my interests, but narrow enough that they begin to solidify my direction as I continue on this journey.  A sneak preview of what courses I’m considering:

  • PUBP 800 – Culture and Policy (mandatory core course)
  • PUBP 840 – US Policy Making Institutions
  • PUBP 710 – Transnational Security Issues

This list is subject to change … stay tuned!

Spring “Break”

It’s not exactly half way through the Spring Semester, but last week was Spring Break.  It’s not how I remember it when I was younger, that’s for sure!  I took some time off work so I could work on assignments that are due next week: an economics problem set and a stakeholder analysis paper.  The problem set is done … the paper still needs a little work, but there’s some time left before it’s due on Tuesday.

This past Monday, registration for the Summer Semester opened.  We had been told in advance that classes fill quickly, and since there were only a handful of courses being offered, all seats were filled within minutes.  For quite a while before the registration window opened, I debated whether I should take a class this summer.  In the end, I decided against it for this year, but am leaving the window open for next summer.

On Tuesday, the class list for Fall Semester was released and we were asked to update our goals/research statements by May 19.  The confluence of these two events is actually fairly significant given the program requirements for the next couple of semesters.

  • First, we are updating our goals/research statements in anticipation of a faculty meeting on May 20.  On that date, all faculty will be meeting to discuss the doctoral students and our progress in the program.  It is important that we keep these statements updated.
  • Second, we are required to choose a chair for our Field Committee by the end of the third semester (which will be Fall 2011).  Because the chair for the Field Committee usually becomes the chair for a doctoral student’s Dissertation Committee, this is an important decision.
  • Third, now that almost all core courses are out of the way (PUBP 800 is the final core course, and will be taken in the Fall), choice of course becomes more important.  Rather than deciding which core courses we’ll be taking, we will now choose courses based on our fields within public policy.

And finally … on a related note, the Comprehensive Qualifying Exam for most of us will be January 5-9, 2012.  This exam tests knowledge of the information covered in the program’s core courses (PUBP 800, 801, 804, 805).  The “comp” is one of two major exams before the dissertation (the other is the Field Exam).

So yes, it was Spring Break this week … I think! 🙂