The PhD pinata (or, groping for research questions)

I certainly identify with the writer’s struggle …

The Thesis Whisperer

This post was written by Paula Hanaszwho is currently writing a thesis on the geopolitics of water security in South Asia at The ANU. She is enrolled at the Australia National University but currently spends more time on her couch than in her office or the library. Last time we met Paula she was experiencing PhD lifestyle guilt, this time she reflects on the difficult question of the research question…

I raise my arms and swing them, blindly, above my head. The full force of my swing lands on…nothing. My hands, still gripping their bludgeon, fall impotently by my ankles. I raise them and swing again. And again. And again. My misses fall awkwardly. I should be embarrassed. Before the blindfold was wrapped around my eyes I caught a glimpse of the piñata and I’m sure that I’m standing directly below it.

Or am I?

With each…

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No Plan Survives First Contact …

As I look back on my most recent post, I note to myself just how aggressive the plan I laid out 2 months ago really was.  Although I’m theoretically working only 20 hours a week and am theoretically able to dedicate the rest of my time to my studies, the theoretical and the actual don’t always match.  I’ve “donated” a lot of extra time to my employer over the past two months and I’m struggling to figure out how I can more efficiently organize my time.  As a result, I’m nowhere near as far as I’d like to be on my field of study plan, and will need to be more creative going forward.  After speaking with a classmate, I learned a couple of important pieces of information I will need to work into my plan.

What did I learn?  After completing all required courses (both core and elective), PhD students need only 6 credit hours to remain full-time.  Awesome!  I have carried 9-11 credit hours every semester since I started the program and, after this semester ends, I have completed all required courses.  Great news!  I also learned that I may be able to take those 6 credit hours as directed readings since I’ve not taken any directed readings yet.  A directed reading is an individualized course put together by agreement between the student and a professor with a syllabus and agreed-upon deliverable(s).  So, the combination of a reduced hours requirement and ability to take directed readings should definitely help.  I will be checking with the university staff to make sure everything works, but things are looking up.

Back to my plan … given the slow progress this semester, here is my updated plan:

201211 – 201304 – Write Field Statement / Finalize Field Committee / Finish Coursework (including directed readings)
201304 – 201305 – Finish Field Statement / Obtain Final Concurrence from Committee
201305 – 201305 – Take Field Exam
201306 – 201307 – Propose Dissertation
201308 – 201403 – Write Dissertation
201404 – 201405 – Defend Dissertation

We’ll see how well this plan survives … 🙂

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!

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!

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 …

How time flies …

Somehow I went the whole month of September without posting an update.  Two presentations and two papers later (with another paper and presentation next week), it’s already mid-October!  It seems I’m always surprised at how quickly the semester passes.  So … how’s it going?

The Culture and Public Policy course is quite an interesting course.  We’ve had some great discussions so far and I’m looking forward to even more of them.  I’ve learned a lot from the readings we’ve covered in the first half of the semester.  Here are some of the books we’ve read up to this point:

  • American Exceptionalism by Seymour Martin Lipset  This book was written in 1996, but it is still applicable today.  It’s a fairly easy read and helps the reader understand what “American Exceptionalism” really means.  Dr. Lipset was one of the founding faculty members of George Mason’s School of Public Policy.
  • Mad As Hell by Scott Rassmussen and Douglas Schoen  I should have read the back of the book before reading the 300-ish pages of … um … “analysis” that makes up this book.  I struggled with this book because I really expected a pollster (Scott Rasmussen) to use more sound methods.
  • The Post-American World Release 2.0 by Fareed Zakaria  This is an enjoyable read.  If you’ve ever read any of Thomas Friedman’s works, the theme is familiar.  The world is changing and the gap between the United States and the rest of the world is narrowing.  It’s not an authoritative text by any means, but it helps the reader with cultural perspective.

I’m really enjoying the Globalization and IT course.  We’re approaching Information Technology (or Information Communication Technology as the term is used in most of the rest of the world) from a public policy perspective – a “geek course for non-geeks”.  The material has reenergized my interest in IT and policy.  I changed my statement of interest last semester to focus on nuclear arms control policy as that’s the direction I wanted to head with my studies.  I’m torn again – I’m really interested in both areas, but I’m beginning to think that the IT policy area would be more suited to dissertation research and I could then expand my research to include arms control policy after defending my dissertation.  I’ve spoken to my professor in this class about IT policy topics in pursuit of a dissertation topic and will be meeting with him to discuss this in more depth.  He also provided the names of two other faculty members I will be meeting with to discuss potential IT policy dissertation topics.  I’d like to have a general area of study narrowed down and perhaps even a good idea of who will be on my fields committee by the end of this semester.

The Transnational Security Issues course is also interesting.  It reminds me a lot of the coursework from the GMU Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (now the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution).  So far, we’ve covered corruption, safe havens, kleptocracies, money laundering, pirates, cyber crime, and terrorism.

As of this week, we’re officially halfway through the semester.  Before long, the semester will be over and it’ll be time to take the Comprehensive Qualifying Exam.  Stay tuned for updates!

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!