Graduate Student Profiles - Government
Graduate Program: Ph.D., Government - International Political Economy and Foreign Policy, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Topic: The role of natural resources in the formulation of foreign policy
Other Degrees: M.A., International Relations, University of Chicago - Chicago, IL & B.A., Plan II; Government; Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies; Russian Language and Literature; and Czech Language and Literature, The University of Texas at Austin
What is grad school life like?
The coolest thing about being a graduate student is that you finish every day smarter than when you started. When I lived in New York, I worked a corporate job that was fine in and of itself, but I was working 8-10 hours a day for somebody else, only to have enough energy to work out, have dinner and be completely zonked until I had to do it again the next day.
In graduate study, a student will read an article or book every day, follow the news of an area or topic, and in general find out something that he or she didn’t know before, or come across a new way of thinking about an old problem. To me, at least, that feeling of intellectual excitement and satisfaction is irreplaceable.
Honestly, the nonstop partying, champagne and having to fend off runway models can be a bit tiresome. Ha, ha sigh. Life as a graduate student is necessarily a driven and focused one, because you’ll absolutely need to stay on top of your schoolwork and research interests, but it need not be excessively solitary. It’s helpful to form study groups to go over material and have someone else around who’s going through the same thing to gripe and commiserate with to remain sane.
What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
Being a graduate student is comparable to being a stage actor or trial attorney in that so much hard work goes into being able to perform competently in public. For every 3-hour seminar class, I probably spend at least 10 hours preparing for it in terms of doing the reading, taking notes, thinking about connections to other material I’ve previously encountered, and completing written assignments.
So a typical day is getting to school at 9:00 in the morning and being in class, meeting with fellow students and professors, attending talks and workshops and studying until 5:00 or 6:00 in the afternoon. But wait, there’s more! After getting home and working out and having dinner, I study the rest of the night. But that’s not all! I still put in 7-9 hours of study on Saturdays and Sundays to be able to sleep normally and avoid cramming during the week.
If that sounds like a job, that’s because being a graduate student is your job, and that’s the greatest difference between life as an undergrad versus life as a grad student. As an undergrad you’re kind of preparing for a career but mainly you’re learning how to read, write and think critically. But in graduate school you’re already assumed to know how to do that – you’re paid through a fellowship or teaching assistantship to put it all together and produce original scholarship (meaning uncovering new knowledge or looking at an old problem in a new way), so in essence you are always on call, which is largely why grad school is so much harder.
What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?
- Know what you want to do in grad school so that you can get in, and that you don’t waste your time or that of faculty members when you’re there.
- Read the journals of the field you’re interested in so that you know what’s expected of you.
- Get relevant training in your field as an undergraduate or in the gap between studies. If that’s language training, taking mathematics/economics/statistics classes, or working in your chosen field, do it and don’t think twice. These things will sharpen your focus, make you better prepared for your studies and already knowing x-y-z about will free up your time and energy for other new and exciting activities.
Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
I wholeheartedly recommend doing an undergraduate research project if you are even remotely interested in graduate study. I was a Plan II student, which required an undergraduate thesis. I wrote about the history of the Jewish community in the Czech Republic through a detailed focus on the history of the Jewish community of a town called Telč. The Jewish community in Prague is more famous and its history well known, so I thought it would be interesting to see how Jews existed in small towns since the 14th century onward. My basic finding was that Czech anti-Semitism was less virulent than that in neighboring countries because the Czechs for almost all of their history did not rule themselves, so their rancor was aimed at foreign kings and rulers, rather than at internal minorities.
Undergraduate research is important for at least two reasons. The first is that you will learn how to develop a working relationship with a professor, which is indispensable as a grad student because the faculty in grad school are training you to join the profession as well as helping you find a job later. A working relationship with a professor means figuring out a research topic that’s not just interesting to you but would also be relevant to the professor, so that supervising you is not a burden to him or her. Then the mechanics of a research project: defining the scope, setting goals, doing the research, taking criticism (not every word you write is destined for glory unfortunately) and then relentlessly revising until there’s finally something for others to read. It’s hard work with absolutely no guarantee of success, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
The second reason to do an undergraduate research project is that it’s like a mini-tryout for grad school. Not only does it look good on an application, but if you can eat, drink and breathe a single topic for six months or a year and not run screaming for the hills, then perhaps you can hack it when your dissertation takes 3-4 years.
What is an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in government to check out?
I would recommend ForeignPolicy.com as a good website for general international political news, commentary and blogging.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years I hope to be sailing through tenure review at a research university. Famous last words indeed.
Can you say a bit more about your dissertation plans?
My dissertation hasn’t been nailed down as of yet but the general topic will be the role of natural resources in the formulation of foreign policy and the subsequent effect on international security.
For instance, if a country has plenty of oil, gas, diamonds and/or other high-value commodities, it is more likely to have an authoritarian form of government than a democratic, representative one. As such a government needs only to tax highly or sell itself those commodities to fund itself it requires less labor input from its population and consequently concedes fewer rights and privileges to the population. As this government doesn’t really need the people to maintain itself this gives the government greater incentive to repress the citizens.
While there has been a lot of research on this internal formulation of political economy (which the fancy-pants political science way of saying how individuals form a government to rule over a territory and then organize the economy in that territory to remain in power and provide for the needs of the people in that territory), my research will focus on what happens next – in the international sphere. My research will try to answer the question of how does a country with plenty of high-value commodities conduct its international relations, and how does a country without many natural resources do the same thing.
The main empirical focus will be on Russia and how it uses its abundant natural resources to conduct its foreign policy. How I came onto this topic was that I was interested in doing a dissertation on Russia and I felt that oil and energy are topics that will not decrease in importance. So I began thinking of Russian foreign policy since the end of the Cold War: the nuclear rivalry with the United States became far less important, and Russia’s conventional military strength also declined dramatically, yet Russia remained a very large country with a clear foreign policy goal of maintaining primacy along its borders. Russia then had to cast about for a new way to project its old might. In the past decade or so, it hit upon the formula of using its oil and gas exports as the conduits for foreign policy, which includes cutting off natural gas supplies to Ukraine partially to warn against that country joining NATO, fighting (and winning) a war with Georgia to warn that country and its neighbors off too close a relationship with the United States, and so on.
The empirical portions of my dissertation will break down the formulation and execution of Russian foreign policy along its three geopolitical zones (Western Europe, the Caucasus/ Middle East and China/East Asia) through the exploitation of its natural resource assets. In doing so, I hope to show that the practice of international relations played a highly significant role in the internal formulation of its political economy, given that Russia as an exporter of high value commodities had to balance internal control of its resources with being open enough to engage in the international economy.
Would you like to share any other stories?
Under the advisement of Peter Trubowitz, I was able to receive a generous grant from Gary Freeman and the Government Department to go on a research trip to Beijing, China in May/June 2009.
My general dissertation will be about how the presence or absence of abundant natural resources effects the formation of foreign policy and the subsequent effect on international security. My main focus for the project will be to examine how Russia uses its natural resources (oil, gas, diamonds, etc.) as a foreign policy lever to re-extend its influence in its traditional sphere of influence after the end of the Cold War. The purpose in going to China was to investigate the energy relationship between the two countries: Russia has plenty to export while China doesn’t have nearly enough on its own to maintain its expanding industrial production, so I was trying to gauge whether they could overcome security concerns for mutual benefit.
Professor Trubowitz arranged for Professor Sun Zhe to invite me as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for US-China Relations at Tsinghua University. I organized my trip by arranging for interviews with Chinese political scientists, sociologists and UT’s own visiting professor, Liu Xuecheng, whose primary affiliation is as Senior Fellow of the China Institute of International Studies, the think tank of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was about two interviews a day, which sounds light but between preparation, doing the interviews and then getting around Beijing, those were very full days. In formal shoes and clothing with unrestrained humidity.
Besides for the interviews I only had two free days that I had set aside for tourist activities. The first was for going to Tiananmen Square because I have a personal project of visiting the graves and mausoleums of dictators and other political figures across the world. In Moscow I visited Lenin and Stalin, and I hope visiting Generalissimo Francisco Franco of Spain and Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam is not too far off. So I took a cab to Tiananmen Square, which at 100 acres is the largest public square in the world. For comparison, the entire UT campus, from the Drag to I-35 and Dean Keeton to MLK, is 350 acres.
I went through the metal detectors and for all the world I looked like a total narc Western journalist given my camera and notepads. It was two days before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square “Incident” so the amount of angry, hateful looks directed at me was fully palpable. There might have been more plainclothes police (young, angry muscular guys with earpieces in cargo pants and collared shirts), city police, army soldiers and other uniformed personnel whose organizational affiliations I couldn’t divine, than in the entire Austin Police Department.
I went straight to the Mao Mausoleum. Perhaps for occasion of the anniversary or perhaps he wasn’t feeling his freshest, but the Chairman wasn’t taking visitors – the Mao Mausoleum was closed. The consolation prize was the rest of the attractions: Tiananmen Square is just part of a larger complex that includes the Forbidden City, the National Museum of China, the Great Hall of the People and other government buildings. So for Chinese people from elsewhere visiting Beijing, it is essentially having all of the Washington, D.C. historical and civic tourist attractions all in a single area. Which is handy.
My other free day was spent fulfilling a childhood dream: visiting the Great Wall of China. The closest portion of the Wall to visit from Beijing is called Badaling, and it was far more impressive in person than I had ever imagined. Designed to protect Beijing from northern invasion, this section of the Wall was restored in the 1950s, and it is an engineering marvel. High up in the mountains, Badaling is so large and tall and steep that many people there had trouble in modern shoes to go up and down the passes between guard towers. Making it up more than a kilometer above sea level, the warm day was left behind for some of the coolest and most refreshing breezes I have ever experienced. Looking out on the endless Wall stretching into the distance over the hills, it was one of those rare moments when a dream came true and expectations were fulfilled.
I returned from China with a better understanding of the China-Russian security and energy relationship and the international relations of East Asia. It was an invaluable trip for dissertation research and I will hopefully return for a longer visit after advancing to Ph.D. candidacy. The rest of my summer was spent studying Russian in an intensive immersion program at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN to revive the Russian I learned as an undergrad.
Graduate Program: Ph.D., Government - Political Science, The University of Texas at Austin; Resesarch Topic: Voting Behavior and Race and Ethnicity
Other Degrees: B.A., Honors Government and Honors Liberal Arts, The University of Texas at Austin
What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The coolest thing about the graduate program is the people. I am fortunate enough to have personal contacts in the Austin area, but many of my colleagues come from all over the world. As such, we have formed a tight-knit community where not only do we help each other out academically, but we also hang out on a social level. The pinnacle of our social calendar is the tailgate parties we have before every UT football game.
What is graduate student life like?
Life as a first or second year graduate student is much like undergraduate studies with a pretty strict class schedule, homework, etc. As you get older, it becomes exciting because you are working on your own research and can concentrate on those topics in which you are independently interested. Just be ready to live poor.
What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
A typical day involves classes, either 1.5 hour seminars twice a week or 3 hour seminars once a week. Once class is over you will have some departmental obligation, usually a teaching assistant class and office hours, or a research assistantship. Once you have finished that you begin to study, either doing the homework in your statistics class, working on a research project for a class or conference, and reading – lots and lots and lots of reading. A typical week of reading will usually involve 200 pages (maybe a whole book) per class and will consume about five hours of your day, seven days a week.
What is the greatest difference between undergrad and grad school?
The biggest difference is self-motivation. Undergrad is a big change from high school because you are used to your teachers ‘holding your hand’ as far as assignments and studying goes. In undergrad you get more freedom, but classes are very structured with explicit deadlines and provisions like rough drafts. In grad school there is even less instruction, you are given your expectations the first day of class and are expected to fulfill those expectations. No one will even ask how you are progressing, the expectation is that you are mature enough to handle things yourselves. Also you must realize that grad school is not for everyone, nor is independent research.
What do you know now, and wish you knew then?
I wish I had known how much mathematics is involved in political science. I would have taken a higher-level math course (instead of just math for non-science majors) like calculus and/or a statistics course, and taken them seriously.
What are 3 tips for students applying to your program?
- Work hard on your math GRE score.
- Think seriously about giving 5-7 years of your young life doing the same thing everyday.
- Make friends in your cohort and with your professors so they can help down the line and co-author research.
Did you work on a research project as an undergrad?
I worked on an honors thesis for my government major. The project was about majority-minority congressional districts and their effects on voter turnout. I strongly recommend doing research in undergrad. I was headed to law school until I started working on my honor thesis, got hooked on the research, and decided to go get a PhD solely because of that experience.
If you wouldn't have accepted the UT Austin offer, which schools would have been your next top choices?
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Tenured, starting on my second book, and running a campaign institute.
Would you like to share a story about your graduate life?
It is just difficult getting through the daily minutia of grad school when you are one of the few students of color. No matter what your minority status it is always difficult to be the ‘first’ or ‘only’ person like yourself in the program. Instead of dwelling on it, appreciate your status, make sure you help out those that come behind you, and most importantly let your work be validation of your belonging.