“There is much more to academic life than what we are taught in our graduate seminars” : Top Political Scientists Offer Their Advice


Developing an academic career involves a lot of hard work and determination.  Senior political scientists Benjamin J. Cohen and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita give their advice to budding scholars looking to get ahead.

Professor Benjamin Jerry Cohen, Louis G. Lancaster Professor of International Political Economy at the University of California, Santa Barbara:

Half a century is a long time – certainly long enough to gain some perspective on my own early years as an academic. I did not start my career as a political scientist. My formal training was in economics, and my first faculty position was in the economics department at Princeton University. But as I look back, I understand that what I learned from my early experience there is as relevant to young political scientists today as it might be to students of the “dismal science.”

Three lessons stand out. First, learn from your elders. Princeton, then as now, boasted one of the top economics departments in the world. Among its ranks were some of the top people in their respective fields – Oskar Morgenstern, inventor of game theory; Fritz Machlup, one of the leading international economists of the day; William Bowen, later Princeton’s president; and many illustrious others. Frankly, I was intimidated. Who was I to impose on such demi-gods? Had I tried to spend more time with them, I know now that I could have learned much – not just about economics in particular but about the life of scholarship in general. But lacking gumption, I held back. The loss was mine.

Second, seek advice. As every newly minted PhD comes to know, there is much more to academic life than what we are taught in our graduate seminars. How do I formulate a research agenda? Where should I try to publish? What meetings should I attend? How do I raise extramural funding? And many other questions, all essential to the successful start of a career. Asking for advice from one’s more experienced colleagues is not easy, and I was particularly bad at it. As a result, I made some poor choices – wasting time on low-value research, publishing in obscure journals, failing to attend the right conferences, foregoing funding opportunities. Fortunately, my early mistakes did not prove fatal, but they might have done.

Finally, don’t hesitate to “sell” yourself. When I was starting out, I believed that all I had to do was to concentrate on producing good scholarship. Naively I assumed, as the old adage has it, that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Only much later did I come to appreciate how wrong that was. Quality research is necessary, but it is not sufficient. The scholarly world is a crowded and competitive place. A nascent scholar cannot passively wait for recognition. Quite the contrary, from the start you must be pro-active, working hard to raise the visibility of your work. Otherwise, the path to your door will remain quite unbeaten.



Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Professor of Politics, New York University, and Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University:

When I started out – as a South Asia specialist – I did not really appreciate, as I believe I do now, the great value of separating personal opinion from logic and evidence, allowing rigorously made logical and empirical arguments to take you wherever they may. As I became more familiar with the methods for modelling questions and then probing their implications through data analysis, I came to see that many of my views about how the world of politics works were based on leaps of faith and often proved wrong.

Back when I was in graduate school the study of politics was dominated by the accumulation of facts and the belief that each country’s politics were so different that they could only be understood by immersion in the history, culture and language of the place. Indeed I invested five years studying Urdu which, while a great pleasure to have learned, has proven of considerably less value for me than studying mathematics and statistics, as well as a good deal of history. Fortunately for me, Michigan’s political science Ph.D. program in my day was at the forefront of quantitative analysis and was just beginning to experiment ever so cautiously with rational choice models and their implications. Despite being an area studies student I jumped at the opportunity to learn these methods. If I have any regret today it is that I did not go more deeply into mathematics, statistics and economic reasoning.

Students often ask me about pursuing approaches that are out of the main-stream of the field, fearing that they will be limited in opportunities if they do not use whatever is the method or theory of the day. My advice to them is always the same: you have only one audience to satisfy as a researcher: yourself. Study the questions that excite you and do so in the ways that seems most appropriate to you in mastering the subject and you will do fine. Learn to recognize when your beliefs are wrong and be prepared to abandon them after you are convinced that you have studied the subject closely, carefully and rigorously.  To borrow from St. Augustine, “We should not hold rashly an opinion in a Scientific matter, so that we may not come to hate later whatever truth may reveal to us, out of love for our own error.”



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