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Grad School - The Thief of Time

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A lot has happened at Princeton this year - Anne-Marie Slaughter left to head the New America Foundation, an ill-conceived op-ed made it sound like Princeton was a place where young women came in hopes of finding a man and little else and Professor Nan Keohane retired from teaching. Any one of these would be worthy of a blog post, but instead it's taken me slightly under a year to post something new to the blog. "Why?" you ask? The answer is grad school.

After the various rigors of actually getting into a graduate program (taking the dreaded GRE, crafting countless personal statements, waiting months to hear back from admit committees) actual grad school seemed like things could only get easier. Unfortunately it turns out that stepping back into full time study is actually really challenging. Gone are the tangible work products that make it feel like something has been achieved after a week of graft, and in their place is effectively a lot of homework.

I think I probably lost at least the first two months to sheer culture shock at the different expectations and requirements of academic versus professional life. First year has been filled with a lot of pre-requisites, including my own personal bêtes-noires economics and econometrics. As someone who had never taken any statistics or economics classes prior to this, being tossed in with the dean of the school teaching us microeconomics was kind of a shock in terms of how conversant with the material we were expected to be. This all coming from someone who barely knew the difference between fiscal and monetary policy a year ago.

Coupled with that is the very different academic atmosphere in the United States versus the United Kingdom. The sheer volume of assignments I produced in my first semester of US grad school quite probably equals my entire undergraduate output (with the exception of my dissertation), and it does at times feel like a relentless treadmill. Gone is the pleasure of reading up on one topic intensely for an end of semester paper, and in its place is the expectation that you will know all corners of the syllabus and points articulated therein. The curriculum seems more set, whereas in the UK it felt as if reading for papers encouraged "going down the rabbit hole" and reading off topic simply to improve your depth of knowledge. In America everyone comes out knowing everything they should, but perhaps not in quite as bespoke a manner. Neither system is better, and in fact I think they will prove complementary, but the adjustment has been considerable.

So what have I learned in this black hole of un-returned personal emails, and lost hours of sleep? It turns out, really quite a lot.

Without doubt the biggest tool I have gained is a real appreciation for the art of statistics. I say art, because in the somewhat sex-ified Nate Silver world, there is a growing appreciation that good statistical analysis is as much about how you frame the question and the types of analysis your data merits as following some pre-ordained list of tests of statistical significance (see Nate Silver's Oscar predictions). I was extremely lucky to have phenomenal professors and tutors to learn from, such as Mark Watson, Alice Muehlhof and Jonathan Tannen who deftly linked the burning question of policy relevance to statistics. As Professor Watson put it, the goal wasn't to turn us into statisticians but to instead make us "literate consumers of statistics." In other words, to understand when the wool is being pulled over our eyes.

In terms of the biggest positive that I've taken away from this year, it is the calibre of people I'm surrounded by. Never before have I been surrounded by such an engaged and intelligent group of individuals, who eat, sleep and breathe public service. It is a truly humbling experience, made all the more special because not only are these people extremely capable, they are also ridiculously good fun to spend time with. Their passion for topics like education reform for underserved youth, environmental policy and healthcare reform rubs off on you, which leads to whole new areas of policy suddenly seeming all the more engaging and interesting. The sheer immersion is hard to compare to any other experience. I feel truly lucky to be surrounded with a range of people from different backgrounds - be they military, intelligence officers, healthcare professionals or expectant parents - who are all united by their desire to affect change in the world. The more melancholy aspect was seeing the class above us graduate and head back to the working world. In such a small program you truly get the opportunity to know your fellow classmates, and so it is pretty sad when half of them suddenly up and leave. The fun part is that we get a whole raft of new people joining us in September.

The class that made the biggest impression on me was Professor Nan Keohane's "Leadership" class. Leadership is a notoriously difficult subject to teach, as quite often professors slide into management truisms and what seems to be common sense. That approach could not have been further from the way Professor Keohane approached the topic. We started with a grounding in political philosophy, covering Plato, Machiavelli and Weber and their concepts of what it means to be a leader, then progressed through contemporary topics - management versus leadership, crisis leadership, leading as a woman. It was honestly one of the most reflective experiences of my professional and academic careers. Not only was it excellent to hear anecdotes from classmates, but Professor Keohane's experiences as President of both Wellesley and Duke. What struck all of us most was Professor Keohane's pedagogy. Seeing someone who has not only honed their teaching style through years of experience, but also admits they are still learning was breathtaking stuff. Her presence will be sorely missed next year, but she has clearly inspired generations of young leaders at Princeton, Wellesley and Duke. The aspiring women of Princeton could do a lot worse than look to Nan Keohane for inspiration.

The biggest negative this year has been the lack of free time to stay as conversant with world affairs as I would have liked. Quite often unless I was in a class where the information was directly applicable, it was often hard to keep more generally informed of world events. In my case world affairs should also be expanded to staying in touch with friends and family. In such an all-consuming program I have racked up quite the debt of un-returned emails and postponed Skype calls. I only hope next year's freer academic criteria will allow for a return to something approaching a slightly more balanced life. I have an intense amount of respect for classmates who juggled young families and long-distance relationships this year - that truly is a mark of their self-discipline. This summer has been amazing. as it has given me time to read Foreign Policy daily and begin to feel semi-informed again.

I'm extremely glad I still have one year to go, as I feel like I spent the last year learning how to be a grad student, so this year can hopefully be solely about learning. Grad school is definitely not for the faint hearted, nor should it be. I already feel like I have learned skills that'll make me a better policy practitioner, and hopefully this year will see that skills palette increase further. Having two years to sit back and try and absorb as much as I can from classmates and professors more than makes up for the long hours, and I count myself very lucky that I go to a school that allows students to do that debt free. It is going to be pretty exciting to see what my classmates do when they're let loose on the policy world armed with the tools we've been provided with. Not a bad trade off for a year without time to write a blog post.