As graduate students, we’ve all experienced the overwhelming feeling of managing several class projects at once. GSIG’s Research Delegate, Cory MacNeil describes how he learned to make the most of his time and effort for class to benefit his research agenda.
Thinking carefully about the future and how to get there is rarely as fun as vacation or a lay day, but it can pay out incredibly if done well, and done often.
If you self-plagiarize, you deserve every uncomfortable moment on the
phone call from the Office of Academic Integrity. But if you are smart
about your work, putting thought into using classes and semesters in a
coordinated manner, you can prevent the demanding work from each
class from becoming a lonely and dismembered brick along a
wandering path towards thesis or dissertation.
Coordinating class projects
In my first semester at the University of Missouri I attended three classes,
each culminating in a final paper, which of course means three literature
reviews, three concepts, three theories, and three methods. I imagined this
as trying to ride three horses at once, or three horses pulling me in three
directions. After thinking about the metaphor for a couple of days, I
remembered that farmers use multiple horses all the time — they line them up, and call them teams. This new view of the metaphor led me to conceive of the three papers at a new angle — one of coordination.
The requirements for the papers were an explication, a normative
philosophy, and a quantitative research proposal. You cannot get more
different than that. In the philosophy class, we kept coming back to the
concept of objectivity, something I thought was quite simple, but we kept
going deeper, with surprises around every corner. Becoming interested in
learning more about objectivity even outside of our assigned reading and in
class conversation, I also realized this could be the coordinating point for all
By writing the explication of objectivity first, I laid the groundwork for the
other two papers. An explication requires a deep literature review to collect
all the pertinent definitions used by scholars of the subject, a literature
review that would also be on hand for the other papers. An explication also
typically leads to an operationalized definition of the concept, which is the
perfect starting point for the quantitative research proposal looking for the
concept of objectivity within the collected data. The deep dive into the
literature for the explication also gave me time to think deeply about objectivity, and form my own academically backed opinions on the concept, a great starting point for a normative philosophy paper about the use of objectivity in journalistic communication.
Scale down for class
During my second semester I was again in three classes, but this time the
pressing problem was the two research projects for which I was doing semistructured interviews were going well — too well. It takes a lot of time to invite interviews, schedule interviews, transcribe interviews, and analyze the data from interviews. The snowball technique for using interviews to obtain more interviews was paying off, but I realized that if I did not pause at some point before the end of the semester I would be inviting, scheduling, transcribing, and analyzing all the way up to the last day with no paper to turn in.
I realized that if I did not pause at some point before the end of the semester I would be inviting, scheduling, transcribing, and analyzing all the way up to the last day with no paper to turn in.
The widely accepted standard for the minimum number of qualitative interviews is at least 12, but by the time I obtained 12 x 2 research projects, the semester would be long over. So, I was up front with both instructors weeks before the end of the semester to let them know I would have to scale back from 12 to have a paper to turn in for a grade. They both appreciated my forward thinking, and we talked about how to hit the play button again the day after the end of the semester.
It is true that I didn’t leave class with papers ready for submission to an
academic journal, but it is also true that I got eight hours of sleep the entire
stress-free semester, which allowed me to do my best on the analysis and write a full (model) paper I could be proud of. The two 24-page papers I wrote, with introduction, theory, literature review, method, analysis, and conclusion, allowed me to reflect upon my own work, so that when I get back to interviews over the summer semester, I can do even better work — work that is of the level to send to an academic journal.
Coordinate across semesters
The third paper for the second semester was for a sociology class. I put a lot
into it, and got a lot out of it. Yet, it is not ready for an academic journal. I did a deep literature review, am proud of the careful writing, and stand behind my conclusion. Still, I can see the paper is derivative, and contains no surprises along the way. Not all papers need a surprising conclusion, but at least get there via an interesting route.
Looking ahead to the classes I will take next year I was excited about a
philosophy class, one focusing on the principle of grounding, but started
wondering about the paper I will write for it. That is the rub of the lamp, to think about what to get out of a class before arriving and becoming overwhelmed with reading, responses, homework, and class discussion. The idea came to me of bringing my completed sociology paper to the philosophy class to give it a complete overhaul, to add something not typically seen in sociology papers — philosophical grounding. Of course, I will be up front with the instructor, letting them know I am walking into class with a completed paper, but not as a means of cheating the experience of writing; rather, to infuse the interesting and different perspectives I will gain through careful attention to the course lectures, readings, and philosophy.
Saving money to go to Disney World or doing work ahead to have a weekend to binge watch Netflix are not the fun parts we look forward to. But long after the Magic Kingdom and a weekend you can never get back are in the rear-view mirror of life, compound interest still does its work. Thinking carefully about the future and how to get there is rarely as fun as a vacation or a lazy day, but it can pay out incredibly if done well, and done often. No one can tell from your paper diploma if your degree is the culmination of a carefully coordinated path, or a haphazard bunch of disconnected classes. But they will see it — and you will see it — in your work.