Next Stop, Graduate School

By Rex W. Douglass

My dissertation advisors like to joke that Ph.D. programs are vocational schools. You enter relatively young, inexperienced, and with a general curiosity about the world, but with few skills. Over five years, you learn how to answer questions in a rigorous way, you hone in on a specific gap in human knowledge, and you become socialized to interact and work with others in your field, so that one day, if you are lucky, you might get an actual job.

A bachelor’s degree in Government from The University of Texas at Austin can be a gateway to many different careers, but for me it meant going on to a Ph.D. program in political science. For anyone considering a similar path, there are a number of helpful things to know about both graduate school and the opportunities available to undergraduates at UT-Austin.

The narrow gap that I have focused on for my dissertation at Princeton is whether wars generate lasting changes in the local politics of the areas in which they are fought and, if so, how? If there is the potential to anger and politically energize an opponent’s population, how should that be taken into account by policy makers when they decide whether or not to go to war? My search for evidence has led me to dusty military campaign maps from American and European archives, county voting records from the 1800s, and interviews with military officers and civilians in Afghanistan.

Training in the two tools of the trade that I use most often, statistical inference and historical archival research, is readily available to UT undergrads. I started with the department’s undergraduate introduction to statistics and continued with the next two graduate courses in the sequence. The Government Department has a number of professors that do excellent historical research, but I also found great mentors at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and in the History Department. Every student should experience researching at the LBJ Library at least once, and I recommend strongly considering studying World War Two in the History Department’s Normandy Scholars Program.

The department’s option to write a thesis is a must if you are considering graduate school. The thesis helps you decide if research is something that interests you and also gives you a specific point of reference for befriending professors and eventually asking for recommendation letters. If you can, write the thesis a year early and polish it for your writing sample. This also frees up time for studying for the GRE and preparing the surprisingly time-consuming graduate school applications.

The size of the Government Department is an advantage to students who want to pursue research. There are often professors in need of paid research assistance. There is large cohort of smart graduate students who were just recently in the same position you will find yourself in. There are multiple venues for presenting your ideas, like the Junior Fellows Research Program. Not to mention, UT-Austin has sources for undergraduate research funding, like the Bridging Disciplines Program, Rapoport King Thesis Scholarship, and many more.

In sum, UT-Austin has something for everyone, including Government majors considering going on to graduate school. Whether you want to get a doctorate or a master’s in public policy, UT-Austin is well-positioned to help you on your journey. I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to study there.

Rex Douglass received his B.A. in government and history in 2007. Douglass is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His research interests include the strategic interaction between civilians and military forces during war, the domestic politics of arming decisions, and the long term political consequences of military campaigns.