Applying To Graduate School? Read This.
Thanks to everyone for their words of support and encouragement!
It seems like every grad student is competing against each other for "Worst Grad Student Ever": what with our crappy term papers, which occasionally arrive late; our slow middling process to preparing for qualifying exams and designing our research question and developing our theories; how we teach to fund our education but teaching takes time away from all of the above and yet we do it because we need the funding and like the positive reinforcement that comes with teaching (students like us! we are acting like the professors we want to be! we are not writing crappy papers, preparing for quals/comps, or doing fieldwork!); how we drag our feet with field work; how we barely move nanometers with our dissertation writing: grad students often get "stuck."
And yet somehow, we got into grad school in the first place, by not being those things. Dean and Professor Theda Skocpol has great ideas for reforming graduate education to get students out in under 8 years. I have a few ideas to offer you (despite being myself sometimes the worst grad student ever) for hitting the ground running:
1. Apply to the right schools in your program. Do some research and figure out which departments offer the best faculty resources and institutional resources for your particular area of interest. Do not go to a quantitative-dominant political science department if you want to do political theory, for example.
2. Figure out which faculty you want to work with and read their work. This means identifying faculty you want to work with, and go beyond reading the faculty profile page. Look up their articles on JSTOR, HeinOnline, or SSRN. See if they would have a good "fit" with what you want to do. Not sure what you want to do? Reading their work will give you some ideas.
3. Contact the faculty you want to work with. It helps to have faculty support and an "in," and often times the applications ask you who they should contact about your application. It's easy to get rejected from schools you'd be well qualified for on the numbers scale, simply because there's no one there to work with you. Thus, don't let your name be a "who did you say?" to your list of faculty on your application. Also, expressing interest in someone's work is always a good idea, and they might be inclined to work with you, or they may admit that they're on their way out on sabbatical or to another school and can't work with you. That would suck if you listed someone who could not be there to be your advisor.
4. Try to get alternate funding. It sucks to be a slave to the university and dependent on TAships and RAships. This may be my unfortunate fate, as I won't be a first year student eligible for long-term fellowship, but I'll be scrambling for departmental fellowships and the like if I get into my program.
5. Try to figure out what you want to do as early as you can. This sounds like a no-brainer, but most grad students start without an idea of what they will write for their master's thesis or eventual monograph. I actually have a dissertation topic, research question and design, but only because my advisor basically threw one at me, and there was no time to "explore" in my current S.J.D. program. The short life of the S.J.D. was conducive to developing a topic quickly, actually, so if I get into the Ph.D program, I have one ready to go. Most students just start grad school and get acclimated with coursework and methodology before they get around to figuring a topic. There's nothing wrong with this, but there's also nothing wrong with doing your methods and coursework with an eye to developing a workable thesis. See if you can start your program with a paper idea.
This advice, of course, is inapplicable to law school aspirants, whom I would advise (other than "Think hard. Are you sure you want to go to law school?") to just rock the LSATs and get a score above the 97th percentile, get above a 3.7 GPA, get some honors and awards, do a lot of community service, and do a grammar check on your admissions essays. I know this is cynical, but I have a strong suspicion that law school admissions are much more numbers driven and not as holistic in their review as they purport to be. At least you don't have to worry about advisor match-up though. Or funding, because there isn't really much for professional students.