There are a lot of transitions when it comes to graduate school. Whether it's transitioning from a job back to school or moving to New York City, the changes that this time of your life brings are endless.
When preparing to come to Columbia, I knew that moving from the very small state of Vermont to the largest city in the United States would be difficult among other things, but one transition I wasn’t prepared for was the shift from the type of learning and assignments a science degree has to a liberal arts-based degree. Reflecting back, there are some things I wish I would have started doing prior to starting at SIPA that could have helped me.
This blog is for those applying to SIPA or coming to SIPA with a non-liberal-arts degree background. These tips could also be used for any incoming student that wants to see what they could do to practice the skills that are needed at SIPA.
Prior to coming to SIPA, I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Food Science and a minor in Microbiology and then went on to complete my Master of Public Health. I was used to exams and problem sets…all the time. I knew how to study, utilize office hours for help with problem sets, and how I best took exams, which was helpful for courses like Microeconomics. Macroeconomics, and Quantitative Analysis, but left me in the dust for other courses whose grades are mainly based on readings and papers. Additionally, because I had been so focused on sciences, I didn’t have the same knowledge bank of current events or important scholars in the field as my peers who had an international affairs background or who had been working in the field. Knowing the current conflicts, territorial disputes, economic status, and various geopolitics in regions of the world would have been incredibly helpful when settling into academic life.
I realized I had to teach myself how to read quickly and efficiently, write succinctly, and gain an overarching knowledge of current events around the world. Reading was the first big hurdle: On average, each SIPA class assigns you 100-200 pages of reading a week, and if you are in 4 to 5 classes… that’s a lot of reading per week. Through trial and error, I realized where to look first to find information in an article (abstracts are your friends!), if something is redundant… skip it, and if you don’t have time to read a full article, read the intro, and then the conclusion. Succinct writing was easier to hone because it allows for trial and error. I often found myself writing way over a word limit and needing to greatly cut back, which took more time. However, with each paper I wrote, I was able to identify and leave out extraneous information and know where to cut words first when my paper was over the word limit.
Luckily, I was able to build a knowledge base as I went. While I read, I googled anything I didn’t know. Often, this led me to skim a New York Times or Washington Post article about something (yay, more reading), but it was incredibly useful to gain a better understanding and context of what I was reading for a class. One thing that really helped me was listening to relevant podcasts and reading the Foreign Policy Daily Brief each morning. These are both easy activities you can do while riding the subway, cooking dinner, or cleaning, and give you the perfect amount of information.
I was able to muscle through and find my footing, but I want you to learn from my experience. This leads to my suggestion of what you could do before coming to SIPA…luckily, you can gain a knowledge base, AND practice quick reading and succinct writing by doing the same thing. You could do one step, or all three, and please tailor anything I say to how you best learn.
- Stage 1: Read international publications. Start by reading articles in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Economists, etc. Set a stopwatch and read the article. Notice where information is redundant or where you could have skipped reading and still gained the same knowledge. Once you have read an article, in a brief paragraph, sum the article up. If you were just hearing about this topic for the first time, would you understand the topic by reading your paragraph? Why or why not?
- Stage 2: Once you feel comfortable with the above tasks, make it a little harder. Start by reading just the intro and the conclusion of an article, then summarize it and read it from the viewpoint of someone who is just learning about this topic for the first time. Then, time yourself, read the whole article, and summarize it again. Where is your summary from just the intro and conclusion different from your summary for the whole article? If there was a key piece of information missing from the first attempt, where was that key piece of info?
- Stage 3: Set a timer now, not a stopwatch. See how long it takes you to read each article, can you reduce that and still finish with the same amount of information? Start by cutting your timer down by 10 seconds and continue this. There will be a limit to how much you can cut down, but I think you would be surprised by the amount of important information you can summarize well even with a short amount of time to read. This also helps create a benchmark for how fast you can read which will help with time management when classes begin.
Doing this will aid you in all three things I found the hardest: reading quickly, writing succinctly, and building a knowledge base. By timing yourself, you have placed pressure on yourself to read faster, summarizing allows you to see how fast you can read and still gain the same amount of information while practicing clear and succinct writing, all while reading articles that pertain to what you will be studying, which actively builds your knowledge base!