Columbia PhD and post-doc advising

A note to new PhD applicants: I often get emails from prospective students asking if I would be their advisor if they joined the program. The short answer: I happily meet with Columbia PhD students on any topic, and if you’re in a program here and working in my general area, then it would be natural for me to be a regular adviser. In the case where I’m one of your main advisers, you can read more about the regular advising group below.

Do you need an adviser lined up in advance of your application? No. Given the overwhelming number of applicants to these programs, it’s uncommon to speak with faculty in advance. Merely explaining in your application letter which faculty you would like to work with and why is sufficient.

A lot of applicants ask me for advice or meetings during applications. Since I generally can’t meet these requests, I’ve written up some advice on applying to PhDs.

Current Columbia PhD students: I am always happy to talk to Columbia PhDs student about their work, regardless of field. Please do contact me or sign up for office hours online to discuss. New students should feel free to come by just to chat generally, especially first year PhDs. The advice below applies mainly to regular visitors and (most of all) people who will have me as a primary adviser.

Before coming to see me, however, do look at the advice posts on the side bar first, to see if they apply. That way we can skip generalities when we meet and get to the meat of the discussion.

Macartan Humphreys and I work on broadly similar topics (the political economy of development and of violence) and we have been thinking about ways to make our PhD advising more effective. We think if we communicate our expectations and habits more clearly, and put some structure and commitment around working together, then our students are going to succeed all the more.

To that end, here are some thought on how to work together and some more specific guidelines for our core students.

General suggestions

Here are some ways that I think advising works most effectively:

  • I prefer you to send concise written updates (a couple of paragraphs or pages by email) a day or two before meeting. I will read it and we can discuss.
  • If you are working with data or theory, I recommend bringing figures/tables to our meetings to discuss–it’s much easier to give concrete feedback.
  • Like other faculty (especially ones with small kids) I usually need advance time to review something
    • A day or two to review a 1-2 page summary
    • A week or two for a paper or memo
  • When I say I will do something by a certain date, I will usually do it, and if I don’t, I ask you to poke and remind me because sometimes things get missed
    • Similarly, if I haven’t responded to an email in 24 or 48 hours (which is rare), please remind me, since it means it may have been overlooked by accident
  • I will make extensive notes on any memos or papers you send me, often electronically, so if this is something you want, please email as a PDF, with sufficient margins for me to write electronic comments (e.g. wide margins, double spacing, no small fonts)
  • In general, faculty will start to forget your work if you only see them every four months, so visit regularly
  • I would normally expect my core students to be seeing me, showing me tables/figures, and discussing progress once or twice a month

For those who have Macartan as an advisor, he says he likes all of the above too.

Finally, I can focus on your specific work in more depth if we jump past all the generic advice. Please take a look at the advice posts at left.

Guidelines for core advisees

Macartan and I encourage students to seek us out regularly, whether we’re in your field or not, or a main advisor or not.

In the case of students for whom we’re a primary adviser (i.e your dissertation chair or sponsor), such as a committee chair, we think it’s useful to have regular, structured meetings all together. If you think you want one of us as a primary adviser, come see us about joining the meetings.

The main reason for the group is simple: we think a little structure, commitment devices, and  more regular feedback will help students write better dissertations, faster, and get better jobs. At the same time we think there are economies of scale in terms of certain advice and our advising time.

It’s partly a substitute for for office hours, though we still expect to see our students one-on-one a lot.

Key features would be:

  • A focus on a peer group of 2nd to 5th year students
  • We expect the peer group to consist of about 8 to 12 students all working on themes broadly related to our areas: the political economy of development, violence, identity politics, etc.
  • Most of our students will do at least some quantitative work (even if they don’t plan it now) and so we expect our students to take the formal theory and statistics sequences, plus some of the strongly recommended courses (see below)
  • We will have weekly meetings during the regular semester
    • In every meeting, everyone should give a quick update on work done and progress since the last meeting
    • One student will also present something more extensive, having provided a short memo (and ideally figures/tables) 24-48 hours in advance
    • Everyone will be expected to read these in advance and give feedback
  • Since so many of our students’ work is field work, there will also be a focus on funding graduate study and field work, helping you identify project partners and funding sources, and advising you on proposal writing and project management
  • Students of Macartan are also required to attend the weekly SSDS seminar and present there once a year, and this is strongly recommended for Chris’s students
    • I’m not making this a requirement for students who are only mine, so long as I cannot attend regularly myself
  • We discourage being away during the semester or living in other cities, except for field work or urgent family reasons of course

Please come talk to us if you think either of us might be an appropriate primary adviser. It’s not supposed to be an exclusive club. And again we welcome students in office hours whether or not we’re a formal adviser at all.

Methodological training expected of core advisees

Some of our students specialize in qualitative work, but the majority do quantitative work of some kind, or will, and we generally expect the following:

  • Take the 2-course sequence in game theory
  • Take the 2-course sequence in statistics or econometrics
  • Take at least one in more applied causal inference, such as:
    • Green’s experiments course
    • Hirano/Wawro/others on applied causal inference
    • Others as they are offered

Note these are requirements for people for whom we are primary advisers, not all the students who will interact with us or have us sit on their committee.

We make these requirements because we see these skills as essential to basic literacy in the profession, especially in the political economy of development. So are many other skills, but stats and game theory are among the hardest to learn on your own. And your life after graduation is a slow decline into technical obsolescence, so beef up now.

The following, meanwhile, are strongly recommended for our core students:

  • One of us (and failing that, someone else in the department) will usually be teaching a Political Economy of Development class and we generally expect our students to take it
  • If the department’s course is not available, Suresh Naidu’s course is an excellent alternative. You should consider both if PE of development is your main field of study
  • Nunnari and Casella teach a 2-course sequence in formal political economy theory and lab experiments. You should consider one at least and both if you specialize in lab experiments or political economy theory

Other coursework worth considering if you are specializing in PE of development:

  • We assume you have done the comparative core (international relations for some of you)
  • Microeconomic theory
  • Auditing or taking the development economics courses by Kaur, Pop-Eleches, Urquiola, or Verhoogen
  • Courses in the statistics department can be good ideas but should not substitute for the required or strongly recommended courses above
  • I think languages are better learned in the summer in the place where people actually speak them, and advise you not to use up a grad credit on them when you only have about 16 in your life
  • We are encouraging of other methods (comparative cases, ethnography, archival research, etc) and have advised many such students in the past, but given that we specialize methodologically as well as thematically we expect our core students to at least have minimum expertise in quantitativeskills
    • We don’t expect this to be an issue, since students with a very different methodological approach might have us on their committee, but we would be unlikely main advisors
    • Do strongly consider getting training in formal qualitative methods as part fo your graduate work since this is a rare opportunity to learn them