Escape from the office!

I was very lucky when I was going through my program. I had an office (at least most of the time, there was one semester of transition where I worked out of the conference room).  But the point was, I had a home base.  I had a place where when I got there, I knew it was time to work.  And it was wonderful, most of the time.

There was one slight problem.  This office was a windowless six feet by twelve feet, and I shared it with two other people, plus who ever had stopped by to hang out or for tutoring.  If someone was meeting with one of the other GAs, I was in the way. I was distracted.  I couldn’t get my work done.  So, office or not, I had to find another location. It turns out, it was one of the best things that happened.

Even if I had been alone in “The Bunker” as we called it, I still would not have been as productive as was necessary sometimes.  So, what’s a deadline-pending grad student to do? Unless you’re running code or models and just HAVE to have your office computer, escape.  Now, I know not everyone has an official office.  But everyone has SOMETHING that is their office.  It’s where you do most of your work. It may be a spare bedroom, a corner of your bedroom, or your kitchen table. The principle is still the same. Change your surroundings.

It doesn’t have to be drastic. Sometimes, I’d go use a study nook on another floor of my building.  Our library had some pretty nice study rooms that I frequented quite often.  But even if your school doesn’t have those resources, there are alternatives.

There are very few college towns I’ve seen without a coffee shop. Milledgeville was actually one of them for a long time, but that has long since changed.  Now, in the downtown area, there are three different ones and another on the north side of town. My personal favorite (yes, I’m giving them a free endorsement) is Blackbird.  It’s small, local, and was the first to venture downtown.  As such, it’s a staple of downtown culture. They have a bit of everything, from students, professors, administration, to other downtown merchants. They have caffeine.  They have comfortable couches.  They have free WiFi.  What more could a nerd want?

There is one other place that I really enjoyed escaping to for study time, or now, research and grading time.  I am obviously a self-described nerd.  But sometimes, I feel the need to get outdoors. When this happens, I head to the local park.  The Oconee River Greenway is along the Oconee River, has walking trails, and plenty of tables and benches to sit and read.  On thing that is missing at this park, and most parks, is WiFi.  But with 3G technology becoming more and more popular, it’s becoming less of an issue. My netbook comes with 100 MB per month free.  Now, that’s not a lot.  But WiFi is so popular, I don’t have to use my 3G that often. Most of the time, I just venture to the Greenway when I have something printed that needs to be read.

I know every situation is different, but this has worked for me.  I used these escapes to be able to refocus on my work, instead of people constantly stopping by to talk, or for tutoring (after I completed my weekly hours, of course).  It was also amazing how many times an new location provided a new perspective on whatever was my task for the day. Sometimes a quick lap around the building, downtown, or the Greenway got the blood flowing again, woke me up, and gave me a chance to thing about what needed to be done without a blank screen glaring at me.

What is style anyway?

As you reach higher levels of academia, the first thing you’re likely to notice is a difference in the way your papers must look. Between MLA, CMS, APA, and (oh the horror) APSA, it’s a regular alphabet soup of things which must be done, and can NEVER be done. And to make it even more confusing, it’s different for each one of them.  Even worse, some of them have different sub-styles. How is one to figure this out?

Well, to begin with, you can get rid of MLA.  It’s for undergrads and English majors.  The Modern Language Association publishes the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. This is the style taught in introductory composition courses. It is a very simple style to use. But, it also is rather limited in it’s citation styles.  For example, if you’re having to site the Constitution of the United States, you have to cite it as a book.  Being designed for the humanities, it is centered around literature and reviews.  

In most public administration and policy courses, you will need to use either the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). Your instructor may specify something else, and if they do use that.  But these two are common enough that you should familiarize yourself with them quickly, if you haven’t already. The American Political Science Association has its own Style Manual for Political Science, but it is currently out of print.  I assume they are developing a new edition. However, APSA still has as its base CMS style.  

There are some other things you need to know.  There are two different citation formats in CMS.  Oee uses footnotes, and the one I’ve used most frequently (Author-Date) uses parenthetical citations, much like APA.  It is this style which is required by most journals in the field.  This leads to my last point which is essential to understand.

These style manuals are designed to explain how to submit manuscripts for publication.  APA in particular look totally abandons aesthetic appeal. The previous edition of CMS included a separate chapter on how to adapt it for use for coursework where you were producing a final product instead of a manuscript for a publisher.  However, the current edition removed that chapter.  In its place, they refer the student to a resource written by Kate Turabian titled A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.  This is one of those resources that if you don’t have it, go buy it now. Most book stores have it, and its less expensive then a pizza (the universal measurement of expense for college students). It is much easier to read than the style guides, and it is much quicker to find the required information.

One quick anecdotal story about how important it is to communicate with your professor about which style guide to use. When I started writing my thesis, I had been writing in CMS style for two years (senior year of undegrad and first year of grad school). I had set up what I needed to do for my proposal, when it needed to be turned in, what needed to be included, and who had to approve it.  I sat down with my annotated bibliography I already had from a conference paper on the same topic, and started writing. My proposal was completed in record time.  I, beaming with pride, went to turn it into my advisor.  Well, pride comes before destruction indeed.  I handed it to my advisor, he looked at it, looked at me, and said, “What the hell is this?”  

I had written the entire legislative history, background, and literature review in CMS instead of APA.  At this point, I had no idea what APA was.  I thought it was something used by “those people downstairs.” (Our department was on the second floor, directly below us was the physiology department was directly below us on the first floor). So, I went to back to my closet office and started the re-write.  It took me longer to learn APA style and and rewrite than it took me to do the first draft.  Not to mention, changing hand written citations from one style to the other takes forever.  So, make sure you do it
right the first time.  

There are many online guides for using the different citation systems.  My personal favorite is Doc Scribe’s Guides to Research Style.  The site provides summaries and examples of all of the major citation systems.  If you have a quick, basic question while you are writing, you will probably be able to find the answer there.

Let’s get started, shall we?

The leap from student to the real world is frightening. I know. I have been suspended in that jump for nearly a year. I graduated last May (of 2010) from Georgia College with a Master of Public Administration (I actually took the picture on the right side of the link, but I digress…) and I am currently an Adjunct Instructor of Political Science at Georgia Military College. I’m one of those individuals with just crazy enough to enjoy graduate school. I enjoyed working with my fellow students. I enjoyed the tutoring that was a major part of my graduate assistantship. I enjoyed the learning and interaction with professors. Okay, maybe I have a bit more than a touch of crazy. But, chances are if you are reading this, so do you.

Something I’ve realized over the course of the last year is little is taught about the transition from undergraduate to graduate student, and then the transition to the work force. It seemed there is an assumption that if you made it into grad school, you can complete graduate quality work. If you manage to graduate, you are capable of figuring out your own job search. You would be amazed at how many people (from all educational levels) have asked me how to use what should be basic tools of research and writing. There are already several blogs out there which address some of the basics of grad school survival, but most of the ones I have found, while excellent, focus on computer science and information technology, with an occasional post about general academia.

I’m not going to try to improve upon their model. I’m only going to write about what I know, and that is graduate studies in the area of public administration and public policy. I hope to have posts in the future from others in my field, and perhaps even in other somewhat related (or not) fields.

So, what should you expect from this blog? Things that will improve the quality of your life and your research in higher education. Most of it will be targeted towards masters level students, but hopefully some of the information can be adopted up to PhD students and down to undergraduates. I’ll be posting reading recommendations, How-To’s, and maybe even an occasional funny story.

So, let’s get started, shall we?