A student interested in becoming a professor – in political science or any other field – must first and foremost have a keen interest in attempting to answer the big questions in their field. One of the biggest advantages of being an undergraduate at a large research university like Rutgers is the ability to see the full range of activities in which professors are involved. To many students, especially those at small liberal arts colleges, it may seem that the primary job of an academic is to teach undergraduates. While teaching undergraduates is clearly a large part of any academic’s responsibility, the job extends well beyond this to producing innovative research and advising graduate students. Rutgers offers adventuresome undergrads an opportunity to see this side of academic life in a way that a smaller college or university would not – perhaps by taking graduate courses in one’s senior year or by participating as an assistant on a research project. In addition, an undergraduate student in large research department has the distinct advantage that professors often teach in the fields in which they are actively researching. Students benefit greatly from seeing the type research questions academics are interested in answering. I feel that attending Rutgers gave me a fuller picture of an academic career than I would have had had I attended a smaller college.
In addition to availing of any opportunities to participate in research, I would advise students to take as many courses as possible in many different subjects. There are many courses across the university that could potentially be of interest to someone wishing to pursue a PhD in political science. Some disciplines neighboring political science are obvious – economics, sociology, history, philosophy, and foreign languages. Others may be less obvious to most undergraduate political science students – mathematics, statistics, computer science, psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics to name a few. I feel that one of the great advantages of the American university system over many European universities is the ability of undergraduates to freely take courses across the entire university. I would strongly advise students to take advantage of this – there will be plenty of time to specialize while in graduate school. For example, in addition to writing my honors thesis in the political science department, I fondly remember the graduate courses in German literature I took during my senior year. I would also advise students to take chances when setting up their course plan – do not simply take the “easy” courses. Sign up for an interesting class even though it may sound difficult and entail extra time and effort. Go abroad, even if the prospect of leaving the US for an extended period of time seems scary. Some of my most rewarding academic experiences have occurred when I jumped headfirst into something that was well beyond my comfort zone.
Finally, I would advise students to connect with their professors as early and as often as possible. This may seem difficult at a big research university, but the payoff is tremendous. I am still in contact with my undergraduate honors thesis advisor from Rutgers; he has been very helpful in giving me both career advise and comments on my research. I have now co-authored numerous academic papers with the German political science professor I first met during my junior year abroad. In short, academia is a very small world and the contacts you make as an undergraduate may turn out to be very useful in the future, even long after your professor has written you that letter of recommendation.