What do you do to prepare?
You have two months until your grad program in public policy and international affairs starts. If you spent the past few years as manager of a theater, working for a law firm, or even as a Peace Corps volunteer, you have many skills and experiences to bring to your grad program, but you may also be missing some background your peers will find second nature. Here are a few areas I recommend brushing up on (or reading for the first time!) so you avoid a semester of playing catch-up.
Start reading. And Fast.
Magazines, newspapers, and relevant blogs can’t hurt. The Economist. Foreign Affairs. The Wall Street Journal. Figure out what people in your field are reading and start reading now. If you’re not sure where to start, get a list of articles assigned for the courses you’re planning to take and look at their sources. If an article from Foreign Policy is on the list, that’s a great place to start. Don’t be intimidated! Even if you start with skimming headlines and read a few articles a week, that’s a start. You’ll want to get into the habit of learning how topics are covered and brush up on your quick reading skills. Grad school programs are a lot of reading and if you’re rusty, those first months will be full of late nights falling asleep in your books and hoping you’re not called on in class to summarize the main points. I remember picking a course pack with 400 pages of printed articles for a first-semester required course, and thinking, “well, that’s not so much stretched out over the semester,” …. only to find out it was the first of four course packs.
Familiarize yourself with “the experts”.
You don’t need to agree with what the resident experts in the field say, but trust me, you don’t want to be that Economic Development student who doesn’t know who Jeffrey Sachs is, or that International Conflict Resolution student who hasn’t read Samuel Huntington.
Get comfortable with the concepts.
True story: in my first semester at SIPA, a fellow student answered a question about Liberalism versus Realism, with the assumption that Liberalism meant Democrats, Gay Rights and Pro Choice. (If you’re saying, “wait, it doesn’t?” I strongly urge you to pick up some Immanuel Kant and Michael Doyle.) Know the basics of political theory, economic theory, and anything else that will be part of the curriculum. You don’t need to be an expert, but knowing the basics will ease your transition back to school and help you fit in with all the people who’ve been working in your field of study for the past 10 years.
Know your strengths… and your weaknesses.
You have two months left. If you know Statistics is required (and that makes you want to puke), you may want to see if a community college near you offers an Intro to Stats course. If you struggle with writing essays, a basic refresher course wouldn’t hurt. Once you’re in the program, you’ll have ZERO free time. The things that are the most difficult to you will cause you stress. Give yourself a leg up from the start; the sooner you begin strengthening your weaknesses, the sooner you’ll be caught up. If you don’t start reading until August 15, don’t expect to breeze through months of articles without a mental breakdown.
Here is your action plan!
Start with one magazine and add it to your daily routine this week. Make a plan for how you’re going to brush up on skills of speed reading, arguing a case, basic math, etc. and stick to it. When September rolls around, everyone will be shocked when you proudly announce, “I’m a career changer, excited to explore environmental policy after 5 years in the circus!”