Studying IR #1: A cheat sheet for the road

I ran an informal poll on Instagram to candidly solicit opinions from my students on what type of content I should post. One of the suggestions was “college survival tips”, which kind of struck a personal chord.

I remember my transition from an awkward high-schooler to an equally, if not more, awkward university student. There were so many things I wished I had known before, like your major doesn’t really matter (we’re all going to work for business anyway) and your concentration (other name for specialization) also doesn’t matter that much. I also wished I knew how to study, which I had to learn through trial-and-error. During my transition period, I vigorously sought information from the internet on how to survive in college. Though I did gather enough information on cheap easy-to-cook dishes not involving instant noodles and a near-lethal dose of salt, many of the articles I read were largely geared for a general Western audience.

What about the Indonesians, what with our socio-cultural idiosyncrasies? And so, this series started. My audience is very specific: IR students in Indonesia. Don’t expect college-level recipes although there’s a lot you can do with a kettle, a potato, carrots, and an egg. Instead, these are some more substance-oriented survival tips: how to ace papers (which is covered in my Ivory Tower Writing series), how to read, how to maintain healthy levels of sanity… basically, how to maintain peak academic performance without burning out.

For starters, consider the following overarching tips which illustrate the basic principles of what my tips constitute. Later on in the series, I’ll go in-depth on some tips and add some new ones.

  1. Be accountable for your own learning process. It is your fault if you turn in a paper late or did not read the assigned readings because you have 5 club activities, are head of the Student Council, and working to solve poverty through your socially-responsible start-up. It’s your own fault if you decide to procrastinate and write a sloppy 5,000-word paper overnight and then receive a bad grade. Your professors won’t take any of that as an excuse; all they care about is that you submit your paper on time and that you read the assigned readings.
  2. It’s not a cost; it’s an investment. Academic journals and books are expensive. That’s what the library is for. But if your library lets you down (which it will), you need to pay for your own resources. When it comes to books, don’t think of it as a cost. It’s not; it’s an investment. You’ll be able to own the book and read it whenever you want. Or purchase a Kindle for around IDR 2.5 million, or a cheap tablet for the purpose of reading e-books. I cannot say the same for journal articles because of the greedy capitalist academic publishing industry. However, there are organizations (like the ISA) that provide access to many journals just by paying a low yearly fee (around USD 25-40). Look, if you can buy a caramel macchiato from Starbucks every week, you sure as hell have money for a yearly subscription. I would include less ethical methods here, but for legal reasons, I’d rather not.
  3. The concepts matter more than you think. You may think IR is simply a game of “Aha! I predicted China will trap a developing country in debt!” It’s not. Keeping up with the news is important, but note that to understand things as they happen and keep a clear mind, you need to also comprehend the underlying concepts which will inform your way of thinking. This allows you to have more fruitful discussions. Check Stephen Walt’s nifty guide on remembering key IR concepts, though it needs to be updated to accommodate the post-positivist theories.
  4. Much of IR, especially IR theory, is based on political science, political philosophy, and history. You would have a much easier time learning IR if you take the time to delve into basic political science and philosophy, and acquaint yourself with a general account of world history. Bonus points if you manage to reach the post-positivist level.
  5. History is your best friend. You will never run out of case studies to examine applications of IR theory if you have a firm grasp of world history. If you want to be specialized, then settle for a specific history of a specific region (like the history of Middle East politics).
  6. If you don’t like reading, movies and fiction are your second best friends. Fiction allows us to explore intricate philosophical arguments in multiple scenarios that simulate real life. If you want to see anarchism in action, Le Guin’s Dispossessed is a good example. Want to see a simulation of the clash between liberal and realist interpretations of international law? Captain America: Civil War. How should we use killer robots? Eye in the Sky. What is nuclear strategy? Dr Strangelove. The point is, read and watch a lot of fiction.
  7. University life is pressuring, especially the study of IR. The IR discipline in Indonesia is often equated to studying medicine due to its high level of prestige among high-schoolers. Of course, with great prestige comes great responsibility. Do not expect ease; expect challenge.
  8. Mental health is important. I repeat, mental health is important. This is an under-discussed phenomenon in academia, though as of recent, a conversation is ongoing. It’s important to not isolate or alienate yourself while studying IR. If you feel down, reach out to friends. If you have no friends, family helps. If you have no family or friends, do whatever it takes to make you feel better (aside from alcohol, drugs, or excessive sugar consumption).

So there you have it, eight general tips. Feel free to print them out, re-use them, add more, or whatever. It’s not like these tips are mine exclusively; I like to think of them as an accumulation of personal experience on top of advice from other people I’ve met during my own academic journey.

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