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Review of The Graduate School of Political Management: The Legislative Affairs Master’s Program

When I was researching graduate school programs in 2011, I found comprehensive reviews of programs rare, if not non-existent.  I write this review so that those researching programs can have an additional data point about this program.

The unofficial motto of The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management is that “politics trumps policy.”  After interning on a congressional campaign and then on the Hill, I believed this to be true.  I had been looking at political science and public policy graduate programs, but ultimately chose this program after sitting in on a class on budgets taught by Professor Mark Strand.  It was clear that policy will not be made into law on merits alone.  With the mission of understanding politics through application, I matriculated in Fall 2012.

If you take away nothing else, take away this: you will get out of this program what you put into it.  This statement is hardly unique to this graduate program, but it is important to understand that you can get a degree from this program without having much to show for it.  The program is a great opportunity to facilitate your learning and exploration of the applied political process.  Seize the opportunity whenever you are able.  Of course, nearly all students in the Legislative Affairs program are also working full-time jobs, so making time can be challenging.  Nonetheless, put in the effort and you will get back the knowledge, skills, and network that this program advertises.

Professors and the Classroom

Nearly all of the professors in the Legislative Affairs program are adjuncts.  Normally this would be a troubling sign for a graduate school program, but in this case the adjuncts are an asset.  They all have applied political experience and most hold a full-time-plus job concurrent with teaching.  Their knowledge runs deep and their network runs broad.  They may invite influential guest speakers to class, or take a fieldtrip to visit a powerful committee on the Hill.  While they are all experts in their fields, their teaching abilities can be hit or miss.  Expertise in a subject does not necessarily qualify one as a teacher.  Certainly any program will have its share of lackluster instruction, but it seems that teaching experience is not retained within the program.  That said, there are some great professors, so seek them out and take their classes, regardless of what subject they teach.

Class sizes were challenging at times, especially in the Fall semester.  The school runs a program for Army Fellows who complete their degree over the Summer and Fall semesters.  (I don’t know how they are able to squeeze a two year program into that little amount of time, but they do, and it’s impressive!).  So during the Fall semester, class sizes can swell to thirty or more students.  That’s quite large for a graduate school class and limits the opportunities for class discussion and debate.  Ideally, class sizes would be more around ten or fifteen students.  On the plus side, the Army Fellows help diversify the opinions and perspectives offered in the classes.

Classes run two hours, usually from 6pm – 8pm, which after a full day of work is just about the most a student can focus.  The classrooms themselves are rented generic meeting rooms at the Hall of States, which is convenient for those working on or near the Hill, and easy enough to get to for those who don’t.  The rooms are dull meeting spaces, most without windows, and generally non-distracting (i.e. boring).  The larger rooms are long and narrow, and thus not well suited for large class sizes.  The facilities are well maintained, the chairs are comfortable, and occasionally there are other hosted functions wrapping up around 6pm that have leftover appetizers or cookies lying around.

The option is available to take other GSPM courses or even other GWU courses as electives.  These will be at GWU’s main campus and cost significantly more tuition to partake in.  I took one which I found worthwhile, but the Legislative Affairs program offered enough interesting courses that I spent the remainder of my credits on its courses.

Overall, the academic environment is good enough with a few outstanding moments (those professors you love, those students with whom you connected deeply over some wonky topic, etc).

The Optional Thesis

As part of the Master’s program, students can write a thesis instead of two additional classes.  The thesis is work of original research and runs around a hundred pages.  I chose the option so that I could cultivate deep knowledge of a topic and so that I could create opportunities to meet and work with some amazing people.  I also wanted to have the experience of writing a thesis: emersion in a topic, working closely with an advisor, and creating the most substantive academic product of my career thus far.  My experience writing my thesis at GSPM was sorely disappointing.  The thesis program was plagued by systemic disorganization, lack of transparency, and unenthusiasm by those running it.

Throughout the effort I was confused on the thesis process.  I met with the Legislative Affairs program director, GSPM’s thesis director, and attended the thesis orientation twice (one via phone).  The expectations about the process set in these sessions and on paper were not met by the school.  The first step seemed clear enough: a short prospectus on what I wanted to research and my approach for doing so.  Initially presented as a formality in the process, this turned into a month-long ordeal with GSPM’s thesis director.  Had this been a constructive or collaborative exercise I would have appreciated the process.  Yet while some of his feedback was useful, most was baffling to me.  Attempts to clarify were unhelpful.  Unsure if it was due to my own unfamiliarity with writing a thesis, I ran the feedback by peers and professors who were equally confounded.  It took four submissions before he accepted the prospectus.  In the end, I had molded the prospectus to fit his notion what the approach to my topic should be, though it no longer reflected the research I wanted to pursue.  Later in the progression of my thesis I reached out to this thesis director on occasion for guidance on the process, yet when I did so, he seemed irritated, dismissive, or simply unresponsive.  Ultimately he removed himself from my thesis committee for reasons that were undeclared.  At one point, he did attempt to gather all those students doing a thesis for a support group night, but too few students were able to attend.  It was never rescheduled.  I ended up forming my own group with two other Legislative Affairs students who had a similar disappointing experiences with the thesis process.

The director of the Legislative Affairs program was more helpful on occasion, though he never felt like a mentor or advisor.  I had to follow up multiple times to receive a response from him.  I never received feedback on my drafts, not even the final.  At the very least I would have appreciated his opinion of the ideas purported in my thesis.

It was never clear who would be on my committee or who would be the advisor with whom I would closely work.  In other thesis programs, there is typically a thesis advisor and a thesis committee.  When I inquired about who would fulfill the duties of those roles, I received a response indicating it was someone other than the person I was asking, no matter whom I asked.  I sought out my “advisor” (again, I don’t what this role was actually considered under the GSPM thesis process), an adjunct professor who specialized in topic I wished to pursue.  My advisor was happy to work with me (though he was also unfamiliar with GSPM’s thesis process).  He was the most supportive part of the process.  He made himself available, let me bounce ideas off him, and provided invaluable feedback on my drafts.  Towards the end of this process, I learned that no one at GSPM had contacted him to discuss the process, despite being told by the Legislative Affairs director that he would.

The thesis “classes” cost a total of six graduate credits.  For that, I received essentially no support from the school.  Given that my advisor was never brought in on the process, I would have been better off writing the thesis independently.  Frustrated that no one but my advisor provided feedback, I had my drafts reviewed by three non-GSPM professors who had experience advising theses.  Finally I had been told that GSPM would help publish it beyond the theses section of ProQuest.  Despite following up, I never received this help.  I am planning to reach out to others to help publish or co-publish.

I do recommend writing a thesis: I value the academic accomplishment, the people I was able to meet, and the subject expertise acquired.  But if you do so through GSPM, do not expect to receive any support from the school.

Advice and Final Thoughts

For those who decide to enroll in this graduate program, here is my advice on how to get the most from your experience:

  1. Sit in on classes to see which professors and topics you like best, then take those courses.
  2. Attend GSPM events, especially the structured one (like speed networking).  They are opportunities to learn about topics you might not otherwise be exposed to.  And of course, good for networking.
  3. Use the career resources available through GSPM.  Their Director of Career Services is determined to help you, but only if you make yourself available to her.
  4. A little-known perk: if you have a 4.0 GPA, you don’t have to take the comprehensive exam as a requirement for graduating.  I wouldn’t suggest killing yourself for this, I hear the comprehensive exam is not exceedingly difficult.
  5. Get involved with GSPM Toastmasters!  Public speaking skills are essential for any DC career, yet not actively taught.  Plus, it’s a great way to meet like-minded peers.

Attending GSPM was worthwhile for me, despite some glaring disappointments.  Hopefully this review will help inform the decisions of those who are seeking for their graduate school experience.  Once again, the one thing to keep in mind: you will get out of this program what you put in.  Finally, feel free to contact me ( if there’s something you’d like to know that isn’t covered in this review.

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