Summer Reflections 2010 – Post #5

John Hughes just graduated from SIPA and during his second year of study worked in our office.  He is spending the better part of the summer in the office to assist with projects and help fill in for a staff member on maternity leave.  John is set up for a job in Washington, D.C. and will be moving there in August (our second largest alumni network in the world is in D.C if you were interested).

I asked John to reflect a bit on his experience as a SIPA student and contribute to the blog over the summer.  This is his fifth entry.


I was asked a couple of days ago by a prospective student on the phone how many hours I put in during a typical week at SIPA.   I responded to him that though it was hard to define a “typical” week at SIPA, on average I put in about 50-60 hours a week towards SIPA-related activities.  To be clear, I did not spend 50-60 hours a week on academics.  Though studying was certainly an integral part of my daily graduate school existence, the experience was far more diverse than this.  In this post I’ll try to paint a picture of how those hours were broken down.

SIPA classes usually meet once a week for two hours.  There are many exceptions to this, however:  The year-long econ first-year sequence meets twice a week for 1 ½ hours each time, as do a few other quantitatively-heavy courses like corporate finance.  Language courses, if you choose or are required to take them, meet 3-4 days a week for 1 ½ hours or so depending on the language, how hard it is to learn that language, and whether the class is an intensive module or not.  These language courses are usually offered through Columbia College, though SIPA has a few of its own courses as well.

Some courses have what we call Recitations (again, usually quantitatively-heavy ones), which are optional review classes held once a week for two hours (typically on Friday) and led by second-year students who did well in the class.  Though these are not required it is very common for students to attend them, especially for difficult classes like econ.  Some actually are required, such as the labs for the required stats class.  Finally, the first year Conceptual Foundations (MIA) or Politics of Policy-making (MPA) classes have, in addition to lecture, a recitation once a week led by a PhD Columbia fellow that is mandatory.  This overview does not take into account courses taken at other graduate schools at Columbia, which may meet more or less often than SIPA courses, though usually also meet once a week.  All in all, I’d say SIPA students spend about 15 hours in class/recitations.

These hours only represent actual class time, however, and do not take into account studying.  This studying generally falls into two categories:  Self-study and group work.  I probably spent 15 hours in a normal week reading/writing etc., and an additional 5 hours on group work.  Group work, though less time-consuming, was also more difficult to coordinate with others to find a good time to meet.  It could also very easily take up much more time depending on the project.  There were some weeks where I spent 20 hours on one group project.  I know people who spent much more time doing homework and group work, and others who spent less.  This is also only an average.  Some weeks, especially those couple just after mid-terms and finals, I did very little work.  Other weeks, in the week leading up to mid-terms and finals and during those periods I seemed to do nothing but study.

The third thing I spent time on each week was on professional-related activities.  The time I spent on such activities varied, depending on the week, though I spent at least 5 hours and usually more like 10+ on this.  I logged these hours in a variety of ways:  I spent a good bit of time networking with alumni, sending out initial e-mails of introduction, conducting informational interviews in person or over the phone, and meeting alumni at various networking events.

Depending on the season, I also spent time attending company/government agency presentations on campus.  Most of these occur in September and October for the private sector and early in the second semester for the public and non-profit sectors.  There was about a month at the beginning of both Falls that I attended at least a couple recruiting events a week, though at other times of the year my efforts were more self-driven (contacting alumni as described above).  I also attended talks and other networking events offered by associations in New York outside of SIPA and Columbia from time to time, though these were rather sporadic.  I did not spend that much time actually applying for jobs and internships.  I certainly checked SIPALink, our on-line jobs database, regularly, and applied to some jobs and internships that appealed to me.  However, this was never more than 2-3 hours a week as I felt that my time was better served networking unless I saw a job on there that I was really excited about.

Each week at SIPA I tried to attend at least one speaker or other similar event on campus.  Though I certainly didn’t succeed every single week, I managed to do this most weeks and even go to more than one quite often.  These events ranged from guest lectures from people in numerous fields to student group cultural nights.  The events often came with food, and were a great way for a busy graduate student to take his mind off studying and get a quick, free meal.

Finally, I spent time socializing at SIPA.  As a married student, I did not spend nearly as much time as some friends of mine socializing with other SIPA students.  Nevertheless, I did make it to most of the bigger parties and a few smaller ones as well, and spent a lot of time just hanging out with friends I met at SIPA.  Almost every week (or at least every other week) the student association sponsors parties of all sorts, ranging from clubs rented out downtown to smaller parties on the 6th floor at school.  Each student group also hosts parties, and groups of students go out and do stuff in New York together all the time.  If you wanted to, it would be possible to find something social to do with other SIPA students every night, though this might not be good for the academics or the wallet.

When I add all of these things up, I come up with my number of 50-60 hours a week.  It is definitely possible to spend less time doing something SIPA-related (other than academics nothing else is required), and it’s also possible to spend a lot more time than I did at SIPA.  I know people who seemed to be at school everyday from 9-9, not just in class and studying but often just hanging out on the 4th or 6th floor with whoever else was around and attending as many lectures/events as possible.  I know others who I had a class with, but who had a completely separate life outside of SIPA and liked it that way.    Regardless of what you choose to do, I guess my point is that the choice is yours to make.  All of you will get a top-notch education, and for those of you who choose to get more than just an education out of the school you will certainly have opportunities.

I can say, definitely, that I never felt like I didn’t have time to simply enjoy New York and/or just hang out with my wife, except during mid-terms and finals.  Those periods are rightly tough and do require you to study a lot.  At other times, however, you are able (and I encourage you) to get out of school and go explore this wonderful, crazy city and all it has to offer.  I think you’ll find that time away from school, even for only a few hours, puts graduate life in perspective.  It makes you both realize how great you have it to be a student again and, at the same time, reminds you to not get too stressed about school.