“Taking That Required Course”, Dr. Richard Stoll, Political Science

When I went off to college, I had this sense that I would probably go to law school, and, like many undergraduates, I didn’t quite comprehend that law school was just a path but not a final destination. But if you’d asked me what I would do after getting a law degree, I would have said, “Well, I don’t know, maybe work for the government, something like that.” I started down the path to being a political science major. Where I was an undergraduate, there was only one specifically required course for the political science major. There were choices for everything else. This course required a research paper and generations of students at the University of Rochester would put that course off until their senior year with the idea, “Well, hopefully they’ll change the damn requirement.” But they never did.

So, at the end of my freshman year, I was talking to a couple friends of mine who lived on my hall, and all three of us were pretty convinced we would major in political science. We said, “Well, this is really silly. Let’s get this stupid course out of the way.” So, there we were in the course with about fifty other students. The University of Rochester is a bit bigger than Rice, but not double the size. There were 47 seniors and three sophomores and we started out by reading a book by Thomas Kuhn called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is a classic work of philosophy of science.  It is a real slog, and we discovered our professor deliberately used that book as a way to drive students out of the course. After about two weeks of going through that, he closed the book and said, “Okay, I’ve driven out those that I can. Now we’re going to talk about how to do research.” The three of us asked him early on if we could work on a common paper. He said it was fine, and we actually did a piece on guerilla wars, which focused on conditions for both victory and for defeat. It was marginally quantitative.

What I discovered in the process of doing that paper was that I really enjoyed doing research. In political science, job choices are very constrained. So I decided I wanted to go to grad school and get a PhD because that was the only pathway that I could see that would allow me to do research. It turned out that the University of Rochester had an excellent political science department. I was encouraged by professors to take graduate courses in political science.  I actually had four graduate courses under my belt as an undergraduate. It all started by taking that required course to get it out of the way and discovering that I enjoyed that process.