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Maximize Your Academic Studies by Following the Thread

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By Dr. Paula Wylie
Program Director, International Relations at American Public University

In the hit television series Downton Abbey, the 19th century British aristocrat Lady Crawley asks, “what is a weekend?” The idea of “time spent” means little for Lady Crawley — her days are all the same. Yet for many adult students, weekends and days off are valuable personal commodities. In order to make the most of your efforts, given the scarce resource of time available, consider two motifs that characters in Downton Abbey know well — economics and passion.

Economic efficiency means making the most of your efforts, whether answering forum discussion questions or preparing a research paper. How can you achieve what economists call “maximum utility?” One way is to decrease marginal cost and opportunity cost. Marginal costs are derived from the change required to produce “one more” unit, and opportunity cost means the value of what’s given up to do something else. In coursework, both costs can lead to inefficiency. Think about the number of times you’ve spent weeks researching something, only to achieve a rudimentary understanding of it. The marginal costs are steep and the opportunity of giving up valuable time is, as Lady Crawley might say, “just too much to bear!” But, what if you could capitalize on your passion and make that research process more efficient?

Passion is not a tempest that sweeps in, consumes you for an eight-week term, and then is gone. Passion builds; it’s a slow-burn that will be there once you’ve uploaded that last paper in the final course of your degree program. In order to harness it, think about becoming an expert in something in which you have a great interest. Find a way to bring that interest to bear in all that you study. In International Relations this can mean an interest as large as a continent, or as small as a household. Whatever brought you to this study, think of it like a thread running through your coursework — it’s a passion that you cannot shake.

International economic principles suggest that free trade occurs because countries cannot be the best in everything they produce — they trend toward specialization. In a similar way, academic achievement in part means mastering a program while finding a niche that helps you specialize and progress in your career or future studies. How is it possible to find the niche while you are taking courses?

One way is to “follow the thread” of your research interest. For example, each time your professor indicates a free choice of research topic, gravitate toward your passion. Find a way that your research interest may be incorporated into the subject you are studying. That way, your subsequent efforts will be less costly since you’ve previously researched the topic. As you move forward in your studies, you will increase your expertise. Of course, you’ll need to choose a research question that deals squarely with the subject you are studying, but there’s no harm in bringing personal interests into the mix. By the end, you’ll have an interwoven series of research papers that demonstrates your passion and expertise simultaneously. As Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes says, “You’re building a fire, not inventing it!”

 

About the Author:

Paula L. Wylie, Ph.D. is Program director in International Relations. She completed her M.A. in International Relations with Boston University and a Ph.D. in Diplomatic History from the National University of Ireland, University College Cork. Dr. Wylie has been teaching and writing in the fields of foreign policy, international law, and diplomacy since 1995.

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