Fieldwork: Ethical Considerations, Funding, and Data Collection Methods

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany

Photo by Ryan Tauss on Unsplash

The recent MPSA conference offered many valuable roundtables related to professional development for a variety of populations including graduate students. I had the opportunity to attend the roundtable about how to do fieldwork, an important one for any researcher needing to travel to a particular place to collect data, whether in one’s home country or abroad. The roundtable offered several useful insights for graduate students, many of which I have found helpful during my own fieldwork.

Ethical Considerations

First and foremost, researchers needing to collect data from the field must consider the impact of their research on their subjects. Of course, this need applies more to researchers conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys, participant observation, or using other ethnographic techniques than archival work. Many vital questions in social science involve vulnerable populations, which can include marginalized communities, survivors of sexual assault, former members of a terrorist organization, and many others. It is the researchers’ responsibility to consider the ways in which their research may impact the lives and safety of their subjects. Considerations might entail keeping the subject’s identity anonymous in the publication of the research or even where an interview takes place.

A consequential question raised during the roundtable was what to do if an interviewee reveals something unexpected that might be damning to a public figure. Should a researcher publicize everything reported to them by their interviewees? While it might be tempting to drop a proverbial bombshell and provide a surprising insight, the panelists cautioned against rushing to judgement about such revelations. One should carefully consider the ramifications of making that revelation public. It may or may not be true; the researcher should try to verify the claim through other sources. Even if the claim is true, the researcher should consider the implications for their interviewee. Will it put the interviewee’s safety at risk? Will it otherwise harm the interviewee (i.e. reputational costs, employment impacts)?

The Logistics of Fieldwork

The panelists on the roundtable also brought up several logistical considerations important for researchers going to the field to consider, from funding to how to get the data. Most of the panelists did their fieldwork over the course of several trips (the majority did research abroad). Many began their projects with a preliminary trip of a few weeks and then returned to their site; most of the panel stayed in their research site consecutively no more than a year, often less.

An audience member also asked about one of the most imperative parts of doing fieldwork: getting it funded. As one panelist noted, it is difficult to get funding for fieldwork, depending on the type of research one is doing and the institution with which one is affiliated. Fortunately, there were a few roundtables in the #MPSA19 program dedicated solely to research funding, one of which I will cover in a future blog. One tip that a panelist mentioned was one that I have heard from many experienced researchers; for researchers staying at their research site for a semester or more, it is sometimes possible to draw an income by teaching at a host university. Those doing research outside of their home countries often seek institutional affiliations for a variety of reasons, including access to resources such as libraries or teaching opportunities. Researchers not affiliated with a local university or college can also contact nearby institutions about teaching opportunities.

The roundtable also included various points about collecting the data itself. The panelists cautioned against “parachuting” into a research site. Researchers (should) go to the field not to quickly gather data and leave (“parachuting”) but to go to the field to get a better sense of the area and the culture. Understanding the research site, of course, should begin long before one actually arrives. At the same time, understanding the research site through secondary sources cannot substitute for firsthand experience. In my experience, immersing yourself in the culture, sometimes called “soaking and poking”, is as important to the research as the data collection is itself. Understanding the context is essential for understanding the data one collects: how do the insights from the interview fit into the big picture? Furthermore, gaining knowledge about the area through experience may make interviewees more likely to open up; it shows a respect for their home country and community.

Preparation prior to each interview is integral to data collection as well. The panelists emphasized “doing one’s homework” to get the most out of each interview. Are there questions for which a certain person can give better insights than others? Not only can preparation maximize the utility of the interview, but adequate preparation also signals to the interviewee that the researcher is serious and knowledgeable about the topic of interest, which may make them more comfortable to share information.

The format of the data collection may also influence how open interviewees are. One panelist mentioned that their experiences with focus groups yielded some insights that a one-on-one interview may not have. The researcher interviewed military personnel, a group from which it may be difficult to garner unfeigned answers, and found in a few instances that when one person was candid, the rest of the group also opened up.

The roundtable on fieldwork was one of my favorite sessions at #MPSA19, offering insights from researchers who have valuable firsthand experience in conducting fieldwork from which graduate students and researchers at all levels can benefit. I hope that similar roundtables continue to be offered at future MPSA conferences.

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.

How to Thrive in Graduate School (Whatever That Means)

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

In addition to thematic panels, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference offered a wide range of roundtables on professional development including practical discussion of fieldwork and research tools and bigger debates on pedagogical practices and public engagement. Here I want to focus on the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series and highlight common themes and advice that came up across panels.

Research

Coming up with worthwhile research questions, conducting research, and writing up results is a major draw to the academic lifestyle. While many political science PhD programs offer coursework in research design and methods, it’s not exactly clear how to ask a good question and make sure people hear the answer. Allison Quatrini of Eckerd College assured the audience that there’s no single best way to do research, but that when choosing a dissertation topic, it’s better to pose a big question than to show off methods skills to address a narrow topic.

To figure out what the big questions are, several panelists suggested keeping either a digital or analog journal with ideas that come to mind while reading for coursework and comprehensive exams early on in the Ph.D. process. Cynthia Duncan Joseph from the University of South Carolina explained that she writes a daily “wonder list” where she jots down anything she’s wondering about – academic or otherwise. She mentioned coming back to her wonder list every so often for research ideas.

For those who have found their question and have started collecting data, panelists discussed the best ways to promote their findings. While some are concerned that political scientists aren’t doing enough to communicate their research to the public, strategies for becoming a public-facing academic were a popular topic throughout the series. Gregory Collins from Yale University said that translating academic research for the public or policymaking communities is important, especially for theorists.

But how to do that? No format is necessarily better than the rest, according to Kimberly Turner from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Op-eds, academic blogs, and podcasts can all be excellent platforms for sharing your ideas. “You get to tinker, so play — enjoy yourself and explore different formats to see what grabs your attention,” she told the audience at the Friday morning session.

Teaching

While research is often the focus of conversations about graduate students’ work life, panelists agreed that teaching is just as important and deserves as much attention.

When it comes to deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. at all,  Allison Quatrini suggested asking what the teaching assistant (TA) experience looks like. There is a wide range of potential teaching assignments, from only grading assignments for a professor to organizing recitation sections or building your own class entirely.

At the graduate students’ perspective session, multiple panelists emphasized the need to pursue your own professional development. Luisa Turbino Torres from the University of Delaware explained that she is proactive about sitting in on undergraduate lectures and asking professors she admires to share their syllabi. Turner agreed and suggested that graduate students attend teaching and learning conferences, whether organized specifically around questions of teaching or sessions contained within bigger conferences like MPSA or APSA. Turner said she learned a lot about writing a syllabus and learning how to control a classroom, both of which she described as “crafts no one teaches you to do.” These skills are especially crucial for political scientists, given that we are talking about “something as incendiary as politics.”

Mentorship

Panelists across the sessions agreed on the importance of triangulating mentorship. They spoke about developing vertical and horizontal ties, emphasizing the importance of diversifying the range of perspectives and opinions. When it comes to picking an official advisor and building a committee, panelists recognized the need to balance department politics with interpersonal dynamics. “You don’t have to pick the obvious person,” Hannah Alarian from Princeton assured the audience. “Choose a mentor and be willing to fire them.”

In the Friday morning roundtable highlighting graduate students’ perspectives on succeeding in a Ph.D. program, panelists mentioned building relationships with grad students at other universities. Twitter and MPSA working groups like the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Midwest Latino/a Caucus, and the Caucus for LGBTQ Political Science provide a great space for horizontal networking and creating a feeling of home in the discipline.

Mental health

The psychological stress of balancing imposter syndrome, teaching loads, research projects, and side hustles takes a serious toll on graduate students. Collins said that there are less frequent validations of success in graduate school, compared to other professions; this adds serious psychological weight to completing graduate study, he said.

The conversation about mental health continued into the Friday morning panel. Michael Widmeier from the University of North Texas lamented the stigma surrounding mental health challenges in academia. The energy and vulnerability required to communicate with one’s advisor and department administrators about mental health make it especially difficult to accommodate. Turbino Torres agreed and said she felt a huge relief after meeting other students and professors who are open to talking about anxiety and depression.

Success

With so much advice about conducting research, teaching, and taking care of your mental health, anyone in the audience should be able to thrive in graduate school just as the series title promised, right? But success is hardly a fixed concept, and panelists stressed the importance of setting your own terms for flourishing in a Ph.D. “Success looks different for everyone,” Alarian. “But shared tenets exist.”

One of those shared tenets: building a personal life and identity beyond your department. Widmeier’s comment that “Personal life is… a thing” was met with laughter, but the panelists tried to offer concrete suggestions for developing a healthy work-life balance. Pursuing hobbies, making friends outside the university, and focusing on family can all offer perspective and alternate sources of validation.

The “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series was certainly not the first time these conversations were hashed out, and it hopefully won’t be the last. Open discussions about struggles and success like this are crucial for uncovering academia’s hidden curriculum, and it is reassuring that MPSA continues to revisit these questions year after year.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

 

Exploring Themes from “Advances in Physiology and Politics: Linking Physiology, Self-Reports, and Cognitive Responses” at #MPSA19

By James Steur of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Retro Cartoon Democrat vs. Republican

When I tell friends I’ve taken a class on the relationship between biology and politics, I generally get the same reaction: squinted eyes, a confused face, and a similar question. “How does biology relate to politics? Those topics aren’t related.” To their credit, researching biology and politics together is relatively new in political science, but has gained significant traction in the last twenty years. Most of this traction comes from biological measures complimenting existing measures in political science to answer challenging questions in the field.

Consider, for example, a typical survey. A political scientist is interested in the public’s feelings toward a stigmatized group in the United States. They administer a survey and ask their respondents a traditional feeling thermometer question about the stigmatized group: 0 indicates the coldest feeling and 100 indicates the warmest feeling toward the stigmatized group. Although some respondents may want to answer 0, they know it isn’t socially acceptable to answer this way and give an answer of 80. If many respondents answer 80 on the survey but actually want to answer 0, then the aggregation of all the responses won’t reflect how people truly feel about the group.

Although social desirability bias is not new to self-report surveys, surveys have a hard time overcoming this problem. Physiological tools like electrodermal activity (EDA) can help address limitations like social desirability bias that political science has faced for a long time. The basic idea of EDA is fairly straightforward: once your nervous system experiences arousal, your sweat glands are more active, which increases your skin conductance. The higher your skin conductance, the more aroused you feel. If the researcher measures the respondent’s answer to the feeling thermometer question with EDA, then individuals cannot hide their physiological arousal as they answer the question. This gives the political scientist an unconscious measure of their respondents answer toward the feeling thermometer question and helps address the problem of social desirability bias.

Given the promising direction biology and politics is taking, I wanted to hear about new research in the field. So, I attended a panel titled “Advances in Physiology and Politics: Linking Physiology, Self-Reports, and Cognitive Responses” at this year’s MPSA conference. I wanted to hear about new projects and how this field is developing. I saw some amazing presentations in the panel, and there were four common themes from these discussions that current and future practitioners of the field should recognize.

1). Be Cautious: Physiological Methods Are Relatively New in Political Science
At face value, it sounds appealing to incorporate biological measures into political science research. However, these approaches are still relatively new in the field, so most political scientists won’t be able to help you with your research projects. If you’re wanting to do something related to neuroscience, you’ll most likely need to reach out to a neuroscientist and collaborate on a project to ensure you’re not being overly ambitious with your research project. Relatedly, there is a fairly steep learning curve to learning these different biological approaches. So, be mindful of the time, energy, and work physiological measures can require to answer research questions.

 2). Dealing with Physiological Data is Complicated
In principle, physiological concepts like EDA are relatively straightforward once an expert explains the idea to you. However, there are numerous ways to conduct analysis of physiological data. Many of the presenters and audience members discussed the multitude of ways they could analyze their data to answer their research questions. Importantly, conducting different types of analysis—like including or excluding outliers—results in different conclusions from your data. Before using physiological measures, recognize the complicated nature and analysis of the data you’ll be collecting.

3). Physiological Approaches Can Help Measure Unconscious Human Behavior
Self-report measures on surveys are a helpful tool in measuring conscious attitudes. For instance, suppose a voter consciously knows they don’t support a new tax policy. Generally, a survey question that asks the voter about their support for the tax policy is enough to measure an attitude. However, many stimuli happen outside our conscious awareness. Physiological tools like EDA are helpful at answering research questions about unconscious feelings, behaviors, and attitudes. If your research question is about unconscious aspects of human behavior, physiological measures are one approach to consider.

4). Pre-Analysis Plans Are Helpful: Use Them
Given the multitude of ways to analyze and think about your physiological data, consider doing pre-analysis plans. Although you’ll spend more time preparing how to collect your data and analyze it at the outset of the project, this approach can save you more time (and sanity) in the long run. The more preparation you put into how you collect and analyze your data, the better off you’ll be with your physiological data.

Ultimately, biology and politics is a burgeoning field that has the potential to offer powerful insights into human behavior. This research panel offered exciting new avenues of research and insights into the world of biology and politics that any current and future practitioners would be well served to remember as they progress through their careers.

About the Author: James Steur is a PhD student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging at this year’s MPSA. You can find James on Twitter at @JamesSteur.

MPSA’s Standing ePanels: A Supportive Space for Feedback and Skill-Building

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Standing ePanels at #MPSA19

In the exhibition hall at MPSA, it is easy enough to get stuck in the book displays or free coffee stands. But for those who push past the publishing stands, an ecosystem of poster presentations awaits.

This year, MPSA experimented with a new presentation format, Standing ePanels, which include up to eight papers and offer students a chance to share a digital poster or brief PowerPoint showcasing their research. The Standing ePanels covered a range of topics from public policy to international institutions to political rhetoric; I watched several presentations across panels and was overwhelmingly impressed by the sophisticated data analysis and sharp presentation skills.

I also enjoyed the chance to take a more active role in a Standing ePanel. I was assigned as a discussant and chair of a session on social issues, which featured papers on a diverse range of topics including international adoption law, gender representation in textbooks, and the relationship between trade and natural disaster recovery. In the chaos of the Palmer House and the bustle of the exhibition hall, this small group of young scholars engaged in a supportive space for feedback and skill-building. Jennifer Wu of Dartmouth College conducted a survey experiment on Qualtrics to understand how gender affects perceptions of politicians’ uncivil behavior. Talahiva Salakielu of Brigham Young University Hawaii used multivariate regressions to analyze novel survey data on the dropout rates of female and international students at her university. Tatiana Hulan from Lake Superior State University conducted interviews with a Russian adoption agency to understand how the country’s ban on international adoption has affected children.

Similar to a traditional panel, there was a mix in the presented works’ progress. While some of the research was conducted as part of an undergraduate thesis or capstone project and written up in a very polished manner, several of the papers were assignments for seminars that professors saw promise in. Everyone was eager for feedback, and the discussant comments balanced clarifying questions and suggestions for future extensions.

While an undergrad, I participated in several research workshops at my own university, but never would have dreamed of presenting such sophisticated data analysis at one of the discipline’s largest conferences. Before the panel, I asked the presenters how they came to know about MPSA. Most mentioned hearing about the opportunity through their department, and two said their advisors encouraged them to apply.

Undergraduate students obviously stand to benefit from participating in a Standing ePanel. They offer an opportunity to practice building a slide deck, develop presentation skills, and experience the interactive engagement of a traditional panel. Graduate students can also build important skills through the ePanels. Serving as a discussant and moderating a panel as chair are foundational to the discipline, but rarely explicitly taught in PhD programs. This was the first time I have chaired an academic panel and given formal discussant comments; the chance to build these skills was an unexpected bonus of coming to MPSA for me.

I was especially touched by the earnest compliments and congratulations after the Standing ePanel finished and hope to see these young scholars at future MPSA meetings.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a PhD student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

The Examination of the “Other:” An Insight Into The Asian Pacific Islander Experience in the Prison Industrial Complex

By Michelle M. Hicks, Willamette University

Hicks-MPSA Conference Poster

 

Who are the “others” inside the U.S. carceral system? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the “other” is any race, which cannot be classified as White, Black, or Hispanic.[1] The “other” category is an amalgam of racial identities that do not fit in the above categories including American Indian, Asian, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, Alaskan Native, or anyone who identifies as multiracial. “Others” make up 9% of the state and federal prison population but are largely ignored within modern carceral discourse due to their small numbers, diversity, and inability to fit within the racial binary. [2] Traditionally, this category is not disaggregated, which is problematic because it glosses over the rich diversity present within these cultures. This creates a dearth of knowledge that is reflected through the scholarly focus on “black and white” issues and the continuation of the “othering” of Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs), one of the largest incarcerated groups within the “other” label, in academic works.[3] It not only omits important cultural phenomena but also makes it unclear whom scientists are actually referring to. Additionally, it does not account for the social, economic, and cultural differences in the API incarcerated population, thus homogenizing APIs with all of the “others” incarcerated.

The presence of APIs in the carceral state has skyrocketed in the past two decades to more than 10,000 incarcerated APIs.[4] This paper focuses on their specific experiences inside the Oregon state prison system and how their API identity shapes their experience being incarcerated. Even though APIs are one of the fastest growing groups of incarcerated peoples nationwide, there is an absence of research and resources allocated to understanding this phenomenon and the APIs who are trapped inside the carceral state. Their absence is especially visible in Oregon due to its small population of API identifying people.[5] When an individual becomes incarcerated, the repercussions reverberate through the entire API community. The label of API contains a multitude of cultures, immigration/residency statuses, religions, languages, and histories that contribute to the rich identity of these incarcerated persons. As a result, it is difficult for political scientists to conduct research or collect data with regards to the individual groups that constitutes the API label. In turn, this leads to further misconceptions about the experiences of incarcerated peoples, which has created the current neglect and the further marginalization of APIs in the academic sphere.

Additionally, there are many societal misconceptions that lead to further marginalization of APIs. There are few resources allocated to understanding and addressing API incarcerated peoples and how best to accommodate communal needs such as translation services, cultural identity, and loss of homeland. There have been numerous social constructions limiting the interpretation of this community inside the carceral state. To dispel some of the notions contrived from the Yellow Peril threat and Model Minority myth with regards to the API community, I conducted a series of interviews with members of an API club in Oregon. In my poster presentation, I argued that the API identity affects the API incarcerated persons’ experience due to the sociological constructions surrounding this community and the difficulties with retaining culture behind bars. These issues inherent in APIs’ experience while incarcerated have been mitigated by the existence of a cultural club, which uses its status and constituents to help span the deficiencies in programs provided by the administration and disrupt sociological constructions between non-API identifying men and API men.

The work that the club has done can be supported on a broader scale by supporting (either fiscally or with your time) any of the organizations listed below. Furthermore when conducting one’s own research, it is vital to disaggregate API category to gain a clearer picture of what the API community is like, who is affected, and how to better care for their needs. I am incredibly grateful to the MPSA for providing me with this award and platform to share my work.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Author: Michelle M. Hicks is a student at Williamette University in Salem, Oregon. Hicks received the Best Undergraduate Paper Presented in a Poster Format for her research titled “’The Examination of the “Other:’ An Insight Into The Asian Pacific Islander Experience in the Prison Industrial Complex” presented at the 2018 MPSA conference.  

 

Footnotes

1. United States. U.S. Department of Justice. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Prisoners in 2015….
2. Ibid.
3. “Asian Americans and Pacific….”
This pamphlet statistically analyses the “other” population nationwide, with a focus on California.
4. Brian D. Johnson, and Sara Betsinger. “Punishing the ‘Model Minority’ Asian-American Criminal Sentencing Outcomes in Federal District Courts.” American Society of Criminology 47, no. 4 (2009): 1045-1089
5. Ibid.


Organization, Flexibility, and Thoughtfulness (#MPSA19 Prep)

By Danielle King of University of Missouri in St. Louis

Organization, Flexibility, and Thoughtfulness (#MPSA19 Prep)

The responsibilities of a graduate student feel daunting under the most benign of circumstances. This semester, I have added in the extra burden of attending a few conferences, and this March, I find myself excited but a little tense. The advice and anecdotes of colleagues and friends have gone a long way to dissipating much of my nervousness, but the nature of this experience can definitely lead to over-extension in the weeks before presenting. I’ll discuss some of these anxieties along with some coping mechanisms that I have found helpful. I will then note some of the more notable tips that I have received in preparation to share my work at MPSA.

In my experience, a considerable source of stress is how easily conference prep causes deviations in my daily and weekly routines. The only conditions under which grad school even seems remotely possible is by way of integrating rigorous habits, from daily reading and writing quotas to taking some time for mindfulness or meditation at the end of my workday to soothe a weary brain. I find myself losing the rhythm of those routines with alarming ease whenever a deadline is hanging over my head, so upon the advice of a friend I installed a habit tracking app app on my phone, which has helped center me back within my sense of structure.

I am now a person who wakes up before their alarm clock on a near-daily basis, usually to multiple emails. On a good day, it includes notes and comments on my draft that I have solicited from several friends in other departments. (On less good days, it looks more like reminders about seasonal sales at the Gap.) To combat the stress of starting my workday before my mind is ready, I (re)instituted a “no phone before breakfast” rule put in place to secure my personal sanity.

If it has been a good day, the revisions will probably occupy me for several hours. Fortunately, I have started to schedule that review time into my morning. Any planned reading for the day can follow, to release my brain slightly of the pressure of second-guessing the quality of my presentation theme or whether my transitions need some work.

A terrible casualty of conference preparation is my morning workout. In a most aspirational moment, I decided to start training for a triathlon to stay fit as I work to complete my Ph.D. It quickly became difficult to justify taking time for “nonessential” activity once a presentation began to loom large on the horizon. However, I have found that about ten minutes of yoga a day, snuck in wherever possible, helps to keep my body feeling capable of the workload on the days when I can’t get outside for a bike or run.

Now, as a first-year I’m still amid coursework and fellowship duties, none of which cease when I leave town. There’s naturally seminar work to do, reading and note-taking and writing and discussion boards and more reading. For my colleagues who have teaching responsibilities, there is a delicate balance to be managed, for it seems that one is never in more demand than when one is preparing to showcase work in front of a roomful of strangers. It seems that conference week is a favorite time for undergraduate students to email their professors and/or teaching assistants with questions about an upcoming midterm, or to elaborate on comments on their most recent paper. The only really available option is to get everything done early. If there is a most stressful week, it’s not the travel week of the conference — it is the week prior when all the extra tasks have to be completed.

The piece of advice I received most often concerned the “tech kit,” the panoply of devices necessary for a smooth presentation. Before attendance, I hear it is best to give a practice version of the talk, using the materials that will be required on the day of one’s panel. There are dozens of horror stories about nonfunctional projectors, missing adapters, and disconnected sound systems to make this point noncontroversial. An iPad display, as I will be using, is among the more unusual setups, so bringing your own AppleTV and/or network adapter is essential. But don’t worry: basic presentation equipment of a laptop and connected projector will be available, and there is even an AV green room (Burnham 3 on the 7th floor) set up by MPSA to allow invitees an opportunity to test out their presentation on the standard equipment.

I find that I have the most difficulty with figuring out exactly what in my paper should be pulled out to present. As a young scholar, I am still in the stage of academic development where every finding that I unearth seems fascinating. Culling from my results to find what is most interesting feels a bit like disowning my children, but 12-minute presentation times lend themselves to concision. Colleagues have suggested making points to people outside the discipline, and recommend a ratio of one slide per two minutes of one’s talk. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone else read your presentation materials: I heard a horror story about a slide typo that suggested that the United States had 560% electoral participation.

All in all, getting ready for a conference comes down to organization, flexibility, and thoughtfulness. Establishing good habits can help one to relax and focus more on producing good scholarship. Now, if only I could figure out what on earth to wear…

About the Author: Danielle King (@danielleking) is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the political development of informal institutions (specifically the American Black Protestant Church), & how such institutions and political networks aid/hinder political mobilization. She is also interested in social movements and critical race theory. She is in front of her computer (danielleking.net), behind her camera, on her bike, or in her kitchen at any given time.

 

Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

Being a first-timer at MPSA is often synonymous with attending and presenting at any political science conference for the first time. For those graduate students who will be presenting their research for the first time, the weeks leading up to MPSA are intense and exciting all at once (or at least, that’s how I’m feeling).

It would be convenient to gather all the “how-to’s” and “best practices” in one powerful post, but grouping all this advice together misses out on potentially powerful cleavages that divide the young academic community. After all, there are a million ways to divide humankind into two camps: morning people and night owls; inbox zero zealots and those who regularly run out of space on their Gmail; over-planners and the rest of us with a more “seat-of-their-pants” approach to the world. Normally any one of these differences is enough to undermine a working relationship; but since we first-time MPSA attendees have to stick together, I offer advice for preparing for the conference according to two different philosophies of time.

Three Weeks Until MPSA

In the deliberate planner’s mind, there’s no time like the present to build an MPSA schedule. She searches the All-Academic website for interesting panels (based mostly on buzzwords from her dissertation prospectus and random sub-sub-subfields she read about for comps once) and carefully records all the panels of interest in her bullet journal. There’s a color-coding schema involved, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

At this point, the extemporary grad student knows MPSA is coming up but has too much on his plate at the moment to worry about the future. He thinks about his conference paper for a while in the shower one morning and plans out the perfect intro paragraph, but loses his train of thought immediately after sitting down to write. No worries, he’ll finish the paper later (but definitely by the March 22 deadline).

Two Weeks Until MPSA

Both the go-with-the-flow and hyper-methodical attendees manage to put the finishing touches on their conference papers to upload to the MPSA website and submit to their discussants by March 22. Philosophies about planning and the order of the universe aside, everyone is in this to get feedback on their work, which even the most chronically-late student can appreciate.

Riding the high of submitting something before a deadline, the spontaneous student scribbles out a few goals for her first MPSA on post-its she’ll attach to her desktop for motivation. She’s not too nervous about her panel, though, since it’s so far away.

Submitting his paper awakened a fire in the organized student, who got to work immediately researching the venue and planning out a walking tour. Even after walking around the hotel in Google Street View and downloading an app to reserve parking spots for cheap far in advance, though, he craves more information. This grad student registers for an online orientation for first-time attendees (the one on March 18th looked good but the one on March 26 at 11am Eastern worked better for his schedule) and rests assured knowing all his questions will be answered.

One Week Before MPSA

With only a week left to prepare for his first conference, the procedure-oriented student has decided to get serious. She organizes her thoughts using DAGitty in place of her more traditional vision board. There, she carefully charts everyone she wants to ask for coffee or lunch meetings against a list of carefully curated spots with a good vibe, that aren’t too close to the hotel (the lines will be long with conference-goers who just googled “coffee” before their panel), and are also friendly to a grad student budget

After seeing a friend of a friend post on Twitter that they’ll also be in Chicago next week for the conference (all thanks to the #MPSA19 hashtag), the planning-averse student remembers to reach out to other friends and a few scholars whose work he admires to meet up.

Three Days out from MPSA

The first-time attendee who takes life as it comes realizes he is relieved to be participating in a Junior Scholar Symposium, mostly because it means he doesn’t need to play around with Beamer templates for a few hours before actually building a slide deck. He hunkers down to finish reading and jotting down comments on the other panelists’ papers.

Meanwhile the hyper-organized student has had her slides ready for so long it feels like the content is tattooed on the inside of her eyeballs. She continues to practice the talk, trying to shave off an extra 37 seconds to get her presentation to fit neatly in the 15-minute allotment.

The Morning of MPSA

The more spontaneous grad student screenshots a map of the Palmer House while on the train from the airport to the hotel; she circles the room where her presentation will be and figures she’ll look through the program later that morning to choose panels to attend based on proximity to her new home base.

Before checking in to the hotel, she stops by a grocery store to pick up some snacks – cold brew concentrate, energy bars, dried fruit. As she’s standing in the checkout line, she’s proud of thinking to buy food ahead of time; none of these snacks make too much noise to eat, so she won’t embarrass herself in a panel, and it’s a way to save money since she already maxed out her department’s travel reimbursement fund for the year.

By this point, the planning-intensive student has already organized his store-bought snacks by calorie count and color in his hotel room and is heading to the conference. On the walk from his room to registration, he practices his elevator pitch introduction in anticipation of all the people he’ll meet that day.

Fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for making the most of your first MPSA. Whether you’ve got backups to your backup plans or intend to roll in with an off-the-cuff attitude, remember that we are all descending on the Palmer House Hilton for similar reasons: to make connections, learn something new, and get productive feedback on our work.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a PhD student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

Previewing the 77th Annual MPSA Conference Program: A Selection of Professional Development Panels for Graduate Students

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany, SUNY

MPSA19ProfessionalDevelopment

As panelists frantically completing their papers and presentations are acutely aware, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference is fast approaching. In addition to some excellent topical panels, this year’s conference offers a bevy of roundtables on professional development, ranging from pedagogy to research to the job market. In this post, I preview several roundtables and series that may especially be helpful for graduate students. I highlight the “Student” professional development series (with the exclusion of the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series, to be covered by fellow MPSA blogger Colleen Wood). Additionally, I preview other professional development roundtables regarding research that may be helpful to graduate students. Please note that this list does not contain information about all of the professional development roundtables, so it may be worth perusing the professional development offerings in the online program on your own.

What to Expect at a Job Interview at a Teaching School
The student professional development panels kick off with a session of “What to Expect at a Job Interview at a Teaching School” on Friday, April 5, from 8 to 9:30 am. This session may be particularly relevant to advanced doctoral students who are getting ready to go onto or are already on the academic job market, although it could be useful for doctoral students early in their programs. As several authors note, the hiring process for “teaching schools” such as small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) is different from that of research-intensive institutions and job candidates must think about how to package themselves and their research accordingly. Therefore, this is an important panel for those interested in teaching-intensive positions. Another session is offered on Saturday afternoon from 4:45 to 6:15 pm with a different set of panelists. Note that these sessions are not sequential.

The Non-academic or Alt-ac Job Search
A single session of “The Non-academic or Alt-ac Job Search” panel is on Saturday, April 6, from 9:45 to 11:15 am. This session is particularly useful for graduate students interested in jobs outside of academia or those considering a wide range of jobs after grad school. Graduate students and other scholars are increasingly considering jobs outside of academia, often due to the well-documented perils of the academic job market or the challenges of working in academia. That said, the hunt for jobs outside of academia is different: how does one translate the skills learned in grad school to the “real world”? This panel will be invaluable to students in providing insights from those who have navigated the non-academic job market with a Ph.D.

Preparing for the Job Market – CV to Teaching Statements
For those interested in applying for academic jobs, the “Preparing for the Job Market – CV to Teaching Statements” panel is on Sunday, April 7 from 9:45 to 11:15 am. This session could be useful for graduate students at any level, though especially for students preparing to enter the academic job market. Both well-organized and well-executed CVs and teaching statements are important for success on the job market. However, they can be difficult to do well. As such, insights from the panelists on how to create solid job market documents will be invaluable to graduate students.

What to Do/Not Do at a Job Talk
The final panel in the student professional development series is “What to Do/Not Do at a Job Talk” on Sunday, April 7, from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm. Job talks are a crucial part of the academic job interview process. Potential future colleagues not only evaluate candidates’ research but also their presentation skills and ability to think on their feet. Unsurprisingly, there are several considerations in delivering a good job talk presentation. Graduate students interested in the academic job market should attend this panel and take advantage of the opportunity to learn through others’ experiences.

There are several other panels on professional development topics that may be useful for graduate students; I discuss one of them here.

The Research Professional Development Series
There are several panels in the research professional development series that will be useful for graduate students, especially doctoral students before and during their dissertation research. This series offers several useful sessions on data collection methods including: “How to do Fieldwork” (April 4, 9:45-11:15 am), “How to Use Text as Data” (April 5, 1:15-2:45 pm), and “How to Conduct Surveys” (April 6, 9:45-11:15 am). While many graduate students read about these data collection methods, they can be very different in practice as my recent fieldwork experience has taught me. Therefore, getting insights from researchers who have used these methods will be invaluable to students in conducting their own research. Additionally, there are a few panels about one of the most important parts of research: procuring funding. Unfortunately, both “Small Grants and Private Foundations” and “Grant Opportunities & Strategies” are offered at the same time on Saturday, April 6 (1:15 to 2:45 pm).

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.

First-Generation Findings: Eight Strategies for Success at Academic Conferences

By James Steur of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Cloud Gate

 As a first-generation college student and son of two hairdressers, I’ve spent most of my life far removed from the world of academia. I still remember flying into Denver for my first conference as an undergrad and feeling overwhelmed when I entered the hotel. I didn’t know what the word “discussant” meant, how to network, and the unspoken norms of presenting at a conference. This new world I had entered was a strange and frightening place, and I didn’t know how to make the most out of the conference. Now that I’ve attended multiple conferences, I’ve developed eight strategies to help myself get the most out of attending conferences.

Before the Conference

Tip 1: Decide How You’ll Spend Your Time Before the Conference
At my first conference, I was handed a booklet with a variety of presentations, and I picked panels on an ad-hoc basis. I strongly advise against this approach. If you wait until you’re at the conference to select panels, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and attend panels you will not be satisfied with. Now, I make an itinerary for how I’ll spend my time at the conference at least two weeks in advance. Thankfully, MPSA has a preliminary program that divides the sections by time, division, and event. This year, I have many colleagues attending MPSA, and I’m going to propose we get together for an hour before the conference to plan our schedules.

Tip 2: Attend Panels & Meetings that Excite You
Pick panels and meetings that make you feel excited so you’ll attend them. You’ll probably go to a panel that focuses on your main research interests at MPSA, but there are other meetings beyond panels. For example, MPSA has roundtable events that focus on work-life balance, how to do fieldwork, public scholarship, and a variety of other topics. There are also caucus events like the Latino/a Caucus, Minority Caucus Reception, and the Midwest Women’s Caucus. By picking events I’m excited about beforehand, I’m going to enjoy the conference more and get more out of it. It’s a month before the conference, and I’m already excited to attend the panels on emotions and politics.

Tip 3: Prepare (and Practice) Your Presentation in Advance
I’ve attended too many conferences where I spend most of my time working on my presentation in my hotel room. This isn’t ideal. You waste time you could spend going to a panel or exploring the city while you stress about your presentation. Try to finish your paper and presentation two weeks in advance of the conference. You may want to make some finishing touches to your presentation when you arrive, but that’s fundamentally different than making and preparing for the presentation the night before you present. Ideally, you should practice your presentation once or twice with your colleagues before the conference—you want to leave a good impression on everyone in the room.

Tip 4: Email Scholars You Want to Meet with at the Conference
Emails are a straightforward and powerful tool to connect with scholars. If you want to meet with a junior or senior faculty member who is attending MPSA, email them a month or a few weeks before the conference. If someone at your institution knows them, mention that in your email. If you don’t have an immediate connection, tell them you want to meet and talk about their research. Scholars love to talk about their research, and they rarely get asked to talk about it. Finally, don’t ask to meet with them for an hour. Fifteen or 20 minutes over coffee should be enough time.

During the Conference 

Tip 5: Recognize Famous Scholars Are Busy
At last year’s MPSA, I was walking around the Palmer House and saw a famous scholar whose work I’ve admired for years. I couldn’t believe my eyes and got excited. He took a few steps and someone began chatting with him. I waited a few minutes to introduce myself because I greatly admire his work and wanted to talk with him. To my amassment, he ended his conversation, took a few more steps, and somebody else rushed over to talk with him. I now realize that famous scholars get a lot of attention and are incredibly busy at conferences. Respect their schedules and how busy they are at conferences.

Tip 6: Network
Conferences are a useful way to build your professional research network. The simple way to develop your network is by attending panels and other meetings that are related to your interests. Ask interesting questions during the panel presentation and ask for that scholar’s email if you’re having a good conversation at a reception. Personally, I try to make at least three new connections at a conference and get their email addresses. If the person is comfortable with it, follow each other on Twitter or add each other on LinkedIn to stay connected.

Tip 7: Keep a Record of Who You Meet
After I’ve met a lot of people at a conference, it’s easy to lose touch. You send a follow-up email after the conference, a few months pass, and eventually a year has passed with no contact. My solution is keeping a record of everyone I meet at a conference. My spreadsheet includes everyone’s name, university, email, and research interests. This spreadsheet gives me a clear sense of my professional network, helps me remember names after I’ve met a lot of people at a conference, and reminds me to reach out.

Tip 8: Have Fun!
You’ve spent a fair amount of money on your membership, registration, lodging, and travel; remember to have some fun! If you have the time and funds, explore Chicago on your last evening in town. If funds are a little sparser, visit the Chicago Bean or go to the public library—you deserve to have some fun!

Hopefully, these tips can help you prepare to make the most of your conference experience at MPSA and develop your professional career—especially if you’re newer to the world of academia.

About the Author: James Steur is a PhD student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging at this year’s MPSA. You can find James on Twitter at @JamesSteur

 


MPSA is hosting two online orientation sessions to help make your first MPSA conference more enjoyable. During the online sessions on March 18 (4pm Eastern) and March 26 (11am Eastern) we will discuss ideas to help you prepare for traveling to, arriving at, and making the most of this year’s conference. Topics to include: navigating the Palmer House, highlighted receptions and events, and where to find assistance on-site. Be sure to submit your questions when you sign up for an online orientation session.