Reflections on the #MPSA18 Mentoring Reception

On the second day of the 76th Annual Conference, MPSA held a mentoring reception for which graduate students, PhD recipients in non-academic positions, junior, mid-career, and contingent faculty could select volunteer mentors for small group mentoring to discuss their current research and professional aspirations. This post is written from my perspective as a graduate student mentee.

By Charmaine N. Willis of University at Albany, SUNY

MPSA Mentoring Reception at the 2018 Conference in Chicago

As a graduate student and a first-time attendee to MPSA’s Annual Conference, I decided to participate in the mentoring reception. As a third-year PhD student wrapping up my coursework, I want to get all of the information and opinions I can about doctoral work and the notorious academic job market. I was admittedly skeptical of remarks about the enormity of the conference and the Palmer Hotel (it can’t really be THAT overwhelming, right?), but I immediately discovered upon entering the hotel that the rumors were true. After going up and down the same escalators pretending not to be lost and eventually finding my way to the Red Lacquer room, I was really looking forward to the mentoring reception as a way to ease into the conference.

Registration for the reception was required prior to the conference through an easy process via the MPSA website. Mentees can select from a wide range of mentors based on their research interests, their mentoring comfort level (ex. graduate students vs. mid-career faculty), and their position, ranging from post-docs and visiting assistant professors to those on the tenure track. As a female student, identifying female mentors is important to me and I was happy to note that there was a fairly even distribution of female and male scholars. One of the fields on the registration form asks you to submit a question or topic that you would like your mentor to cover, which helps them prepare for the meeting and prompts the mentee to think more about what you would like to get out of the meeting. (Pro tip: write down the question/topic you submitted prior to the conference because you may forget it, like I did!) It is helpful to generate an additional list of questions you would like to ask your mentor in advance of the conference, particularly if you do not have a mentor that is readily accessible in your own program.

The reception was held in the Red Laquer Room at the Palmer House, a low-key atmosphere despite the elegant décor. After locating my name card and my table, I sat down with my mentor and other mentees. Based on my own experience and the conversations I overheard at the reception, it seemed that mentors gave candid, “real” answers to our sometimes difficult questions instead of the evasive answers we might hear at departmental presentations: How does one navigate this difficult job market? What is an academic interview really like? What types of publications should we try to get for our CVs prior to embarking on the market? Should we try to collaborate more with faculty members or fellow graduate students? The mentors’ openness is, I think, partly due to the relaxed atmosphere and partly because these mentors have graciously volunteered their time: they genuinely want to help graduate students and other junior scholars.

One aspect that I had not anticipated prior to attending the reception is the advice from fellow graduate students. In our cohorts, our departments, and our discipline, we as graduate students often forget how valuable other graduate students are as resources. Part of this is emblematic of doctoral work and academia at large: we are islands. However, the importance of networking, collaborating, or merely talking with other graduate students in other programs should not be overlooked. As with the mentors, the mentees were diverse in terms of their identities, the universities they hail from, the expectations of their departments (ex. different emphases for graduate students), their research interests, and the number of years spent in their respective doctoral programs. The result is that one is at least able to commiserate on the hardships of graduate school and at most able to receive some valuable advice. In my case, I had completed the fewest number of years in my PhD program (3) and received some great advice from fellow PhD students along the lines of “when I was in my third year, I wish I had…” In that sense, one might also think of questions that they want to ask fellow mentees and/or simply other PhD students at the MPSA conference that have different experiences than your own.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from my mentor and fellow mentees and I hope that others had a similarly productive experience.

About the Author: Charmaine Willis is a current PhD Student at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her current research interests are Northeast Asian regional dynamics; civil society development in non-Western contexts; and contentious politics with a specific focus on anti-US military base mobilization. Willis is also a blogger for the 2018 MPSA conference in Chicago. She can be reached at or on Twitter.

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