Four Stormy Days – #MPSA17

This year’s MPSA has been an interesting experience as opposed to other years. That is due to a near perfect storm of political events in the last few months. Add to this already interesting mix the fact that, due to inclement weather and flight cancellations, we end up with a more intimate conference with content that barely fits into four days.

The centerpiece to the conference, as always, are the expert roundtables and late-breaking sessions that for once are discussing critical issues like the executive order on travel and immigration, rise of populism, need for civic engagement, and the role of media in today’s world. But that is not all, this year one of the most awesome things is how much of a difference #WomenAlsoKnowStuff has made. The panels look and feel different. The voices and issues being discussed are of academic and public interest. It is refreshing to see an environment where one is encouraged to speak up and present their ideas without fear of being shut down or critiqued without logic.

I was fortunate enough to attend several panels during the first two days including two round tables; civic engagement of academia and media’s role pre-and post-election 2016. The civic engagement panel was phenomenal because for once academics are speaking up and having conversations about how to engage with the larger audience and not just an epistemic community. Matthew Lebo of Stony Brook University and Jennifer Victor of George Mason put in to words what I have been feeling for a while; we (academics) need to start engaging with a public at a very basic level. What this means is, we need to engage at school level, university level, and mass media. For a while now, there has been a heated debate in academia about the use of social media by academics to push their work and ideas. I have always been a proponent of this approach because how would we let the rest of the world know what amazing work we are doing given that majority of this planet does not have journal subscriptions but probably has twitter or snapchat.

This ties in to the next point I want to make that I observed in the panel on media’s view of the Election 2016 campaign with guests like Molly Ball from the Atlantic, Nia Henderson from CNN and Steve Peoples from the AP. During the discussion, the panelists were asked why the media allowed abundant free press coverage to now-President Trump. The answer by all three media persons was that he was interesting. When asked to elaborate, the unanimous reply was that he was always available and he was saying weird stuff that gets attention. This naturally opens the discussion on why academics need to be more involved in public engagement. For media in general, profits and numbers of viewers are far superior to facts and critical analysis. In absence of true experts, we are left with glorified media personalities who everyone assumes can talk policy. For instance, consider the level of know-how about the middle east or even health care that Alex Jones does compared to literally any middle east expert at the MPSA conference right now.  The difference is that Alex Jones has spent his life engaging with the public about his views, as outlandish as they are. So it only makes sense that in an environment where media is more interested in getting a fun story rather than a factual one, as academics we must step up and take the responsibility of protecting facts and logic.

The other set of panels that I was fortunate enough to attend included the Author Meets Critics session for the awesome new book by Christina Wolbrecht and Kevin Corder that talks about the women’s suffrage movement and incidents after 19th amendment came in to force. The excellent book not only details cases at the state level, it provides a set of answers to the question, “What happened to women voters after the 19th amendment?” Did the turnout shift the political power balance? How did voting patterns change over time? All these questions and others are answered in this book as it sets up a wider discussion for future work in the field.

So far, the MPSA conference has been fantastic and I hope the kind of discussions we are having this year will translate into work that reaches a wider audience. The blogs, social media presence, and op-eds help expose our research to a wider audience. We need that in these post-truth times.

About the Author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, Georgia State University. He is also a Student Innovation Fellow at Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning (CETL) at GSU and Taiwan Fellow 2017 at National Sun Yat Sen University, Kaohsiung (Taiwan). His research focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website.

Ruling by Distraction

MPSAblog-Rasool-RulleByDistraction

To rule by distraction is a time-tested tool of autocratic and authoritarian regimes. It is a go-to move for non-democratic regimes when faced with a challenge, domestic or international. As the name suggests, this approach is simple but effective. The idea is to create enough chaos and distraction that all eyes remain on that. The key is to make “normal” a moving target (i.e. change what it means to be normal on a regular basis). Doing so allows for drastic steps to take place behind the smoke screen and distractions.

A simpler way to understand this is to consider how bot net attacks work. Essentially when hackers bring down a website or a cyber system, what they do is simply overload the system with bot net queries. If a system is built to handle a million queries a minute, the system crashes when it is hit with 2 million queries. And while everyone focuses on the system crashing, no one notices the data stolen or traffic diverted.

Now let’s employ this to what happens every day in Washington these last few days. The morning starts with denials of Russian involvement, Rep. Nunez’s collusion with the White House, intelligence community up in arms and the latest Executive Order on immigration and visas being put on hold by courts in Hawaii. The average viewer/consumer of current affairs knowledge is already overloaded to take in all of this. Their focus moves beyond the fact that the proposed American Health Care Act (aka Trumpcare) failed miserably in Congress even though the GOP controls both houses. The average viewer has also forgotten that the President tweeted a baseless claim about wiretapping a couple of weeks ago. He was widely-assailed for that at the time, but the story did not stick. By overloading the attention span of the average person, the administration can push past any governance disasters. Because the news cycle is so small and there is so much “news” nothing sticks long enough to make an impact.

Why This is Dangerous for Democracy

A democracy relies on checks and balances in the system. Transparency through checks and balances allows people to continue trusting the governance institutions. Unless the people trust the governance institutions, they will not trust the democracy.

In a “rule by distraction” situation, the survival of the administration depends on people not being able to process the complete information. By creating multiple simultaneous distractions, the administration overloads the attention of its citizens. In essence, then, they are not lying to the people, they are just creating enough alternative explanations that “truth” becomes debatable. Add political polarization to this and consistent bashing of the “other” side and you have a loyalist following locked up that will disregard anything that questions the government.

To have some context on this – consider the example of Turkey in the recent weeks and months. Turkey will have a referendum in mid-April to determine whether it will effectively crown President Erdogan, the king by giving him sweeping powers but not the title. In run up to the referendum, the Turkish government has successfully changed the major news story every day. They picked a fight with Netherlands and Germany that escalated in to a fight with the EU all within a space of three days while they were losing soldiers in the Syrian incursion. Government ministers were slamming the US and its refusal to turn over Gulen while the U.S. Secretary of State was visiting Turkey this week.

Through perpetually distracting the viewers, AKP has successfully taken the focus away from the question of whether it was Gulenists who were behind the coup attempt or if it was some other group. The distraction has also helped take away focus from the fact that thousands of academics and journalists are languishing in jails under exaggerated charges while more than one hundred thousand people have lost their jobs. Because the distraction of a showdown with the European Union is more newsworthy, these smaller news stories have gone under the radar. Plus, through polarization, there are two groups of people in Turkey now, those who will vote yes and those who will vote no on the referendum. The only loser in this process is democratic norms of checks and balances through transparency.

Act Not Distract

The reason rule by distraction has worked so well in the U.S. so far is because the media is struggling to disaggregate news and distraction when the same authority is creating both. In this scenario, it is our responsibility as scientists, academics, and intellectuals to keep the focus on facts. We cannot fact check everything; what we can do is fact check our domain. What we can do is explain to our students, friends, and family how this cycle works. The news cycle needs to be slowed down, and we need to be a party to that.

We often discuss standing up for science; we hardly go in to details of how to do that. One way to do that is slowing down the news cycle by unpacking stories and issues. More crucially, we need to teach the society how to do that. Unless we focus on specifically doing this, we can expect the malicious cuts to arts and sciences that we have witnessed in the last few months. If the public does not know the value of our work i.e. proving and disproving ideas as facts through evidence, they will see no need to support it. Rule by distraction puts democracy at risk, as political scientists we have a duty to push back and reclaim space for facts.

About the Author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, Georgia State University. He is also a Student Innovation Fellow at Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning (CETL) at GSU and Taiwan Fellow 2017 at National Sun Yat Sen University, Kaohsiung (Taiwan). His research focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website.

Alone and Working: Making the Transition to ABD

Alone and Working: Making the Transition to ABD

The change from being a PhD Student to a PhD Candidate is a big one. The moment we cross that threshold of becoming ABD, we fall in to a kind of purgatory where we are no longer students and not yet peers of our professors. This purgatory, or as it is better known as ABD, is something that no one prepares you for. One of us (Harold Young) went through the process in the last two years and the other (Adnan Rasool) just started down this path a couple of months ago after I defended my dissertation prospectus.

Here we share our common experiences.

So what changes? What do we do? Why it matters and how do you survive this process?

The biggest change is that you are on your own. As one my professors keeps saying “you are on a little island all by yourself, trying to find a way back”. That is the reality and the way back is finishing the dissertation project. While the first few years of grad school provide the tools and framework needed to survive, during this phase there is little to no accountability leaving you alone to figure out how to harness the discipline needed to complete the dissertation.

But how does one go about doing this? Well you start figuring it out when you acknowledge and accept that you are virtually alone in this now. That realization eventually does hit even if it might take a few weeks or months. But when it hits home, that is when you realize a host of other things as well.

Firstly, you are no longer treated as a student. You are treated like a future peer. This means that the way your work is viewed is significantly different and the expectations are much higher. The kind of mistakes you could have made and powered through are no longer acceptable. More importantly, you cannot depend on constant guidance and advice of your mentors and professors because that part of the program is over. The only time you will get detailed feedback is when you submit significant chunks of your dissertation project.

While the department remains cognizant of you and wants to see you finish on time and hit the job market, they leave it to you to decide when to do that. What we mean by that is, the only time you will go back to the department is when students are specifically required to be there (e.g., student symposiums), need signatures or for scheduled practice sessions for job interviews. Otherwise, the only departmental contact you have is with your committee and specifically with the chair of your committee.Alone and Working: Making the Transition to ABD

Secondly, you will very quickly realize that your cohort is splitting up and going their own ways. Because everyone is working at a different pace on different projects, the tendency is for the comradery of the first few years of grad school to dissipate. You need to be prepared for your social circle to slowly thin and change over time. There is a certain amount of emotional toll the ABD experience and dissertation writing process takes on you and that should be expected. The best thing one can do is to prepare for it in advance by acknowledging this will happen.

Lastly, acknowledge and understand that this will be grueling process but ultimately you will be rewarded. You are here because you love learning and producing knowledge. This is the most time you will ever get to dedicate yourself to the singular pursuit of knowledge, so enjoy it. And while you do this, keep an eye on the job market. Your timeline depends greatly on the job market you wish to enter. The decision to enter the job market after writing a few chapters or waiting till finishing the whole project determines how you settle yourself in for the long haul. So, keep an eye on that and make reasonable accommodations.

Reach out and thrive!

The purpose of this piece is to talk about not just surviving but thriving during the hardest part of the PhD. Program. The clichés ”you cannot edit your head, so write” and “a good dissertation is a finished dissertation” ring true. However, getting to that goal is fraught with mental, emotional and physical stress. So, reach out to those are in the same phase or have recently succeeded, acknowledge your fears, discuss strategies and make new friends in the process. You will be pleasantly surprised at the friendships you make as they are the only people who can relate. That is actually a major reason we are such good friends.

The going can be tough but that is the whole point of academic rigor and pursuit of knowledge at the ultimate level. You can do it and, when you succeed, be there for the next ABD newbie!

 

About the Authors:

Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate & Student Innovation Fellow 2016-2017 at Georgia State University. He is also the recipient of the Taiwan Fellowship for 2017 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC. His research focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website.

Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research area is Public Law and he examines an American and comparative perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision making. Previously he was a social worker, a health communications project manager, and an attorney-at-law. He can be reached via email at youngh@apsu.edu.

 

MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

MPSA Blog: Top 10 Posts from 2016

Regardless of your research interests, your academic (or Alt-Ac) role, or your aspirations for the new year, there is something on this list of MPSA’s most popular blog posts from 2016 that is sure to pique your interest:

MPSA would especially like to thank regular contributors Newly Paul, Adnan Rasool, Michael A. Smith, and Harry Young for sharing their research, political perspectives, and pedagogical insights with us this calendar year. We look forward to highlighting even more NSF-Funded research, conference presentations, and MPSA member interviews in the coming months. If you’re interested in sharing your work with MPSA’s members and the discipline, we’d love to hear from you.

Best wishes for a safe and productive 2017!

On the Eve of the 2017 Conference Season

On the Eve of Conference Season 2017

As the Fall semester comes to a close, most academics in our field are readying for the upcoming hectic conference schedule starting with SPSA in New Orleans in January, ISA (February) in Baltimore, MPSA (April) in Chicago, and ending with WPSA (April) in Vancouver. Keeping this in mind, this post discusses some decisions and challenges most of us face during this season. I start with some of the challenges my colleagues and I are facing right now.

First, as much as conferences are awesome, they require a lot of attention and effort on the part of participants and presenters. Attending conferences is an amazing learning experience for all of us, but the work that goes in to it can be overwhelming at times. For instance, I am presenting two pieces of work at SPSA and then I am scheduled to present at MPSA in April as well. That means I am working on finalizing three full-length conference-worthy papers within a space of effectively 3 months. And it is not just me, most of my colleagues are in the same boat. We submitted abstracts of some awesome ideas and now we have to hammer out solid papers to be presented at each of these conferences.

This has led to some interesting conversations I have had with other political scientists regarding how many projects and papers can be worked on simultaneously without forgoing quality. I agree with the conventional wisdom that you can only do so many conferences a year and if you do not have something solid to put out, it is better to sit one out and go back next year with something worthy instead of showing up with a half-baked idea. I feel we have all sat through those presentations where the idea is just not there yet and the presentation just makes the presenter look bad even if it could eventually pan out to be something excellent. The point I am making is – it is totally okay to focus on a few pieces of work and present at one or two conferences rather than try to show up with a not-so-great paper to every conference. That is why most of my colleagues and I are seriously deciding on whether to focus on one or two papers instead of doing quantity. Quality beats quantity every time in academia and it is worthwhile to have that discussion with yourself and your co-author.

Second, it is a worthwhile idea to have internal presentations before heading out to conferences. My grad school has a policy that requires every one who seeks travel funding to do internal presentations of their work before they head out. This helps the presenters hone in on their flaws and prepare for questions related to their research. Additionally, it helps the presenters realize where they stand with their research and whether it is ready to a point where they need to be putting it in front of the world. This is critical as at times because many of us can get too close to our own work to see its true quality.

Instead it is a worthwhile idea to take a step back and let your peers and colleagues judge your work in a grad school setting than a conference setting. Internal presentations have helped me personally pinpoint critical issues I was dwelling with my own research. In particular, I was satisfied with a paper I have been working on for most of the year, but it turns out I was rushing past the theoretical contributions of the research. The internal reviews and presentations helped me realize the mistakes I was making as my professors stepped in to pinpoint the exact issue I had to address. What really helped during these internal presentations was that I presented in front of an audience from different subfields. The benchmark was if an Americanist or a Theory person can fully understand my presentation on comparative authoritarianism, then it has merits. Otherwise I need to simplify and narrow my presentation so that everyone hearing it understands my contribution.

Finally, conference presentations are great but often those papers never seem to materialize in to publications. That is totally okay. Sometimes the first go on a paper sounds amazing but once you spend more time fleshing it out you realize it will never be as good as you want it to be. Instead of being stuck on it, just shelf it for a bit and move on. Sooner rather than later, that work will help you with a future project or paper and will be useful in creating something you can put out there as a publication.

So as Fall semester ends and holidays begin, I hope everyone ends up with great work that we can share in the next year. I will hopefully see y’all at SPSA. If not there, then MPSA for sure! Happy holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! And a Happy New Year!

About the Author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate & Student Innovation Fellow 2016 – 2017 at Georgia State University. He is also the recipient of the Taiwan Fellowship for 2017 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC. Adnan is a blogger for the 2017 MPSA conference in Chicago. His research work focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website

One PhD Candidate’s Roadmap for Successful Co-Authorship

All of us at one point or another have either considered or have been involved in a co-authored project. With the way academia is evolving, co-authorship is not only encouraged but it is fast becoming the norm especially in Political Science. But we hardly see discussions on how it works and the challenges that one faces while working on a project with others.

And this is what I want to talk about in this post; experiences and lessons of working on co-authored projects. Below I discuss the four major lessons and approaches that I have picked up while working with my co-authors. My intention is to share my experiences in an effort to start a discussion as learning to work with co-authors is beneficial especially to grad students who are just starting out in the field.

Work with People You Get Along With

This advice sounds straightforward enough but a large number of people never end up following this. First, let me clear up what I mean with the phrase – “get along with”. If you do not like someone or have a friendship with the next person at a human level, please do not work with them. This stands true for your professors, fellow grad students or any other academic. Co-authorship is a stressful process as it demands two or more people come together and put in to the work to create a good product. There is a balance that needs to be maintained in order for that product to be created. In academia that product could be the paper or the book you are all working on. With people you actually like at the personal level, you have the rapport to speak your mind and have open discussions because sometimes you need to be blunt about issues such as division of work and admitting mistakes in models or data. That has to be done in a manner where the next person or persons do not feel that they are being blamed or accused.

That relationship at the person level, helps you have those honest discussions without actually breaking the team or adding an air of hostility. I am not saying be best buddies with your co-authors but at least know them enough to know how to have honest conversations with them. For instance, one of the papers I am hoping to present at the upcoming MPSA is a co-authored paper with a close friend and colleague. The discussion on whose name should go first lasted about 15 seconds because I knew she had experiences in the past where people practically brought a project to a halt because of arguments over this. Even something so basic becomes a big deal if you do not have the rapport with the next person.

Start on a Brand New Project

When you are going to work on a co-authored project with someone, please start a brand new project. It can be an iteration of the work you have done in the past but it cannot be literally the work you have done in the past added to someone else’s past work. What I mean to say is, do not try to lump two similar projects together to create a new piece of work. That does not work out well because then there are arguments over who takes credit for what. Instead, build a new project with a new research question where you can each bring enough to the table to qualify as a competent co-author. For example, recently I have been doing field work in Turkey. I have been studying the bureaucracy and how it responded after the failed coup attempt. My colleague and friend has done work on Turkey but from the perspective of party structures and populist parties. Instead of just lumping our work together or tagging on to each other’s work, we decided to work on a whole new question that we could tackle from multiple angles. This way we do not have to fight over who gets more credit or who is going to write what portion. We can take a stab at writing different portions of it while having active discussions on them. And this leads in to the next point I wish to make. Have regular meetings.

Take Out Time, Have Regular Meetings

Even if you work together or hang out regularly, when you are working as co-authors it is a great idea to find specific time to meet. This professionalizes the whole process and it actually helps you to focus on the task at hand. All of us are busy with a number of different projects at most times, so it makes sense to dedicate time to work on a project that you are doing with someone else. Most importantly it signals how serious you are about the work and you respect the next person’s time. Plus, when you dedicate time to work and brainstorm on a project together, you normally end up coming with great new ideas and approaches that you can discuss on the spot and build upon instead of working on them separately. The key here is to remember that this is not two individuals working on the same thing, you are a team that is working together to create something.

I am currently working with a professor of mine on a paper that is out of our comfort zones. The reason we chose to do that was because we wanted to build on something new by bringing together our expertise and understanding. So once a week, we block off a 3-hour slot to just sit and work on our paper. Because there is a rolling deadline every week, it is easier to establish milestones and then follow up on them.

Have Clear Milestones and Deadlines

One of the biggest issues with producing any kind of work is having a timeline and sticking to it. But in co-authored projects timelines become a critical issue and determine either the success or failure of a partnership. Having regular meetings helps you establish dedicated time to work on the project together but it also allows you to set up milestones and establish deadlines based on those milestones. Dividing up work in a manner where those deadlines can be met helps all those involved be on the same page. Additionally, it also sets up a work division where everyone feels they are doing their part of the lifting. This also cuts down on false credit claims and arguments over doing or not doing the required work. Point being, deadlines and milestones need to be established early on as they are fundamental to getting the project off the ground and then eventually finishing it off.

As I mentioned in the beginning, these are some of the lessons and experiences I have understood while working on co-authorships. I strongly believe that doing work in such a setting is a great idea and helps us all work on different things simultaneously but it requires a certain kind of discipline. The ideas I discuss above help establish that discipline and simplify the process that can sometimes be very tricky.

About the author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate, a Graduate Research Assistant and Student Innovation Fellow 2016 – 2017 at Georgia State University. His research work focuses on the Role of Bureaucracies in Democratization and Authoritarian Rule, Money in US Politics as well as how social issue cases impact trust of social interest groups in Federal Judiciary.  You can also find Rasool on Twitter and blogging at The Gradventures.

Trendspotting Through the Gradventurist’s Lens

Now that it has been two weeks since MPSA 2016 ended, there are a few trends I observed during the conference that I feel need revisiting especially from a graduate student perspective. The conference weekend was hectic for everyone and there was a lot going on simultaneously, so it is useful to take a look back and absorb it slowly. The trends I am discussing in this post are positive and can be beneficial in the long run for all of us if we are able to take advantage of them the right way.

Co-Authored Work
Co-authored work is not a new phenomenon, but what I am specifically referring to is the trend of graduate students co-authoring with professors and mentors. This is an amazing trend that more graduate students should consider. The challenge is finding the right kind of mentor/professor to work with on a subject you feel passionately about.

For instance, I co-authored a paper with my professor in a field that is not my specialty purely because I wanted to work with them and the topic we came up with was fascinating to both of us. I am a Comparative/IR person while my co-author is an established public law and judicial politics professor. We started discussing topics that would be cool to study and ended up with a topic that explores how religious conservatives react to federal courts on socio-moral case decisions. We had never run experiments, so we both had a chance to work and learn how to set up experiments. I learned a whole new body of literature and approach to research with its roots in American Politics while my professor saw the potential of taking our study scope international.

I learned a lot more from this experience that I would have in a class with the same professor. The co-author relationship benefits the graduate students if your faculty co-author legitimately believes in dividing work. In my case, I wrote one half of the paper while my professor co-author wrote the other. We discussed it and then outlined the presentation together. This process gave me a whole new outlook that I would not have had any other way.

Point is, as a graduate student, go out there and find a professor or a mentor who will work with you to actually guide you through the process. Do not pigeonhole yourself to working within your own field, with the kind of job market we are all facing, it always helps to have expertise across fields.

Cross-Disciplinary Work
As I mentioned in my last point, it helps to work across the fields and specialties. We are all political scientists even though we study very different things. My colleagues in public law struggle with International Relations the exact way I struggle with public law. But together, we actually work really well in tandem. Also working together opens up our research options significantly.

For instance, one of my colleagues is a public law and American politics specialist who focuses on judicial politics. We have had multiple conversations where I tried to make the comparatist’s argument that whatever is studied in American politics is basically an extensive case study and can be easily applied to other countries. After multiple back and forth arguments, we ended up working on a paper together that essentially chalks out the trajectories and processes through which judiciaries across the world define and maintain judicial independence. Most of the literature that we utilized for theory building came from American politics, but most of our case analysis came from comparative and IR. We ended up with a decent paper at the end that raised some interesting arguments which are nowhere to be found in purely American or public law literature.

In simple terms, all I am saying is – mixing and matching your topics and expertise is a good thing. If you are a comparativist who studies East Asia, it might be worthwhile to work with a public opinion person as that can change the dynamics of your work. You both learn in the process, you expand your abilities and knowledge base while ending up with a paper that can potentially be published in regional studies journals as it is new and exciting.

There were other interesting trends like using a lot more data in studies of IR and a slow but steady uptick in good quality qualitative work in American politics. Based on what I witnessed at the MPSA 2016 conference, I am consciously expanding my work areas to include different fields that I find interesting. Remember when the adage that you should work on something that you find interesting? Turns out they really mean it and it does not have to be within your own field. We are academics and we do not need to pigeonhole our work to fit a specific box.

 

About the author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate, a Graduate Research Assistant and Student Innovation Fellow 2016 – 2017 at Georgia State University. He is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. His research work focuses on the Role of Bureaucracies in Democratization and Authoritarian Rule, Money in US Politics as well as how social issue cases impact trust of social interest groups in Federal Judiciary.  You can also find Rasool on Twitter and blogging at The Gradventures

A Grad Life Recap of the 2016 MPSA Conference

As the MPSA 2016 conference wraps up, I wanted to share a few thoughts as a first time attendee. This has been a phenomenal experience for me and my colleagues (most of whom are also first time attendees) and has made me fall in love with this profession all over again.

Creative Research and Sophisticated Methods

In principle an academic conference is a place for academics to come together and present their ideas. MPSA in that regard has been a great platform for all kinds of research to get center stage and be evaluated by our peers. A lot of research takes up traditional issues and uses out of the box approaches to answer the larger questions. Take for instance the work presented by Wedeking and Lippert on Supreme Court Legitimacy; they are using a network analysis tool called Pathfinder to help create visual networks of legitimacy. That work could be easily applied to comparative politics when studying authoritarian regimes to understand their power base. This approach could also help with designing an improved network analysis. Then there is the work using student research pools to run experiments. While not all institutions have that, it is a growing trend and the work presented based on this model of inquiry is growing.

Point is, what MPSA does for us as scholars is to give access to cutting edge research but importantly the opportunity to discuss it with authors so we can learn from them and apply those strategies to our research questions.

Networking and Building Research Clusters

As a first time attendee, the chance to meet fellow first time attendees and listen to their research was great. More importantly finding people who have similar ideas and wish to expand their research questions was extremely helpful too. I sat through a number of presentations that were in my field of study and I got to witness the different approaches I had never even heard of before this conference. The fact that I got the chance to discuss them at length and learn from these people was amazing.

These interactions may or may not lead to future work together but what I now know is there are research clusters out there that I can tap in to and work with even if they are not directly in my field. For instance, my friends in judicial politics and Congressional politics do some really sophisticated methods work that can be applied to other disciplines with a few updates. What also surprised me was the growing trend of cross-disciplinary work that is being done at this stage. The fact that as political scientists we are tapping in sociology, economics and anthropology to give more nuance to our work is something that can make our work more relevant to the existing issues the world faces.

The Big Picture

The Empire Series lectures were the hidden gem for this year’s MPSA. The lecture by Dr. Gary Segura was an honest critique and reality check for our profession. He focused on how the discipline needs to move to basics and start answering the real world problems. Political Science, according to him, is suffering from “methdological fetishism” whereby we are obsessed with sophistication of our methods and are heavily quantative in our approach. According to him we need to be focusing on the “politics that matter”. He believes that the focus on methods is killing the focus on substance. His views echo what a lot of the general public has been saying about academia for a while i.e. we do not talk to them, we often talk at them. And while this may hold true in a lot of cases, what I witnessed at the MPSA conference this year has been a shift to answering the real world questions in a straightforward manner. Yes, methods are critical to providing scientific evidence to our claims and our hypothesis, but at the same time our questions have also gotten more realistic. For instance MPSA this year held a number of roundtables that focused on dealing with real issues we face as academics from classroom teaching to making our research more accessible to the public.

Zoltan
Zoltan Hajnal presents “Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Influence Who Wins and Loses in American Politics” as part of MPSA’s 2016 Empire Lecture Series. (Photo: Adnan Rasool)

Dr. Segura’s words echoed Dr. Zoltan Hajnal who presented a thorough study on how certain political parties have a significant impact on the living conditions of the minorities in this country. With erudite mix methods, he presented a realistic picture that explains the current election cycle well and even explains why Hillary Clinton locks up the minority vote like no one else. His explanations and evidence is the direction our profession is moving towards slowly.

The 2016 MPSA conference has done what it was meant to do – it has put forward the state of our profession and that state is excellent. We are on the right path and the fact that so many academics are willing to work with their graduate students and teach them with a hands on approach is something our field can be proud of. As a first time attendee, I realized how lucky I was to have amazing faculty who actively wishes to work with students as co – authors to train them better and help build on our ideas.

 

About the author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate, a Graduate Research Assistant and Student Innovation Fellow 2016 – 2017 at Georgia State University. He is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. His research work focuses on the Role of Bureaucracies in Democratization and Authoritarian Rule, Money in US Politics as well as how social issue cases impact trust of social interest groups in Federal Judiciary.  You can also find Rasool on Twitter and blogging at The Gradventures

Your To Do List: One Week until MPSA 2016

MPSA2016_OneWeekWe are one week away from the MPSA 2016 conference and a lot of us are still scrambling to get everything in order. Those of us making it to the MPSA for the very first time are especially equal parts excited and nervous to be presenting at such a big forum. So to help out my fellow first timers, I thought I would document my preparation experience and those of my colleagues who also are attending MPSA for the first time.

Based on the countless conversations I have had with faculty, my colleagues and friends who are also going to MPSA, I have come up with three helpful ideas that can help you prepare for the big event.

  • Test Your Research and Presentation on a Real Audience
    I have mentioned this in one of my earlier posts but it needs to be regurgitated. The best way to prepare for a presentation at a forum like MPSA is to test it out on live audiences multiple times. In my department we have an internal conference a week before MPSA every year, where all students presenting at MPSA get to present their research in front of a decent sized audience. The point of doing so is to get the presenters at ease with the idea of presenting in front of a crowd but also get them used to the flow of their presentation. The critique helps, but what helps more than that is the advice provided to them about how to take that critique.

    A conference like MPSA is equal parts about presenting your research and you putting your name out there. How you manage critique helps build an image that you can curate over years before you even hit the job market. In short, present in front of an audience, have your research on your fingertips and intentionally go out of your way to smile and be positive about critique.

  • Get Business Cards Made and Keep Your Name Tag On
    As an attendee and especially as a graduate student, when you attend a conference like MPSA you will be meeting a lot of people and trying to socialize as much as possible. You will be passing on your information and that cannot be on a piece of paper with a hand written email address. Up your game and get some business cards made in advance. Most departments would be happy to assist their students with this and even if they cannot get them made for you, they can at least give you the design that you can use to print your own cards. (Online options exist for fast business card printing: NextDayFlyers, VistaPrint, etc.)

    Secondly, once you are at the conference please keep your name tag on. Ideally on the right side. This makes life easy for the person shaking your hand or trying to engage you in a conversation. This is especially helpful for people like me who have difficulties remembering names. Keeping the name tag on also helps people memorize your name faster because they can use it during conversations. Think about it, if you just met someone and even if they told you their names, you will probably keep referring to them with pronouns throughout the conversation. But if you could see their name tag, you are more inclined to use their name more often as it makes you appear more attentive. As simplistic as it sounds, these little things make a difference in daily interactions.

  • Be a Tourist
    Chicago is one of the most tourist friendly cities in the US. We are all in that city for 3 to 4 days. Not one of us is presenting all those 4 days. I know it is hard to imagine having fun right now but the moment that presentation is done, you will want to go check out the city.

    So, plan in advance. To start, with the city has amazing food. There are multiple lists online for must eat foods, so start with those. Chicago is a big sports town and the White Sox are playing home games. (There is even a deal on tickets for MPSA members.) Chicago Blackhawks are also playing at home. With regards to art and culture, there is the Art Institute as well as multiple festivals and shows around the city. Do step outside downtown. The city has a lot to offer and while most of it is downtown, there are hidden gems all over town with easy transport access. On their site, MPSA has compiled local family-friendly resources to help make your experience in Chicago more enjoyable.

A week from now, we will all be presenting our hard work at MPSA and getting a chance to socialize. I will be live blogging from MPSA 2016 and would love to hear your opinion and experiences. Drop by and say “Hi,” tweet or email me while you are there about your research, your interactions and whatever else you notice at MPSA.

About the author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate, a Graduate Research Assistant and Student Innovation Fellow 2016 – 2017 at Georgia State University. He is also a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. His research work focuses on the Role of Bureaucracies in Democratization and Authoritarian Rule, Money in US Politics as well as how social issue cases impact trust of social interest groups in Federal Judiciary.   You can also find Rasool on Twitter and blogging at The Gradventures.

 

Studying for Comps? Here are Three Approaches to Try Based on Learning Style

Rasool_MindMap_Modernization
An example of the author’s mind mapping technique (click to expand).

There comes a time in every PhD student’s career where they have to sit through the dreaded qualifying exams (or “comps” as they are often called). The structure of the exam changes from department to department, but the essence of the process and purpose remains the same; test the knowledge and capacity of the candidate to see if they qualify to be a peer rather than a student.

Having recently taken my comps (and hopefully having passed them), I realized a number of things that I wish someone had told me earlier. There were techniques that my colleagues and I used which were helpful and unique in their own right that could be of benefit to others. Here are three approaches, and tips from the process, that might be helpful to those of you taking your comps soon:

I. Answer the Question

“Answer the question” and “what is your theory” are the running jokes in our department and there is a good reason for that. As obvious as it is, it is really hard to stick to answering the question when studying or writing a qualifying exam answer. We all have a tendency to go off on a tangent when talking about material that we have spent months studying and revising. According to most professors I talked to, the biggest issue is that students get excited about showing off their knowledge and that they forget to specifically answer the question. Instead of answering the question, the students end up talking about all the material they know about that particular subject area.

For example, when asked whether ASEAN is a successful organization, students have a tendency to do a data dump of everything they know about international organizations. While that is helpful and that literature is critical, it does not answer the specific question asked. In this case, I found it helpful to break down the question into portions; a technique often taught in high school for parliamentary debating. First, break down the question, then rewrite it in your answer with detailed definitions to reword it in a manner you can answer more specifically.

In the case of our example (Whether ASEAN is a successful organization?):

  • What is ASEAN?
  • How do we define “successes” for international regional organizations?
  • What are we comparing it to?

Answering this series of questions creates a default sequence and structure that keeps your answer on point.

II. Find Your Learning Technique

Learning techniques work differently for different people. This is an obvious statement that we all tend to forget and expect somehow that the learning process of everyone at the same level needs to be identical.

Let’s use myself and my colleague as an example. I am a visual learner. I draw things out and they stick with me. Reading something fifteen times has no impact on me but drawing the words out just once, allows me to pick up on concepts. My colleague on the other hand has to read every single word in every article and book in order to fully understand it. While I can glean an idea and theory based on the Abstract, Intro and Conclusion, my colleague will not. This means our speed of learning is different but not our quality.

Your learning technique will determine how much time you need to prepare for comps. Depending on the approach, some people will need to prepare for a year, some need six months and some need only three months. Additionally, seniors will often share their notes from when they studied for comps. Those notes can be helpful but by no means are those notes everything you need.

Since I am a visual learner, I create mind maps of information to find my way through the large quantity of data that I consumed during my preparation for the comps. The mind maps are a helpful tool to help remember large quantities of information not just for the exam but for professional life that awaits us. Think of mind maps like a walk down a super market aisle – everything has a location. You do not need to know the exact product that is there by name because you will never be able to memorize all the products on the shelves. What you can do is remember what products are at each location. Then, once you remember the location, you can locate the exact brand of the product you want. For example, if I need to remember something about democracy, I start with whether it’s a definition, transitions or something else. If it is a transition, which of the three major ones is it? If it is modernization then I can remember the three to four major works under that. This mapping of knowledge allows me to remember specifics about things that other methods don’t.

If you are a visual learner, try drawing the information with the mind map technique. It takes a while to get used to it, but it does make life easier.

III. Use Audio and Video

We get so consumed with reading and writing that we often forget that one of the best ways to remember things is through audio and video. One of the major methods I used during my preparation was to write my notes, build mind maps and then record myself talking through my mind maps. I recorded every major concept area I had as if I was explaining a route to myself. I would listen to the whole set of recordings (I had 5 sets for IR and 4 for Comparative – lasting about 45 minutes combined) first thing in the morning. I would put them in the background while I got ready in the morning and also every day for a week before going to sleep. Through the magic of repetition, it got to a point where I could remember most of the things I needed to know because my brain would make them in to a sequence similar to song lyrics.

My colleague on the other hand used videos. One of them simply made a YouTube playlist of interviews of all major authors in different subject areas and watched them over and over again. According to him, the advantage was that he could learn and remember more when he heard it from the person who wrote it. He could understand the context of arguments better when he heard the narration and saw the expressions that went with it. Another friend used podcasts of book reviews to understand what the author really wanted to say instead of just reading the book.

These are just three approaches out of a number of potential study methods. These specific ones were helpful to me and I hope they will be helpful to others. I do plan to post my recordings and material online so they can be of use to others who are preparing. My intention is to share my own experiences and also start a discussion where others can chip in ideas and approaches that worked. This process is brutal for every PhD Student and every bit of support makes a difference. As political scientists, we can help each other and also build best practices that can systematize this process and make it slightly less stressful.

 

About the author:  Adnan Rasool is a PhD student, a Graduate Research Assistant at Georgia State University, and a blogger for the 2016 MPSA conference in Chicago. His research work focuses on the Role of Bureaucracies in Democratization and Authoritarian Rule, Money in US Politics as well as how social issue cases impact trust of social interest groups in Federal Judiciary.  In his previous life he has been a Political Campaign Strategist, an award winning blogger on current affairs and a development sector expert.  You can also find Rasool on Twitter and blogging at The Gradventures.