In Retrospect: Tips for First-Time MPSA Attendees and Presenters

By Charmaine N. Willis of University at Albany, SUNY

In Retrospect: Tips for First-Time MPSA Attendees and Presenters
As I reflect on my first MPSA conference there are few things that I would have done differently, both prior to and during the conference. I offer some tips to new (and returning) attendees for future conferences. While my suggestions are based on my experience at MPSA, I believe they can apply to most other academic conferences as well.

Dress Accordingly
I mean this in a few different ways. First, wear something in which you are comfortable presenting. For myself, this typically means “business causal” but it varies from person to person. Unfortunately, I did not follow my own advice and wore shoes that became uncomfortable after one day walking to and throughout the Palmer House. Secondly, Chicago weather is unpredictable, and one should keep this in mind when packing and dressing for the conference. I initially packed a light-weight coat for the conference and switched to a winter coat just in case; I was glad that I did because it was quite cold in Chicago and even snowed while I was there. Thus, one should prepare for variable weather conditions and pack accordingly.

Plan Before You Go
For those who have never been to MPSA, the conference is held in the Palmer House Hilton hotel, an elegant 25-floor building in Downtown Chicago. The conference activities (panels, exhibitions, receptions, registration, etc.) are scattered throughout the hotel, thus knowing exactly where one needs to go ahead of time is important. Both the MPSA printed program and the app are helpful in this regard, though I had a difficult time finding locations for non-panel events in the app. That said, the app was particularly helpful in planning my own schedule in terms of the times and locations of panels I wanted to attend and those on which I was presenting. One suggestion, particularly for those presenters with minimal or no conference experience, is to locate the room in which your panel is held well ahead of time. As it is an older building, the Palmer House floor plan is not straightforward in some areas and it can be difficult to discern the room locations. Thus, identifying one’s room before your panel is due to start can alleviate some unnecessary anxiety. Additionally, remember to set aside time at some point to register upon your arrival.

Partake in Networking Events and Receptions in Addition to Panel Discussions
I offer this suggestion with graduate students and junior faculty particularly in mind. While I have attended a few smaller conferences prior to MPSA, this conference was the first large one I went to and the size has a few important implications. First, it can be very overwhelming: The Palmer House is large and, accordingly, there is a vast amount of people at the conference. Second, it can seem daunting to network and meet other scholars. For both reasons, attending events other than the panel discussions is important because it is a way to connect to others during the conference, thereby making it less overwhelming. I attended the Mentoring Reception and found that it was a good way to connect to people already working in the field as well as fellow graduate students. However, I wish I had arrived a day earlier and/or made time to attend some of the group receptions which I think would have made me feel more connected to the conference community and provided further networking opportunities.

Take Care of Yourself!
As we all surely know, this advice is easier said than done. However, this is an important part of “conference life”, especially for those who are presenters. I echo the advice given in this article by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham of the Association of Asian Studies. Eating and hydrating oneself adequately during a conference is important for both attendees and especially for presenters. We want to be on our “A-Game” whether we are presenting our research or making new connections, and I for one cannot do that without these two things. The first piece of advice in this regard is to make sure to eat during the conference, whether you bring snacks with you or make time for a meal. I did not make time to eat during my first day at the conference and between attending events and presenting I ended up missing lunch as a result, which I do not recommend. Even if you make time for a meal, it is advantageous to bring snacks with you just in case. Secondly, staying hydrated is important especially for presenters. My mouth gets dry when I speak for long periods of time (such as during a presentation) and I suspect I am not the only one. There are many places throughout the hotel to get water: take advantage of them. Admittedly I did not follow this advice closely during MPSA but I plan on abiding by it during my next conference.

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.


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.

Chicago Tips and Recommendations from a Graduate Student

By Charmaine N. Willis


This year marks my first year attending MPSA. I look forward to being able to share my research, to receive feedback, and to network with other scholars at one of the biggest and most well-known political science conferences. However, I would be remiss if I did not say that one of the biggest things that I am excited about in attending MPSA is returning to Chicago. Having been born and raised in rural New England, I have been to Chicago only one other time in my life but I quickly fell in love with the Windy City. It has all the trappings of any major city (a wide selection of food, drink, and things to do) while maintaining some semblance of a Midwestern charm. While my experience in Chicago is limited compared to some others’, I offer some recommendations to both graduate students and those attending MPSA for the first time.

First and foremost, check out Chicago-based Groupon for deals on food, drinks, entertainment, and other things to do. A recent glance at the site reveals over 1,200 deals for activities and over 1,200 on food and drink, respectively. Some deals offer especially deep discounts. Groupon is an important first consideration for graduate students and others on a tight budget as it can make partaking in some of Chicago’s signature activities and landmarks more realistic financially.

A second stop should be MPSA’s own Family Resources page. The page offers information for parents about resources available at the conference as well as family-friendly activities, including information on nearby parks, and dining options in Chicago. Additionally, the site lists discounts for local sporting events available to MPSA members and their family and friends. Conveniently, there is also a list of pharmacies and hospitals near the conference if needed.

One of the must-do activities that most visitors to Chicago will recommend is a river-boat architectural tour. Chicago boasts several distinct architectural styles throughout its buildings and having a knowledgeable tour guide to describe the history is imperative to understanding and appreciating them. The river-boat tours are particularly fun as one can relax and get perspectives of the buildings that one cannot get by walking or other types of tours. There are several companies that run river-boat tours, including a few by the Chicago Architectural Foundation. Those interested in going on an architectural tour should peruse Groupon for tour discounts.

Chicago, like many major cities, hosts several excellent museums. While I am not as much of a museum-lover as I wish I was, I really enjoyed visiting the Field Museum of Natural History. This museum has something for everyone including movies, hands-on activity centers, and, of course, exhibits (personal favorite is The Tsavo Lions– fascinating!) Fortunately, the museum is easily accessible by bus and fairly inexpensive for students even without a discount ($21 for basic admission).

Chicago is renowned for many things, not the least of which is its signature deep-dish pizza. Although I am an enthusiast of New York-style pizza, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed Chicago-style pizza. A local Chicagoan recommended that I try the pizza at Lou Malnati’s, a Chicago chain pizzeria known for its deep-dish style. There are locations throughout the city and the prices are reasonable. This is a good option for those interested in trying deep-dish pizza and seeing what the fuss is all about.

Finally, for micro-brew aficionados, Chicago is home to Goose Island Beer Company. Their two locations in the city feature more than a dozen brews on tap in addition to their widely-available 312 Urban Wheat Ale. They also offer average-priced pub fare and brewery tours by appointment to those interested in seeing the inner workings of the operation. A visit to one of the Goose Island breweries is fun for those interested in trying some of their hard-to-find beers or those wanting a low-key outing.

I look forward to experiencing MPSA in April, and adding to my list of Chicago must-see attractions!

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.