Coping with COVID-19: A Graduate Student’s Reflections

By James Steur, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Coping with COVID-19

About one month ago, I wrote a blog post about strategies for networking at the 2020 MPSA Conference. To be frank, given the last few weeks, my post about networking and my own research seem moot. In the last few weeks, rates of COVID-19 continue to rise in the US and continue to drastically impact other countries around the world. Roughly 135 universities across the US have canceled in-person classes and are moving to online classes: amplifying concerns about food security for students. Over 3.3 million people people have filed for unemployment leaving many, especially workers in the restaurant and travel industry, without jobs for the foreseeable future. I find this uncertain, tumultuous state of the world paralyzing: How is my community doing? How is my family doing? How are my friends doing? How am I doing?

The answers to my questions change daily, but I have much to be grateful for amidst the chaos. My job and income are secure; my family, friends, and colleagues are all healthy and safe. Unfortunately, I know that many people are not as lucky as me. And my heart breaks for people who have lost loved ones, face financial insecurity, and the general negative effects of this pandemic.

Within such a short period of time, I find myself living in a scary and different world. Although I don’t have a lot to offer—I wish I had more—I can offer a few strategies I’m implementing in my life to make it through these trying times. Take whatever you find helpful, and leave everything else.

1). Prioritize Your Mental Health
Limit Your Screen Time
Now that I’m home all day on my laptop, I find myself tempted to binge the news and social media everyday. However, many studies highlight how excessive screen time on social media, news outlets, and large amounts of television can have negative impacts on mental health for adults and adolescents. It especially doesn’t help that when most of us feel anxious, we tend to remember the stressful and threatening information surrounding our anxiety. I’ve decided to take a social media cleanse to prioritize my mental health: I’ve deleted all social media apps on my phone, and I’ve gotten a good friend of mine to change my password on Facebook so I can’t login on my desktop. If that sounds too extreme, another strategy I’ve found effective was limiting my screen time on social media to one hour a day.  

Be Kind to Yourself
Before I deleted Twitter off my phone, I saw many people tweet about their productivity with statements like, “I wrote one chapter of my dissertation, and I also moved my entire class onto Zoom in one week! I am so productive!” While I’m happy that some faculty members and graduate students are pushing through and being productive, hearing about their productivity brought up feelings of shame and guilt. I’d ask myself questions like, “What’s wrong with me—am I overreacting to the coronavirus? Shouldn’t I be able to work the full 50 hours this week?” Ultimately, I’ve realized comparing others productivity to my own was unhelpful; the only purpose it served was beating myself up for my lack of productivity. I’m cutting myself more slack by acknowledging the impact COVID-19 has on me by writing a list of what I can and cannot control. In particular, I’m acknowledging that my stress makes it more challenging to continue working the same number of hours: I personally can’t pretend everything is business as usual. If you find you’re being unkind to yourself and feeling shame, I find Brené Brown’s discussion of the Shame Spiral a helpful resource, especially reaching out to someone you trust and sharing your story.

2). Prioritize Your Physical Health
Build Routine
Right now, it’s hard to know when COVID-19 and physical distancing is going to end. As a result, I’ve focused on building a routine that prioritizes my physical health: sleeping eight hours a night, eating healthier foods, and exercising my body. My advice to myself was simple enough, but I found it challenging to actually workout in the morning and stop eating ramen for lunch everyday after the first week. So, I readjusted my expectations by setting small goals I could achieve. If I’m eating ramen almost everyday for lunch, it is an unrealistic expectation that I make healthy salads for all my lunches and start eating them in one day. If I focus on eating one healthy lunch during the week and gradually changing my behavior, I find that I’m more likely to succeed in my goals—and be kinder to myself if I slip up. I’ve also found an accountability buddy that I text to check-in with and workout with over YouTube videos, which has been extremely helpful. (I’ve heard that some people do Zoom workouts together, although I haven’t tried that yet.) By having a buddy, I find that I hold myself and them more accountable to actually workout together. In the end, part of my fear is the unknown for how long we’ll be living with COVID-19. By building routine into my life that prioritizes my physical health, I find myself feeling better. 

3). Prioritize your Social Health
Practice Physical Distancing: Talk with Family & Friends
Social isolation can have negative consequences on our health: when we feel isolated, our immune and endocrine systems don’t work as well. While I’ve practiced physical distancing, I’ve found myself feeling more lonely, so I’ve been reaching out to my friends and loved ones. I find talking with them on Zoom or over the phone gives me energy and helps address my feelings of loneliness. To be frank, talking with them is usually the highlight of my day. However, I initially found it easy to talk about negative topics for long periods of time with them, so I often left these conversations feeling drained. Now, I emphasize we talk about positive topics like good news in their lives, TV shows that make them laugh, and podcast recommendations. I now have a slew of new shows to watch, which I can talk about with them the next time we check-in to distract ourselves from the world. Finally, I’d say it’s worth checking in with your friends who live alone and don’t have pets. Personally, I’ve found quarantine especially challenging because I’m all alone, and it has meant a lot to me when people reach out to check-in on me. 

Ultimately, as we embrace living a new “normal,” I hope we can treat each other with kindness and help each other during these challenging times. If you’re able, donate to a relief effort; take physical distancing seriously; and reach out to a loved one who may be lonely and struggling during these challenging times. If we all work together, I firmly believe we can make it through these challenges times.

 

James SteurAbout the Author: James Steur is a Ph.D. 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 (for a second time!) at MPSA. You can find James on Twitter @JamesSteur

To Networking & Beyond: Strategies for Successful Networking

By James Steur, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Networking

As MPSA 2020 fast approaches, my colleagues have talked to me about the part of conferences they dread more than their presentations: networking. Someone I know remarked, “I feel like an inauthentic version of myself networking, and the person I’m speaking with also feels like an inauthentic version of themselves.” Although networking can feel uncomfortable—especially for highly introverted people—there are ways to make the process more comfortable and authentic.

Scheduling a Meeting
The first step to make networking more comfortable is scheduling your meeting in advance: I suggest six to eight weeks of notice. One advantage of scheduling a meeting in advance is that you’re more likely to successfully meet busy scholars with full schedules. More importantly, more notice means more time to prepare what you’d like to talk about, which can help make the meeting feel less uncomfortable. That said, there are multiple ways to schedule a meeting with different people at MPSA.

1). Email
Email is a simple and powerful tool to connect with scholars. If you want to meet with a faculty member or graduate student whose work you admire, check to see if they are on the MPSA program and email them. When you send the email, introduce yourself, provide some context about why you’re reaching out (e.g., similar research interests), and see if they’d be open to meeting for 15–30 minutes at MPSA. If you don’t get a response within a week, send a reminder email to check-in with them: people can get busy. If you don’t feel comfortable cold emailing someone, ask around your department and see if there’s a common connection to the person you’re emailing. Perhaps a faculty member or graduate student in your department went to the same school—establishing a common connection helps build rapport.

2). Twitter 
Twitter is a great (and often underutilized) way to meet with folks. Currently, there is a “take jr folks to lunch MPSA” Twitter thread with many senior and junior faculty members offering to take groups of graduate students to coffee or lunch to discuss the profession. Other faculty members and graduate students are tweeting outside the thread to meet with people and discuss topics like publishing, teaching, imposter syndrome, and other important topics. Keep your eyes peeled on Twitter before the conference, and reach out to meet with someone if a particular topic interests you. Last year, I reached out to a faculty member, got lunch with him and another grad student, and had a great time chatting. Alternatively, you can post your own tweet asking if anybody would like to meet for coffee or lunch at the conference and see who responds.

3). MPSA Networking Opportunities and Mentoring Panels
Beyond scheduling your own meetings, MPSA offers mentoring opportunities. You can attend the MPSA Mentoring Reception (held on Friday, April 17, from 6:30–7:30PM at the Palmer House) to meet with different scholars whose research interests align with yours. You need to sign up as a mentee to participate in the Mentoring Reception by March 16, so look at the mentor bios and sign up sooner rather than later. Another option is participating in the Academic Year Mentorship program. Both are excellent options for graduate students who feel less comfortable reaching out to network, and are great opportunities for faculty members to connect with younger scholars.

If this is your first time attending MPSA, I highly encourage you to attend the First Time Attendee Reception and Tour on Thursday, April 16, from 4:45–6:15PM. You can make great connections with others who are also new to the conference by signing up here.

The Meeting
Your meeting is scheduled: now what do I do at the meeting? How should I act? There are a few easy things you can do during the meeting to make a good impression: be on time, thank the person for meeting, ask how they’re doing, and bring a notepad to take notes if it seems appropriate. If you’re meeting in a group with multiple people, be respectful and let everyone speak. Domineering a group conversation can be disrespectful to others who may want to speak or ask questions. Relatedly, many people make a common mistake and act like they are meeting with old friends—remember you’re establishing a professional relationship. Perhaps the relationship can become a friendship, but the context of the meeting is at a professional conference to discuss research and other professional topics.

But how do I make this meeting less uncomfortable? My personal strategy is to ask myself, “Why was I interested in reaching out to this person?” The answers vary depending on the person: some people have written academic articles that shift how I think about the world, and I want to talk about how they come up with their ideas. I may be interested in a new method they used, or I’d like to learn more about how to engage in public scholarship. The bottom line is that I respect some aspect of their work, and I’m interested in learning more about them. Once I express my genuine interest in them and their work, the conversation and relationship feels more authentic and less uncomfortable.

After The Meeting
Like I mentioned in a post at last year’s MPSA, it is easy to lose touch after meeting. My strategy is to keep a professional network spreadsheet that reminds me who I have met, what we talked about, and their contact information. If you want to follow-up on something you discussed with them, you should feel comfortable sending an email or reaching out. That said, I would also be aware of how busy they are and not send too many emails.

In the end, networking doesn’t have to feel uneasy or uncomfortable. People are usually more than happy to meet with you and discuss professional topics like research if you reach out. The more you put yourself out there, the easier it becomes to network. So take the first step and reach out to chat with somebody at this year’s MPSA to establish an authentic connection and build your network.

 

James Steur

About the Author: James Steur is a Ph.D. 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 (for a second time!) at MPSA. You can find James on Twitter at @JamesSteur 

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.

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.