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_MentoringReception
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 cwillis@albany.edu or on Twitter.

Chicago Tips and Recommendations from a Graduate Student

By Charmaine N. Willis

Willis-ChicagoTips

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 cwillis@albany.edu or on Twitter.

 

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.

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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.

Three Methods to Ready Your Research for Public Absorption

MPSA_Blog_PublicConsumptionRecently one of the biggest discussions within the field of political science has been on how to use our research for policy making purposes. The debate has focused on finding the best possible avenues to disseminate the research work in a manner that is suitable for public consumption but more critically for the consumption of policy makers.  

As political scientists, we undertake research that aims to answer crucial questions that impact our society. Whether it is figuring out how public opinion is crafted or how voting behavior impacts eventual policy making, most of the answers are debated within the domain of political science. And yet we have disconnect with the policy making world and the practical application of these concepts. As someone who has a background in public policy making, this discussion has fascinated me at a personal level and has driven my research interests. Having been involved on both sides (i.e. public policy and research) I have noticed a number of ways this divide can be potentially bridged.

I recently had the opportunity to try out approaches to bridge this divide as part of a Political Action Committee (PAC) retreat and fundraising events. As a political scientist who works on money in politics, I was invited to the event to provide my insights and lessons from research I have been conducting over the last few months. The audience was made up of political operatives and members of the general public who were interested in improving their political influence in an efficient manner. I will skip out on the details of what was discussed and presented in favor of sharing more global insights with my fellow political scientists about such interactions.

  1. Fortune Cookie Wisdom
    While we as researchers spend a lot of time understanding and explaining the intricacies of the problems at hand, the common public as well as policy makers are not interested that level of detail. What they are expecting are fortune cookie knowledge about complex and often multifaceted issues. Their appetite for nuance is low but they are interested in listening to what effectively amounts to the information regularly found in our concluding paragraphs and thesis statement. The focus is on why something happens and how it can be addressed. It is an oversimplification of the work we do but remember that it is what can be digested by the majority in small doses.

  2. Statistics and Facts
    Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the population and even the policy makers are short on data and facts. Often the discussion in the public domain is driven by special interests and rhetoric. What I found being the most potent contribution from academia is statistics and empirical evidence. Our strength as academics is the scientific method of inquiry and the ability to provide causation and correlation for talking points. For instance one of the discussions where this came in handy was a debate on how to improve minority participation in the political system. The minority in question has very low political participation but is highly educated with one of the highest average household incomes. One of the methods put forward as a solution was simply to get younger members of the community involved in politics by creating an internship program that could allow them first hand exposure to the political system. The logic being if the group is exposed to the system and have better information about it, they can design their policy interventions in a way that would actually work within the system.

  3. Accepting Simplicity
    The common public or even the policy makers are not interested in the details of our work. I know it is hard to cut down the research work we spend countless hours doing into bullet points but remember that is what is readily consumed. As academics we need to embrace that simplicity. One of the best ways to do this is by getting active on social media. A lot of academics are finally moving in that direction and that is a good things for our discipline. Social media is a great tool for us and simplified versions of our works can get a lot of traction if done right. Blogs, articles, columns or even simple tweets go a long way. Policy makers as well as the general public is hungry for expert opinions that is not simply rhetorical. That is our opening but we need to communicate in a language that will be understood.

Academia has a strong place in policy making and general narrative building. The insights I have provided from my interactions are by no means the only insights out there but they are a starting point.

This year, MPSA will have bloggers and vloggers covering the annual conference as one method to highlight our research. Additionally, MPSA encourages participants to use the hashtag #MPSA16 when live tweeting conference discussions and debates. As we move toward the MPSA conference, we have a great opportunity to highlight excellent cutting edge research by growing our collective social media presence.

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.