MPSA Member Profile: Ajenai Clemmons

MPSAMemberProfile-ClemmonsAjenai Clemmons is a Ph.D. Candidate in public policy with a concentration in political science at Duke University. Her academic research focuses on the most important factors that help and harm the police-community relationship, focusing especially on African Americans and European Muslims. Ajenai’s dissertation uses comparative in-depth interviews between young Black men in the U.S. and young Muslim men of Bangladeshi background in the U.K. to answer research questions about civilian preferences in policing, civilian assessment of police performance, and civilian responses to policing. In her other research, she has conducted a national survey experiment to test the effect of perceptions of African Americans on civilian preferences for police reforms, and she has examined police fatalities of civilians in the United States and systemic barriers to accurate reporting of deaths.

 For the past four years, Ajenai has traveled to Europe to engage with police practitioners, activists, community and religious leaders, and academics on police-community relations in the U.K., Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Montenegro. She has also conducted trainings on coalition-based advocacy for inclusive policies in Belgium, Italy, Germany, and France.

From 2010-2015, Ajenai served as Policy Director of a national association of 700 African-American state legislators based in Washington, D.C., overseeing all policy programming and communications as well as brokering meetings with the White House, Administration, and Congress. Prior to becoming policy director, she helped establish a new government agency with the City and County of Denver. Ajenai served five years as Community Relations Ombudsman at the Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian agency overseeing internal affairs investigations for Denver’s police and sheriff departments. She has served on several boards of directors, including the Women’s Foundation of Colorado as an officer. Ajenai earned her B.A. in International Relations, Latin American History, and Spanish at Drake University and her Master of Public Policy at the University of Denver.

Here we ask her a few questions about her experiences:

Q: What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working on two research projects. In the first, I examine fatalities of civilians by law enforcement, advance a typology of deaths, and analyze the likelihood that certain types of deaths will be categorized accurately by the government. I offer policy recommendations to improve both the accuracy of reporting and classification as well as potentially change the way in which police fatalities are defined and counted. My second study is based on in-depth interviews of young men living in more heavily policed areas relative to fellow city residents. My questions help me understand what they desire from police in terms of safety, how they assess police performance, and their responses if they determine police have not met their expectations. I compare African American men in the U.S. to Muslim men of Bangladeshi background in the U.K.

Q: Who has had the greatest influence on your research and/or career?
In my previous capacity advising legislators, I had the tremendous fortune of learning from collaborating scholars Dr. Manuel Pastor, a demographer and economist from USC; law professor Sharon Davies, now the Provost of Spellman College; and law professor john a. powell, who now heads the Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Society at Berkeley. Not only did I receive direct training from them on structural racism, unconscious bias, and multi-ethnic political mobilization, I teamed up with my counterparts who advised legislators in sister organizations to arrange joint trainings by these public scholars. I was inspired by the capacity of scholars to educate and empower policymakers to become more effective.

Q: What is the best career advice you have ever received?
“Leverage your unique strengths and build on your expertise.” After 13 years working full time and having graduated from a master’s program that successfully prepared me to lead policy organizations more than produce academic research, I underwent shock my first semester in the Ph.D. program. My advisors assured me of my valued experience and analytical perspective in the program and encouraged me to begin there. Just because I was learning from scratch on several fronts did not mean I had to learn from scratch on every front! This led me to focus on my passion—improving police-community relations, an area in which I have a decade of related professional experience.

Q: Do you have a favorite writing resource or process to keep you motivated?
I really enjoy reading the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity tips and advice. There is always some timely information that helps me to focus on the right things as well as allocate my time and energy.

Q: Do you have work/life balance secret you’d like to share?
I’ve gotten a lot better at saying no (though I’m sure this is a life-long struggle). I’ve become much more attuned to what my body needs to be energized and what my spirit requires to be renewed. And, I’ve felt increasingly liberated to take action once I am aware of that need.


This post is part of a series of interviews with our members. Read more MPSA Member profiles.

Show Me the Money: Securing Research Funding

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany

Word map with various currencies scattered around edges
One of the most important parts of conducting any research project, regardless of its methodology, is securing research funding. The recent MPSA conference offered several roundtables dedicated to research funding; in this blog, I cover the roundtable co-sponsored by the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Gender and Politics section, and the Professional Development section. The panelists offered several useful pieces of advice when considering where and how to apply for research grants that are applicable for researchers at any stage, including graduate students.

Explaining Your Research

A key theme that the panelists touched upon was the importance of being able to explicitly and succinctly summarize one’s research. While this is a piece of advice that many of us have heard before, the roundtable provided some specific suggestions on how to do it. Firstly, a grant application should provide the bottom line up front (BLUF). Grant reviewers must review hundreds or thousands of pages-long grant applications for funding. Therefore, it is important for applicants to succinctly present key information about their projects such as what the project is, what it will do, and why it is important in the first part of the application. Relatedly, a researcher should also think about a keyword or key phrase that summarizes their research. For example, my dissertation examines the causes of variation in anti-US military protest mobilization in Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Keywords and key phrases would include “mobilization” and “anti-US military protests”. Identifying the keywords allows a researcher to tease out the core of their research project, and in doing so, may make it easier to communicate their research to funders who may not be familiar with the broader research area.

Contextualizing Your Research

A related roundtable theme was the importance of contextualizing one’s research. Researchers need to be mindful of the fact that funding sources vary widely, and, in many instances, may come from outside one’s discipline. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that funders may not be familiar with disciplinary jargon or literature and researchers should write their applications accordingly. Even for those funders who are familiar with the discipline or the research area, grant applicants need to spell out the significance of their projects. Questions to consider include:

  • How does this project fit and contribute to the broader disciplinary literature?
  • How does this project aid or advance the sciences?
  • How does this project help people?

The ability to highlight the importance of one’s research to the discipline and society at large may mean the difference between receiving funding or not.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of understanding funders’ priorities.

  • What are the goals of the funding organization?
  • What projects have received funding in the past?

Researchers should use these cues to emphasize the aspects of their project that align with organizational priorities to improve their chances of getting funded.

Research Collaboration

Finally, panelists emphasized the importance of collaboration in securing research funding. First, researchers in search of funding should consider public sector partners who may be interested in their research and accordingly, may be willing to provide some research funding. Public sector partners may include municipal, state, or national governments or public non-governmental organizations. Second, researchers may want to consider collaborating on a research project. Collaborative proposals, especially cross-disciplinary or cross-university projects, tends to be more likely to be funded. Additionally, adding contributors from different disciplines or institutions may open up the types of grants for which researchers can apply. While it may be difficult to identify potential collaborators, the panelists suggested that graduate students and early researchers contact their advisors or other faculty mentors for recommendations.

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.


How to Thrive in Graduate School (Whatever That Means)

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

In addition to thematic panels, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference offered a wide range of roundtables on professional development including practical discussion of fieldwork and research tools and bigger debates on pedagogical practices and public engagement. Here I want to focus on the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series and highlight common themes and advice that came up across panels.

Research

Coming up with worthwhile research questions, conducting research, and writing up results is a major draw to the academic lifestyle. While many political science PhD programs offer coursework in research design and methods, it’s not exactly clear how to ask a good question and make sure people hear the answer. Allison Quatrini of Eckerd College assured the audience that there’s no single best way to do research, but that when choosing a dissertation topic, it’s better to pose a big question than to show off methods skills to address a narrow topic.

To figure out what the big questions are, several panelists suggested keeping either a digital or analog journal with ideas that come to mind while reading for coursework and comprehensive exams early on in the Ph.D. process. Cynthia Duncan Joseph from the University of South Carolina explained that she writes a daily “wonder list” where she jots down anything she’s wondering about – academic or otherwise. She mentioned coming back to her wonder list every so often for research ideas.

For those who have found their question and have started collecting data, panelists discussed the best ways to promote their findings. While some are concerned that political scientists aren’t doing enough to communicate their research to the public, strategies for becoming a public-facing academic were a popular topic throughout the series. Gregory Collins from Yale University said that translating academic research for the public or policymaking communities is important, especially for theorists.

But how to do that? No format is necessarily better than the rest, according to Kimberly Turner from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Op-eds, academic blogs, and podcasts can all be excellent platforms for sharing your ideas. “You get to tinker, so play — enjoy yourself and explore different formats to see what grabs your attention,” she told the audience at the Friday morning session.

Teaching

While research is often the focus of conversations about graduate students’ work life, panelists agreed that teaching is just as important and deserves as much attention.

When it comes to deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. at all,  Allison Quatrini suggested asking what the teaching assistant (TA) experience looks like. There is a wide range of potential teaching assignments, from only grading assignments for a professor to organizing recitation sections or building your own class entirely.

At the graduate students’ perspective session, multiple panelists emphasized the need to pursue your own professional development. Luisa Turbino Torres from the University of Delaware explained that she is proactive about sitting in on undergraduate lectures and asking professors she admires to share their syllabi. Turner agreed and suggested that graduate students attend teaching and learning conferences, whether organized specifically around questions of teaching or sessions contained within bigger conferences like MPSA or APSA. Turner said she learned a lot about writing a syllabus and learning how to control a classroom, both of which she described as “crafts no one teaches you to do.” These skills are especially crucial for political scientists, given that we are talking about “something as incendiary as politics.”

Mentorship

Panelists across the sessions agreed on the importance of triangulating mentorship. They spoke about developing vertical and horizontal ties, emphasizing the importance of diversifying the range of perspectives and opinions. When it comes to picking an official advisor and building a committee, panelists recognized the need to balance department politics with interpersonal dynamics. “You don’t have to pick the obvious person,” Hannah Alarian from Princeton assured the audience. “Choose a mentor and be willing to fire them.”

In the Friday morning roundtable highlighting graduate students’ perspectives on succeeding in a Ph.D. program, panelists mentioned building relationships with grad students at other universities. Twitter and MPSA working groups like the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Midwest Latino/a Caucus, and the Caucus for LGBTQ Political Science provide a great space for horizontal networking and creating a feeling of home in the discipline.

Mental health

The psychological stress of balancing imposter syndrome, teaching loads, research projects, and side hustles takes a serious toll on graduate students. Collins said that there are less frequent validations of success in graduate school, compared to other professions; this adds serious psychological weight to completing graduate study, he said.

The conversation about mental health continued into the Friday morning panel. Michael Widmeier from the University of North Texas lamented the stigma surrounding mental health challenges in academia. The energy and vulnerability required to communicate with one’s advisor and department administrators about mental health make it especially difficult to accommodate. Turbino Torres agreed and said she felt a huge relief after meeting other students and professors who are open to talking about anxiety and depression.

Success

With so much advice about conducting research, teaching, and taking care of your mental health, anyone in the audience should be able to thrive in graduate school just as the series title promised, right? But success is hardly a fixed concept, and panelists stressed the importance of setting your own terms for flourishing in a Ph.D. “Success looks different for everyone,” Alarian. “But shared tenets exist.”

One of those shared tenets: building a personal life and identity beyond your department. Widmeier’s comment that “Personal life is… a thing” was met with laughter, but the panelists tried to offer concrete suggestions for developing a healthy work-life balance. Pursuing hobbies, making friends outside the university, and focusing on family can all offer perspective and alternate sources of validation.

The “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series was certainly not the first time these conversations were hashed out, and it hopefully won’t be the last. Open discussions about struggles and success like this are crucial for uncovering academia’s hidden curriculum, and it is reassuring that MPSA continues to revisit these questions year after year.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

 

MPSA’s Standing ePanels: A Supportive Space for Feedback and Skill-Building

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Standing ePanels at #MPSA19

In the exhibition hall at MPSA, it is easy enough to get stuck in the book displays or free coffee stands. But for those who push past the publishing stands, an ecosystem of poster presentations awaits.

This year, MPSA experimented with a new presentation format, Standing ePanels, which include up to eight papers and offer students a chance to share a digital poster or brief PowerPoint showcasing their research. The Standing ePanels covered a range of topics from public policy to international institutions to political rhetoric; I watched several presentations across panels and was overwhelmingly impressed by the sophisticated data analysis and sharp presentation skills.

I also enjoyed the chance to take a more active role in a Standing ePanel. I was assigned as a discussant and chair of a session on social issues, which featured papers on a diverse range of topics including international adoption law, gender representation in textbooks, and the relationship between trade and natural disaster recovery. In the chaos of the Palmer House and the bustle of the exhibition hall, this small group of young scholars engaged in a supportive space for feedback and skill-building. Jennifer Wu of Dartmouth College conducted a survey experiment on Qualtrics to understand how gender affects perceptions of politicians’ uncivil behavior. Talahiva Salakielu of Brigham Young University Hawaii used multivariate regressions to analyze novel survey data on the dropout rates of female and international students at her university. Tatiana Hulan from Lake Superior State University conducted interviews with a Russian adoption agency to understand how the country’s ban on international adoption has affected children.

Similar to a traditional panel, there was a mix in the presented works’ progress. While some of the research was conducted as part of an undergraduate thesis or capstone project and written up in a very polished manner, several of the papers were assignments for seminars that professors saw promise in. Everyone was eager for feedback, and the discussant comments balanced clarifying questions and suggestions for future extensions.

While an undergrad, I participated in several research workshops at my own university, but never would have dreamed of presenting such sophisticated data analysis at one of the discipline’s largest conferences. Before the panel, I asked the presenters how they came to know about MPSA. Most mentioned hearing about the opportunity through their department, and two said their advisors encouraged them to apply.

Undergraduate students obviously stand to benefit from participating in a Standing ePanel. They offer an opportunity to practice building a slide deck, develop presentation skills, and experience the interactive engagement of a traditional panel. Graduate students can also build important skills through the ePanels. Serving as a discussant and moderating a panel as chair are foundational to the discipline, but rarely explicitly taught in PhD programs. This was the first time I have chaired an academic panel and given formal discussant comments; the chance to build these skills was an unexpected bonus of coming to MPSA for me.

I was especially touched by the earnest compliments and congratulations after the Standing ePanel finished and hope to see these young scholars at future MPSA meetings.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a PhD student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

Organization, Flexibility, and Thoughtfulness (#MPSA19 Prep)

By Danielle King of University of Missouri in St. Louis

Organization, Flexibility, and Thoughtfulness (#MPSA19 Prep)

The responsibilities of a graduate student feel daunting under the most benign of circumstances. This semester, I have added in the extra burden of attending a few conferences, and this March, I find myself excited but a little tense. The advice and anecdotes of colleagues and friends have gone a long way to dissipating much of my nervousness, but the nature of this experience can definitely lead to over-extension in the weeks before presenting. I’ll discuss some of these anxieties along with some coping mechanisms that I have found helpful. I will then note some of the more notable tips that I have received in preparation to share my work at MPSA.

In my experience, a considerable source of stress is how easily conference prep causes deviations in my daily and weekly routines. The only conditions under which grad school even seems remotely possible is by way of integrating rigorous habits, from daily reading and writing quotas to taking some time for mindfulness or meditation at the end of my workday to soothe a weary brain. I find myself losing the rhythm of those routines with alarming ease whenever a deadline is hanging over my head, so upon the advice of a friend I installed a habit tracking app app on my phone, which has helped center me back within my sense of structure.

I am now a person who wakes up before their alarm clock on a near-daily basis, usually to multiple emails. On a good day, it includes notes and comments on my draft that I have solicited from several friends in other departments. (On less good days, it looks more like reminders about seasonal sales at the Gap.) To combat the stress of starting my workday before my mind is ready, I (re)instituted a “no phone before breakfast” rule put in place to secure my personal sanity.

If it has been a good day, the revisions will probably occupy me for several hours. Fortunately, I have started to schedule that review time into my morning. Any planned reading for the day can follow, to release my brain slightly of the pressure of second-guessing the quality of my presentation theme or whether my transitions need some work.

A terrible casualty of conference preparation is my morning workout. In a most aspirational moment, I decided to start training for a triathlon to stay fit as I work to complete my Ph.D. It quickly became difficult to justify taking time for “nonessential” activity once a presentation began to loom large on the horizon. However, I have found that about ten minutes of yoga a day, snuck in wherever possible, helps to keep my body feeling capable of the workload on the days when I can’t get outside for a bike or run.

Now, as a first-year I’m still amid coursework and fellowship duties, none of which cease when I leave town. There’s naturally seminar work to do, reading and note-taking and writing and discussion boards and more reading. For my colleagues who have teaching responsibilities, there is a delicate balance to be managed, for it seems that one is never in more demand than when one is preparing to showcase work in front of a roomful of strangers. It seems that conference week is a favorite time for undergraduate students to email their professors and/or teaching assistants with questions about an upcoming midterm, or to elaborate on comments on their most recent paper. The only really available option is to get everything done early. If there is a most stressful week, it’s not the travel week of the conference — it is the week prior when all the extra tasks have to be completed.

The piece of advice I received most often concerned the “tech kit,” the panoply of devices necessary for a smooth presentation. Before attendance, I hear it is best to give a practice version of the talk, using the materials that will be required on the day of one’s panel. There are dozens of horror stories about nonfunctional projectors, missing adapters, and disconnected sound systems to make this point noncontroversial. An iPad display, as I will be using, is among the more unusual setups, so bringing your own AppleTV and/or network adapter is essential. But don’t worry: basic presentation equipment of a laptop and connected projector will be available, and there is even an AV green room (Burnham 3 on the 7th floor) set up by MPSA to allow invitees an opportunity to test out their presentation on the standard equipment.

I find that I have the most difficulty with figuring out exactly what in my paper should be pulled out to present. As a young scholar, I am still in the stage of academic development where every finding that I unearth seems fascinating. Culling from my results to find what is most interesting feels a bit like disowning my children, but 12-minute presentation times lend themselves to concision. Colleagues have suggested making points to people outside the discipline, and recommend a ratio of one slide per two minutes of one’s talk. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone else read your presentation materials: I heard a horror story about a slide typo that suggested that the United States had 560% electoral participation.

All in all, getting ready for a conference comes down to organization, flexibility, and thoughtfulness. Establishing good habits can help one to relax and focus more on producing good scholarship. Now, if only I could figure out what on earth to wear…

About the Author: Danielle King (@danielleking) is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Her research focuses on the political development of informal institutions (specifically the American Black Protestant Church), & how such institutions and political networks aid/hinder political mobilization. She is also interested in social movements and critical race theory. She is in front of her computer (danielleking.net), behind her camera, on her bike, or in her kitchen at any given time.

 

Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

Being a first-timer at MPSA is often synonymous with attending and presenting at any political science conference for the first time. For those graduate students who will be presenting their research for the first time, the weeks leading up to MPSA are intense and exciting all at once (or at least, that’s how I’m feeling).

It would be convenient to gather all the “how-to’s” and “best practices” in one powerful post, but grouping all this advice together misses out on potentially powerful cleavages that divide the young academic community. After all, there are a million ways to divide humankind into two camps: morning people and night owls; inbox zero zealots and those who regularly run out of space on their Gmail; over-planners and the rest of us with a more “seat-of-their-pants” approach to the world. Normally any one of these differences is enough to undermine a working relationship; but since we first-time MPSA attendees have to stick together, I offer advice for preparing for the conference according to two different philosophies of time.

Three Weeks Until MPSA

In the deliberate planner’s mind, there’s no time like the present to build an MPSA schedule. She searches the All-Academic website for interesting panels (based mostly on buzzwords from her dissertation prospectus and random sub-sub-subfields she read about for comps once) and carefully records all the panels of interest in her bullet journal. There’s a color-coding schema involved, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

At this point, the extemporary grad student knows MPSA is coming up but has too much on his plate at the moment to worry about the future. He thinks about his conference paper for a while in the shower one morning and plans out the perfect intro paragraph, but loses his train of thought immediately after sitting down to write. No worries, he’ll finish the paper later (but definitely by the March 22 deadline).

Two Weeks Until MPSA

Both the go-with-the-flow and hyper-methodical attendees manage to put the finishing touches on their conference papers to upload to the MPSA website and submit to their discussants by March 22. Philosophies about planning and the order of the universe aside, everyone is in this to get feedback on their work, which even the most chronically-late student can appreciate.

Riding the high of submitting something before a deadline, the spontaneous student scribbles out a few goals for her first MPSA on post-its she’ll attach to her desktop for motivation. She’s not too nervous about her panel, though, since it’s so far away.

Submitting his paper awakened a fire in the organized student, who got to work immediately researching the venue and planning out a walking tour. Even after walking around the hotel in Google Street View and downloading an app to reserve parking spots for cheap far in advance, though, he craves more information. This grad student registers for an online orientation for first-time attendees (the one on March 18th looked good but the one on March 26 at 11am Eastern worked better for his schedule) and rests assured knowing all his questions will be answered.

One Week Before MPSA

With only a week left to prepare for his first conference, the procedure-oriented student has decided to get serious. She organizes her thoughts using DAGitty in place of her more traditional vision board. There, she carefully charts everyone she wants to ask for coffee or lunch meetings against a list of carefully curated spots with a good vibe, that aren’t too close to the hotel (the lines will be long with conference-goers who just googled “coffee” before their panel), and are also friendly to a grad student budget

After seeing a friend of a friend post on Twitter that they’ll also be in Chicago next week for the conference (all thanks to the #MPSA19 hashtag), the planning-averse student remembers to reach out to other friends and a few scholars whose work he admires to meet up.

Three Days out from MPSA

The first-time attendee who takes life as it comes realizes he is relieved to be participating in a Junior Scholar Symposium, mostly because it means he doesn’t need to play around with Beamer templates for a few hours before actually building a slide deck. He hunkers down to finish reading and jotting down comments on the other panelists’ papers.

Meanwhile the hyper-organized student has had her slides ready for so long it feels like the content is tattooed on the inside of her eyeballs. She continues to practice the talk, trying to shave off an extra 37 seconds to get her presentation to fit neatly in the 15-minute allotment.

The Morning of MPSA

The more spontaneous grad student screenshots a map of the Palmer House while on the train from the airport to the hotel; she circles the room where her presentation will be and figures she’ll look through the program later that morning to choose panels to attend based on proximity to her new home base.

Before checking in to the hotel, she stops by a grocery store to pick up some snacks – cold brew concentrate, energy bars, dried fruit. As she’s standing in the checkout line, she’s proud of thinking to buy food ahead of time; none of these snacks make too much noise to eat, so she won’t embarrass herself in a panel, and it’s a way to save money since she already maxed out her department’s travel reimbursement fund for the year.

By this point, the planning-intensive student has already organized his store-bought snacks by calorie count and color in his hotel room and is heading to the conference. On the walk from his room to registration, he practices his elevator pitch introduction in anticipation of all the people he’ll meet that day.

Fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for making the most of your first MPSA. Whether you’ve got backups to your backup plans or intend to roll in with an off-the-cuff attitude, remember that we are all descending on the Palmer House Hilton for similar reasons: to make connections, learn something new, and get productive feedback on our work.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a PhD student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

Previewing the 77th Annual MPSA Conference Program: A Selection of Professional Development Panels for Graduate Students

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany, SUNY

MPSA19ProfessionalDevelopment

As panelists frantically completing their papers and presentations are acutely aware, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference is fast approaching. In addition to some excellent topical panels, this year’s conference offers a bevy of roundtables on professional development, ranging from pedagogy to research to the job market. In this post, I preview several roundtables and series that may especially be helpful for graduate students. I highlight the “Student” professional development series (with the exclusion of the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series, to be covered by fellow MPSA blogger Colleen Wood). Additionally, I preview other professional development roundtables regarding research that may be helpful to graduate students. Please note that this list does not contain information about all of the professional development roundtables, so it may be worth perusing the professional development offerings in the online program on your own.

What to Expect at a Job Interview at a Teaching School
The student professional development panels kick off with a session of “What to Expect at a Job Interview at a Teaching School” on Friday, April 5, from 8 to 9:30 am. This session may be particularly relevant to advanced doctoral students who are getting ready to go onto or are already on the academic job market, although it could be useful for doctoral students early in their programs. As several authors note, the hiring process for “teaching schools” such as small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) is different from that of research-intensive institutions and job candidates must think about how to package themselves and their research accordingly. Therefore, this is an important panel for those interested in teaching-intensive positions. Another session is offered on Saturday afternoon from 4:45 to 6:15 pm with a different set of panelists. Note that these sessions are not sequential.

The Non-academic or Alt-ac Job Search
A single session of “The Non-academic or Alt-ac Job Search” panel is on Saturday, April 6, from 9:45 to 11:15 am. This session is particularly useful for graduate students interested in jobs outside of academia or those considering a wide range of jobs after grad school. Graduate students and other scholars are increasingly considering jobs outside of academia, often due to the well-documented perils of the academic job market or the challenges of working in academia. That said, the hunt for jobs outside of academia is different: how does one translate the skills learned in grad school to the “real world”? This panel will be invaluable to students in providing insights from those who have navigated the non-academic job market with a Ph.D.

Preparing for the Job Market – CV to Teaching Statements
For those interested in applying for academic jobs, the “Preparing for the Job Market – CV to Teaching Statements” panel is on Sunday, April 7 from 9:45 to 11:15 am. This session could be useful for graduate students at any level, though especially for students preparing to enter the academic job market. Both well-organized and well-executed CVs and teaching statements are important for success on the job market. However, they can be difficult to do well. As such, insights from the panelists on how to create solid job market documents will be invaluable to graduate students.

What to Do/Not Do at a Job Talk
The final panel in the student professional development series is “What to Do/Not Do at a Job Talk” on Sunday, April 7, from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm. Job talks are a crucial part of the academic job interview process. Potential future colleagues not only evaluate candidates’ research but also their presentation skills and ability to think on their feet. Unsurprisingly, there are several considerations in delivering a good job talk presentation. Graduate students interested in the academic job market should attend this panel and take advantage of the opportunity to learn through others’ experiences.

There are several other panels on professional development topics that may be useful for graduate students; I discuss one of them here.

The Research Professional Development Series
There are several panels in the research professional development series that will be useful for graduate students, especially doctoral students before and during their dissertation research. This series offers several useful sessions on data collection methods including: “How to do Fieldwork” (April 4, 9:45-11:15 am), “How to Use Text as Data” (April 5, 1:15-2:45 pm), and “How to Conduct Surveys” (April 6, 9:45-11:15 am). While many graduate students read about these data collection methods, they can be very different in practice as my recent fieldwork experience has taught me. Therefore, getting insights from researchers who have used these methods will be invaluable to students in conducting their own research. Additionally, there are a few panels about one of the most important parts of research: procuring funding. Unfortunately, both “Small Grants and Private Foundations” and “Grant Opportunities & Strategies” are offered at the same time on Saturday, April 6 (1:15 to 2:45 pm).

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.

First-Generation Findings: Eight Strategies for Success at Academic Conferences

By James Steur of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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 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.

 

 

Work, Well-Being, and Social Connections: Advice from a Graduate Student on Finding the Correct Proportions

By Kevin DeLuca of Harvard University

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“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” – Some wise person

For academics, I think the saying is backward: “If you, an academic, love what you do, you’ll work every day of your life.” The line between work and life in academia is often blurred, making the achievement of work-life balance elusive. For graduate students still in their first years of being “in academia,” it can be particularly hard to find a healthy, sustainable routine. Compound this with the anxiety and stress that comes with the typical grad program and voilà: the recipe for a well-being disaster.

Given the premium academia places on over-working, most graduate students feel they can’t spend much time on other important aspects of their lives. This is causing a mental health crisis among grad students; it’s time to make a healthy work-life balance in academia the norm.

Finding Balance
One definition of “balance” is: “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” In my view, the essential elements of “work-life balance” are:

  1. work, of course;
  2. well-being, including leisure, mental health, and physical health; and
  3. social connections, including relationships with family, friends, and social groups.

Each of these elements should be “in the correct proportions,” and a worthy goal is to develop each category every day. Notice that in order to achieve this balanced development, you must spend time doing things that are NOT directly beneficial to your career (*gasp*). Of course, finding your personal “correct” proportions is the hard part.

By virtue of being grad students, we all share common challenges in our pursuit of healthy and productive academic lives. The following advice is meant to provide a general set of tips to help grad students achieve a healthy work-life balance. These are based off my own personal experience dealing with the stresses of grad school – if you are struggling with mental health issues in your program, please contact a trained counselor for help, consult services that are available on your own campus, or access resources like the Academic Mental Health Collective or National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Less, More Efficient Work
Most grad students feel they must continuously be working in order to keep up with their work. There are two ways to combat this problem: 1) make the time you spend working more efficient, or 2) reduce your commitments.

One of the best ways to increase work efficiency is to focus on creating periods of “deep work” – work time that is completely free of distractions, especially social media and email. Aim for at least 90-120 minutes of distraction-free work per session (but don’t stop yourself if you’re on a roll!), then aim to have about 3 sessions per workday. Try not to force yourself to work more than that – this is crucial. You need time to relax and invest in other parts of your life. Four to six hours of work might not sound like a lot (especially if you think you work 60 hours a week), but most people can’t do more than 4-6 hours of intense work per day anyway, plus you’ll need time to do other work-related things (meetings, classes, emails), so this is actually an ambitious goal.

If you cannot keep up with all of your obligations with a healthy work schedule, you need to reduce your work obligations as soon as possible. It’s OK to do less. Make it a habit to say no to work you don’t really want to do. It’s tempting to overcommit due to social and professional pressures in academia, but these pressures are based on unrealistic expectations about what you “should” be doing. I find it’s better to focus on work quality, rather than quantity of academic obligations.

Successfully keeping your work from invading other elements of your life is the first step to establishing a healthy work-life balance. By focusing on making your work efficient and limiting your work obligations, you can decrease the total amount of time you spend working and increase the time available for other important aspects of your life.

Investing in Well-Being
“Well-being” is an all-encompassing term meant to include physical and mental health, along with any other things that make you a happy, balanced, healthy person. Taking care of your health, as well as spending time on non-work leisure activities, can improve your quality of life while also giving you the energy to be productive at work.

Rather than suggest specific activities, I want to suggest a more general philosophy of leisure time. My advice for improving well-being is similar to my advice on improving work efficiency: make your leisure more productive. By that, I mean spend your leisure time in a deliberate way and, most importantly, in a way that allows you to totally disengage from your work. I call this kind of leisure “deep leisure” – the much more fun variant of deep work. It’s about being fully engaged in a particular leisure activity with no (work) distractions.

Given that the typical schedule for grad students is often unstructured, it can be hard to fully stop working to enjoy leisure time. Imposing structure on your time – including scheduling leisure activities – can be highly beneficial to your well-being. You have to convince yourself that it’s OK to unplug from work for a while. I’ve had many conversations with other students where they remark that a lot of “leisure” time they spend is also spent with a lot of anxiety about other work they have to get done. This is not time spent leisurely! Allow yourself to enjoy time off, guilt-free, and schedule this time into your day just like you would homework or classes. Make time for a life beyond work.

Many grad students feel guilty about “wasting time” on leisure, but leisure is not a waste. In fact, it will likely improve your performance as a researcher, since you’ll be more energized, focused, and motivated to work after spending time relaxing. Even if all you care about is improving your career prospects (which you shouldn’t!), it’s a smart move to engage in deep leisure and not overwork yourself.

Social Connections and Positive Externalities
Social connections are not totally distinct from well-being, since many people’s mental and physical health depends on positive social interactions with friends and family. But they are different because not all social interactions are relaxing or leisurely, and because improving relationships with friends and family often involves tradeoffs between other work or well-being goals.

For example, taking time to call a family member is time not spent on homework. Spending an afternoon helping a friend means you can’t spend that afternoon in the office working. Going to lunch with people in your department means you’ll have less time to watch your favorite show later. Of course, many social interactions can also be considered “leisure” time – like going to a party or having dinner with a friend. But some social interactions are more leisurely than others, and it can be tempting to opt-out of many of them to get more work done.

The fact that many grad students feel pressure to keep themselves disconnected socially in order to be successful (I’m definitely guilty of this) reveals how unhealthy the social norms in academia can be. Instead of isolating yourself, try something different. Be the externality you want to see in the world. Check in on your peers from time to time. Thank people often. Give back to your department or community by volunteering. Do things to make your workplace welcoming and friendly for everyone, especially for those who may feel isolated.

Grad school is difficult by nature, but should never require you to isolate yourself or keep you from being a healthy person. It’s true, investing in your community, friends, and family takes away from time you could be working! But fostering better social connections will make you feel good about yourself, feel more like part of a community, and can give you that sense of accomplishment that is too often absent from our academic work,

The Correct Proportions
Finding the right proportions for these aspects of our lives can be hard. You won’t always get it right. The key is to strive for balance and to forgive yourself (and learn!) as you work through the process. I hope that these ideas can help you find your balance.

About the Author: Kevin DeLuca is a Political Economy and Government Ph.D. Candidate at Harvard University. His research interests include voter behavior and elections in the United States. He can be reached by emailing kevindeluca@g.harvard.edu or on Twitter at @cantstopkevin.

 


The Art of Networking: How to Maximize Your Doctoral Experience

By Francesca Gottardi of the University of Cincinnati

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When thinking about a doctoral program, the first image that comes to mind is likely to be that of a geeky student sitting at a desk, buried in books. But life in academia is not only about the coursework, although fundamental. It is also about the relationships that you develop along the way. Here are some life hacks that I have already learned in my brief academic experience.

Be There
The very first step in order to be able to make good connections is to actually be there. Go to conferences and events, particularly those relevant to your field.  As banal as this might sound, oftentimes we are so overwhelmed with our daily routine that we tend to pass on those events that are not strictly necessary or mandatory, especially if attendance comes at a cost. But it is in the context of such events that one has the opportunity to meet academics, practitioners, and fellow students with similar interests,  so make the effort to attend as many events as you can. You never know who will be there and what wondrous connections you might make.

Make it Happen
Sometimes attending conferences comes with an expense, and if you are not a presenter, funding can pose a serious challenge. Good news, there are ways around it! One avenue is to volunteer. For example, as a first-year law student, I did not stand a chance in presenting at the prestigious American Society of International Law Annual Meeting. What’s more, student registration and membership were almost $200. So, I applied to be a volunteer for the conference, signaling which panels I was particularly interested in attending. Not only did I get access to the conference for free, but I also earned an annual membership. In addition, I had the opportunity to be at receptions and luncheons, and to interact with high-level scholars in my field of interest. It’s the little things.

Make Your First Impression Count: Go Prepared
When you go to an event, invest some time to do some research. This will give you the opportunity to know who to look for in the crowd. It will also give you grounds to have some ad hoc conversation points. Research the topic of the event, the host, the speakers/panelists, and—when possible—the participants. This sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but it will give you that edge to make a good impression on the interlocutor. In other words, you will know what is going on, and you will be in the position to pose good questions and leave a good impression.

Part of being prepared is also to have a business card at hand. In the digital era we live in, we might think business cards are things of the past. Turns out, they are not. They can provide a quick and effective opportunity to exchange contact information, and to give a glimpse of who you are. If you are an international student, it could be a good idea to have them printed in English on one side, and in your native language on the back. I keep the business cards that I collect in dedicated files, ordered by date and event. This makes it easy to retrieve them, and it also comes in handy in remembering the names and positions of people I am likely to meet again.

Listen carefully to the person you interact with and show involvement and interest. Be engaged in the conversation. Don’t make it all about yourself. Ask relevant questions and make it balanced. Be concise and to the point. Avoid personal questions and be mindful of interpersonal distance—especially if you notice that the counterpart backs up. If you are a foreigner, be aware of cultural differences. For example, as an Italian, I have to be particularly mindful of avoiding touching the counterpart or being too close. If I know the person I talk to, it feels natural to me to greet with two (or three) kisses on the cheek the European way—a big no-no in the US.

Follow Up
One of the main mistakes I see my colleagues doing is to not follow up. If you have a great opportunity to meet a professional, don’t let it go to waste! Once the event is over, contact the person and express your gratitude for their time and the pleasant conversation you had. Refer to particular details that will make the note personal, and that will jog the memory of the receiver. Don’t let them forget about you and give them an opportunity to know where to find you. I suggest following up within two days, not to let the memory of your meeting fade away. If you start an e-mail exchange, respond promptly. I usually also start following the person on  Twitter and ask for the LinkedIn connection—if you do, always add a note in the connection request.

Social Media
Social media can be a powerful tool for networking. If you feel a certain person, panel, or event was interesting, then tweet about it, publish it on LinkedIn, and spread the love! Don’t forget to make good use of tags and hashtags. This can have both the function to acknowledge merit when warranted and is also a way to make yourself known and reachable. Nonetheless, try to stay away from your phone during a meeting or conversation.

Business and Etiquette in the Field
As Communication Specialist Mary Starvaggi of Etiquette Advantage highlights, don’t forget to “make eye contact, smile and give a firm handshake.” She also suggests to “use some form of thanks, praise, and/or compliment in the first words you speak or write.”

Moreover, although looks are not everything, they matter. Be mindful of dressing appropriately for the event; a good suit it is worth the investment. On this note, if you are given a name tag, Ms. Starvaggi points out that it should be worn on the upper right side of your chest. The rationale is to make the name tag stand out when you extend your right arm for that first handshake. And for how inconsequential this might sound, when choosing a perfume, avoid strong fragrances. After all, it is all about standing out with class and making your colleagues feel comfortable.

As a piece of more general advice, try to see the other person not as a tool to achieve a potential benefit, but as a person you can learn from and have a mutual exchange with. No one wants to feel used, but most people will be happy to offer their help if they perceive a genuine interest and sincerity on your part.

About the Author: Francesca Gottardi is a J.D. Candidate and Ph.D. Student at the University of Cincinnati. Her research interests are EU law, international law, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, and the American legal system. She can be contacted by email at gottarfa@mail.uc.edu, found on LinkedIn, and followed on Twitter at @gottarfa.