A Grad Life Recap of the 2016 MPSA Conference

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

Creative Research and Sophisticated Methods

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

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

Networking and Building Research Clusters

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

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

The Big Picture

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

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

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

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

 

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

Your To Do List: One Week until MPSA 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Incorporating Family in Your MPSA Conference Experience

MPSA2016_FamilyinChicagoSo having done it recently myself, I understand how challenging it can be to have family join you during a conference. Out of necessity, I recently had my two little ones (both under the age of five) accompany me to an out-of-state conference. Crazy, yes, I know. I worried constantly about how I was going to make everyone feel at home when we weren’t at home. How would I occupy everyone’s time when I was busy with conference activities? Would I be able to find places to eat and things to do that were suitable for everyone? What if someone gets sick?, etc. The usual head spinning challenges.

For attendees with family members joining them during the upcoming MPSA conference in Chicago, we’ve compiled a series of association, conference hotel and local Chicago resources to help make your family’s experience a more comfortable and entertaining one. Instead of having our attendees research ideas on their own, we’ve compiled a list of family-centered Home Away From Home resources to make it easier to plan for this year’s conference experience.

Looking for a kid-friendly restaurant? Done. Need to find a park nearby? Done. Need to locate a drugstore for aspirin and clear your head on the walk? Done. This amazing compilation of great family resources will also be available on the conference mobile app during the conference for easy access. Making bringing your family to the MPSA conference easier? Done!

About the Author: Juliene Heaney received a MA in Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management from University of South Carolina-Columbia and has been a member of MPSA staff since late 2014. She is responsible for exhibits, sponsorships, meeting and receptions, as well as the new MPSA Grad Lab and Tech DemoStation events. At the upcoming conference, you will find her in the registration area and working with vendors in the Exhibit Hall.

 

Presenting At Conferences – A Grad Student’s Guide

Presenting at a conference is a daunting task for any academic. Be it a big name academic who has spent a career presenting at MPSA_Rasool_GradStudentPrepconferences around the world or a graduate student who is just starting out; conference anxiety still kicks in. To help presenters, especially grad students, I came up with a list of things to keep in mind while you prepare for your conference presentations. The list is compiled based on my personal experiences as well as those of professors and other graduate students within the field of Political Science.

  1. Practice
    As they say, practice makes perfect. For a conference presentation, especially for a graduate student, practicing what you are presenting is key. While it seems like a cliché, “practice makes perfect” is a popular saying for a reason. The trick here is to try different scenarios for practicing. Most departments offer colloquiums internally that allow students to test out their research ideas among their peers first before going to a conference. This gives the grad student a chance to try their presentation in its entirety in front of a room full of people. Additionally this allows for significant and honest feedback from your peers that does not break your confidence at this early stage. Every grad student’s conference presentation is a representation of the department, i.e., the quality of the department is heavily represented by the kind of graduate students and research they are putting out. So, it is better to have in-house practice before you head out.

    Pro Tip – Ask your peers to play out roles, i.e., ask some of them to be supportive while others to be extremely harsh about your research presentation. This way you will not be rattled if you run in to a harsh critique at the conference.

  2. Your Research Is NOT Perfect
    You are a graduate student, there is no way your research is the picture of perfection or even close. Understand that and you will have a much easier time dealing with criticism and ideas about your research from not just your peers but by conference audiences. Most of the time, we as graduate students worry too much about the perfection of our research before presenting it. This is also why a number of people hold off from presenting their research work because they feel it is not “perfect” enough. The thing is, it will never be perfect enough. It will be good and one of the best ways to make it better is to put it out for discussion and feedback within your field by presenting at a conference. Once it is out there, you can get feedback on it and then realize the potential it has.
  3. Be Crystal Clear
    One of the key issues all graduate students face while presenting at conferences is the assumption that the audience completely understands what they are talking about. That is not the case. In most instances, people listening to research presentation would have an understanding of the field but might not know the specifics of the topic you are focusing on. As a good presenter, you can address this by simplifying your research using an easy to follow sequence.

    Start with your THEORY. Be clear about exactly what you are saying, i.e., your research question and what the theory you are working with is. Secondly, present your HYPOTHESES clearly. Everyone in the room should know what you are testing through your work. Be clear on the independent variables and your dependent variable. Make separate slides if you need to do that. This helps people follow what you are saying and keep in mind the causal mechanism as you explain what you’re testing and the analytical data. Thirdly, explain in sequence your METHODOLOGY and the reason your methodology works well for your project. Your methodology is where a lot of feedback will be directed, so make sure it is clear and easy to understand. Lastly, present your CONCLUSION by summing up everything you have said. Before you jump to your conclusion, have a summary slide that sums up everything you have said, i.e., research question, theory, methodology, analytics. Present a conclusion in simplest of terms. Most graduate students have a tendency to use big words and complicated jargon to prove they know what they are talking about. Be different and use simple language to explain your conclusion. This way it will actually stick with people instead of being just another presentation by a graduate student trying to show off his or her vocabulary.

  4. Be Gracious, Do not Get Defensive
    As discussed earlier, your research is not perfect. The worst thing a graduate student, or for that matter any presenter, can do is to get defensive about their research work. Be gracious instead. Take the critique in stride and listen to what is being said. Ask people to be exact about their critique in a gracious manner so you can actually improve your research. The whole point of presenting at a conference is to fine tune your research work so that it may eventually go out for publishing. Plus if you are gracious about your acceptance of critique, your audience is more likely to get invested in the work you are doing and be happy to share their insights with you about it.

    Forums like MPSA are great for getting feedback on your research from your peers who are either involved in something similar or have been working on something that might be of help to you. Your attitude while taking criticism might also help you find likeminded researchers who could potentially work with you on a co-authored project. In short, be gracious, smile and acknowledge the feedback.

  5. A Certain Amount of Stress is Good
    A lot of articles will tell you not to stress. They will talk about tricks to manage your stress by imagining the room full of people as something else, etc. Reality is far from it. As a graduate student presenting at a forum like MPSA, there is a certain amount of pressure and stress. It is okay to have that stress. The key is to realize that everyone else who is there presenting alongside you for the next four days also is going through the same thing. We are all in this together. Acknowledge that and things become easier. Stress about getting your research in within the allotted time is good but freaking out about the critique is not. Worrying about the technology working out is good, but preparing a backup plan for that is even better. At the end of the day you need to know that you are not alone. All of us are academics and have been in the same situation at one time or another. So be stressed about the quality of your work but do not worry to the point it hurts the presentation of your work.

As the 2016 MPSA conference draws closer, I hope this list is helpful to all of you. See you all at MPSA 2016!

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.