Understand Department Culture, Perfect your Personal Statement, and Other Tips on Applying to Graduate School

MPSA Professional Development Roundtable Preview

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

In advance of this year’s MPSA conference (April 4-7, 2019 in Chicago), we asked panelists from the upcoming “Tips on Applying to Graduate School” to share a few of their best tips. Responses varied based on personal experience, but all of those responding agree that it’s best to understand how you will potentially fit into the department’s culture before you perfect your personal statement. Read on for more tips:

Kevin Gerald Lorentz, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Wayne State University: Do your research. Yes, you should consult program websites and other accouterments, but I highly recommend consulting directly with program faculty and, if possible, current students. Graduate directors and prospective faculty mentors are the best sources of information when it comes to choosing the best graduate school for you. For instance, a few times during my own search I discovered that my preferred faculty mentor was leaving the institution, was nearing retirement, and/or our research interests didn’t align. Other times, I was able to speak with current graduate students (at either graduate open houses, conferences, etc.) and get a “feel” for the program’s culture. These conversations ultimately helped make my graduate school search more efficient and fruitful.  

Paula Armendariz, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: Research, research, research… I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to “sell” yourself as someone who not only is a good fit for the department, but also someone who is going to bring something novel to it.

Joan Ricart-Huguet, Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Yale University: Reach out to professors by email whenever there is a good reason. A score in the top decile of the GRE is important in general and necessary for top 10 programs, your statement of purpose is central, good letters are a must, etc. But should you email professors in departments to which you are applying? My advice is to reach out by email (attaching a brief CV) to professors whenever there is a good reason, usually some overlap in research interests or a very good fit with the program more generally. Professors want the best graduate students to improve the program and to work with them on projects, so a sound email can help you. If you email a professor whose work has nothing to do with your statement of purpose, your email will probably be ignored unless you seem like an outstanding student or a good fit in that department for other reasons. The email may not hurt your chances to enter that Ph.D. program, but an unwarranted email will hardly help. A superior option is to ask your trusted professors to date (including your letter writers) to email professors they know or have worked with in departments where you want to gain admission. A strong email of support from a trusted colleague can carry more weight than yours and make a big difference. Make sure you ask the favor tactfully and politely to your professors since they have competing pressures on their time, they may not be inclined to write (yet) another extra email, and they may already be writing you a letter of recommendation.

Armendariz: Get someone who is or has served as Director of Graduate Studies to read and correct your personal statement. I learned that this is the “interview” that you will not get with departments and so I had to try to communicate why was I a good fit for the department(s).

Ricart-Huguet: Introspection before you apply. A Ph.D. is a serious time commitment (5+ years) and you are likely foregoing a more reasonable work schedule and a higher salary elsewhere (even top Ph.D. programs pay around $30k/year). So why enroll in a Ph.D. program given the high opportunity cost? There are at least two important reasons: (a) passion for an area of study and (b) instrumental reasons. (a) Ideally, you just love your field/subfield (or perhaps the social sciences more generally), learning, teaching, and conducting research. To many, this alone is central to their decision-making. The intellectual growth a Ph.D. program can afford is very valuable in itself and the delayed financial gratification can be compensated by immediate intellectual gratification. (b) Others may think more instrumentally. You need a Ph.D. to be an academic, but a Ph.D. in political science can open the door to careers in governments, think tanks, international organizations, non-profits, and even the private sector – especially if you are a quantitative social scientist. Hence, a Ph.D. can make sense even if you don’t see yourself as a professor down the road.

Lorentz: Start your preparation early. Personal statements, letters of recommendation, and the dreaded GRE all require several months of groundwork. As such, make sure that you leave yourself time to draft, revise, and re-draft (you get the idea!) your personal statement, soliciting feedback from trusted friends and mentors. For letters of recommendation, I suggest giving your recommenders a good one-to-two months to prepare their letters (and do give them copies of your CV, personal statements, and other application materials that may help their composing!). Finally, you should plan on taking the GRE early enough to leave ample opportunity to re-test if so desired. (Although, you may elect to not do this depending on how programs treat multiple GRE attempts.) Regardless, don’t plan on taking the GRE without at least six or more months of preparation. For myself, I needed the extra time just to brush up on knowledge and skills that were a little rusty, while also mentally preparing. You can be successful in your graduate school search, so long as you prepare!

About the Panelists: Kevin Lorentz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Wayne State University, Paula Armendariz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and Joan Ricart-Huguet is a Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. Their MPSA professional development roundtable “STUDENTS: Tips for Applying to Graduate School” will be held Fri, April 5, 2019 (1:15 to 2:45pm) at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago.

 

The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Midwest Political Science Association, MPSA staff, and/or other site contributors.

MPSA Roundtable: The Path to Full

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This MPSA roundtable session on “MPSA Roundtable: The Path to Full”, hosted by the Midwest Women’s Caucus and chaired by Tiffany Barnes of the University of Kentucky, features James Adams of University of California, Davis, Leslie Schwindt-Bayer of Rice University, and Miki Kittilson of Arizona State University, Tempe.

This panel examines the path to full professorship by facilitating a discussion of the participants’ journeys to become full professors.

Highlights from the discussion include important points in the transition between the associate and full professor levels, including the importance of career mentoring during this time, and advice on moving from the associate to full professor level. Questions discussed during the roundtable address what it means to be a full professor, what this looks like at different institutions, and what being a full professor means to each of the panelists.

Topics of discussion include:

  • New opportunities for longer term or higher risk projects.
  • Advocating for junior faculty members.
  • Responsibilities toward departmental infrastructure development.
  • Additional administrative and service responsibilities that come with becoming a full professor.

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Listen to the panel on Soundcloud.

MPSA Members can log in to access a variety of recordings from highlighted MPSA conference presentations. Additional podcasts from select MPSA conference roundtables are also available.

Back End Skills

By Chad Raymond of Salve Regina University and Active Learning in Political Science

Most ALPS posts deal with the front end of teaching — the stuff that eventually turns into the student experience. Today I’m going to talk about the back end of the job: skills that are beneficial for one’s career because they have applications far beyond the classroom environment.

Here are the skills that I now wish I had acquired while in graduate school:

Writing for the Audience
As I’ve mentioned occasionally in the past, the vast majority of academic writing is terrible. It is produced to be published, not to be read. Important ideas are not communicated well, if at all. For example, compare the writing of Anatol Lieven in Pakistan: A Hard Country to any journal article or multi-authored volume about that country. Or read Sarah Kendzior‘s The View From Flyover Country. These people can write well, a lot of people read what they write, and they have benefited professionally as a result.

Academics need to reach different audiences, and that requires learning how to write for those audiences. Take courses in journalistic or creative writing. Write memos. Submit op-eds to your local newspaper. Get feedback from people who write better than you do. Write a lot, even though it takes time. Use the process of writing as a tool to refine your thinking. Practice what we preach to students.

Graphic and Web Design
I’ve written about this before too — messages can and often should be communicated visually. But the message is lost if the visuals are bad. I’m often shocked by the inability of faculty members to display information in a manner that is easy to understand — whether for other academics or a curious and reasonably intelligent public. Creating simple but effective charts with Excel is not that difficult. Yet training in this basic skill was not part of my graduate program — I had to learn it on my own. Others probably never bothered.

My doctoral studies began just before the Web sprang into existence. Since then, I’ve been struggling to catch up with the digital revolution. This blog is one small tangible result. Don’t be left behind like I was — learn how to build websites. The more proficient at this you become, the more of an advantage you will have.

Data Literacy
Related to the above is the ability to work with data. Can you easily mine data by creating longitudinal analyses and calculating percentages? Do you know how to determine whether your data and conclusions are meaningful?  I am constantly amazed by what I can learn and communicate by making those simple Excel charts. I dream about what I could do if I knew R.

Stage Presence
Let’s face it: teaching is performance. As are committee meetings, admissions office recruitment events, and board meetings. Elocution and body language can make or break a conference presentation. Don’t be the person whom everyone immediately tunes out. Take a course in public speaking, acting, or musical theater.

People Management
We have to interact with others as part of larger organizations, and I bet every person who reads this has encountered at least one toxic colleague in their careers. Some of us end up with managerial duties, as research team leaders, department chairs, and administrators, yet we’ve never been trained for these roles. I recently attended a workshop on how to manage difficult conversations in the office, and it was eye-opening. Find out how you can become better at working with people. Then do it.

About the Author: Chad Raymond is Chairperson, Department of Cultural, Environmental, and Global Studies at Salve Regina University and Managing Editor of http://activelearningps.com. This article was originally published on Active Learning in Political Science. Read the the original post.

Diffusion by Any Means Necessary

By Harold “Harry” Young of Austin Peay State University

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Members of the “GRAD SCHOOL: What to Expect at a Job Interview at a Teaching School” roundtable at the 2018 MPSA conference in Chicago.

They stood in place at each poster in the exhibit hall, graduate students eager to share their research with anyone willing to take the time to listen, ask questions, or possibly offer some instructive or encouraging advice.

While sometimes considered as a consolation prize by more experienced researchers, for grad students the poster sessions are an essential component of learning, a form of knowledge diffusion featuring visual experiences and personal interactions. Elements we all know are integral to effective communication in diverse forums.

The posters’ second-class status is not deserved as this the ideal forum for students entering academia. As our future, their work deserves our attention and support. Since not all exhibits are equal, however, I zeroed in on several that were both topical and presented solid research effectively.

My first stop was an exhibit on the effects of visual aids in political literacy by Breanna Wright of Stony Brook University. Political psychology is not new (Merriam, 1924) but its resurgence is evident (Political Psychology). In the current environment, identity politics is at a new high (or low if you are disapproving of it). What the News Means to Me: An Exploratory Experiment Investigating Social Identity Salience After News Exposure by Ming Boyer and Sophie Lecheler of the University of Vienna was an interesting dive into identity politics in Austria. Echoing what we experience in the U.S., their research illustrated the intersection of politics and communication or Political Communication. While the topics in the program were extensive and diverse, in my view, the demographics of the graduates were not representative (which was a challenge for the conference more generally).

Moving from those presenting posters to an Author-Meets-Critics session, I was moved to another world where scholars were more seasoned, but fortunately, still as passionate about their work.

First, Chris Sepeda-Millan of UC Berkeley discussed his first book, Latino Mass Mobilization: Immigration, Racialization, and Activism. Well-received by the critics in the session, Sepeda-Millan introduces a term worth mentioning: “racialized illegality.” This elegantly merges the controversial issues of race and legal status into a single term,  capturing inequitable approaches to legal status based on race. I suggest, in fact, that racialized illegality captures the real underpinnings of the decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856).

Andrea Benjamin of University of Missouri’s book Racial Coalition Building in Local Elections: Elite Clues and Cross-Ethnic Voting was also well-received. It reminds us of the immortal words of the former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill who said, “all politics is local. Dr. Benjamin was also concerned with diffusion of her work, having written an op-ed piece and contemplated a podcast.

I had the opportunity to be actively involved rather than merely an observer. First, I was a panelist in a session for graduate students about interviewing for jobs at teaching schools. While each panelist was able to cast their own pearls of wisdom, what I found most surprising– and disappointing–was the guidance, or lack thereof, provided by many schools.

In one case, the student had been told he should not waste any more time teaching classes, even though he had not taught any introduction courses, a requirement of new faculty at almost any university. In another case, the student had gained no teaching experience at all!

While it is crucial that we are able to diffuse knowledge not only to political science majors but to students from any discipline, I humbly submit that discouraging a student interested in teaching, coupled with their lack of pedagogic experience is a recipe for catastrophic failure. Our students–and the discipline– deserve better.

Finally, I shared a meal with Barbara dos Santos of American University and some other students working on environmental politics. They were not only enthusiastic, but embraced the need for knowledge diffusion and its potential impact on society.

Overall, I hope my conference vignettes show that our work is important, interesting, and can meaningfully contribute to relevant spheres in society. The graduate students I met demonstrated the knowledge and skills to carry on the work. The conundrum, however, is whether we remain in our academic towers or start responding to the question, “What have you done for me lately?”

Our futures may depend on our willingness to rise to the occasion, by any means necessary.

About the Author: Harold Young is a blogger at the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association conference. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research focuses on Public Law and examines an American and international perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Previously, he worked as a health communications manager, a social worker and practiced law. Read more from Harold on the MPSA blog and Avnon World Series. He can be reached at youngh@apsu.edu.

 

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

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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.

Do Academics Stink at Work/Life Balance?

And is this scaring away students?

By Alex Ellison

At the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago, IL, I attended the session, Trying to Balance Work and Life with Joel Raveloharimisy from Andrews University, William Raymond from Benedictine College, Marjorie Hershey from Indiana University, and Jacob Holt from Columbus State University.

When I was in my second or third year of college, my advisor made the suggestion that I might like getting a PhD. “And doing what with that,” I asked. “You could become a professor.”

What?!

I was the first in my family to go to college. The daughter of a wine salesman and a waitress, I did not understand that college could be more than the place I learned; it could be the place I worked. I loved college, so this sounded wonderful!

Then I talked with my department advisor about my new plans. I was a German major and I would soon learn that because of the mass department closures happening around the country, the language professors were arguably the most bitter and resentful — not the kind of people who would offer encouraging advice for a starry-eyed undergraduate. He said, passively, “Yeah, sure. I suppose you could teach at one of the sister colleges.”

I heard similarly condescending remarks from a seemingly caring speaker at a conference on Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin. As we walked and talked and I shared my plans and ambitions with him, he said, “You know, it is very difficult to be a woman in academia.” This was in the year 2009.

Fast forward to my first job after undergrad, a service-learning coordinator at the University of Nevada, Reno, where I worked while applying to graduate programs. Their German department was on the butcher block at the time, and I made the mistake of seeking guidance from a few very angry professors, one who seemed to resemble Karl Marx more and more each day. Not surprisingly, these folks strongly advised against my future plans.

Despite the naysayers, I was admitted to the University of Chicago’s Masters of Social Sciences program. I was taking my first step toward getting a PhD! I eagerly met with one of the faculty members in the German department during the admitted student weekend, and he couldn’t have been more annoyed by my visit and showed no interest in me as a prospective student.

Needless to say, I finally got cold feet. At some point, the collective words of discouragement overrode my more fantastical, head-in-the-clouds side, and I declined the University of Chicago offer.

While my life is fulfilling and full of meaning and joy today, I can’t help but wonder if I would have also been happy in academia. Is academia as terrible — especially for women who want a family — as some of the naysayers would suggest? Even if a degree in German history was a suicidal mission, why was there so little encouragement along my path? The experience gave me the impression that professors are an unhappy lot. That they lack balance and are constantly stressed out.

But the same could be said for people across a wide array of professions.

Are people in academia less able to find balance? Does the nature of their work, with the competing pressures to research and teach, make balance impossible?

These questions led me to wander into the session on work/life balance at the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association conference. Marjorie Hershey offered some refreshingly sound and friendly advice. I found myself wishing I’d had her as an advisor and mentor while I was an undergraduate. To the academics with families, she said to get involved in your kids’ lives; get involved in your communities. She stressed the importance of getting involved in the world around you, no matter how busy you are with research and publishing. She gave this advice:

It is hard to create a relationship with people if you wait until you’ve done enough publishing. There will never be a time when you say, “I’ve done enough publishing, I’m done!”

She said academia is actually one of the more autonomous institutions to be employed; professors are allowed relative independence in their work compared to other professions. She suggested taking advantage of this and not falling into the trap of living by others’ rules or trying to mirror others’ lives.

Because of the relative autonomy and the ability to mostly choose research directions, she gave the advice to choose research pursuits that fit into our lives:

If your free time consists of what you have during nap time and nursery school, don’t become a political philosopher.

So, perhaps it is not a question of whether or not academics can balance work and life, but if they are in the appropriate academic domains given their life situations. However, it does seem like academics are uniquely positioned to fail worse than other professionals at the whole balance thing. They simultaneously need to be liked by their departments and offer their service to the university, research and publish endlessly, never ever really knowing what the magic number, and they are pressured to fill up seats in their classes with students who will give them high marks as teachers. The pressures are real, but perhaps not insurmountable, and perhaps not a reason to avoid the profession altogether.

So here are some tips from the panelists:

  • Don’t be discouraged and fearful about pressures — Know that pressure will exist in this space and experiencing that pressure doesn’t mean you are weak, unsuitable, or disliked
  • It’s easy to focus on what’s immediate rather than what’s important — don’t let yourself fall victim to this trap; prioritize work and life so that you can tackle what’s most important first
  • Don’t confuse the time you’re putting into a project with the quality of your work — “It’s not the hours you put in; it’s what you put into the hours.” — Jacob Holt
  • We can’t be all of the things at once, but we can be all of the things throughout our careers — Our careers are a marathon, not a sprint; you may be teaching heavy at one end of your career and research heavy at another end
  • Invest in something you are passionate about outside of work — whether it’s a creative project or triathlon training, you have to have something you care about that is not your teaching or research

And sometimes, work/life balance emerges naturally once a family enters the stage. When we’re single, work doesn’t necessarily need to be balanced with anything else. As someone from the audience shared, when he was single, he simple worked until his brain was fried and he couldn’t work anymore. The family is often the force that makes us create balance. However, it’s arguably a good idea to start working on balance, even if you don’t have a family; you’re probably not working as well as you’re capable of with that fried brain and 3.5 hours of sleep.


Alex Ellison is a blogger at the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago, IL. She is the Founding Director of MENTEE, a non-profit organization that helps immigrant, refugee, and low-income high school students gain career exposure through job shadows and mentorship. She is also an independent education consultant and college counselor. Read more from Alex Ellison on Medium