Rethinking the Political Science Major – MPSA Roundtable (audio)

Image - A classroom without students

This roundtable Rethinking the Political Science Major (audio), chaired by John T. Ishiyama of  University of North Texas and featuring J. Cherie Strachan of Central Michigan University, Whitney Lauraine Court of College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, and Amber Dickinson of Oklahoma State University, examines trends within the discipline rethinking the structure and function of the undergraduate political science major in the context of shrinking enrollments within the major, changing student demographics, and evolving workforce demands.

Topics include:

  • Discussion about ways the major can revitalize itself in the face of changing times, growing undergraduate participation by female, minority, and non-traditional students, and declining political ambitions among female and minority students uncomfortable with the combative climate of modern-day politics.
  • Ideas about how the discipline can restructure itself and engage in strategic planning to meet the needs of diverse student populations and encourage political participation by underrepresented groups.
  • Conversation about ways that the major could better prepare students with in-demand skills required by employers and re-brand itself to emphasize workforce relevance and encourage increased interest from undergraduate students.

Listen in!

MPSA Members can log in to access a variety of recordings from highlighted MPSA conference presentations.  



How Ideology, Economics and Institutions Shape Affective Polarization in Democratic Polities

Summary by Noam Gidron, James Adams, and Will Horne

Concerns over the health of democratic norms and institutions have intensified in recent years (e.g., Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018), with political polarization often cited as a key driver of democratic dysfunction. The rise of affective polarization in the mass public, defined as dislike and hostility across partisan lines (Iyengar et al. 2012), is especially disconcerting because it damages trust across partisan lines. Yet most of our knowledge about this important phenomenon is drawn from the American case. Analyzing affective polarization in a comparative perspective may improve our understanding of its causes and effects, as well as what is, and is not, unique about the American case. In our comparative study we find that the United States actually displays relatively moderate affective polarization when compared with other democratic polities. We also find evidence that institutional and economic conditions shape affective polarization.

We analyze 76 national election surveys across 20 countries between 1996 and 2015 using data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems. We first create a measure of country-level affective polarization that captures how much the average partisan in the country dislikes all parties other than the one they support. This allows us to compute an affective polarization score for each election in each country in our data set. We find that affective polarization in the American public is not high in comparative perspective. Only a handful of the countries in our study display notably less intense mass-level affective polarization than the US.  Figure 1 displays the average and range of affective polarization scores in each country over the period of our study, where higher values on the horizontal axis denote more intense affective polarization:


To analyze variations in affective polarization, we first evaluated whether affective polarization was driven by increasing levels of elite polarization. Using different measures of elite polarization, we found no consistent evidence that out-party dislike is driven by greater ideological differences between rival parties’ elites. In contrast, unemployment is strongly associated with affective polarization: in cross-national comparisons we find that countries with higher unemployment display more intense mass-level affective polarization, and in within-country comparisons we find that affective polarization intensifies as the national unemployment rate rises. We also find cross-national evidence that economic inequality intensifies affective polarization (McCarty et al, 2006).  Finally, in support of arguments originally developed by Lijphart (1999), we find that countries whose political systems foster more power-sharing between parties display markedly less affective polarization in the mass public, all else equal. Taken together, these findings suggest that affective polarization is driven more by structural economic and institutional factors than by ideological differences between rival parties’ elites.  Figure 2 displays the predicted levels of mass affective polarization across a range of values for the institutional, economic, and ideological variables that we study:


Notes: In each figure the vertical axis displays the predicted level of affective polarization in the country, where higher values denote more intense mass-level affective polarization.  In Figure 2A the horizontal axis is the level of ideological polarization that voters perceive between rival parties in the system, where higher numbers denote more intense ideological polarization.  In Figure 2B the horizontal axis is the degree of income inequality (the Gini coefficient), where higher numbers denote more income inequality.  In Figure 2C the horizontal axis is the national unemployment rate, and in Figure 2D it is the district magniture of the first tier of the electoral system, where a higher value means a more proportional electoral system.  For these computations all independent variables except the focal variable on the horizontal axis were set at their mean values.   

Our analysis is a first step towards a comparative research agenda on mass-level affective polarization. We have shown that the American case is not an outlier, which suggests that American politics scholars may learn more about their case by placing it in a broader comparative context.  In future research we will extend our analyses of the link between elite ideological polarization and mass-level affective polarization to consider more focused dimensions of policy debates, including elite disputes over nationalism and over economic policy.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearchAbout the Authors: Noam Gidron is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the Joint Program in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. James Adams is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at UC Davis, and Will Horne is a graduate student in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. They received the 2019 MPSA Kellogg/Notre Dame Award for their research “The Causes of Mass-level Affective Polarization in Advanced Democracies”.


Iyengar, Shanto, Gaurav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes. (2012). ‘Affect, Not Ideology.’ Public Opinion Quarterly, 76(3):405–431.

Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.

Lijphart, Arend.  1999.  Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal. (2006). Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches. Cambridge: MIT Press.


How War Changes Land: The Ecological Consequences of the US Bombing of Cambodia

By Erin Lin

How War Changes Land: The Ecological Consequences of the US Bombing of Cambodia
Example of bomb found during fieldwork: B42 cluster bomb in the center-right, and a rock is on its left. (Photo courtesy of Erin Lin)


The village of West Father Long lies about five kilometers out of Kampong Thom town, Cambodia, in the southerly direction. Dirt paths run east and west, letting bicycles and farmers travel from the hamlet to the rice paddies, but the only route that travels with any suggestion of efficiency is Highway 6, a paved, two-lane road on which tour buses, jammed full, carry tourists from Phnom Penh, the capital, to the Angkor Wat ruins near Siem Reap. The landscape is remarkably verdant, but unattended: lopsided rectangular plots of paddy land; pools of fresh rainwater that fill the plots, bordered by raised clay to separate them; the rattan overgrowth and vine-like weeds that take over most paddies, except for certain edges near the dirt paths, where villagers have planted some rice seedlings.Cambodia administrative map

The loose, high-absorption soil, called Krakor locally, makes the land ideal for growing rice. For a good harvest, fertilizer need not be applied, nor irrigation lines installed. The village’s location, too, makes it easy to sell surplus rice since it is a short ride on Highway 6 to Kampong Thom market, the busiest in the province. But in reality, half the village’s plots lay fallow. Those who do cultivate their land only grow enough for their own consumption, planting 15 to 30% of their yield. No one brings their crop to market. And, most of the villagers are poor.

In 2012, the median amount a household spent on non-food items was $502 – for the entire year. This is approximately the cost of a used motorbike. By comparison, in Sweet Gum Tree village, only two and a half kilometers down the road, the median household spent $300 more on non-food purchases that same year. Here, the rice paddies are lush, well-tended, and planted 40 to 50% of their total capacity. Farmers produce triple the amount of rice as in West Father Long Village, both by weight and by price, and excess rice is sold to market.

Unlike in West Father Long, a thick layer of sandy soil, known as Prateah Lang, covers much of the area surrounding Sweet Gum Tree village. It is dry and constantly loses water, so irrigation tubes and makeshift water pumps are necessary to supplement the rain. When the water seeps through the surface soil to the subsoil, it takes nutrients with it. To help out the seedlings, most farmers spread chemical fertilizer after transplanting.

So why do people, where the land is worse, grow more rice and make more money – especially when farmers in both villages have good access to the nearby town market to sell their surplus? I believe part of the answer lies in the region’s history of conflict. Both villages were part of a targeted area in two US aerial strikes (one in 1971 and another in 1973). More than 12,000 unique bombs, weighing a total of 49,000 tons, were dropped in the district, an area roughly one-third the size of Manhattan.

Between 1965 and 1973, Cambodians saw 500,000 tons of US Air Force ordnance drop onto its rice fields, villages, and people, in an effort to root out Vietnamese Communists from the Cambodian countryside. More than a half-century later, it seems as if the effect of the bombing is somewhat mixed. On some bombed land, one can see “crater lakes” in the rice paddies, visible pock-marks of the bombing, which do not seem to hinder agricultural production today. Other bombed areas remain untouched or sparsely planted. This paper examines the ecological consequences of the US bombing of Cambodia while answering a very basic question in comparative politics: what is the historical legacy of violence on development?

To answer this question, I explore the role of soil fertility and bombing intensity on present-day agricultural output and planting decisions. Within the weapons literature, it is common knowledge that fertile ground provides more of a cushion for the bomb upon impact; thus, the trigger fuse is less likely to detonate. I examine the long-term impact of this mechanical failure on land production. I find that, in fertile land, as the level of historic bombing intensity increases, today’s farmers are more likely to subsistence farm and produce less rice due to the risk of encountering unexploded ordnance. This mechanism does not apply to less fertile land: since it tends to be harder and drier, bombs were much more likely to explode upon impact.

I use a unique historical dataset of 114,000 sites targeted in 231,000 US Air Force sorties flown over Cambodia from 1965 to 1973. I identify the location and types of ordnance, and compare them to the 2012 agricultural output of 3,617 geo-referenced household plots. After matching household plots according to prewar economic and geographic conditions, I run a multi-level OLS model with an interacted term for a household plot’s exposure to bombs and land fertility. The findings support the hypothesis about the differential relationship between land fertility and the legacy of bombing. In highly fertile land, bomb intensity is significantly related to a decline in rice production and in the amount of rice sold to market. In less fertile land, the relationship is negligible. The results demonstrate empirical limits of macro-economic measures in the post-conflict reconstruction literature, and emphasize the impact that local ecological changes have on long-term development.

About the Author: Erin Lin is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Global Food Politics at the Ohio State University. Lin was awarded the Best Paper in International Relations Award this spring for her research “How War Changes Land: A natural experiment of bomb-induced economic change in Cambodia” presented at the 2018 MPSA conference.

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.

Fieldwork: Ethical Considerations, Funding, and Data Collection Methods

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany

Photo by Ryan Tauss on Unsplash

The recent MPSA conference offered many valuable roundtables related to professional development for a variety of populations including graduate students. I had the opportunity to attend the roundtable about how to do fieldwork, an important one for any researcher needing to travel to a particular place to collect data, whether in one’s home country or abroad. The roundtable offered several useful insights for graduate students, many of which I have found helpful during my own fieldwork.

Ethical Considerations

First and foremost, researchers needing to collect data from the field must consider the impact of their research on their subjects. Of course, this need applies more to researchers conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys, participant observation, or using other ethnographic techniques than archival work. Many vital questions in social science involve vulnerable populations, which can include marginalized communities, survivors of sexual assault, former members of a terrorist organization, and many others. It is the researchers’ responsibility to consider the ways in which their research may impact the lives and safety of their subjects. Considerations might entail keeping the subject’s identity anonymous in the publication of the research or even where an interview takes place.

A consequential question raised during the roundtable was what to do if an interviewee reveals something unexpected that might be damning to a public figure. Should a researcher publicize everything reported to them by their interviewees? While it might be tempting to drop a proverbial bombshell and provide a surprising insight, the panelists cautioned against rushing to judgement about such revelations. One should carefully consider the ramifications of making that revelation public. It may or may not be true; the researcher should try to verify the claim through other sources. Even if the claim is true, the researcher should consider the implications for their interviewee. Will it put the interviewee’s safety at risk? Will it otherwise harm the interviewee (i.e. reputational costs, employment impacts)?

The Logistics of Fieldwork

The panelists on the roundtable also brought up several logistical considerations important for researchers going to the field to consider, from funding to how to get the data. Most of the panelists did their fieldwork over the course of several trips (the majority did research abroad). Many began their projects with a preliminary trip of a few weeks and then returned to their site; most of the panel stayed in their research site consecutively no more than a year, often less.

An audience member also asked about one of the most imperative parts of doing fieldwork: getting it funded. As one panelist noted, it is difficult to get funding for fieldwork, depending on the type of research one is doing and the institution with which one is affiliated. Fortunately, there were a few roundtables in the #MPSA19 program dedicated solely to research funding, one of which I will cover in a future blog. One tip that a panelist mentioned was one that I have heard from many experienced researchers; for researchers staying at their research site for a semester or more, it is sometimes possible to draw an income by teaching at a host university. Those doing research outside of their home countries often seek institutional affiliations for a variety of reasons, including access to resources such as libraries or teaching opportunities. Researchers not affiliated with a local university or college can also contact nearby institutions about teaching opportunities.

The roundtable also included various points about collecting the data itself. The panelists cautioned against “parachuting” into a research site. Researchers (should) go to the field not to quickly gather data and leave (“parachuting”) but to go to the field to get a better sense of the area and the culture. Understanding the research site, of course, should begin long before one actually arrives. At the same time, understanding the research site through secondary sources cannot substitute for firsthand experience. In my experience, immersing yourself in the culture, sometimes called “soaking and poking”, is as important to the research as the data collection is itself. Understanding the context is essential for understanding the data one collects: how do the insights from the interview fit into the big picture? Furthermore, gaining knowledge about the area through experience may make interviewees more likely to open up; it shows a respect for their home country and community.

Preparation prior to each interview is integral to data collection as well. The panelists emphasized “doing one’s homework” to get the most out of each interview. Are there questions for which a certain person can give better insights than others? Not only can preparation maximize the utility of the interview, but adequate preparation also signals to the interviewee that the researcher is serious and knowledgeable about the topic of interest, which may make them more comfortable to share information.

The format of the data collection may also influence how open interviewees are. One panelist mentioned that their experiences with focus groups yielded some insights that a one-on-one interview may not have. The researcher interviewed military personnel, a group from which it may be difficult to garner unfeigned answers, and found in a few instances that when one person was candid, the rest of the group also opened up.

The roundtable on fieldwork was one of my favorite sessions at #MPSA19, offering insights from researchers who have valuable firsthand experience in conducting fieldwork from which graduate students and researchers at all levels can benefit. I hope that similar roundtables continue to be offered at future MPSA conferences.

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.


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.


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.”


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.


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