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A stage of their own

Presentation workshop for political science graduate students serves as training ground for research and professional skills.
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For some presenters, the GSWIP experience can make a powerful impact on a paper, or an entire research thrust.
For some presenters, the GSWIP experience can make a powerful impact on a paper, or an entire research thrust.
Photo: Ying Gao

The first time he formally presented graduate research to an audience, Minh Trinh's heart was racing.

"I was very anxious, really worried about how it would go," says the fourth-year political science doctoral candidate. "But after two or three minutes, it became clear that this was a low-pressure event, and that I didn't have to impress anyone."

Trinh's speaking engagement came courtesy of the Graduate Student Works in Progress (GWISP) program, which is supported by the Department of Political Science. GSWIP is run by and for graduate students, offering weekly windows during the academic year for students of all levels of graduate study "to present their work in a safe environment," says Gabriel Nahmias, a third-year and a GSWIP coordinator.

For the approximately 70 political science graduate students, GSWIP serves as a training ground for preparing research, addressing colleagues and learning conference protocol. "It's a really good forum to observe the professional side of political science, including the etiquette of asking questions," says second-year PhD student Rorisang Lekalake, another GSWIP organizer.

Whether it is second-year students unveiling major research papers in preparation for potential publication, third-year students developing a thesis idea, or fifth- and sixth-year students testing job talks, the GSWIP workshop provides an important service.

"There's no substitute for an audience, and if I hadn't been able to give a reworked version of my job talk at GSWIP, I would have had to bribe or beg friends to avoid practicing it in an empty room," says Marika Landau-Wells PhD '18.

While other political science departments offer presentation opportunities for graduate students, GSWIP is notably different in several regards. It cuts across all the discipline's subfields, including international relations, security studies, American politics, comparative politics, and methodology. It is also open exclusively to graduate student presenters; and limited, except on rare occasions, to graduate student audiences. This means students feel greater freedom posing questions, need not benchmark themselves against faculty presenters, and benefit from an audience that brings a wide range of interests to the room.

"The student-focused and cross-disciplinary perspectives are pretty rare, and those two characteristics together make MIT stand out," says Landau-Wells.

At the start of each semester, student coordinators call for GSWIP presenters in a cohort-wide email. Spots for the 45-minute to hour -long talks fill up quickly, although Nahmias says "some students need mobilizing, a bit of cajoling, to feel comfortable presenting." To drum up audience attendance, presentations take place at dinner time in a familiar political science classroom.

"While the free food and convenience factor help, there's also a norm: If you present at GSWIP, you should attend," says Nahmias. "We’re a small department and GSWIP is one of the ways you invest in the political science community."

For some presenters, the GSWIP experience can make a powerful impact on a paper, or an entire research thrust. After rolling out his prospectus at GSWIP in the spring of his third year, Minh Trinh was curious to learn if fellow students found it convincing. He says he wondered: "Did they think my theory and framework were rigorous, or even interesting?" 

He was not quite ready for the response. "People were tearing my prospectus idea apart, telling me I had to pin down the concept, that what I was trying to measure was too lofty with the tools I was using, and that I needed to look at literature from different fields," he says. "But it was great to learn all the ways it had to change."

So Trinh reshaped his dissertation idea, which looked at how the central governments of China and Vietnam dealt with lying and misrepresentation from the provinces. Instead, responding to GSWIP feedback, he focused exclusively on Vietnam, where he could gather data that better demonstrated the falsification behaviors of provincial governments.

He delayed his prospectus defense by an entire semester in order to conduct additional interviews in Vietnam. When he returned for a second round at GSWIP, he found it "comforting, because there was validation and confirmation that I was going in the right direction," he says.  The initial comments allowed him to reframe his question and methodology, and also to "write in a language that the broader political science community would appreciate more."

For Nahmias, granular GSWIP feedback on a second-year paper last year led to concrete improvements that he credits with helping smooth the path to its publication. Nahmias wanted to make the case that major traumatic events, such as a mass shooting, natural disaster, or even high intensity campaigning, can shock people into political participation and shift voter interests in a way that endures beyond elections.

"The responses suggested I should narrow my claims and pointed me to better robustness tests, all of which really bolstered my paper in terms of methodology and framing," he says.  Insightful feedback, he notes, frequently came from people outside of his own subfield. "If you are locked into your silo, you're not a good political scientist," he says.

Through GSWIP, Marika Landau-Wells received critical help reshaping a job talk. After pursuing an unusual PhD fusing the cognitive science behind threat perception with security studies, she had multiple options for pitching her work. In 2017, when she gave her first GSWIP job talk, she shaped her presentation around the topics she figured would prove most interesting to universities scouting new candidates — immigration and political behavior. But the first nibble came for a job in international relations and national security.

"So I built a new talk and previewed it at GSWIP, which ended up being tremendously helpful for me," says Landau-Wells. Fellow students, who understood the shift she needed to make, provided specific pointers to help her pivot. Landau-Wells was especially grateful for the difficult questions she fielded at the end of her presentation.

"The Q&A part of an actual job talk is where people can fall down, because it's much less under your control," she says. "You may hear not just thoughtful collegial questions, but persnickety, willful misinterpretations, and it's better to learn how to respond to that in a room full of friends than in front of people you don't know."

The fruits of her GSWIP rethink informed the job talk Landau-Wells delivered soon after at the University of California at Berkeley. She was offered a job there starting July 2019 as assistant professor.

"In recent years we've had a spectacular placement record," notes Andrea Louise Campbell, department chair and the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science. She attributes this in part "to students’ opportunities to share their work in … constructive, supportive, and enriching forums" such as GSWIP and other field-specific workshops that have sprung up.

Rori Lekalake is now gearing up for her first GSWIP presentation, after spending an entire year attending presentations and building up the confidence to ask questions. Her research, underway since her first semester at MIT, explores how African states with struggling economies establish bonds of trust between citizens and government institutions.

"I'm really hoping to get tips on how to broaden my reading, especially from students who specialize in west and southern Africa, and those who are fluent in conflict-related work, since my wheelhouse is more political economy and development," she says. "We'll see if my framing passes the sniff test, and then if things go well, I would like to move it toward publication."

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