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The Three Grad Student Coauthors You’ll Meet

Timothy Johnson, Horace T. Morse Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Law, University of Minnesota

As the oft-overused adage goes, “You learn best by doing.” That is how my career as an academic began as I wrote with my undergraduate advisor, with my graduate advisor, and then with mentors who took me under their wings. So it is not surprising that writing with graduate students has always been an intuitive part of the training and development I provide. Indeed, it has been a highly productive way for me to professionalize students into the research process.

Writing with my students is also mildly selfish. That is, I do so because I enjoy the process. In a profession and discipline that still value single-authored publications, working alone is anathema to me, especially when there are amazing scholars with whom to work. And graduate students offer something that seasoned colleagues do not always offer–a fresh, unique, and usually not-yet-jaded view of how to solve a research problem and how the solution fits, theoretically, into existing literature.

The question, however, is how do projects emerge, and how does the process work? The answer is that it varies but is remarkably similar to how I write alone–with the exception that I ensure my student coauthors do most of the work. This point is not meant to suggest my students just act as research assistants on projects. In fact, it is just the opposite. The work they put in is explicitly meant to train them in how to create and complete theoretically driven, systematic, research that they have the first cut at producing. As such, I usually give them a general outline of what we need and then allow them to quickly take charge and to learn how to complete the project from start to finish. But the focus of my mentorship varies depending on the nature of a given student.

In an effort to provide advice for others working with graduate (or undergraduate) students at various stages of academic training, I consider several student types you may encounter. This is not an all-inclusive list and I am the first to admit that I do not know everything. But it comes from my own experience of success and is meant as a conversation starter. Specifically, I offer advice (in no particular order) on three types of students: those new to the literature, those looking to use their methodological prowess to the greatest extent possible, and those who are (knowingly or unknowingly) perfectionists.

The Student New to the Literature

This first student type emanates (for me) from a student I began working with more than 10 years ago. She was, for sure, one of the top three undergraduate students I have ever taught and I was so impressed that I asked if she was interested in working as a research assistant for me. That didn’t last long because she was so good that she, almost immediately, became a coauthor on several projects. The problem was that she had no experience with judicial politics and, more problematic, little social science research experience. So, we began from scratch as I handed her my graduate level Supreme Court seminar syllabus (including scores of recommended readings) and told her to immerse herself in it. She did, in spades! We also had long discussions (which is typical when I write with students) about the literature and how reading social science differs from reading textbooks, court cases, or history. So she read, we talked (a lot), and she became one of the most well-read young scholars with whom I have had the pleasure to work.

During my tenure, I have also had several graduate students switch from a different subfield to judicial politics (they surely did not switch to work with me but rather because they wanted to change their focus of study). These students presented a different issue than the student who was brand new to judicial politics and to social science research. They already had the skills to read critically in a way that social scientists read. They simply needed to learn the content and background of the Court, its decision-making process, and the judiciary more generally. So, I had them read in the same way as the first student I described. However, they were more focused on what they read because they had paper or dissertation topics already in mind. They could, initially, focus their reading lenses rather than read as widely. The latter would come later as they expanded their own research agenda.

The lesson from both these types of students? When someone is new to the field (as either a graduate or undergraduate student) give them the grounding they need by having them read, read, read, and read some more. But do not stop there. Engage with them. Have long formal and informal discussion about specific articles/books, broader trends in the literature, and how the readings may help them with their own research.

The Student Immersed in Methods Training

Every researcher knows the story of finding a new methodological hammer that leads them to look for any theoretical or substantive nail on which to use it. Mine was rare events logit modeling because so much of what happens on the Supreme Court falls into this category. But for students who have econometric methods as their first or second field of study, it is easy for them to want to employ a particular modeling technique as much as they can. Others simply want to focus more on the data and analysis section of projects because, let’s be honest, they are more fun! You get to play with data, get your hands dirty, and see results pop up quickly from your R code or Stata output.

The trick is to make clear to students that research is not driven by data or by modeling choices. Rather, and importantly, it is driven by theory. If theory suggests a phenomenon of interest should be measured in a particular way, then then that is how it should be measured. Further, theory should dictate modeling choices. In other words, if the phenomenon of interest is dichotomous, discrete, or continuous, that indicates what model to run. The point, however, is similar to what I argue about students new to the subfield–reading and thinking about how to solve a research problem is the lynchpin to success. That is done through good communication and extensive discussions with one another.

The Perfectionist

Perhaps the most difficult type of students with whom to work are the perfectionists. In many respects this is a good problem to have because perfectionists want to cite all the appropriate literature, want data that is 100 percent clean, and want to run every iteration of models as a paper takes shape “just to make sure.” The problem is that, even as we all strive for perfection, no paper, no model, no theoretical setup will ever reach that level. All we can do as researchers is to get as close as possible.

So how do you deal with a perfectionist? It is about convincing them that it is okay to let go and that it is okay to allow others (reviewers included) to see what you have written. You must possess a lot of patience and, in some sense, you must by a psychologist. That is, you must be able to convince your coauthor that it is okay a paper is not perfect, that you may have forgotten to cite some literature, and that a model may not ultimately be fully specified. To accomplish this goal, I stick with my theme of communication. Talk, explain why something is ready to go, and ensure your coauthors that all papers must ultimately be sent out for review, or they will die on your hard drive or in the cloud. That is the worst outcome. So get the paper out there, get comments, get reviews, and get it as close as possible to perfection.

A Parting (Very General) Thought

I cannot tell you how to treat your graduate students. But I can tell you how I treat mine and that my model has been very successful. Graduate students are not, in my estimation, students. Rather, they are already political scientists and judicial scholars. They just happen to be at an earlier stage in their career. So I treat them with the respect they deserve as colleagues (even when they T.A. or R.A. for me) because they truly ARE colleagues. Crafting relationships in this manner works and I am certain my treating them in this manner has made every one of them successful in their own way–and oftentimes repeat coauthors, which is always good for me!

We all encounter many types of graduate students, and there are certainly more types than I delineate in this short post. However, the theme that runs throughout each of them comes down to good, open lines of communication and mutual respect. If you can accomplish this, then you can deal with any type of student whom you may encounter.

Finding a Home in the Law and Courts Section

Rebecca Hamlin, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Legal Studies Program, University of Massachusetts Amherst

About fifteen years ago, I was a young political-scientist-in-training with strong interests in law and courts and migration. Many different people advised me to pick one of those interests and make it my primary field so that I wouldn’t “fall between stools” and cause confusion about whether I was really a law and courtier or a migration scholar. When I responded that I wanted to do both equally, some well-meaning mentors suggested that wouldn’t work because law was not central to the study of migration, and migration was not central to the study of law. At that time, there was no Migration and Citizenship Section of APSA, so I found myself with one option: trying to be an active member of the Law and Courts section despite having been told I was on the periphery of that community.

At first, I felt adrift in a sea of mostly white men who study the U.S. Supreme Court. After going to some panels and attending the APSA business meeting and reception, I felt out of place. Looking at the traffic on the listserv, I felt really out of place. When I told people I studied asylum adjudication, few seemed particularly interested. I secretly worried that my passion for the study of migration somehow made me soft, or without rigor, because I wasn’t just interested in law and courts for the sake of studying those things. I was deeply motivated by the human toll that law and courts take on people who try to navigate them in order to protect themselves. I now know that most people in the Law and Courts Section are motivated by some kind of passion and human concern (even white men who study the Supreme Court!). At the time, however, my insecurities drowned out my ability to see past what felt like aggressive gate-keeping behavior.

I remember one senior scholar dismissively informing me that the Supreme Court had never made a significant immigration decision because that was a niche area of law. I didn’t have the confidence to tell him that a) he was wrong, the Supreme Court had recently made some highly significant immigration related decisions and seemed to be making more each year, b) I was actually studying administrative courts both in the US and elsewhere, and c) sometimes the Supreme Court makes really important immigration policy when it chooses not to take a case. Instead, I just questioned whether I should keep trying with APSA or re-orient myself totally towards the Law and Society world, which felt like it was much more accepting of the type of work I did.

Thankfully, I didn’t give up. And, through going to conferences, I eventually met amazing scholars like Anna Law and Susan Sterett who gave me advice, mentorship, and support of the frank and unvarnished variety – my favorite kind! They showed me that you can study law, courts, and migration in a rigorous and impressive way that has heart. Simply having a few people like them express interest in my work and act like it belonged in the section made all the difference in the world.

Let me be very clear: I know we have a long way to go to be a diverse and inclusive section. It is still disproportionately male and shockingly white. Just because I now (post tenure) feel more comfortable in the section does not mean that I think its problems are solved. However, the section has also changed dramatically in the time I have been a member in ways that give me great hope. As a general matter, several successive batches of section leadership have worked hard to understand climate issues via a member survey, to end the toxicity of the listserv by changing its format, and to take a stand against bullying and harassing behavior which has occurred far too frequently over the years. These efforts are bound to diversify the section since we know that a hostile climate is more likely to drive away women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ members, and those of us who study law and courts beyond Capitol Hill.

I’m also hopeful about the ways in which the tent of Law and Courts has been expanding. Just to focus on my particular area of interest as one exciting example of change, this summer the section hosted a well-attended Brown Bag event showcasing new research on law and migration. And there is a panel at the upcoming APSA meeting with the title “The Role of Courts in Migration and Asylum.” My younger self would have killed for such things, and it is so validating to see them finally happening.

So in the hopes that someone reading this is in a similar situation to the one I was in fifteen years ago: Hello and welcome! If you think you study law and courts, you do! You belong. If you would like to get involved in running the section in some capacity, please don’t be shy. Reach out to section leadership. The section has only changed because the people in charge of it worked to actively change it. And if you have ideas, we want to hear them. I thought I wasn’t ‘qualified’ to serve on the Executive Council of the section when I got nominated because I wasn’t a central figure in it. Then, I ended up really enjoying learning about the inner workings of the section. I can honestly say now that it finally feels like a community to me.

Some Advice for New Faculty Members

Wendy Martinek, Professor, Department of Political Science, Binghamton University

I am now more than two decades away from earning my Ph.D. And, as any even casual observer of the professoriate and academic world more generally can attest, a lot has changed in those two decades. I am also keenly aware that my experiences as a new faculty member are shaped by the fact I was in a particular department in a particular institution in a particular state/country. This made me wonder if I had any useful advice to offer to new faculty members. Upon reflection, however, I realize I do have two pieces of advice that are not specific to an institution and are not stale-dated by virtue of my degree date.

Figure out what your department values and do that (Spoiler alert: You are probably already doing it.)

Stating the obvious, institutions are not all the same as to what they value. Knowing what your particular department1 values is important for constructing a record that will result in desirable outcomes, which presumably includes tenure at some point. Of course, savvy new faculty (who were once savvy job candidates) have already gathered a lot of information during the interview process. Departmental documents, faculty handbooks, and the like are useful references, too. But policies and their application are subject to change over time. There might be formal changes that are clearly (or not-so-clearly) communicated, but there might also be informal “drift” in terms of how policies are interpreted. This makes it important to consult widely and regularly to ensure you continue to share the same understanding of what is valued as those who will be instrumental in your personnel decisions (e.g., senior faculty in your department).

Don’t stop there, however. The crucial next step is to think about what you already do (or what you want to do), and work on framing that in terms of what your department prizes. Hiring departments obviously thought there was a match when you joined the faculty. But, as you progress from brand-new faculty member to advanced junior faculty member, the burden will be on you to make the case that the match is still there. This emphatically does not mean you need to turn yourself inside out or into something you have no desire to be. You have a lot of agency in shaping your identity for others. Don’t sit back and allow others to define who you are as a teacher and scholar. Certainly, use opportunities such as annual reviews and contract renewals to communicate who you are but also take advantage of less formal lines of communication (e.g., meetings with senior faculty or hallway conversations with colleagues). Regardless of the conduit of communication, the broader point is to be explicit for others in drawing the connection between what you do and what your department values.

Think programmatically about both teaching and research

Starting as a new faculty member can feel like taking over for Sisyphus.2 It is challenging to juggle multiple classes (probably for the first time) while simultaneously keeping research activities from grinding to a complete halt3 and fulfilling whatever service obligations you have. So taking time to work out a multi-year plan for both your teaching and research might not seem like a productive use of the scarce time you have available. But doing so will have several benefits.

With regard to teaching, thinking programmatically means constructing a coherent roster of classes that you intend to teach on a regular basis over the course of your time as a junior faculty member. Preferably, they should be classes that enthuse and excite you. Doing this requires, of course, bearing in mind departmental needs. And how many courses make their way on to your roster is going to vary based on your standard course load. But avoid the temptation of volunteering for a lot of different classes, something that is easier to avoid when you have a preferred sequence of class offerings in mind. Multiple new preps each semester are time-consuming, often resulting in poorer course evaluations,4 as well as being personally draining. Thinking programmatically about what you teach also has the advantage of letting you plot a rational sequence for the development of your courses. For example, it might make sense to offer a particular course as a seminar before developing it into a course intended for a larger group of students. Or you might realize that one course should be developed first because it serves as the foundation for other courses.

With regard to research, thinking programmatically means determining the scholarly identity you want for yourself. That is not as dramatic as it may seem. All it means is constructing a coherent set of questions on which you want to focus as a junior faculty member. It may seem premature when you are first starting out as a new faculty member, but think ahead to what you would like to say in the statement of research you are likely to have to produce for a renewal or tenure and promotion application. What is the arc (or arcs) of scholarship you would like to be able to discuss then? This is a useful exercise because it will serve as a blueprint of sorts to guide your research, particularly as you move beyond the dissertation. It will also make it easier to identify and prioritize those projects that contribute to the scholarly identity you are building for yourself. Thinking programmatically about your research will also make it easier when you have a pet project that is orthogonal to your other work but that you do not want to let go. You can simply move it down in your research agenda and take comfort in knowing you have not jettisoned it, just postponed it!

One last thing

One size definitely does not fit all, of course, and the logistics of putting these pieces of advice into practice will vary. Find a set of mentors at your institution as soon as possible so they can help you tailor your choices to the specifics of your institution. Notice that I used the plural. No one person is going to have the same exact perspective or provide the same exact advice. You, as the most important active agent of your career, will need to think through those perspectives and that advice to chart your best course. But you’ll be much better informed in doing so if you have a team of mentors.5

References

Chavez, Kerry and Kristina M.W. Mitchell. 2020. “Exploring Bias in Student Evaluations: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity.” P.S.: Political Science & Politics 53(2): 270-274.

Martin, Lisa. 2016. “Gender, Teaching Evaluations, and Professional Success in Political Science.” PS: Political Science & Politics 49(2): 313-319.