Critical junctures in my academic writing

Recently, I published my first solo-article and I am obviously very excited about it (you can read it here). However, this post is not about my article per se, but rather about how this article came into being. Apparently even peer-reviewed publications sometimes have a story to tell.

The genesis of this publication date back to 2015, my third year of graduate school. At the time, I was enrolled in “Political Inquiry and Analysis” seminar, while also working on a dissertation prospectus. By then I knew that QCA will be my cross-sectional method of choice and I also knew that most members on my committee were not familiar with it. To that end, I used the Political Inquiry seminar to write a research paper that highlighted how QCA is different from standard statistical approaches. My hope was to incorporate that paper into my prospectus.

The seminar paper was well received by my course instructor, so I decided to submit it for presentation at a conference. It would not take long for MPSA to accept my proposal. It was all going well until the first critical juncture. Before going MPSA, I thought it would be good for another faculty to look at my work. The feedback I received surprised me. It is not that I can not take academic criticism, but the way this criticism was delivered. For a moment, I felt like a kid who ran away from preschool but got caught by a local police officer (since this actually happened, I assure you that emotions evoked by these two events are similar). If the paper is that bad, I thought, I should withdraw it from MPSA because the prospect of embarrassing myself in front of strangers in Chicago does not sound very appealing. Ultimately, my dissertation advisor convinced me to go and present (thank you!). Surprisingly, the paper was well-received and I was even accepted to present it at my first APSA conference ever. As my confidence in the paper grew, I received a very consequential email:

We are delighted to invite you to join us at the 2nd Annual Southwest Mixed-Methods Research Workshop, which will take place on October 20-21, 2016, at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, Arizona. We believe that your paper will make an excellent contribution to our discussion over the 1 ½ day event.

The SWMMR workshop was the real critical juncture that, I believe, helped transform me from a student into a scholar. I remain grateful to Jennifer Cyr who organized the workshop in 2016. Jen was a wonderful host, and we even toured a local Costco store. But above all else, she made me feel like I belonged as a young scholar, and this attitude was expressed by other participants as well. Now, I must admit that I got a bit nervous when the official program was released. Gary Goertz was the keynote speaker, while Jim Mahoney was slotted to discuss my paper. This made me edgy because my paper argues that the “two culture argument” – developed by Goertz and Mahoney (2012) – is very useful but not “extended to its logical conclusion.” If you are a graduate student and this scenario does not make you nervous, nothing will. But Jim was great and offered me more feedback that my brain could process at the time. We had another opportunity to chat that evening and his encouragement is one of the main reasons why this article is now published. I also felt that our 45 minute talk amounted to a full semester of graduate courses I somehow missed. I was lucky enough to attend another SWMMR workshop two years later, and once again it was an unbelievable experience (link).

So, what lessons do I take from this story? I think there are three:

  1. Confidence is important, even (or especially?) in academic writing. Thus, surround yourself with people who will give you honest feedback. This amounts to pointing someone in the right direction. Rarely is a paper so bad that it is beyond saving.
  2. Your department is likely not a microcosm of the political science discipline, so venture out. You might find that you are not alone in your thinking.
  3. Believe in yourself. It is important to have good mentors, discussants, and other support groups, but at the end of the day you are the one who must believe that what you do matters.

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