“Ask questions that impassion you and that matter for real people!”

02. Juli 2021

What are the major skills in order to become a successful professor in political science?

It depends who you ask. For me, it is most critical to ask important questions and to have the ability to answer them using appropriate data and methods. Without these skills and sensibilities, it’s not clear what this enterprise is all about. Some of this derives naturally from intellectual curiosity, but it also requires training in the major debates and analytical approaches in the discipline as well as in research methods and design.

In the past decade or more, the discipline has become increasingly focused on methods –especially statistical methods for causal inference, often but not exclusively through experimental approaches. This has opened up exciting possibilities for researchers to answer questions in novel ways, and calls for training in relevant methodological approaches. Thus, skills in statistical methods and, in some cases, in “design-based inference” research designs are de rigeur, particularly for mainstream political science in the U.S. That said, this is just one set of approaches political science research, and I would hate for our discipline to become monochromatic because we would not be able to answer all of the important questions that deserve attention nor would we get the best or most complete answers to them. Thankfully, other approaches, including a variety of qualitative and interpretive approaches to research, are alive and well, and more and more researchers recognize the value of gaining skills and experience in these methods as well. This implies that rigorous methodological training, whatever the approach, is essential for success in political science. Answering your question also depends on what you mean by “success.” My response thus far has focused on research. But there are many other aspects to a career in political science. Chief among them is teaching, especially but not only at liberal arts colleges. Ironically, most academics spend a fair amount of time teaching and mentoring students, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level or both. Yet we receive relatively little pedagogical training. One route to academic success, then, is to invest in teaching skills. For some, teaching and engaging students comes relatively naturally – although there is always room for improvement – and for others it requires more work. It is important for institutions to support graduate students and faculty who want to invest in their teaching skills.

Finally, now more than ever it is important to recognize that a career in political science – and in academia more generally – requires perseverance and the ability to withstand and benefit from (constructive) criticism. It takes a long time to get a PhD, and the end result is not certain, with a tighter and tighter job market. Many talented and well-trained political scientists who want tenure-track jobs do not get them, or they find jobs at institutions they do not love. Furthermore, the atmosphere for graduate students and junior faculty seems to be more and more cutthroat and competitive, which can take a psychological toll. Thankfully, many scholars and institutions are pushing back against this by promoting initiatives and efforts to improve the “climate” in their departments and in the discipline more generally. It is important for faculty, and especially senior faculty, to support and propel these efforts.

You have successfully published a number of papers and books. Amongst other things, you were the winner of the 2017 Best Comparative Policy Paper Award and received the Giovanni Sartori Book Award in 2015. What are the major ingredients for an excellent paper?

A strong paper should teach us something new, whether by posing a novel question or providing a novel answer. Beyond this, good social science papers feature some standard elements, including concise statements of the research question and central argument, a literature review that generates and critically evaluates the range of possible answers to the question, appropriate and, ideally, innovative data and research methods, results that provide strong evidence for the main argument and refute as many alternative explanations as possible, and a discussion of the implications of the findings for social science debates, and possibly an agenda for future research. This may sound formulaic, but in practice it’s not easy to executive. As a discipline, we tend to pay less attention to style, but clear writing that avoids unnecessary jargon and conveys the core arguments succinctly is also critical. For some, strong data and methods are the foundation of strong research. These elements are important, but they are not enough. An excellent paper needs to make us think about the world differently in some way.

What was one of the biggest challenges you faced in your academic career? And how did you tackle it?

This is an incredibly rewarding career. It is a privilege to carry out research on questions that intrigue us and to work with students and colleagues as teachers, mentors, and collaborators. At the same time, academia can be tough. In the face of regular critiques of our work, and in a tough publishing environment, we need to have thick skin and to remind ourselves that “feedback is a gift.”

Beyond these general points, more specific challenges I have encountered relate to field research conditions. At times, I have found myself wanting to answer questions that are hard to answer. In parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where I have carried out much of my research, it can be difficult to conduct field research, whether due to restrictions imposed by authoritarian regimes, instability and conflict, or suspicions of foreign researchers given histories of European colonialism and U.S. intervention in the region. By modifying the research question or devising new approaches to data collection, it is possible to circumvent some of these challenges. But repression, instability, and conflict – not to mention the pandemic – have made it increasingly difficult to carry out in-depth field research. This is a real loss because fieldwork is irreplaceable for many of the questions we want to study, and is vital for interpreting and understanding findings generated through more arms-length approaches to data collection.

On a personal level, the balance between family and work has been the greatest challenge I have faced, especially when my children were young. This resulted in years of sleep deprivation, which I know many others have also experienced! I don’t have great advice about how to juggle family and work responsibilities but one approach I have adopted is to break up work-related tasks into bite-sized components and to take advantage of small pockets of “free” time to chip away at them.

How do you manage teaching, researching and administration tasks?

This is a good question because it highlights the many roles that we play as academics, especially as we become more senior, when some of us take on additional administrative responsibilities. I don’t think I realized how multidimensional this job is when I was in graduate school.

I have a few answers to this question. First, the point I just made about breaking up professional responsibilities into bite-sized tasks applies here, too. Second, it is important to block off time every week – such as it exists! – for research and writing. (Of course, depending on the semester, I do not always have much time to spare.) Third, if possible, it is helpful to align teaching and research – whether by teaching a full-blown course or by incorporating components of courses related to one’s current research agenda. Finally, whenever we have a choice, we need to think carefully about the obligations we take on. This is especially true for women and people of color: In the name of diversity – a laudable and critical goal – women and people of color often find themselves in high demand for committee work at all levels – in their departments, at their institutions, and in the discipline more generally. While it is important to have diverse voices represented, especially on high-level committees and other bodies, this can come at a cost to productivity and well-being.

What was one of the best advice you were given during your academic career?

When it comes to research, ask questions that impassion you and that matter for real people.