Last weekend Molly, Julian, and I went to the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Conference in Chicago. While we were all working on our theses in the fall, our advisor suggested that we all apply to present our research at the undergraduate poster sessions since, come April, we would all be done with our papers, have posters already made, and have presented already to the other faculty. She also said Carleton would probably pay for it. A weekend in Chicago with cool professors and friends with no additional work or expenses required? I’m in. I applied and was notified in December that I was accepted (as were Molly, Julian, Charu, and Jeff). We hung out with Charu and Jeff for a bit, but their schedules were pretty different from ours and they made different travel plans. The three of us, on the other hand, were on the same flight, packed all of our suits in one bag, stayed in the same apartment (that we rented), attended most of the same panels, and had our poster sessions at the same time. It was cute.
I love Chicago so much and the walk between the apartment we were renting and the conference hotel was filled with beautiful architecture and shops and restaurants (and their accompanying exciting sights and smells). The weather was crummy for most of the weekend, but it was still warmer than Minnesota and at least it wasn’t snowing.
The first day we got up at 6 to catch our flight, but got to Chicago and hit the ground running to make the most of our first conference experience. We planned on getting there and immediately going to a panel, but when we arrived there was so much going on that we had no idea where to go first. The “program” was the size of a textbook and in every time slot there were at least 20 panels going on. Some time slots there weren’t any/many that looked interesting and other times I wanted to attend half of them. It felt like picking classes.
So we sat on a couch, drank more coffee (I think we had each had 2 cups at this point) and scoured the program to decide what to do next. And we people watched. Political scientists are kind of weird, especially in large groups. They ranged from young grad students hoping to get their research noticed to institutional giants who were just putting another notch in their conference belt. Some were wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches and some were wearing converse. I think we blended in because many of the grad students didn’t look much older than us, but our wide-eyed nerdy excitement probably gave us away. When we walked into the conference for the first time, the first person we saw was actually a Carleton professor. He said he was really excited we were there, that he hoped we had a good experience, and that we looked good. Thanks? I hope that doesn’t mean we look like slobs at school and clean up nicely.
We each split up for our first panel. I went to one on security in South Asia and learned about the repression of a certain Islamic sect and the relationship between economic development and terrorism rates.
At 4:30 we decided to go to a roundtable discussion together, but quickly realized it was about a book that none of us had read. We stuck it out for a little while, but didn’t feel like we were getting anything out of it so we ended up sneaking out of the discussion early and going to a nearby bar with one of our professors and his grad school friends for a while where we quickly realized that the only thing we had drunk that day was coffee (and now alcohol). After about an hour of chatting with the table of incredibly friendly and intelligent PhD candidates (I’m not sure how many of them had already finished their dissertations), we realized we needed to eat and hydrate. So we parted ways and set off in search of a place to eat. We ended up walking two blocks and eating at another pub. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so excited to eat. After talking and eating for what seemed like several more hours, we checked our watches to see how late it was. It was…9pm. I guess that’s what happens when you get up at 6am, spend all day traveling, going to discussions, and not drinking water, and then go to a bar at 5:45. Personally, I loved it. I got to spend hours talking to interesting and fun people and still got to be in bed by 10:30. I am aware of my age and am unashamed of my grandma-like tendencies.
After getting 10 hours of sleep (sooo needed), we went to the conference around 9:30 to get breakfast and attend a panel (sidenote: I always love rooming with people who understand the importance of coffee and even get up a few minutes earlier to make it for everyone. Thanks, Julian). We all went to the same one (I think it was titled “Human Rights and International Institutions”) and learned about narratives that influence how the Security Council votes, the way humanitarian agencies and human rights groups portray themselves and their messages in the media, and about a certain test to measure trust between ethnic groups.
Afterwards we had lunch with Dev and she took us to the Russian Tea Room, just around the corner from the conference hotel. I don’t think I had ever had Russian food before, but it was so good. I had asparagus dumplings.
Our poster session was in the afternoon and we were all a little nervous, but we had been working on our papers for about a year and felt pretty confident that no one was going to throw us a curve ball and ask us a question we didn’t know the answer to. Overall I thought it went really well. Not many people came through (which I expected because they all had their own panels to worry about and friends to see), but several people did and they all seemed to like my project. In fact, one of the women from the morning panel we went to specifically came to see me because she thought my paper sounded interesting. Win! And Dev and Alex stopped by to be supportive. Couldn’t have asked for a better mentor.
Important note: the undergrad poster sessions were in the “book room”, the place where a million publishing companies come to sell their recent publications. In other words, our heaven and our wallets’ worst nightmare. We were told to wait until the last day of the conference to purchase books because the publishers would start slashing prices and boy are we glad we did. At one point I found a station with all hardcovers going for $10 and all paperbacks for $5. On our way out they even started giving away books for FREE. It was really hard to fight the urge to just go back to the apartment and read out new books, but we resisted and went out to dinner and for a drink. It doesn’t matter that we were still in bed before 11. I consider this wall to be rather impressive (the bottom three are mine….I need to branch out).
We felt really cool carrying all of these home (along with our posters). The first thing Dev said to us when we went to lunch was “take off your badges”. Don’t want to be easily identified as nerds outside of the conference walls. I think we look super cool.
After our poster session we attempted to go to another panel, but were so tired and the statistical modeling that was being discussed went straight over our heads. We ducked out early and pulled another eat, drink, pass out early. It was so fun and felt so good.
Overall, the conference was fun and really informative. But I don’t think I want to be an academic. I definitely want to continue to learn and study things in a more formal way (through publications and stuff), but I can’t see myself attending conferences like this for the rest of my life. I am much more interested in the practitioner side of things/learning facts and histories than coming up with research designs and hypotheses. We’ll see. Grad school is probably on the horizon in the near future, but I’d like to experience the things that I have been studying before I continue to study them in an academic setting.
One last perk of the conference? One of the professors attending the conference is my neighbor and he left before I did, so since I’ve been running with his pup and I live close by, I got to dog-sit for a day and a half. Chantal took over after I left and sent me picture updates throughout the weekends so I knew she was still alive and well. Who could resist that smile?
I still think conferences are funny things. From a content perspective, I enjoyed NUCHR much more because it was tailored to what I was interested in. MPSA was much broader and I found I wasn’t interested in a lot of what was going on. Socially, MPSA was much more fun because Carleton students and professors were there and it was so fun to hang out with them. I don’t know when my next conference will be (perhaps this will be the last? Unlikely. Maybe. I’m not sure), but I hope that I am surrounded by friends and talking/learning about issues I’m passionate about.