by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Our world and our lives today are filled with all sorts of communications technology, making it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to meet up with people from all over the world without physically traveling very far. So, why go to political science conferences, or academic conferences more generally? I think there are a number of good reasons.

I attend the MPSA annual meetings in Chicago every year and have for years, not counting the pandemic era when the conference was held virtually (I attended that way too). I’ve been attending the conference in person in Chicago since I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri in the 1990s. I was encouraged to attend by my professors, who thought it would be good for professional development. It was.

This reflective essay is for those new political scientists and political scientists-to-be who are not sure if attending the MPSA or other political science conferences is worth it. It’s also for those who have attended in the past, but haven’t been in years and may be wondering if it’s worth the investment. Here’s my position: it is absolutely worth it. I look forward to the MPSA and other conferences every year, and I simply do not believe I could’ve had the professional success that I have had, and continue to have if it weren’t for these conferences. Plus, they are a lot of fun.

So why go to a face-to-face, political science conference, which requires transportation, hotel, arrangements, meals, travel reimbursements (hopefully), and all of the other hassles of traveling? I believe it is because there’s something about being at a large conference that simply cannot be replicated in our day-to-day activities as political scientists at our various universities and other worksites.

Many of us work at small or medium size schools, where political science is hardly the only priority, if it is a priority at all. I have been at Emporia State University in Kansas since 2005. For many years, I had exactly 2 colleagues in political science, neither of whom had research agendas that fell anywhere close to my own. A few years ago, we had a retirement and the position was eliminated due to attrition, so it’s now down to two political scientists with wildly different research agendas. It works, because we specialize in such different things and are able to teach broadly.  We get along well, and each of us take a different piece of political science and teach a variety of classes to make sure our students get what they need. However, there are few colleagues at ESU who share my research interests. I have minimal opportunities to interact with those who are reading, discussing, and doing cutting edge research in my subfield of political science when I am at work at ESU. Instead, my primary focus is teaching and community engagement, both activities which I find highly fulfilling. However, we academics know well that the third leg of the famous three legged stool is research.

A political science conference like MPSA is particularly useful for someone in my situation. It is a large conference with hundreds of panels and people attending from all over the world. Although there are somewhat more attendees from Midwestern states due to the ease of travel, don’t let the regional name fool you. MPSA casts a much wider net. I can hear colleagues from research universities talk about the latest developments in theory, methods, data collection, observation, and more. I simply do not have this opportunity at Emporia State. I appreciate my employer tremendously, but no one worksite can meet one person’s entire set of professional needs. Going to MPSA is like returning to graduate school, only I don’t have to prepare for comprehensive exams or write a dissertation. Instead, I get back up to speed on what’s going on in my profession, in a way that I can choose what to propose and present and which other panels I attend.

The skeptic might ask, why don’t you simply read the latest political science journals and university press books in order to stay up to speed on political science? I answer, I do read articles in the journals, and I read new political science books, but which books and articles to read? As can be seen in the conference book room, there are a lot of books and journals in our discipline. They cast a wide net, often publishing articles in other subfields that, while interesting, do not speak directly to my own research agenda. There are also teaching journals, and I enjoy these as well and even serve as a reviewer, but many of these articles are about teaching in other kinds of classes besides the ones I teach. Instead, I start by attending conferences regularly and attending panels, not just the panels on which I’m presenting or serving as a chair or discussant. I also look forward to the poster sessions. By doing this, I can glean from the presentations what is being cited, which tips me off as to which authors to look up and seek out when I get back. Of course, I also learn from the presentations themselves. I can access papers on the MPSA paper archive and read them in their entirety, perhaps even cite them in my own future research.

We do something that we love, and we get paid for it. We are very lucky. At the same time, this is a job, not simply a passion, and we have lots of work responsibilities which can turn into everyday tasks. It’s easy to forget the excitement and the deep richness that can be gleaned from immersing ourselves in our discipline more broadly. A conference gives us the freedom to explore, and the large size of the MPSA gives us more choices of what to think about, explore, participate in and ask questions about than would be possible back in our respective universities. Even someone teaching in a large research university department still isn’t going to see the full range of ideas and possibilities that one will see when attending a conference like the MPSA. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

I process things by taking stock. I like to start out looking at the big picture, and then narrow down to research questions, data, research methods, relevant literature, and all the rest that is increasingly specific to the topic that I wish to study. MPSA is great for all these things, but I particularly like the opportunity to look at the big picture. By being able to go to any panel I want, unless more than one panel that interests me is scheduled at the same time, I am able to see such a rich variety that I can begin to look for patterns and themes of what is going on in political science. I can take stock of what has changed, and what has not since I was in graduate school in the 1990s. You simply can’t do this at your everyday job with just a small handful of political science colleagues, whose primary responsibility is teaching, plus administrative tasks. In sum, I think the sheer size of a conference like the MPSA is one of its biggest advantages. While it can be frustrating when more than one panel of interest is scheduled at the same time, the good outweighs the bad. This is a wonderful opportunity to graze our discipline, really look at the big picture, even go to panels on areas of interest in which I have never taught or done research. You simply can’t do that easily at a smaller conference.

There is also something delightful about the travel aspect. Of course, my friends and family who work in other professions are very jealous, as well they should be. However, traveling to political science conferences is not tourism. Now, I won’t lie, I really enjoy the opportunity to go out in the evenings and see Chicago and the other great cities that host these conferences. I particularly love Chicago, ever since I first traveled there from Kansas City as a kid, with my father. There is so much to do and explore. But during the day, I do focus on attending panels, slipping out for lunch at some of the wonderful, unique restaurants that are in the area around the Palmer House. During the day, it’s all business.

What a business it is! There is something about being in a location where you do not live that confers freedom. Things are taken care of back at the hotel, there is no laundry to do, such tasks do not structure the workday when you are away from home.  All of this reinforces the idea of exploring, as does slipping out to explore Chicago in the evenings after the panels are over. Just as we explore when we travel, we also explore political science.

I know that people have all sorts of reasons for choosing to attend or not to attend conferences like this. I do not mean to cast a harsh judgment. I also know that at my university and many others, travel funding is becoming increasingly hard to come by. That said, and at the risk of an overgeneralization, I cannot help but notice that those who remain vibrant and active as researchers are often the ones who continue attending conferences regularly, long after graduate school. At a smaller university, it is so easy to settle in and get into a routine.

We often teach the same classes again and again, which are already prepped. Sure, we might switch out a book on the syllabus every now and then, or update an assessment here and there, but we already have working material, so if it isn’t broken, why fix it? Likewise, as I mentioned earlier, there are all those administrative responsibilities and tasks. One can have a successful career teaching, particularly after achieving tenure and the promotion, so is it really necessary to continue doing so much research, if one is good at teaching and service and administrative responsibilities? Should we rest on our laurels? Particularly at teaching centered institutions, research after one has achieved tenure, promotion and promotion again to “full” Professor is often not something that is viewed as an absolute requirement, but more of a bonus. I have seen numerous colleagues that are fine teachers who treat their job as a teaching and service job and settle in and have fine careers. However, what they do not do is stay current on the latest developments in their disciplines.

By contrast, those of us who attend conferences regularly are not simply resting on the research, the research methods, and the theoretical ideas that we learned in graduate school. I think those that go to conferences are usually the ones that remain fresh and vibrant with regards to research. We are the ones most likely to continue publishing after tenure and promotion. We are the ones most likely to explore new research methods and new possibilities.

A case in point here is the growing popularity of the computer programming language R. When I was in graduate school, we learned packages which are also very effective ways of conducting relevant data analysis in our respective disciplines. However, for many cutting edge academics, R has overtaken those. R is free and open access. Anyone can download it and its companion, R Studio, for free, and when one gets really sophisticated, one can even write one’s own R packages and upload them for others to use. However, R itself is a computer programming language, not a package. Learning it is a major time commitment: a good example of the difference between those of us that choose to remain vibrant in terms of research, and those who are comfortable with just the teaching, administrative and service responsibilities at the job. The former group of us is learning R even though it is time-consuming and can be frustrating. This enables us to more easily share our research and ideas with colleagues, and to keep up with things going on in ours and related disciplines. I’ve noticed that those who are less excited to stay on top of the latest developments in the research, and whose institutions are not pushing them to do so are more likely to use other applications that are easier, cost money, and aren’t as versatile as R. For a lot of research, those other packages are probably just fine, and they are easier to use. They are also excellent for introducing students to data analysis, students who might be overwhelmed by the idea of learning to write code in order to do their very first data analysis.

Still, there is little question that in many disciplines including political science, in the latest research, the cutting edge is really focused on using R. This enables us to stay up-to-date and current, this enables us to track what our colleagues are doing, to share scripts, and to easily understand the processing that is going on with the data.

Also, let’s not forget the networking. One of my favorite things about MPSA is seeing friends who have remained close ever since we went to graduate school together, who now teach in other states. Sure, we have email, social media, and other ways of staying in touch, but there’s nothing like getting together in person. I’ve also gotten reacquainted with people that I haven’t seen in years at these conferences. A few years ago, we even formed a working group of people interested in voting laws, consisting of some of us who already knew each other, and some new folks we hadn’t met before but met attending the same panels at MPSA. We started working together, and the end result was our book Much Sound and Fury or the New Jim Crow? The 21st Century’s Restrictive New Voting Laws in the States, published in 2022 by SUNY press. This absolutely would not have been possible without all of us attending the MPSA conference in person.  We’re still at it, doing a roundtable this time on new developments in these laws since 2020.

What I am saying here is that if one is comfortable with one’s duties at a teaching centered institution and does them well, it probably is not necessary to go to political science conferences. You already know what you are doing and are good at it. The questions are, do you want to take things to the next level, do you want to stay active with the new developments in your discipline, not unlike what you were expected to do when you were in graduate school? I do. I doubt I would lose my job if I did not do this, but it is important to me. As deeply grateful as I am for the opportunities I have had, and continue to have in my institution, I want more. Attendance at MPSA and other conferences allows me to stay caught up with my research and university colleagues, to see old friends, and remain deeply invested in my discipline (the research side in particular, although there is also an increasing interest in panels on teaching)— things that I simply wouldn’t be able to do if I never left my home institution.

I can’t wait to get to Chicago. See you there!


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored five books, the most recent of which is Reform and Reaction: The Arc of Modern Kansas Politics.  Co-edited by H. Edward Flentje, the book will be published later in 2024.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on X (formerly known as Twitter).