BSc student James Sanders reflects on his experience attending and presenting a research paper at the Political Studies Association Conference in Glasgow in April 2017.
When people ask what my research is about, their eyes tend to glaze over as I say: “demonstrating the robustness of proprietary quantitative textual analysis tools through a series of methodological challenges”. Granted it isn’t what most BSc Government and Economics students enjoy, but it led to me presenting a paper at the Political Studies Association (PSA) annual conference in Glasgow.
But, before that, let me explain that I took on my first Research Assistant (RA) role for the LSE Department of Government in the Michaelmas Term of my first undergraduate year. I was involved with an innovative experiment studying non-verbal communication, undertaken in the LSE’s Behavioural Research Lab. This experience led to another RA position during summer 2016, and my introduction to quantitative textual analysis: a 10,000-word appendix to a book studying select committee discourse in the UK. And finally, as an extension of that, I have co-authored a paper with Professor Schonhardt-Bailey and Giulio Lisi (Government PhD candidate) – and this is the paper that I presented at the PSA.
A year ago, I knew less about academia than the average LSE undergraduate. It was only six months ago I learned that academic conferences and journals were different things. Just a few months after this revelation I was applying to an array of Political Science conferences – including the American Political Science Association (APSA); European Political Science Association (EPSA); and the PSA. We kept our fingers crossed and were lucky enough to be accepted to the EPSA and PSA. However, the elation quickly turned to dread as I realised that I would be the one presenting at my first ever conference.
I had never presented a research paper to anyone, never been to an academic conference, and never even watched someone else present an academic paper before. The LSE Department of Government was excellent in funding my flights and accommodation, and making sure all our flights lined up perfectly. Hence, with one less stress, I thoroughly scoured through examples of conference presentations. I tried to achieve the best balance between explaining the technicalities and creating an engaging and flowing presentation. After a few days of making more and more minor changes, I sent the presentation to the panel along with our latest draft of the paper.
The PSA Annual Conference was a much larger and grander event than I had imagined. It was hosted at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, with this year’s theme being: “Politics in Interesting Times”. There were three days of panels, dinners, and keynote speakers on a diverse range of topics: from Trump and Brexit, to methodology and political theory. The line-up was spectacular and it was interesting to hear from people who you’ve referenced countless times in Department course modules like GV101. The keynote addresses included Professor John Curtice on public opinion and demographics leading up the Brexit Referendum; and Professor Pippa Norris on the Populist-Authoritarian Challenge to Western Democracies. As you would expect, populism was high on the agenda, which was both fascinating and provided direction in further developing my other research projects.
My panel – Exploring New Methods and Interdisciplinary Work in Legislative Studies – was on the second day, which gave me some time to learn what was expected of me as a presenter. Despite putting me slightly at ease, I realised I’d be answering questions from people much more experienced than myself. I knew my paper inside out, but the real fear was that someone would bring up a critique from a paper I’d never heard of, or a methodology that went straight over my head
Luckily that didn’t happen. In fact, the questions were more insightful and useful than critical. The panel wasn’t text-analysis focussed, and hence there were no questions regarding algorithmic or statistical design. Also, my co-authors were in the audience, and built upon a few of my responses. The presentation went without a hitch and people seemed impressed – a huge relief. I spent the rest of the conference relaxed and enjoying the talks more, without having to analyse how the researchers presented. The overall atmosphere was friendly yet intellectual, and some of the conversations I had were enthralling.
Later that evening was the conference dinner. The drink, food and networking were all great, and the keynote speaker – Nicola Sturgeon – was a pleasant addition to the evening. She talked on Scottish Independence and Brexit, as well as the importance of political scientists and theorists during these “interesting times”. She bravely took questions from the audience of academics, many of whom made a living by studying nationalism, succession, and devolved parliaments. It was a great night which ended with Scottish dancing, fuelled by wine and whisky.
Despite being an undergraduate, I felt just as much a part of the conference as anyone else. I listened to academics at the cutting edge of their fields as they studied the ground-breaking political events of 2016. As my first conference, it’s an experience that will always stay with me, and I urge all students – at any level – to get more involved in political studies and research. Since the PSA, our paper has been presented at the Quantitative Textual Analysis conference held at LSE, and is soon to be presented at EPSA.
James Sanders is second year BSc Government and Economics student from London. Alongside studying at LSE, his research interests surround the application of quantitative textual analysis methods to Political Science.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.