A longstanding forum run for and by graduate students at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies is expanding its offerings while focusing on its original mission: helping young scholars develop the sometimes intangible skills they’ll need on the job.

The Comparative Politics Workshop gives students the opportunity to present and discuss their papers and research projects in a format modeled after what they might encounter at a professional conference, though in a more low-key, collegial setting. The program, which bills itself as “proudly powered by PhD students at the Kellogg Institute,” meets weekly during the academic year and is open to students of all disciplines, though most come from the field of political science.

“It gives students a friendly audience to present their work before they try to take it to a professional audience or submit it to a publication,” said Jacob Turner, a doctoral student affiliate who heads the initiative this year. “It’s a great way to meet people and try to integrate yourself into the scholarly community.”

Those involved with CPW, which has met virtually since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, say the program helps participants gain planning and leadership skills while learning how to build and maintain a sense of community. It also helps them learn to collaborate with other scholars, both in and outside their fields of study.

Former Kellogg doctoral student Nara Pavão helped launch the first version of the Workshop – then called the Comparative Politics Discussion Seminar – in 2010 to give grad students a formal space to present drafts and receive input on their work.

It was also meant to help them learn about their colleagues’ research and practice an important component of their profession: how to offer constructive, structured feedback to others.

“Grad students tend to work in isolation, so this was a way for us to interact more and to be more aware of each other’s work,” she said.

Now an assistant professor of political science at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil, Pavão said participants used the forum to practice job talks and organized special sessions on weekends before big conferences to rehearse their presentations.

The fact that is was led by students, she said, helped meet their unique needs and “ended up really bringing us together. And the workshops felt more welcoming and less intimidating than other settings.”

Turner, a political scientist, has been part of CPW for three years and said that “what the workshop helps with most is the process of accepting feedback. It’s hard to put yourself out there and have your work criticized, and to hear those criticisms and respond in a professional way and use them to improve your work.”

But the fact that CPW is run by graduate students is its most important feature.

 “It helps set the tone of the workshop to be collaborative, more open and friendly,” he added. “It’s less intimidating than if it were organized by faculty or run by a department, and it encourages students to put themselves out there more easily.”

Kellogg Assistant Director Denise Wright, who oversees graduate student programs for the Institute, said CPW gives students valuable opportunities for professional development, particularly at a time when their research has been disrupted by the coronavirus.

After COVID put a halt to most travel – and to the fieldwork most grad students needed to finish their dissertations – CPW responded by offering its first-ever summer session, giving students a way to grow professionally during the unexpected research hiatus. And in September, it hosted its first “Lightening Round,” in which participants briefly presented one-page research designs.

She noted that both events, like all CPW programming, were originated by students and highlight their creativity in problem-solving and addressing the specific needs within their community.

“Their work at CPW often flies under the radar, but they do everything themselves. They own the program, which is what makes it so successful,” she said. “And by being part of CPW, they’re taking charge of their own professionalization.”

A handful of faculty regularly join in CPW sessions. Among them is Faculty Fellow Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, a professor of political science and global affairs who said the workshops are unique because they are fully run by doctoral students. They also offer a valuable space for professional development and an opportunity for students to receive constructive criticism.

“Scholarship can be quite lonely as we dive solo into the depths of our research projects,” he said. “The workshop allows us to come out, take a breath, and share our ideas in a collegial and supportive environment.”

PhD Fellow Tomás Gold described the atmosphere at CPW as “always friendly and very cooperative.” The political sociologist said feedback he received on a paper was key to streamlining it and readying it for publication.

Gold noted that it can be difficult for scholars in his field to find spaces to discuss comparative research designs.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that CPW plays a significant role by opening a space for horizontal discussion with colleagues from different disciplines but interested in the same type of approach and methodological sensibilities,” he said.

Participants say CPW has helped them become better researchers in their field as well as broader thinkers because they’re exposed to methods and ideas outside their areas of expertise.
“The Comparative Politics Workshop has been an invaluable intellectual community that has fostered both my professionalization and growth as a scholar,” added Andrea Peña-Vasquez, a doctoral student affiliate studying political science. “It has not only expanded my breadth of knowledge in allowing me to read work outside of my field, but has also vastly improved the quality of my own research.”