March 11, 2024

Anna Valcour | Graduate School of Arts and SciencesEric Miller

Politics PhD student Eric F. Miller was awarded a Connected PhD summer experience grant to attend three workshops at UMass ISSR (Institute for Social Science Research). He gained experience in qualitative methodologies, R programming software, and social network analysis.

What inspired you to attend the workshops at UMass ISSR? And what did you learn there?

One of the first and foremost reasons I wanted to attend the workshop at UMass ISSR was because I didn't have an extensive methods background in my undergraduate experience. My first year in the PhD program felt a bit like a baptism by fire; it was the first time I had to think about any type of methodology at all – qualitative or quantitative. I took a qualitative method seminar with Professor Dan Kryder during my spring semester, where we learned about process tracing. I wanted to learn more methodologies, so I enrolled in three different seminars at UMass USSR. The first workshop was an overview of qualitative methodologies (e.g., ethnography, focus groups, and interviews). It was a very beneficial experience, and I see myself using the tools I gained from this workshop in my future research. My second course was an introduction to R-software. As a political science student who studies elections, I work with numbers. Taking that two-day workshop was wonderful! When I used R again in a quantitative research method course this past semester at Boston University, I was able to grasp concepts quickly and apply them. Sometimes, you don’t always realize how beneficial these experiences are until you apply it later. My third workshop was an introduction to social network analysis. Admittedly, that one was really hard. I am still processing what I learned. Recently, I read one or two articles that used social network analysis. While I still have no idea how to code it in R, I know how to read it now! 

I know I felt like the first year in my PhD was a “baptism by fire” too. How did you come to recognize the lacunae in your own knowledges?

It was a mixture of everything – internal awareness, peers, and professors. Heading into the PhD program, I quickly realized that I needed to build up my toolbox. Because I study elections, I knew I needed experience working with data that would require learning statistics, programming software (like Stata or R), and more. Political scientists typically prefer to use R. I’ve used both now and can see the appeal. I come from a small but mighty department and as the most junior student, I’ve learned a lot from my fellow doctoral students (who are all in their dissertation phase) and advisors. They are very supportive and willing to share their own experiences and advice. A lot of their advice centered on starting early. One of my peers, Daniel Ruggles, introduced me to the Connected PhD and the UMass ISSR workshops. Additionally, we are also limited in methodology and the trainings we offer. We have qualitative methods courses but do not have a quantitative methods seminar for graduate students. Speaking to my professors and other doctoral students, they all were very honest with me and said that I needed to have, at bare minimum, some knowledge and experience with these skillsets. Ultimately, it was a combination of my own recognition and really good advising within my department – I’m grateful for both.  

Did you have a favorite part of your experience? 

In the first workshop, we were randomly paired with another participant…and I ended up with Dr. MJ Peterson, the then-chair of the Political Science Department at UMass Amherst. What a fortunate pairing! She gave me some excellent advice and wonderful words of encouragement. It made me realize that at any stage in your academic career, you could be doing these workshops and building up your tool set. She was very forthright and said that she was taking the course because she wanted to better understand her colleagues’ qualitative work. It was very validating for me as well and reaffirmed everything my department said about starting early. 

How did this project enhance your skills beyond academia? 

I’ve thought about my career path a lot in the past year. Frankly, when I started my doctoral program, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to be a professor. And I still think…do I want to go the academic route or pursue a career outside academia? Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do with a doctorate in political science – especially regarding industry, like think tank work, data processing, etc. The Brandeis politics department is largely focused on qualitative methodology, so I’d need to continue learning quantitative methods to make myself marketable for industry jobs. Then again, I am starting to lean towards the academic track a little more now.

Because of these experiences, I think about elections a lot differently than I did a year ago. These workshops really helped prepare me for my research as well as provided the foundation I need to pursue a career outside academia. If I decide later in grad school to aim towards industry, there are courses I can take with the consortium, people I can talk to for advice, and more! This experience really opened a lot of doors to all sorts of new possibilities down the road. 

What advice would you give to other PhD students interested in professional development? 

If you think it’s going to be beneficial for you in any way – go for it! Also, be transparent with the people in your department about the types of programs you’re interested in. Seeking advice about which workshops to register for at UMass, I asked Professor Jeffrey Lenowitz who recommended two out of three. He expressed caution for the social network analysis workshop, saying that if I want to do it, go for it, but it does require a lot of programming experience and statistical knowledge. Ultimately, I took the course with an “I’ll figure it out” mentality. The first day of the workshop, I understood almost everything, but after that…almost nothing. There’s lots of benefits to participating in these experiences, but at the end of the day, these programs do cost money, so if you can receive grant funding it really helps. Otherwise, spending a couple hundred dollars on a program while understanding less than half of it might not be worth it.