“The Role of the PSA in Graduate Student Training and Professional Development”

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  • The Role of the PSA in Graduate Student Trainingand Professional Development

    Lora Vess

    # Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

    Abstract Attending and presenting at academic conferences can be an unnerving andformidable experience, especially for graduate students. In this essay, I describe someof my experiences as a graduate student, highlighting the benefits of attending andpresenting at the Pacific Sociological Association annual conference and how this aidedmy professional development. I also provide some ideas for the Association to considerin their goal of improving the graduate student experience. Finally, I conclude withsome recommendations for current graduate students attending the regional conference.

    Keywords Pacific Sociological Association . Conference presentations . Professionaldevelopment . Graduate students

    Early in my graduate career, a professor in my Masters Program at Northern ArizonaUniversity required her students to present our final papers for our classmates in aneffort to prepare us for conference presentations. Points were deducted for poor timemanagement. I practiced tirelessly and received praise when my in-class performanceended precisely at the fifteen-minute mark. I used this experience to help prepare for thePacific Sociological Associations annual meetings, to be held that spring in Portland,Oregon. NAU has a strong tradition of encouraging and supporting its Masters studentsfor the PSAs. I was prepared and excited, but this was my first academic conferenceand I was also a bit apprehensive about what to expect. I did not need to be. From theoutset, I found the PSAs to be a welcoming and respectful environment for graduatestudents. They are educational without being intimidating. Panel attendees providequality feedback and suggestions for research. Criticisms tend to be constructive andforgiving, important for a new and diffident graduate student.

    After completing my degree at NAU, I began the doctoral program at the Universityof Oregon in Eugene. Oregon also has a strong tradition of supporting graduate studentattendance and involvement at the PSAs. I began regularly attending and presenting atthe PSAs while at UO and have continued to do so, even for the four years I was

    Am SocDOI 10.1007/s12108-014-9215-z

    L. Vess (*)University of Alaska, Southeast, Juneau, AK 99801, USAe-mail: levess@uas.alaska.edu

  • employed in the Midwest region. The PSAs have come to be an annual ritual for me.There is no doubt that my involvement at the annual meetings has aided in myprofessional development.

    Ill start with what is probably one of the top reasons (if not mentioned on travelforms) academics attend conferences: to see friends. At the risk of raising the eyebrowsof deans, I dont think this should be viewed suspiciously. My professional identity wasstrongly influenced by shared graduate experiences of learning and growing together associologists and friends. Revisiting these ties is invigorating and intellectually stimu-lating. However, even before my graduate school colleagues and I secured employmentand left Eugene, I found the PSAs afforded me the opportunity to learn more about theresearch of my UO friends and fellow graduate students. UO students are a supportivebunch; we held practice presentations prior to the conference and attended each otherspresentations and panels once there. I learned about the challenges of Filipina domesticworkers in San Francisco from my friend Sandra. Through Maria, I better understoodconstructions of masculinity of immigrant Hispanic men. Listening to research apply-ing theories of political economy as presented by members of my cohort helped mecontextualize the teachings of some of our professors. These experiences were valuablein expanding upon my own areas of concentration, introducing me to new ways ofthinking and theoretical orientations, and strengthening my teaching skills.

    During my tenure at the University of Oregon, I had ample opportunities to teach. Igrew to be comfortable in front of the classroom, but presenting ones own work infront of peers and potential future colleagues is a horse of a different color. One of thestrengths of the PSAs is the approachable and accessible role of attending faculty.Panels are often comprised of both graduate students and tenured or tenure-trackfaculty. Graduate students (and undergraduate students) benefit from faculty contribu-tions. Students are not necessarily regarded as academic equals (they arent), butinteractions do not tend to duplicate an unnecessary hierarchical power structure. Notall sessions use discussants, but Ive benefitted at times when they do. There is realvalue in these mentorship-type exchanges and I would encourage more senior faculty toattend as many sessions as they can. Thoughtful input can supplement the feedback astudent receives from her university thesis or dissertation committee and students gainaccess to professional expertise that may not be available within their own department.PSA presentations are often a first step towards publications. And, it feels good to haveyour work validated.

    As sociologists, we understand the importance of networking and developing socialcapital. For me, attending the PSAs provides a venue to sustain relationships withmentors from both my graduate programs. Some of my peers carve out time to work onmanuscripts with colleagues from other locations. Others have taken on leadership rolesand chair committees. This past year, I served on the Program Committee and I nowserve on the Student Affairs Committee. About six years after my first PSA conference,I began organizing panels. Initially I did so because of difficulty finding an appropriatelocation to present my work in environmental health and justice. The unexpected levelof interest was rewarding. I began to meet environmental scholars in the Pacific regionand seek out their articles after the conference.

    After completing my PhD, I was hired in a tenure-track position in a sociologydepartment at a state school in the Midwest. The department reflected a range ofsociological subdisciplines and ideologies. As is the case in many departments, I filled

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  • a niche. I was primarily hired as an environmental sociologist. While living in theMidwest, I twice participated in their annual meetings. They are well attended and havegood panels. However, it was important for me to continue to attend the PSAs.Certainly, the prospect of seeing old friends played a part, but it was more than that.The integration within an academic community, my ties to NAU and UO, the qualityand array of panels (particularly the environmental sociology sessions), and my affinityfor the western United States, all contributed to my decision to continue my PSAmembership and participation. I have since moved back to the Pacific region and amcurrently the only on-campus sociologist at the University of Alaska, Southeast, a small(but awesome), university in rainy Juneau. The PSAs functions prominently in keepingme connected with my discipline and on top of emerging research.

    The PSAs are welcoming and rewarding for graduate students; however, strength-ening faculty engagement in its various formswhether by faculty at a students homeinstitution or presentation feedbackcan improve the graduate student experience.Many of us are working class students, international students, or part of other socialgroups historically with less experience or knowledge of the world of academia and donot have the cultural capital or the sense of belonging to feel comfortable introducingourselves to those with higher status or qualified submitting our names for committeenominations. I wonder too about graduate students who travel on their own to theconference. Are their unique needs being met? Unfortunately, even sociologists some-times fail to recognize these meaningful differences.

    Cost is another widely recognized barrier for graduate students. The PSAs and manyinstitutions attempt to address this concern through graduate student travel grants orwork opportunities, but when the full range of travel expenses is considered, these areoften not enough. Of course, limited funding is not unique to graduate students; as anassistant professor, Ive bunked with hospitable UO students, but the financial hardshipis usually greater for students. While I cannot offer any innovative techniques foralleviating financial obstacles, cognizance of this problem and how it may impactgraduate student attendance should be at the forefront for PSA leadership as theyconsider how to assist in professional development for graduate students.

    The PSAs are a valuable experience for graduate students wishing to present their in-progress or completed research in a professional, but low-stress environment. As one ofmy sociology friends told me, The PSAwas my first sociology conference, so it was areally important professional development opportunity for me. It's lower-key and muchlower-pressure than ASA, so it was good to have exposure to PSA before my firstASA. The meetings are a good opportunity to explore what it means to be asociologist. My advice to graduate students: attend a range of panels (especially theones designed for graduate students), be confident, and introduce yourself to fellowstudents or faculty whose presentations you find intriguing. Giving a well-preparedpresentation is definitely important, but dont hole yourself up in your hotel roomperfecting PowerPoint slides for the duration of the conference. Discuss ideas over acoffee or beer. Next years meeting is months away; plenty of time to prepare and letthe excitement build! I hope to meet you there.

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    The Role of the PSA in Graduate Student Training and Professional DevelopmentAbstract


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