Thank a Mentor

Well, I just realized that Thank a Mentor Day was last week on January 17th. Since I can’t exactly go back and write a post on that date, I will just post it today.

4180_1099963553210_4331864_nMy mentor was known for striking terror into the hearts of both undergraduate and graduate students. His primary area was research methods, which is a challenge for most students anyway. Throw in the fact that you HAD to pass his class in order to graduate, and most people didn’t take the class until their last semester, a lot of students had to stay longer than they anticipated.

Not wanting that fate to befall me, I took the class the first semester of my senior year. For what ever reason, it clicked for me. I became one of six my entire time as an undergraduate who made an “A” in the course. This led to me receiving a graduate assistantship in the department to help tutor his students. And thus, I became the minion for the man feared by all political science, criminal justice, sociology, and public administration students and grad students at Georgia College.

Professor Jan Mabie, PhD, well below the sarcastic exterior, was as big of a cutup and as great of a mentor as could ever be found.  He taught me the way of The Force, er, research methodology using not the modern advances of Stata, SPSS, any other software package. Instead, we used an old DOS based program he wrote.

Most students felt tortured to take him once. I had him twice in undergrad, then at least once a semester in grad school covering everything from basic and advanced methods to personnel management. Most people, him included, questioned my sanity when I asked him to be my thesis chair. In retrospect, I don’t think he even read anything from my thesis except the methods section.

He retired last year, but without a doubt, I can see his influence today in my teaching and research today. I have been to a conference and have to constantly remind myself that not everyone was taught methods, and to not let the “poor idiot” have it for leaving something off the slide.

Every fall, when the “minions of morons” descend upon campus, I will be reminded of him. Every time I watch a science show, I mentally start reciting the “Assumptions of the Western Analytic Tradition.” Whenever I look at a cross-tab, I will still call it a contingency table in my head. And whenever I start nerding out over data and a scatter plot, I will be grateful I was trained by one of the best, and quite possibly the most old-school, in the business.

When he got this look going over your data, you were in trouble. (This was at another faculty member's retirement party.)
When he got this look going over your data, you were in trouble. (This was at another faculty member’s retirement party.)
This was the two of us at the first MPA Program Dinner my first year of grad school.
This was the two of us at the first MPA Program Dinner my first year of grad school.

Dr. Mabie has a group on Facebook dedicated to him, titled “Mabie You Can Make It.” Barron Webster (MPA 2008) wrote “The Legend of Jan Mabie” for the page. It may not mean as much to the people who had not been through the program and classes, but here it is.

The kind words of Dr. Jan Mabie reverberate in students’ minds for years after their Quantitative final is done and the last OurStat disc has been removed from those ancient laptops. He began his illustrious career at Georgia College in 1894 when our dear alma mater was known simply as the Georgia State College for Women. His notable students include Flannery O’Connor, Michael Digby, Amici Buffington, Galileo, and John Milledge.

In fact, an old legend in Milledgeville tells the tale of a young Flannery O’Connor who aspired to be a statistician. One day, she’d had her fair share of confusion over covariation and PRE measures of association. She lost her marbles finding T-scores and Z-scores and F Tests… and she took to writing as a way of releasing her anger and stress. Out of pure frustration was born one of the finest Southern Gothic authors ever to strike a typewriter.

As for the rest of us, we now have the tendency to correct our friends when they tell us “Don’t become a statistic!” Because you’re never a statistic- you’re a datum. If you need to know if there is a correlation between sex and salary with respect to education level, we’ll be there. Want to know how much of a correlation there is between education level and poverty in any county in Georgia? Give us a call. We’ll even construct the operational definition.

So the next time you’re confused about where to find the nearest “mature analytical community,” sit on the edge of the table. Scratch your chin with your eyes fixed upward and your head cocked like dear Dr. Mabie does. Close one eye and rub the top of your head too. And be grateful you’re being taught by one of the sharpest, most respectable, and illustrious minds Georgia’s Public Liberal Arts University has ever seen- but please don’t mess up the laptops.

“The only easy day was yesterday”

“So, first of all,let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
March 4, 1933

Having emerged from our Thanksgiving feast induced comas, we are faced with a harsh reality this week. Yes, it is the end of term. Looking out my window, I can almost seethe fear surrounding the students walking from the residence halls to central campus.

Fear is good. It is a powerful motivator. The trick is not becoming paralyzed by fear. You must overcome the fear of failure. Recognize the fear as a warning sign and use it to motivate you for what are admittedly two very difficult weeks. Every trick and tip I or anyone else has ever offered is now on the table. Your local barista is now your best friend. This is the championship of the academic world.

In two weeks, it will all seem anticlimactic. While the people on my side of the desk are still grading, you will have packed up your dorm room and headed home for the break and–hopefully – a halfway regular sleep schedule for a few weeks. In the end, your grades may not be what you wanted, but there is always next semester. Next Semester will be an almost clean slate. There is plenty of room for improvement then.

For now and the remainder of this semester, work diligently. Don’t panic. Keep a list of what you have to accomplish and mark things off when they are complete. Not only with this remind you of what you need to be doing, but it will also give you a sense of accomplishment as you move towards the end of finals. It is a great sense of fulfillment watching the check marks advance down the page.

Time management is more important now than ever. Don’t totally neglect sleep. You are not going to be able to even guess at the information on the test if you are sleeping on your desk. Don’t spend all your time working on your most difficult class. Stand Up from your desk and walk around for five minutes every hour or so. Remember to proof your assignments before you submit them. And finally, don’t forget to eat actual meals (and not just junk food) every now and then. Your body needs the nourishment.
Now, get to work.Just don’t forget to breathe.

Literature Reviews – Finding Citations

My last post talked about how to keep your researched organized.  But before you can do that, you have to have research to organize. How do you find all these wonderful citations? Well, it takes work, skill, and a little luck. There are several different types of resources for this, and like anything, some are good, and some not so good.

It is amazing to me how students today are not taught how to do this.  But, apparently they are not.  A friend of mine, who was an undergraduate music major started instant messaging me in a panic a few years ago.  She had to write a paper on a moderately well known composer.  This assignment required 10 sources, at least 5 of which must be peer reviewed and in print (not online).  She had no clue, vented that the prof was insane, it was impossible, the school library didn’t have anything like that, etc. She was amazed when, in less than 20 minutes I emailed her 15 pdf files, all from peer reviewed journals.  That’s when I first realized the modern student has a problem with research. But the problem doesn’t stop there.

Something that never fails to surprise me is when people turn in papers with Wikipedia as a citation. Never, never, NEVER use it for a citation.  You can use it as a spring board.  You can use it for background information.  But it is NOT, but any stretch of the imagination, “facts.”  If you think so, all you have to do is look at what happened on some “biography” pages during the 2011 Grammy Awards. When I’m grading a paper, I automatically remove points for a Wikipedia citation, even if there are other citations which are legitimate.

Luckily, there are enough places to find good citations where one does not have to stoop to such tactics. If you’re researching public policy issues, sometimes you will have to use primary sources such as media reports, legislation, court cases, etc.  I will cover some of those at some point in the future. For this post, I’ll cover four databases to find academic articles.

The first one is somewhat limited by the fact it is restricted to the State of Georgia.  It is provided by the University System of Georgia to libraries, schools, colleges, and universities within the state.  It is Georgia Library Learning Online, or more commonly, GALILEO. GALILEO mainly provides access to other databases.  Through it, you can access EBSCOhost, ProQuest, and others including the Georgia Archives. This is the only database most people ever use, if they even use it. 

Another one I have found, although it is not peer reviewed, is the Social Science Research Network.  It is more conference papers and working papers.  But, it does provide a wealth of information in areas that have not yet been researched to the level of peer review (aka, my thesis topic). While these citations do not carry the same weight as a journal article, they do provide a citation.  Or, more importantly they provide links to OTHER citations on the same topic.  That is how to make your paper explode in citations.  Find articles similar to your’s, then look who they cited.  Then read those papers.  A lot of it will not apply to your topic, but you can also find quite a few gyms that have a different keyword.

Another quite common (at least people I know) database is J-STOR.  Now, J-STOR requires a subscription, but most institutions have one of one type or another.  Contact your librarian for login directions. Since subscriptions vary by institution, the journals you will be able to access will vary as well. They do have a tutorial section, which can be fount here.

Then, there’s the big one. Those of you who know me, and you’ve probably been able to figure this out just by reading this blog, know I’m pretty obsessed with Google. I use their email, calendar, docssites, blog (blogger is part of Google), and video site. I even use their notebook/netbook.  So, it is no surprise that I also use their academic search engine.  It’s called Scholar Google. They search the other databases I’ve already mentioned, and many others.  They provide both academic and legal information as well. It has proved an invaluable resource for me.   

Literature Reviews, the dreaded horror…

Few words struck as much fear down into the depths of my very soul as the notification that I had to do a Literature Review or an annotated bibliography.  It is still the achilles heel of my writing. But, weakness was made to be overcome, right? Let’s face it, as simplistic as a lit review sounds, it’s basically saying “it’s time to read everything thing that’s ever been written on this topic, and then everything that was that influenced that writing.” It’s not the simplest task. But, I have found there is hope in organization.

There are quite a few resources out there which address writing a lit review in broad terms.  Some good ones are from Purdue University, George Washington University, and the University of Wisconsin – Madison. This post will instead focus on more detailed information and hints I have been taught and found over the course of the last few years. It will focus not so much on writing the actual review, but on finding the articles.

Make no mistake (sorry, had a presidential moment there), it is more than finding a few citations to throw into a paper that has already been written.  If you are doing it correctly, especially in an empirical paper, you are having to survey the literature before you proceed with your actual paper. But, if you form a system, and follow it, it will make your life a lot easier.

For as long as I remember in popular culture, academics were surrounded by black composition notebooks.  These have traditionally been used as research journals.  While these journals are important as ever, they have evolved a with modern technology. You need to have some record of which databases you’ve already checked, how you decided who will write what sections in your latest research meeting, and sometimes even random notes of things to go back and change at some point in the future before you submit the project.  Grad school life is hectic.  If you do not writing things down, they will be forgotten. But, we have moved beyond the day of composition notebooks.  We live in a wired society now.  Notebooks no longer have pages; they have keyboards.  Some of those keyboards have even gotten quite small. Not only are there notebooks, but there are also netbooks, smartphones, and tablet computers.  Make use of the technology.

This presents yet another problem.  What do you do when the file you need is on a different hard drive? Go to the Cloud. I’m not particularly tech savvy (which I am reminded of whenever I read my academic blogroll, most of them are computer science professors). I’ve just started hearing about this cloud phenomena in the last year or two, but I’m sure it existed long before that. Microsoft has SkyDrive. Google has Google Docs. I’m sure there are also others which I’m just do not know about. I use Docs. What can I say? I love Google…  But it allows me to access my documents from anywhere with an internet connection, including my smartphone.

Speaking of technology, there are also some other solutions., Dropbox, and others automatically backup files which are on your hard drive.  You can then log in and access these files from remote computers with internet access.

Okay back to lit reviews. You will be reading many, many articles over the course of your academic career.  You need some way to track it. The most basic method is index cards with the citation information and notes handwritten.  At the other end of the spectrum are multi-hundred dollar solutions like EndNote. In between, you can find RefWorks, Mendeley, CiteULike, and many others.  Some academic bloggers, namely Matt Might recommend CiteULike.  I’ve tried it, but it didn’t click with me. It seems geared towards scientific citations.  My choice, Mendeley, includes formatting for other things like news articles, conference proceedings, legal documents, statutes, and legislation.  I’ve only been using it for a few months, and while the import system could stand some improvement, it is still quite user friendly, properly formats the citations (if the information was entered correctly), and keeps everything (including PDF files) organized.  It will also sync with the website to let you add and access information when you’re away from the office. But, perhaps my favorite feature is how it allows you to add comments to a PDF document as you read it, just as you would if you had printed a hard copy.

Those are some of the things I have used. So, now I pose the question to my readers.  What productivity tricks have you used to keep order of countless citations? What have I missed that works for you? I’m always willing to learn something new.

Up next, I’ll go over some ways to find citations.

Grad students are just a bit dumb…

How’s that for an attention grabbing title? But, it’s true.  I know it was for me, and I’ve seen it happen many other times.  Let’s face it, the average grad student was always top of his or her class, heads and shoulders academically above anyone one else in the course. You may have had to actually work for maybe two or three grades your entire educational career. Now, you’re faced with the smallest course load, and yet the most work you’ve ever seen. How does one deal with this sudden onslaught of responsibilities? It’s easy. You go back and learn all the stuff you skipped over in undergrad.

When I was writing a paper as an undergrad, I sat down and started typing.  Ten to fifteen pages later, I looked up, realized I had met the requirement, and started putting in the citations. Then, like Mr. Hotshot I thought I was would go back to Facebook or whatever other non-academic activity was on deck for that evening. I never outlined, did a formal lit review, or thought about it overnight. As I said, I was a bit dumb.

Enter my major paper. Well, to start with, we had to turn in an outline. Er, okay.  I’d never done one of those before, but I guess I can write the paper, and go back and write the outline afterwards, right? Nope, tired that. My outline wasn’t approved; I’d wasted that time. Honestly, looking back my paper was probably bouncing around enough that the professor could tell what I had done.  Now, on the other side of the desk, it’s amazing how obvious stuff like that is most of the time.

Anyway, I had to re-learn how to write.  There are plenty of resources out there for this, but for now, I’m just going to hit some of the highlights. First, why are you writing this paper? If your answer is, “Because Prof said we had to” start over. You cannot write a clear, coherent, and graduate quality paper without a defined purpose. Why is what you are writing important? What information are you trying to convey?

Once you have a clear target, you have to decide how you’re going to get there. This step is more commonly known as an outline.  List each of the major points you are going to need to address. Put them in some semblance of an order. This was part that I HATED.  It is okay to change it as you go, but write it down anyway.  It gives you a basic framework to get started.  The more you write, you may need to add or rearrange points, or even combine or eliminate something.  That’s okay.  It’s a process.

This is grad school.  Part of the assignment is to look at things from different perspectives and expand your mind.  To do that, you are going to have to read. You cannot get by writing something down and finding a few citations that agree with your points and just throw them into the final paper right before you turn it in. Literature reviews are never easy, and are always time consuming.  For this reason, I’m going to do a separate post on them in the near future.

NOW, you are ready to write.  But don’t make the mistake of just writing.  Write it, print it, and take your own red pen (everyone should own one, the power that flows through it is amazing) to it and tear it apart.  Finish it the night before it’s due, and then revisit it in the morning. Get someone in your peer group to read over it. The point is not for them to rewrite it for you, but circling where you used “wear” instead of “where” is another thing completely.

Your goal is no longer to get by.  If you are in a thesis-track, everything you do is building up to that grand achievement.  Even non-thesis tracks have some sort of internship paper or capstone project.  Make sure every paper you turn in is something of which you can be proud.  It’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be.  You are building a body of work that you will eventually use to present yourself to potential employees and in some cases, the judge of history.  Dumb or not when you start grad school, make sure by the time you graduate, you leave a proud legacy that can be displayed through the years.