I spent a fair chunk of time over the last few months working as chair for one of the divisions of the annual American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, which is being held this year in Washington DC. It was an eye-opener – I’d never understood how the decision-making process worked before; i.e. how decisions are made over which paper proposals are accepted or rejected. It was also somewhat startling to see how many good papers don’t end up being accepted through no fault of their own. If I had had the slots, I would have accepted twice as many papers for my division as I was able to – there were a number of very good paper proposals that ended up not being accepted due to reasons of space or fit. But there is also a political economy to the process of decision-making; if you understand it properly (I didn’t, prior to participating in the process), you can maximize your chances of getting a good proposal accepted. Mediocre or bad papers are of course still likely to end up on the cutting room floor. Some lessons are posted below the fold. NB that these only apply to the APSA meeting – the processes of choice (and hence the best means to maximizing your likelihood of paper acceptance) will vary dramatically from conference to conference. Those with expert knowledge of other conferences and other disciplines are invited to share tips and experiences in comments.
In APSA, each division chair is given an allotment of panels that reflects attendance at the division’s panels at the previous annual meeting (with some variation; the program chair for the conference as a whole is given a little leeway to add a few panels here and there to divisions to reflect that year’s theme, or other priorities). There is a twist – it is possible for one division to co-sponsor a panel with another. This means that both divisions share the panel, and the glory if the panel is well attended (or shame if it’s poorly attended). The incentives are to try to mount panels that will draw a good audience, while paying attention to Ph.D. students about to graduate (who need to put in an appearance at APSA to get jobs), and making sure that there is some diversity in terms of geography, institution etc. There’s also a strong informal incentive to mount as many co-sponsored panels as possible – it looks better for your division, and improves its prospects of getting more panel allocations in future years. There is a minimal degree of wriggle-room for the division chair to follow his or her own particular priorities – as someone who didn’t graduate from a top-tier institution myself, I tried to make sure that promising papers from people at second-tier or non-traditional institutions didn’t get overlooked (as I suspect they often are). But this wriggle room is very narrow indeed.
From this, a number of lessons follow.
First, the obvious stuff (although it was surprising to me how many people this was not obvious to). Make sure that you are submitting your proposal to the right division – i.e. the one which is substantively closest to the themes that you are writing on. Don’t try to submit to another division, e.g. because you know the chair of that division and think he/she will be more favourably disposed to your proposal. It won’t work – given the very limited number of slots available, and the vociferous protests that are going to come from those who aren’t accepted, it is highly unlikely that even dear personal friends/grad school buddies etc are going to help you out (they not only shouldn’t; they’re going to suffer if they do). Write a tight proposal, which seeks to demonstrate that there is something exciting about the paper. If you are submitting to an empirically-oriented division, be as specific as possible about the kinds of data (qualitative or quantitative) that you are using, if you have it, or about how your theoretical findings connect with research, if you aren’t writing an empirically driven paper. If you have a theory, state it – and talk about how your data (or other evidence) connect to the theory. Give some idea of your hypotheses. Talk about your findings, and how they relate to the field. In short – the more you are able to convince your reader that you have a genuine, well defined paper with interesting findings, the more likely you are to be accepted. Vague statements or claims aren’t going to do as well.
Second – Each meeting has a rather vague and general theme. If your paper speaks to that theme directly, say so explicitly. Different divisions will take the theme more or less seriously, depending on the nature of the division (some themes are more or less irrelevant to some divisions) and the inclinations of the division chair. But it can’t hurt to draw the connection, and it may help. Also, read the division chair’s statement of how the division will address that year’s theme (available on the APSA website) – it will give some insight into his or her priorities for the section, which can be useful.
Third – My strong impression is that your chances are better if you submit your paper as part of a panel proposal, rather than an individual paper. This is especially true if your topic is a little unusual. An individual paper-proposal on an out-of-left-field topic is going to have a tough time getting accepted – it is going to be very hard for the division chair to find other papers that she can add together with yours to make a coherent panel. In contrast, a panel proposal on a somewhat unusual topic has (at least if someone like me is division chair) pretty good chances of being accepted. It’s nice to be able to shake the discipline up a little by bringing in fresh ideas – and unconventional panels can do this.
Fourth – it helps to have some diversity in the panel. A panel which has a mix of people from different kinds of institutions and parts of the world is likely to look more attractive than a panel which is monocultural. Also, a panel which has a mix of some advanced grad students, and some more established people also looks good.
Fifth – something which is non-obvious. For APSA, make sure to submit to two divisions, rather than one, regardless of whether you are submitting an individual paper or a panel. There is a lot of horsetrading where division chairs dicker over which panels to accept and which papers to include in jointly sponsored panels. A panel/paper which is submitted to just one division is more ‘expensive’ for the division chair to accept than one which she can co-sponsor with another division, and thus, ceteris paribus will have more difficulty in getting accepted.
Sixth – as a corollary to the above – if you can manage it, submit to two divisions that have some connection to each other. This is especially important if you are submitting an individual paper. Two divisions that don’t have an obvious connection are going to have difficulty in co-sponsoring panels (they aren’t likely to have enough compatible papers). Two divisions that do have a connection – and have a history of co-sponsoring panels – are likely to have a much easier time in bringing together papers and constructing coherent panels. Therefore, they are more likely to include your paper as one of them. If you have a theme that speaks to divisions without an obvious connection, it makes sense to try to put together an entire panel proposal rather than just submit an individual paper; the latter will probably have a better shot at being accepted than the former. You can figure out which divisions work well together by looking at the programs for previous meetings, and finding out who tends to co-sponsor with who.
All this guidance is highly unofficial, of course, and is based purely on my personal impressions of the process. Still, I’ve learned a lot from acting as chair, which I wish I’d known in previous years. If nothing else, I’ve learned to be less grumpy at getting my papers rejected. It’s a little like wedding guestlists – you’re far more likely to be indignant at not making the shortlist for your acquaintances’ weddings if you haven’t yet had to organize a wedding yourself, so that you realize how difficult the tradeoffs are.