Why Research Matters

December 06, 2016

Early classes inspired senior’s Mentored Advanced Project

Meet Strahinja Matejić ’17, or “Strax.” He is a political science and German double major with a European studies concentration. His adviser is Gemma Sala, associate professor of political science. They joined us for a conversation about how Strax’s first classes and personal interests inspired his Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) this fall. Strax’s MAP exemplifies faculty-directed scholarly research that integrates knowledge and skills gained through the student’s course of study leading up to it. Our questions and their answers follow:

How, specifically, did your previous course of study lead to this MAP?

Strax: It’s actually a continuation of a project I’ve been working on since my first year. I got interested in comparative politics through Introduction to Political Science and a nationalism class in my second year, as well as courses on ethnic conflict and peacebuilding. My third year I did off-campus study in Germany. It is all culminating in this MAP that explores international alliances through the process of democratization.

Is it accurate to say that this a student-initiated MAP, rather than one that builds on a faculty member’s research interest?

Gemma: Yes, he (Strax) brought it forth. He was the one who said, “Look, I have this paper and I would like to continue to work on it.” The reason I said yes is that it’s not a MAP that starts out of the blue, but rather is built from previous research that he’d already done. He didn’t have to go from zero to 100 in one semester.

In your experience, is that a common path for students at Grinnell or is this different?

Gemma: I’ve had it done before, and these have been the most successful for me. The MAPs in which students jump in are generally not as productive because those students have to learn everything in 14 weeks — a very short amount of time — and they end up having to spend more time making themselves acquainted with the case and the relevant literature before they have a chance to develop original arguments. To me, the most productive MAPs have been with students who come with a previous, already solidified interest, a defined interest, a proven interest. Something that they have been thinking and writing about for a while and now they want to capitalize on.

This MAP brings up a lot of things Strax has done in his four years here. There are issues of democratization, which were key in discussing politics in his major, and issues of international relations, about which he’s written several papers. He comes from former Yugoslavia, so of course he’s trying to understand the path taken by former communist countries. That’s also something he’s explored in several papers. So he’s building off research he’s done in class.

Strax: The focus on eastern Europe connects with my personal background and my geographical origin. Definitely, I am re-examining my attitudes and expectations on this topic.

What are you finding most challenging about the research process?

Strax: I think it would be isolating the single factor I want to examine, taking into account the numerous variables that cannot easily be measured quantitatively. Rather, certain qualitative theoretical political discussions need to come first, revolving around variables such as international alignments.  

Gemma: There’s an obvious contrast in the European versus American political science perspectives on how to write a paper. While in Germany, Strax was asked to write something describing the facts and histories of these places. I’m asking him to do something a lot more deductive and theory driven. Using different models of inquiry to address a very similar question is proving to be quite interesting, and he’s learning a lot from that, I think.

Regardless of what a student chooses to do after graduation, what are the practical benefits of the MAP experience?

Gemma: First, if students are thinking of discarding the idea of going to graduate school they should know why. Having a research opportunity allows for an informed decision about whether they’re good at it or interested in it. Beyond that, everybody does research even if it’s not driven for publication. It is about learning to assess the extent of your claims and learning to substantiate claims with evidence. You’re going to need that in any field of work. You’re going to have arguments for which you need relevant evidence. You need to know how to get it, what evidence is honest and what evidence isn’t. If you work for a policy think tank or if you are a lawyer, absolutely you need to know how the argument matches the evidence.

Ultimately, you need to have had the experience of research in order to make grounded arguments, well-founded arguments. It is something you are going to need in life.

Strax: Just now, I’m not thinking of pursuing a Ph.D. However, I am interested in graduate level study after my undergraduate education. The MAP will allow me to gain the experience required. I will have a significant writing sample that I can present as proof of my interest and of my knowledge in merging areas of political science. I’m not expecting this MAP to reverse any course for me. Rather, I’m expecting it to solidify my interest in democratization processes and international affairs.

What should prospective students expect to know about the process of graduate-level research, the challenges they’ll face, and what makes it fun?

Gemma: I’m not sure that the process of research is “fun” all along. Part of research is finding that you are wrong sometimes. Most times, in fact. Part of it is realizing you don’t have the evidence for something, or that you can’t make a conclusive argument for lack of data. But in every student research experience I’ve had, we go deeper in the directions that the data allow us to go. Once you get deep into a topic, you get the satisfaction of having knowledge that you wouldn’t have been able to grasp just by taking classes or delving 14 weeks into general topics.

Finding yourself being driven by facts and by data is fascinating because ultimately you find yourself making intricate questions that come from you. It’s that moment in which students find they have just broken the shell — when they know the relevant questions to ask — that makes them a little bit hooked into research, and what makes it fun for them.

I don’t think that students have to come here wanting to do research. They just need to come here and find out what research does for them, because it’s our job to generate that experience and to generate that thrill.

Strahinja Matejić ’17 is from Belgrade, Serbia.