ICPSR Summer Program: Thoughts and Reflections

This past week, the ICPSR Summer Program released the dates for the 2018 four-week sessions (check out their announcement here).  Having spent most of this past summer at ICPSR, I began wondering what reflections I have from my time there, and what I wish I had known before attending.  I received some amazing training at the four-week sessions, and had a lot of fun, too—getting to meet new friends there was definitely one of my favorite parts of the experience.  It is a really unique space for methods training, with some awesome instructors.  I think a little bit of preparation beforehand and a few extra considerations, however, could have made my time there even more productive.

For those who are wondering, the ICPSR Summer Program is a quantitative methods training that is put on every year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  The program is made up of two four-week sessions and consists of methods courses that cover a wide variety of topics and skill levels, as well as lectures and social events.  (There are also numerous 3-5 day sessions, which are held in Ann Arbor as well as multiple other cities.)  During my time there, I took Multilevel Modeling I and II, Maximum Likelihood Estimation, Longitudinal Analysis, and the Intro to R lecture.  Generally, the organizers of the summer program recommend that students take two courses and a lecture.  I met some students who took more than that, but the recommended course load will keep you plenty busy.

Here are a few thoughts and overall takeaways from my time at ICPSR:

·      Look closely at the syllabi when making your course selections for the summer, and take a brief glance at the textbooks the instructors will be using.  The syllabi for each course, and some video introductions from the instructors, are available in the class descriptions on the ICPSR website.  Viewing this material will help so much in determining whether the class will work for you!  Even if it is a topic you are interested in, it’s so important to get a sense of where the instructor is starting from.  If the class jumps straight into some complex modeling that feels overwhelming, you might want to check out another course that feels more manageable.  Which leads me to…

·      Consider classes that, at first glance, you might think your method skills too advanced to make it worth attending.  When I decided on courses, my thought was that I needed to select courses with all new, advanced material in order to make my summer in Ann Arbor worthwhile.  In retrospect, I think it may have been just as good a use of time if I had selected courses that built more closely on my prior knowledge, or were even repeats of classes I had previously taken.  Everyone’s previous training and research practices differ, of course, but re-exposing yourself to some material might add a lot of insight into the math and mechanics behind methods you already use.  This kind of foundation makes it a lot easier to learn the more complex methods later on, even if you are self-teaching.  Plus, you can try attending a few different courses during the first week, and then choose which ones you want to stick with.  If a class feels like it’s moving fast the first couple of days, I would try switching—it will only speed up.

·      Go to the social events!  The summer program organizes a ton of these, and they are a great way to meet other participants.  It is a relatively easy place to introduce yourself and meet people—recognize someone from your class?  Conversation starter right there.  And being graduate students, you’ll meet plenty of people who want to talk about their research .  If you don’t have a prior network in Ann Arbor, this is a great way to make sure you don’t spend your whole time there doing statistics and watching Netflix (which is also a valid option, depending on your preferences).  Four weeks and especially eight weeks, if you are staying for both sessions, is a long time to not interact with friends. 

·      Know that this is a super, super immersive program.  If possible, try to have as few research/writing/program commitments as you can while you are there.  Each class is everyday for two hours, and there are plenty of assignments and reading outside of class time.  Plus, the program offers several lectures (on math topics, programming software, and computing) that you can attend to supplement your courses, as well as the Blalock Lecture Series, which covers a variety of useful topics.  Setting aside a good portion of a summer to not do any research is hard, I know—maybe impossible for you.  When I attended, I had two R&Rs that I had to be working on.  Those deadlines couldn’t wait! Try to figure out what year during your program would be best for you to attend.  Maybe early on, while your major obligation is still coursework?  The year you’re writing your proposal, if you have a more flexible schedule?  I met one student while I was there who was simultaneously studying for his comprehensive exams, which I cannot imagine doing.  Truly, the more you are able to focus only on your classes there, the more you will get out of it. 

·      Start looking for housing early.  There are co-op houses near the university where ICPSR participants can apply to stay, and I met several students who went this route.  However, if you think a co-op house wouldn’t be for you, there are subleases and other options available.  I was lucky enough to hear about a friend of a friend who had a sublease available, which is where I ended up staying for the summer.  Airbnb might also be an option for you.  Even if an Airbnb host is only offering a short-term stay, you might be able to ask them about a longer term arrangement—I had one Airbnb host that I discussed this with.  Overall, housing appeared to be the most difficult logistical arrangement that we had to figure out as participants.  My best advice would be to start early, use your networks if you have any contacts in the area, and don’t spring for a situation that you don’t think you will be happy living in for several weeks.

·      Apply for funding.  I was only able to go for the four-week sessions because I was funded through the Clifford C. Clogg scholarship.  ICPSR offers several funding opportunities for many different disciplines, or you might be able to get funding for a training like this through a grant or through resources at your school.  Even if you are completely certain that a bunch of statistical geniuses are all applying for the same scholarship as you and there’s no way you could get it (this might be from personal experience), apply anyway. 

·      Know that you will not 100% understand everything that is covered (at least if you’re me).  It took me a little while to realized this seems to be part of the point of these classes.  The courses are short, and the instructors pack so much into the four-week session.  The recommended reading lists are long, and the material moves so quickly.  Rather than stressing that I was not fully comprehending everything covered, I began to realize that I was learning a broad perspective on these methods, while being given the resources to fill in any holes later on.  Now that I’m back at my home institution, I know where to look if I want more information about a method, or learn how to apply something to my own research problem.  You’ll have the instructor’s slides, your notes, and the books/articles that these experts decided were the best for learning these methods—plan on going back to all of these for a long time after.  For me, the most useful thing about ICPSR was that I began to have some confidence that I could learn these methods, and could continue working on these skills long after the summer session ended.

Have you attended ICPSR in the past?  What are other suggestions for future attendees that you have?  Do you have any questions that I didn’t speak to?  Email me (ellen.m.whitehead@rice.edu) or tweet your thoughts (@ellenmwhitehead).