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Monday, November 27, 2006

An ICPSR Survival Guide for the Law Professor

Based on attendance at last spring's Epstein/Martin Conducting Empirical Legal Scholarship Workshop, law professors are quite interested in developing skill sets to do sophisticated empirical research. I can't speak to the quality of the Epstein/Martin workshop or the planned follow-up Advanced Course, but I can heartily endorse the ICPSR Summer Program in Quantitative Methods, which I had the good fortune of attending for part of last summer. Measured solely in terms of "bang for your buck" (that is, the ratio between hours of instruction and registration fee), the ICPSR Summer Program compares favorably.

Here are some suggestions for anyone thinking about participating in ICPSR next summer or at some other point in the future:

1. Think of ICPSR as a multi-year endeavor: Particularly if you are new to empirical research and statistics, ICPSR should not be viewed as something that you do just once. Many of the participants last summer were "repeat offenders." The program itself consists of two four week terms (for a total of eight weeks). For many law professors, particularly untenured scholars with publish-or-perish obligations, the idea of committing eight weeks to an intensive quantitative program is daunting. I participated last summer for just the second four-week term, but still got a lot out of it. I would suggest (especially for introductory-level students) picking up just part of the summer program, and planning to return in summers to come.

2. Don't overload: Part of the ICPSR experience is resisting temptation. Just like trying to attend every workshop at the AALS conference is a bad idea, trying to attend and keep up with too many ICPSR courses will take away from the experience. Last year, I did two workshops, Time Series Analysis (four weeks) and Matrix Algebra Review (two weeks). Some of my classmates tried to do two (or three) full workshops, but inevitably, their attendance fell off. I would suggest one or at most two workshop(s); that would make it possible to have a somewhat enjoyable summer, but also learn a lot. Another reason not to overload is that a number of the courses cover overlapping topics. You can always pop in on an extra course if you find you have the time.

3. Do your homework:
The only way to really learn how to do empirical analysis is by doing. One can read all the text books about statistics one wants (consisting mostly of derivations or proofs of the models employed), but the only way to really prepare yourself to do this kind of work is to sit in front of a computer and abuse a dataset with Stata. Since most law professors will likely be taking ICPSR courses on a non-credit "Program Scholar" basis (it's much cheaper to take the courses for no credit), there may not be the pressure of a grade to motivate one to do homework. But unless you do the homework, you might as well not even be there. (Taking the exams is another matter -- it may or may not add to your experience to sit for the exam, although for introductory-level students, it's probably a good idea).

4. Make friends with the Hungarian biostatistician sitting next to you: You may have burning questions which you think only empirical methods can answer, but you also could use some help in actually executing your projects. One of the nicer things about ICPSR is that you will be in workshops and courses with graduate students and post-docs who are often hungry for research ideas. In my experience, most of the students were political scientists, with a smattering of psychologists, sociologists, business Ph.D.s and (very few) economists. A number of these students may be interested in "legal questions," and for them, getting published may help land them a teaching or research position. Get to know them, both because it makes the experience more fun and because you might be able to form relationships that could lead to productive collaboration in the future.

5. Enjoy Ann Arbor: Even though it will likely not be celebrating a college football national championship in 2007, Ann Arbor is still a great town. In the summer, the weather is perfect, parking is a bit more manageable than during the year, and there are great cultural and academic opportunities (including a wonderful lecture series put on by the ICPSR folks).

That's my two-cents; anyone thinking about participating next summer is welcome to e-mail me with further questions.

Posted by Geoffrey Rapp on November 27, 2006 at 12:42 PM | Permalink


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