Research Profile: PCRG

Posted by on Oct 18, 2017 in Cover Stories, MEL Notes Blog | 0 comments

Brian Watson is a fourth-year doctoral student at the Manship School of Mass Communication. He is a member of the Political Communication Research Group (PCRG), and he thinks it’s one of the best ways for students to learn how to do research.

If you are interested in learning about research groups and what they do, read our conversation with Brian below:

What is a student research group?

When we all get here as students we have class requirements, and we have our GA assignments. But for doctoral students, the whole time we’re here the whole priority is learning how to do research, how to cultivate a CV and actually get projects out for publication. And taking classes and doing our GA work is sometimes good for that, but I think the place where we really have the opportunity to work on projects both with faculty members and with each other are these research groups. We get to come up with ideas in our field and narrow down new interesting ideas that we then come together on and figure out. A great thing about the research groups is that you collaborate with people in a way that isn’t really possible in classes or with your GA assignments. And also there is usually funding, so it allows us to have access to resources that we wouldn’t ordinarily have.  So from a doctoral students perspective, it’s an excellent workshop for getting your feet wet and doing the actual research side of things.

What is the composition of your group? 

Right now we have four regular faculty members that work with us. And then we have three Ph.D. students who are involved, and one Master’s student. And then there is a recent graduate who is also collaborating with us.


What is the role of the professor in the group?

Right now, the professors have taken the lead on most of the projects because they’re the most informed, they’re the experts. We get to watch their work process and how they tackle problems, and what they think is important. They’ve primarily taken the lead on most of the projects that start up and then as graduate students we do a lot of the behind the scenes work but also get to watch what they do.

Could you give us a sense of the projects you’ve worked on in the past as well as the project for this semester?

It’s a little complicated because our projects are overlapping. The big stuff is that PCRG has been working on is two news portal studies. Basically, we created news feeds that participants in an experiment get to use. And then we get to change the kinds of stories they see in their news feeds. We get to watch in real time this live experiment where people are scrolling through looking at the news. And we are going to check what they take away from that. Perceptions might change, with what sort of usage they do, what kind of stories they click on. Or, if we change the volume of say health care immigration stories, how does that affect what they think about healthcare immigration once they’re done. So over the last year, we’ve been writing a lot of papers. And for the first two years I was here we did a version one of the portal and a version two of the portal. So we have this big, overarching news feed study that was really interesting.


Has PCRG utilized MEL in the past? If not, are there any plans for the future? 

We haven’t used MEL for that. We used Mechanical Turk. But we use MEL for different individual projects all the time.


What is the process for developing a new project? Is it a democratic process?

Every year I’ve been here we’ve sat down and put on the table ideas that we have hashed out and tried to figure out which ones we thought were worth pursuing. And then once we have our ideas on the table it’s kind of democratic. We discuss which ones we think we can do, which ones are the most interesting. So I would say its pseudo-democratic in the sense that the professors obviously have a bigger vote then maybe the graduate students would. But that’s a good thing because they know what they’re doing.

Have you gone to any conferences, or had any unique experiences that you wouldn’t have without being in this research group?

Not yet. But very soon. We are writing those portal paper now.


What is the most challenging part of being in the research group?

I think from a graduate students perspective who wants to get into research, the hardest part is once you jump in with active research there is a big learning curve. Because you might walk in having no idea what’s going on when you first start. But once you get your feet wet and you’re in it for awhile, just by doing things and participating you learn things a lot faster then you do sitting in classes all semester. The cool thing about the research group is it really integrates everything that you have to do, into a project that you’re actually working on. So, even though that can be a lot of work, the learning curve can be steep, because you’re working with professors on real projects. It’s hugely beneficial.


Students have limited time. Give me your best reason why they should join a research group.

Because learning how research works is beneficial for everyone. I don’t care what you do. Even if you go into marketing or PR and you’re out in the world, you’re constantly going to be having to evaluate figures and numbers, and you’re going to be told that some studies are important to whatever it is you’re doing. And having the ability to evaluate that and know the difference between a good study and a bad study by knowing how it works behind the scenes, that’s great for everybody. And you can’t find that kind of stuff out in the workforce.