Highlights from the 2020 APSA Virtual Dissertation Workshop

By Daniel Mallinson, Assistant Professor, Penn State Harrisburg and Darrell Lovell, Assistant Professor, West Texas A&M University, workshop co-leaders

Since 2016, the APSA annual meeting has included dissertation workshops for advanced graduate students. APSA takes applications from faculty members that pitch topical working groups that meet in a room the day before the conference. Eight hours in a room, a presentation, some feedback, then everyone shakes hands and goes about the rest of the conference.

In 2020 that approach was rendered moot by COVID-19 and this post is about a positive outcome of that alteration. For the first time, APSA’s dissertation workshops moved to the virtual space; just like most of academia in 2020. Instead of meeting in a room in a nice hotel, eight people – six PhD candidates and two faculty facilitators (us) – met over Zoom in July and August to discuss a chapter from their dissertation, allowing for more sustained and in-depth engagement among the participants.

Instead of meeting for one day in an extended conference panel, the students participated in a three-week session. The first week involved two days of presentations and two days of individual meetings geared towards feedback. Week two was for students to reshape their chapters and address feedback before coming back and doing it all over again in week three.

The present, rewrite, present again format allowed students to expand and engage in feedback over time with thought and precision. Furthermore, putting engaged academics in a setting that is relaxed and open to feedback created a communal and positive environment.

Below is a review of the work presented in the workshop.

Mark Benton

PhD candidate, University of Missouri


The death of George Floyd starkly surfaced the often-fraught relationship between citizens of color and police in the United States. Policing has a racist history that undermines the legitimacy of the police for African Americans. Drawing from the literature on apologia, Benton’s dissertation examines the fundamental question of how the attitudes of African Americans towards the police can be healed. While many can likely recall meaningless apologies that did little to heal, Benton’s research examines whether apology combined with policy (i.e., words with actions) can play a role. He does so in this chapter by using a survey experiment with vignettes informed by interviews and a case study to identify whether apology added to policy shifts African Americans’ opinions of the police. While the apologia literature would expect an effect, Benton finds that apologies do not seem to address policing’s history above and beyond the presentation of a concrete policy.


Elizabeth Dorssom

PhD Candidate, University of Missouri


The separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government are a bedrock of our constitutional structure. It also results in fascinating dynamics that have been studied for years by political scientists. Contributing particularly to research on how legislatures use statutes to exercise control over the bureaucracy, Elizabeth Dorssom’s dissertation focuses on the under-studied role of sunset provisions. Sunsets set an end date for laws. If the legislature does not act before that date to reform and/or reauthorize the law, it ceases to function. Dorssom theorizes that sunsets serve several practical functions. They allow legislatures to gather information about the successes and failures of a law. They pave the way for inter-party compromise for more controversial laws. And they influence bureaucratic implementation by imposing the requirement of legislative review. Using an original dataset of sunset provisions Dorssom finds that legislative professionalism is a strong driver of sunset usage in state legislatures. Specifically, as legislative professionalism increases, so does the use of sunset provisions. Her research has implications for theories of statutory control and legislative professionalism.


Isaac Pollert

PhD Candidate, University of Illinois at Chicago


The research on policy diffusion in the American states is rich and long standing. Pollert provides important advancements for this body of work in his study of state measures aimed to lessen the cost of voting (early voting and vote by mail). Little did he realize when he embarked on this dissertation how pivotal his topic would be in the 2020 presidential election. Pollert builds on the tradition of identifying diffusion mechanism by examining how partisan learning occurs in the spread of convenience voting reforms. There is long-standing research on policy learning, and a more recent body of work on ideological learning, but Pollert’s work is distinct. Measures that affect voting, whether they are restrictive (e.g., voter ID requirements) or expansive (e.g., same day registration), have strong implications for parties. Using data on the adoption of convenience voting laws from 2002 to 2016, Pollert finds support for strategic, not altruistic, behavior. In fact, he finds that as states adopt convenience voting measures and see subsequent electoral gains for Democrats, Republican-controlled states are less likely to adopt those measures.


Nathalie Mendez

PhD Candidate, Texas A&M University


Public management looks to examine the interaction between levels of administrators. This chapter is the first in the three-chapter dissertation by Nathalie Mendez who analyzes the impact of managerial actions that promote collaboration on organizational performance. Mendez studies this impact in Colombia and tests the role of trust within an organization. Specifically, Mendez focuses on advocacy of trust-building measures leading to collaborations.  Using the National Survey of Institutional Performance, Mendez finds that indicators of trust – conceptualized by teamwork activities – are positive predictors of higher performance in a government organization. These positive predictors are clear when trust building approaches create a horizontal network within the organization and expand on the role of these approaches within collaborative management.


Samantha Zuhlke

PhD Candidate, Texas A&M University


Non-profits are an understudied field in public administration. In this dissertation chapter Zuhlke lays the groundwork for a theory that the non-profit space is changed by the political results and individual perceptions which prompts administrative engagement. Zuhlke examines this transition through exiting the service arena, expanding voice, and seeking service substitutes from the non-profit venue. Her culminating theory is that these individual preferences influence the social construction of non-profits and add a dimension to the discussion of how politics and administration preferences affect the non-profit space. This theory chapter lays the groundwork to help typify and predict how non-profits can engage in public administration and individual political gamesmanship.


Devin Judge-Lord

PhD Candidate, University of Wisconsin at Madison


Within this dissertation chapter Judge-Lord analyzes the influence of mass mobilization on administrative rulemaking. To date bureaucratic decision-making is conceptualized as an independent endeavor. Judge-Lord’s chapter lays the groundwork for a study of collective advocacy as an impact in the rulemaking process. The study design includes collective messaging data analysis and its frequency and consistency of impact in rulemaking process. The chapter supplies the theoretical foundation that collective mobilization and public pressure can affect rulemaking influence an affect the technocratic realm of bureaucracy.


Engaging young scholars in a setting where they felt comfortable allowed for a different and productive experience. Feedback and progress happened organically. One happy evolution that we can take no credit for was blending job market feedback with the work on their dissertations. Students engaged each other on how they are preparing, asked questions, and yes, lamented the upcoming venture into a wild market.

Discussing and reading new work is always fun. Working through the theory, analysis, and seeing the prospects of their work and how it can progress over just three weeks was a fulfilling endeavor and one we hope is the norm going forward.