41: Timothy Peterka


Political Science

Program and year of study

PhD, 7th year  

Previous degrees and colleges

BA Political Science and Urban Studies & Planning, UC San Diego 

Where did you grow up?

30 miles north of San Diego in a diverse military town called Oceanside. I miss having the beach so near.

Where do you live now?


What's your favorite spot in Davis?

I’ve had a ton of good times at de Vere’s over the years I’ve been at Davis.

How do you relax?

A good meal with friends is always good. Escaping to Tahoe or the coast are great for getting the stress levels down.

What was the last book you read for pleasure?

I’m in the middle of a couple of non-fiction books not related to my dissertation but the last novel I read through was The Mothers by Brit Bennett. It’s set in my hometown and it was really fun to see how the local places I know were depicted.

What TV show are you currently binge-watching?

Happy Valley and Animal Airport have been on repeat. 

Research interests

I study the political economy of development. A lot of my work has to do with how local informal institutions shape key development outcomes like levels of violence, public goods provision, and election campaigns. I’m increasingly interested in the role of social communication and influence in shaping voter and politician behavior. 

Dissertation title or topic

Three Essays on Traditional Chiefs and Politics in Africa

Please share a surprising or noteworthy fact or finding from your research

My research is on African elections, which can seem like a world away for most Americans. Despite the differences, election campaigns there are not too different from ours. Yes, as most might think, ethnicity plays a role, but parties there, as here, are looking for influential people who can get other people to vote for the party. They’re looking for influencers who can shape people’s attitudes and change their behavior. Parties seek them out and offer them gifts in the hopes that they’ll convince their family and friends to vote for them.

Which professor or class inspired you to pursue graduate studies?

One of my urban planning professors at UCSD, Mirle Bussell, was really supportive when I first broached the topic of grad school with her. She was an emphatic YES. Maureen Feeley was also a big influence and encouraged me to aim higher than I thought I could reach. 

Which scholarly text do you wish you had written? Why?

I wish I had written Fluid Borders: Latino Power, Identity, and Politics in Los Angeles by Lisa Garcia Bedolla. In this book, she emphasizes how socioeconomic status (SES) is not destiny. Other things, like one’s different identities and social context, play as much a role in determining how Latinos participate in politics. She has a follow-up book with a coauthor, Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns, that is really interesting in how it shows that it’s possible to make low SES voters think of themselves as voters and to get them to participate through get-out-the-vote efforts. 

Which other researchers at UC Davis are doing work that particularly interests you?

In my department, Lauren Young does really interesting work on the role of emotions in shaping people’s decisions about political participation in autocratic countries. Greg Downs in the history does really interesting work too. Much of it has to do with the post-Civil War American South. 

What’s the best thing about being a grad student?

It’s given me the opportunity to visit places I wouldn’t have had the chance to visit otherwise. I went to Ghana (my first trip ever outside the United States!) for field research.

What's the worst?

Waking up at 3 a.m. with an idea you feel like will provide the breakthrough your dissertation needs. Spoiler: 3 a.m. ideas never provide that breakthrough.

If you weren't a grad student, what would you be doing?

I always have my head in the clouds so I’d probably be working at an airport in operations. 

Finally, please ask yourself a question

What’s a way we can work to diversify the academy? 

The demographics of California’s undergraduate student body are rapidly changing, but the demographics of university faculty are not changing quickly enough. We can help make a change. We can work harder to be mentors to undergraduates from underrepresented groups. We can encourage them and get them involved in research. And we can do more to support them while they’re in graduate school.  


—March 2018


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