Advice for Ph.D. Job-Seekers in Political Science

Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone

One surprise of having recently been hired as an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst is that now I’m the guy that Ph.D. students (sometimes) ask for advice. That’s weird, and probably counterproductive for both me and the student. In seriousness, I’m not really seasoned enough to be giving advice–and I have no standing whatsoever to offer advice to anyone outside of the IMRAD-paradigm fields (so I cant say anything about the job market for theorists).

In general, my view on the subject is that students should recognize:

  1. The job market for political scientists is not very good, but also not very bad: eventually, most people from a reasonably ranked Ph.D. program will, if they persist long enough, get a job as a professor of political science at some university.
  2. Many fewer people outside of top-ranked programs will get a job as a professor of political science at a doctoral/very high research university (an R1).
  3. Even fewer people will get what are, in some ways, the even better jobs on offer at highly selective liberal arts colleges (Williams, Wellesley, Amherst, etc).
  4. The limiting factor for almost all programs outside of the community college sector is research productivity. Teaching quality is hardly universal but most programs don’t want excellence: competence is more desirable (and sustainable). And teaching competence is, in fact, becoming pretty common; it will not distinguish you for having it but it may disqualify you if you don’t.
  5. You should discount any individual professor’s recommendations pretty strongly, since all of our advice is merely biography presented as wisdom, and that means you’re getting only a partial (in both the incomplete and the biased sense of the word) view from any individual scholar.

To get better at understanding #1, you need to read the annual job market reports that APSA puts out in PS (see a link below) (update 2017: see this link on the APSA Web site). The second point becomes really clear when you think about the numbers involved: there simply aren’t enough jobs for the graduates of the top-10 programs to all get t-t positions at R1s–but everyone thinks they’ll be the exception. You might! But think about the naive odds involved. They are bad. And your odds will be worse without peer-reviewed publications.

In discussions with other candidates, grad students, and many faculty, people tend to resist the recommendation that candidates (even those focused on teaching jobs) should focus on pursuing publications. And yet, when I talk to people about their service on job search committees, it’s all but inevitable that the committees’ second–or first–step is to discard applicants who lack publication records. Even at teaching-intensive schools. Some factors may rescue students from the discard pile (pedigree, solid letters, a real need for an expert in Zimbabwean voter-registration law), but those are misleading guides to the conditional probability of an unpublished applicant getting an interview (or the job), since by definition those students are exceptional in other ways. This advice applies with special force to students who (like me) aren’t coming from top-shelf Ph.D. programs–programs universally among the 12-15 schools ranked in the top 10.  Your brand name may or may not get you added automatically to the discard pile, but unlike H, Y, P, or S, you won’t automatically get added to the long list without something special.

It takes about two years to publish a finished draft article in a peer-reviewed system. It takes (me, at least) at least a year to write 10k words for publication (less now, more when I was a Ph.D. student). So if you want to have an R&R at a good journal (at a minimum) by year six, you need to have that article substantially completed by year 4 and under review by, say, Christmas of that year. That means starting to write that article by year 3 or, obviously, during your coursework. If you’re running late, then you should hedge your bets by quickly writing another article and submitting it. These don’t have to be solo pubs–I didn’t have one of those, except for a brief PS piece–but the more that the research clearly reflects your work the better.

If your committee doesn’t want you to use part of your dissertation for this article (or if you’re saving everything for a book), then you need to have a second project or spinoff project that you can submit. Depending on your methodology, you can see what this means for IRB approval, fieldwork grants, learning languages, archival trips, updating your R packages, whatever. Updated with feedback from Facebook: It’s probably a good idea to calibrate the strength of the journal you submit to based on (of course) the strength of your research and (less obvious) the timeframe you have remaining before going on the market. A top-3 journal with 4-month turnaround times is a good bet in your fourth or fifth year, but much less so in the tail end of year 5, when you should be thinking about going to a top-10 (or even lower) journal to get that pub.

As you do this, you should also be keeping notes for the four documents you’ll need to have, polished, by the time you go on the market:

  1. Your CV
  2. Your research statement
  3. Your teaching statement
  4. Your writing sample

Ideally, #4 will be your article, in pdf typeset format. But if the fates don’t smile on you, it should be high-quality, proofread, and interesting (all things mine weren’t in the first go-round). For your teaching statement, you should be reading The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and browsing Journal of Political Science Education, as well as saving nice notes and evaluations from courses taught and TA’d. You should also have a memorandum ready to be turned over to letter-writers that summarizes all of the above and also mentions anything that they might be better placed to mention.

I’m only skimming the surface of everything that goes into the process of applying for jobs; I list a lot of links below that I consider more or less essential reading. Your takeaway should be this: applying for a faculty position is  difficult, stressful, and lonely, but it is not impossible or futile. In my observation, the biggest distinction predicting success or failure is between those grad students who think theyre above the grind and those who apply the law of the iron ass (to use the Nixon phrase): working hard, at all parts of this, without begging special privileges.

No formula is perfect: lots of great candidates fall by the wayside, and lots of jerks (and even a few lazy burnouts) get through the filter. But all measurements involve error. That shouldn’t preclude working on a simple set of strategies to maximize your chances that the error works in your favor.

One final bit of advice: Even the best-conceived advice about how to navigate complicated social phenomena is tentative. Tacit knowledge will trump formal description every time. It’s likely your path to success will not resemble mine and it’s likely that it will diverge from the average in many ways. The more inculcated you are to the profession, the more you realize that this is a community of scholars, and the more you can arrange yourself so as to make your professional source attractive (while reserving a personal self that you can be during the majority of your life that you’re not at work), the better off you will be.

Edit: I realized a little while after writing this that all of this assumes you operate from a position of privilege. If you don’t, you’re probably well aware about some of the ways in which factors like race, gender, and orientation will affect your job search. I cant offer any particular insights into the ways these will affect you, other than to say that aggressions both micro- and macro- exist aplenty. (I’ve never head anyone admit that they ask about marital status or children in an interview, but my female colleagues unanimously report being asked about these sorts of issues.) You should consult the resources below for some guides, and if you find any posts that you think should be added, please list them in the comments.

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