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.

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Thinking about shooting an elephant

When I started doing international relations professionally, I subscribed to many beliefs I no longer hold. One such belief was the idea that states are the principal actors in international relations, and that as a consequence real IR scholars study what states are and what states do.

I won’t detail all of my disagreements with this proposition, not least because, as a working matter, most of my work still involves trying to figure out how particular states work and how particular states interact. But over the past seven years Ive become increasingly interested in how individual people involve themselves in international relations.

Viewing the world from the individual-up instead of the state-down has a lot of interesting implications–not least the fact that one suddenly realizes that all of those people getting on airplanes, making goods for trade, and depicting other countries in fiction are doing a lot more international relations than professors clacking away in their offices.

Engaging in the international entails learning how one relates to others on the basis of categories that are assumed or irrelevant when one deals with others in the domestic. For expats, a category into which I once fell, performing the roles associated with national identity becomes rather more obvious. Much as I have been most conscious of my racial identity in contexts where I am a visible minority, so I am most aware of my national identity and all that entails when I am treated not as me but as an American.

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The Credibility of the Dark Side

A recurring theme in international relations, and the social sciences more generally, concerns the importance of credibility. In situations as diverse as nuclear deterrence or hiring a babysitter, judgments of whether another actor will do what they say they’ll do can dramatically alter the outcomes of any social process. Since credibility forms the basis for action in many instances, thinking through its basis matters a lot. Is credibility a property or a trait of an actor? Is it entirely situational? Is it conditional on a combination of actors incentives and type?

Its in that spirit that I want to investigate why anyone would ever trust Darth Vaderand to show why under some circumstances trusting a Sith Lord is the rational choice.

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The Successes of the Failed State of Texas

Erik Loomis picks up on something hidden in plain sight: the terrible war record of the Republic of Texas. Loomis’s post quotes from a War is Boring post that asks how a country with as pitiful a war record as the Republic of Texas could survive.

Lets get things straight: Robert Beckhusen, the War is Boring writer, is absolutely right. Heres how I describe Texas’s war for independence in my (current draft of my) dissertation:

The case begins with two shocks: the independence of the Republic of Texas and U.S. President Andrew Jacksons refusal to allow its bid for annexation to proceed. Anglo-American settlers had colonized parts of the sparsely inhabited Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, first at the invitation of the Mexican government and then illegally after Mexico City, worried about U.S. influence, sought to halt colonization. Political turmoil within Mexico led to a revolt among the Anglo-Texans. The Texans victory was unexpected, since they were a population of a few tens of thousands without an effective government fighting a Mexican government that (at least nominally) ruled a country of several millions. The Texans war was mostly disastrous, marked by military calamities such as the defeat at the Alamo, until a decisive victory at San Jacinto on April 2, 1836, that left only a handful of Texans dead but the bulk of the Mexican expeditionary force killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Among the prisoners was Santa Anna, who signed a treaty granting the breakaway republic independence.

Wading through oceans of Texas historiography, I quickly discovered that most people who have written about Texas–and almost everyone who reads about it–wants to give Texas a glamorous past. To the extent that anyones encountered Texas history, then, they’ve come up against the most sanitized, and boring, version of the tale.

Yet simply rejecting the sanitized version of the history is misguided. The real question is, knowing how badly off the Texans were, how was it that they managed to win, and maintain, the country’s independence? As ever, focusing on only one side of the question–Texas’s manifest incompetence–gives an incomplete answer. The real story is the fact that Mexico was even worse off. In other words, the Texans were terrible at war, but the Mexicans were even worse. After all, the Mexicans couldn’t even defeat the Texans. Why?
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