Once again, I’ve been invited to give my advice to graduate students about Graduate School and The Market, the two topics that occupy the anxious discussions of years 2 through N in a young scholar’s career. A quick note: I recommend reading my earlier post with job-market advice; this is an update and a companion to that piece.
There’s an inevitable selection problem when talking about how someone’s career succeeded. We don’t see the counterfactual outcomes, nor do we observe the shape of the probability distribution of success given the variables that went into the probabilistic determination of success and failure. It’s likely that the single largest factor in my succeeding in getting a job where and when I did was the composition of the search committee at UMASS-Amherst the year I was first on the market for tenure-track (t-t) jobs, coupled with the specifics of the job ad: a committee with an Americanist chair and a job ad that needed someone who could teach Honors courses in a joint appointment at a public university spoke to several of my key skills and accomplishments unusually well.
So it’s possible that my success is a fluke, and should be judged accordingly. But I have been around; I’ve now been on a search committee; I’ve been through additional searches; and I know a little bit more than I ddi when I was a graduate student. Indeed, I may be at Peak Advice, since my personal experience as a job candidate closely overlaps with my service as a committee member, and I really have seen this market at close hand. I hope, then, that this lets me talk about what worked and what didn’t work for me. I should caveat all of this by bounding my advice a little further: the dynamics of hiring at top-5 research universities and at teaching-intensive universities are very different from “ordinary” R1 jobs.
As the title of this post suggests, what worked was publishing. As both an applicant and as a search committee member, this was the single biggest qualification that I found relevant. I had early publications in Comparative Political Studies and American Politics Research (both with fine co-authors!). Publications will not get you a job, but not having publications will make it much harder to get one. It is not uncommon to hear that search committee members won’t even look at CVs that lack publication, and these days committees can be picky enough to insist on publications in good places as well. There are other factors in play, of course, and even an R&R at a good enough journal can be a substitute, but this is the single biggest factor.
Attention conservation notice: Advice on how to give better academic presentations for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members–anyone who has to convey academic research (especially in the social sciences) to non-hyper-specialists at conferences or other situations.
Most people are bad at presenting
Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: most presentations you will see are bad. As we’ll see later on, there are many ways that we can interpret the word ‘bad’, and there are many more ways to interpret the word ‘good’, but I think there are some consensus traits to labeling a talk as ‘bad’:
going over the allotted time. This is a deadly sin–maybe the deadliest–because it not only affects you but the other presenters and the audience.
lack of clarity. By the end of the first 60 to 75 seconds of close to 99% of all talks, the audience should know
your research question/puzzle,
the significance of your answer, and
the methods you used to discover your evidence. (In a pinch, you can omit #4.)
elementary failures of presentation. Is your talk monotone? Are you too shy to make eye contact (or at least pretend to, using the failsafe ‘look at their foreheads’ method)? Do your slides have more words on them than the average paragraph? Did you read your slides?
failure to practice. Is the first time you’ve given this talk the ‘live’ presentation?
reading a paper. Sorry, political theorists: this is just as much a failure as submitting a PowerPoint deck to a journal would be.
not recognizing an audience’s reactions. Are you so wedded to your outline/script that you can’t change even when the audience is plainly confused?
disrespecting yourself. Are the first words out of your mouth “I’m not really an expert in this”? If so, then please don’t waste our time anymore. If you’re really not an expert, then shut up. If you are an expert–at least in this narrow corner of human knowledge–then why would you disqualify yourself in the audience’s eyes?
In my experience, a solid majority of academic presentations, and obviously a much larger share of undergraduate presentations, fall into at least one of these categories, and often more than one.
Three Rules To Give ‘Good’ Presentations
This is not a bit of advice about how to give The Best Talk Ever. This is a simple intervention to stop me from wanting to just Twitter the entire time during bad talks. Here are the three rules:
Practice with a timer until you routinely finish within 90% of the allotted time.
Practice your first 60 seconds two to three times as much as the full talk.
Prepare your presentation as a text distinct from the paper.
A friend about to teach his first course texted me the other day to ask, in essence, how hard course readings should be. In particular, when you’re teaching a political science course, should you be willing to assign best-of-breed articles to students who might not have the methodological or other technical skills to actually understand them?
There is no good answer to this question, and it depends crucially on two factors:
How big is the gulf between students preparedness (and willingness to work) and the difficulty of the reading material?
How much do you as an instructor plan to work to bridge that gap?
Instructors choosing course materials should be brutally honest with themselves about both questions, but especially the latter, if they care most about students ability to get something out of the classbesides, that is, the sheen of knowingness that good students are adept at performing.
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:
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.