Academic Job Market Notes

Two recent posts about the academic job market for political science PhDs are worth a read: Chris Blattman‘s search committee notes give a good demand side perspective, and Nate Jensen has some useful data on the supply side. As the PS job market is happening right now, these posts are probably too late to be useful to anyone currently on the market for a tenure-track job, but they are food for thought.

Based on my own experiences, I agree with  just about everything in both posts. Some of these things are third- or fourth-order concerns, like having too many publications on your CV (if your worst pub is far worse than your best pub, something which unlikely to matter if you are looking for assistant-level jobs) or if your department does not prominently list its PhDs for hire on its website (I have never used a department website to find someone to hire). But the rest is all useful information.

Nate’s findings about ABDs with publications are particularly useful. He is right: my sense is that ten years ago,  having a good publication was the best way to land a couple of interviews. There has been a structural change in the political science job market since 2008, and today, having a good publication is closer to necessary but not sufficient for getting an interview. I commonly hear that search committees these days are choosing among dozens of candidates who all have articles in good journals. In that kind of job market, things that are more difficult to judge from the CV alone, like the quality of the work or the collegiality of the candidate, become even more important. One good friend who will remain unnamed—except for to say that he is not at Cornell—put it to me like this: “we don’t have to risk it on untested ABDs, horrible teachers, or giant assholes anymore.”

That further support’s Chris’s advice for recommenders: explicit and direct is good. I pay a lot of attention to letters, and I think that they are important in different ways than most ABDs realize. Not who writes them (the ABD’s common fear), but what they convey about the applicant. I mildly disagree with Chris about relative rankings, which are indeed useful, but this only makes sense in letters from the most senior faculty who have been advising for 20+ years. After all, what does it mean when Assistant Prof Pepinsky says that someone is his best student ever? I want to know pipeline, trajectory, and contributions to my department, in that order. And because pipeline and trajectory are more “observable”—they should partially evident from the CV, writing samples, and cover letter—I am particularly interested in the intangibles to which letter writers can attest.

A final, unconnected thought: it is bad news when a recommendation letter summarizes the dissertation’s argument or contribution better than that applicant’s own cover letter does. I see this frequently, and it is hard to fix because the applicant never sees the letter! A cover letter is (ideally) vetted multiple times by multiple letter writers, so perhaps one useful exercise would be for the letter writer to summarize for the applicant what s/he believes the applicant’s main argument and contribution to be.

Comments 10

  1. Nate Jensen October 21, 2012

    Funny, I always go to candidates websites. When I’m on a search, I go there to look at their working papers (or to see if there is a working paper for all of times someone presented at the Midwest).

    When I’m not on a search, I always look up the candidate’s website before a one-on-one meeting to skim a working paper or two.

    I can usually find them through a Google search, but in some cases I can’t.

    This doesn’t mean that a department has to make websites available. But I also wonder what this signals about a department that doesn’t display their graduate students.

  2. Tom October 22, 2012

    I always go to candidates websites too. Step 1: google candidate name. I think that having a simple web page with links to CV, papers/projects/diss summary, and other info is close to a requirement now.

    What I almost never do is rely on the link from the department’s homepage. If I get to the stage where I’m googling your name, I’ve already factored in your department and what that conveys about you; I don’t infer a thing from the fact that it is easy or hard to find that name on the department’s placement page.

    I guess that that means is, I never say things like, “hmm, I wonder if there’s anyone from Yale to hire this year, lemme go look.”

  3. Lamia October 24, 2012

    A question: as SC members do you go on candidate websites if they’re close to the long short list or do you actually go on majority of the candidates’ websites?

  4. Tom October 24, 2012

    In my experience, usually if you are somewhere close to a long list. But there are some exceptions. Some applicants just have really interesting files even if they have no practical chance of making it onto a long list, and it’s interesting to see what their websites say.

  5. Lamia October 24, 2012

    Thanks for the feedback. Nate Jensen was actually on my site reading about my research and papers but now I’m thinking it was part of the data collection effort and it was one of the RAs that logged in with his account! Yep, since I’m going to be a data point, I might as well know about it.

  6. Chris G October 24, 2012

    One piece of anecdata in favor of department sites: A few summers ago I got an over-the-transom email asking if I was available for a visiting position at a school in a state adjacent to the one I did my PhD at. This was very late in the summer, so I imagine that a sudden vacancy occurred and I was nearby and, according to my department, on the market. I had already landed my tenure-track job by this point, but I imagine that every year there are ABDs who would jump at such an offer. I doubt this sort of thing happens very often, but even rare occurrences would justify departmental listings of ABDs on the market.

    As for candidate sites, I imagine most PhD-granting institutions make some sort of web space available to students. Departments and search directors should give students on the market information about how to set up a site, and what should be on it.

  7. Tom October 24, 2012

    Thanks, Chris G, for reading and commenting. You know, that is a really good point. I had never thought about that kind of mechanism. That one story alone is enough for me to reevaluate what I think about the “hire a PhD” page: it’s important. Full stop.

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