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.