Job Market Realities

Political scientists consider changes in criteria for hiring. Should ability to win grants count? Should more grad students be discouraged from staying in programs? Should search chairs get involved with job rumor Web sites?
September 8, 2009

TORONTO -- The job market for political scientists, like the markets for most academic fields, is a lot tighter this year than in the recent past. The American Political Science Association, which held its annual meeting here over the weekend, didn't release data on the job market, but everyone here agreed that things have gotten tight.

At a session for graduate directors, one woman talked about how she is trying to help not only those finishing up their dissertations find jobs, but those from last year who are working as adjuncts, with little by way of a living wage or job security. She said she found herself wondering when she should tell her students or graduates, if they can't find tenure-track jobs, that "this just isn't going to work out" and they should look for work elsewhere.

It was a sense that the job market just isn't what it used to be (and not only the scarcity of jobs) that led the political science association, for the first time at its annual meeting, to bring graduate directors together to hear from a panel and to trade ideas about the job market. The meeting was a mix of trend analysis, philosophical debate and tips for how to better prepare graduate students to find jobs in the field. In discussing tips, many times the political scientists found themselves recommending actions that might help on the job market, but that they weren't sure were ideal for graduate education.

For example, Richard Hula, chair of the political science department at Michigan State University, said that a number of qualities that get a candidate into the "take another look" folder these days aren't strictly about research or teaching.

He said that "capacity to demonstrate a potential for external funding" is now viewed as key in many searches and that departments need to start teaching these skills. He said that candidates need not have landed big grants, but that someone who raised funds for dissertation research on his or her own will be seen as having more potential in this area.

Similarly, he said that while there is much debate within the profession about whether graduate students should be encouraged to publish articles prior to their dissertations, those doing hiring answer the question with a decided Yes. Hula called such publications "at best a mixed blessing" in terms of intellectual development, but said that "if you want to get hired, you better get some publications. That's what the market is demanding now."

(Anecdotal evidence that he's right: While most interviews here are conducted in the faux privacy of a large room with tables, off limits to journalists, at least one department, presumably trying to avoid paying the fee, was doing interviews in an open area of the hotel, and the questions in the 20-minute interviews that were easily overheard quickly got to publications; the candidates were running through lists of articles in the works, published or envisioned.)

While Hula only described these as tactics -- and was decidedly unenthusiastic about the ideas in terms of education -- it was clear that these trends struck a nerve with some in the audience. While grant-winning ability is fairly standard these days as a key job factor in the physical and biological sciences, the idea that it might be a factor in social science hiring bothered more than a few.

One graduate director said "we have second and third year graduate students getting all sorts of pressure to publish articles way too early," before they have learned enough or done enough research to really have something to say. He added that the ability to land grants was only "tangentially related" to good scholarship.

"What if we all stop saying to the grad students that these are the things they should do?" he asked. "Maybe there will be a shift." (Several who were there said later that while they agreed completely with his sentiment, that ship has sailed.)

Other shifts were less objectionable to those here -- and were given as examples of how to hold on to or even gain slots at a time when that's not a sure thing anywhere. For example, Hula said it was increasingly important for job candidates to "have a sympathy for interdisciplinary work" and that administrators value that quality highly in thinking about searches and position allocations.

For instance, John Portz, chair at Northeastern University, said that his department was able to make a hire recently -- despite budget constraints -- because the focus (in this case urban politics) fit with the university's broad goals for research and teaching. Had the department members focused on what was interesting only to themselves as political scientists, they might well have selected a different focus -- and not have secured a slot, he said.

Given how tough it is to find jobs, should departments be thinking about another part of the supply and demand of academic talent? One graduate director noted that those who run doctoral programs are always talking about attrition, but maybe, he said, it's time to talk about "good attrition vs. bad attrition." He asked: "Should we be restricting the supply of candidates so that we have a stronger pool" of graduates? Further, would it be "in their interests" if weaker students were encouraged to leave after a few years?

Several chimed in to say that they agreed that it would be far more humane to such individuals to be honest after two years, rather than letting them face a long time in graduate school to be followed by potentially fruitless job searches. Graham Wilson of Boston University said that most programs have "moved away from the tough evaluation" after the second year of a doctoral program and that they should return to a frank discussion of potential at that point.

Another graduate director said that such discussions may also be needed when students have unrealistic expectations of their job potential later. She said that she is seeing an increasing number of students at this research university tell her that they want "teaching oriented" colleges. Nothing is wrong with that goal, she said. But while these students have correctly sized up the difficulty of getting jobs at or earning tenure at research universities, they seem not to realize that the job market for liberal arts college jobs isn't an easy one either, and that publishing requirements for tenure are way up at institutions that didn't use to have them, she added.

Web Sites and Rumors

One change in the hiring process that is clearly frustrating to many graduate directors and search chairs is the popularity of Web sites devoted to the latest news and rumors about the status of searches. These Web sites, found in a number of disciplines, generally rely on anonymous postings. Discussion topics include the general (state of the job market) and specific (what are the areas of focus, beyond those in the job ads) that departments are really looking for. Because this information is typically anonymous, it's impossible to tell if the "tip" that an international relations search is focused on security issues is accurate. There are also postings on the status of searches, claims about tensions that may make some jobs undesirable, and reports on who has the "inside track" for some openings.

While there are several such blogs that touch on political science, much of the bashing here focused on Political Science Job Rumors, which with its slogan of "more than rumor, less than truth" makes no promises that it has fact-checked anything.

One attendee who had led a search recently said he wasn't sure what to do about misinformation on the blog. He said that comments he found there confused the search he was leading (for a junior position) with another search at his institution (for a senior position). After much agonizing, he posted anonymously to offer correct information. Another person who led a search said that she tried not to look at the site, but had done so and found it offering the information that someone who wasn't interviewed had been interviewed by her search committee.

Some in the audience said that they should try to discourage graduate students from frequenting the sites, given that postings are not only of questionable accuracy but are sometimes "hateful," as one political scientist said. Another person in the audience argued that the solution is for search directors to regularly post -- with their names -- accurate information about the status of searches.

But as yet another audience member noted, this is not necessarily what helps a department over the long run. These blogs love to have scoops about when an offer has been made (and to whom), and the reality is that given the hierarchy in higher education, it's not at all uncommon for departments to be turned down once or twice before getting an acceptance from someone they are thrilled to get, and don't want to know that she or he was a third choice.

Of course, this graduate director noted that such information leaks even without the blogs, and she recounted a department meeting to discuss a search in which a colleague started talking about a prior search from a few years back in which several candidates had turned down the university in favor of more prestigious institutions -- with the fourth choice candidate, now a colleague, discovering for the first time the way that job offer had been made.

PoliSciGuy, one of the anonymous editors of Political Science Job Rumors, reached via e-mail, defended the site. He noted that his e-mail is on the site so he can respond to complaints about postings, and said that there is some moderation to remove certain posts. But he said that there is a strong demand for the information -- even unverified information -- from job seekers. "If we tighten things down too much, then a new board will spring up without moderation. So, we try to strike a balance between allowing enough free flow of information that this board remains the focal point for all political science rumors, and still being responsible about what we allow to remain posted."

He also said that grad students know how to place the site's information in perspective. "I'm not sure if graduate students actually rely on this message board, per se," he said. "I think that they likely take it as one data point along with information they gain from other graduate students, advisers, and the rumor mill that has always existed at every conference bar."

Tips for Job Hunters and Departments

While some of the discussion among graduate directors in Toronto focused on the latest trends or technology in hiring, other parts involved basics -- basics that many said simply aren't known by all the graduate students who go on the market.

  • Applicants should look everywhere. Robert Grey of Grinnell College said he noticed in a recent search that some top graduate programs (he cited Yale University's as an example) had multiple strong candidates in the pool, while others appear not to encourage graduates to look outside research universities. While Grey acknowledged that Grinnell's rural location might discourage some, he said that its highly regarded students and faculty, and the reality that it pays well and also encourages faculty research in a liberal arts setting should make its jobs desirable. He didn't name the graduate programs that appear to encourage students to apply only to research universities, but said he thought they were denying their students options.
  • Departments doing hiring should look everywhere. Grey said that in two recent searches, the department started off with fairly specialized job descriptions, wasn't happy with initial pools, and then broadened the job descriptions. In both cases, the second pools were much stronger. In the latter case, the department started off looking for a Europeanist and adjusted the search to be open to comparativists with other areas of focus. In the end, the broader search resulted in hiring a Europeanist.
  • Candidates need to be realistic and prepared. Portz, of Northeastern, said that while he is proud of his institution's doctoral program, it is young and can't claim the prestige of others. That means he's happy to see recent graduates landing jobs at places teaching oriented institutions like Beloit College or Bridgewater State College. And as a result, he said his department pays a lot of attention to students' teaching skills. They get assignments to teach in large and small courses, and courses in different specialties. "We don't let someone teach the same thing four semesters in a row," he said. And he said he goes to graduate students' teaching classes to watch them -- and offer guidance. All of this means the graduates have a comparative advantage in the depth and quality of their teaching, he said.
  • If you need to do research, do research. Sofia Perez of BU said that she worries that graduate students who are finishing their dissertations, or who aspire to research careers are not served by taking too many adjunct positions. “I have actively advised students not to take adjunct positions. Once you have two years of teaching on your record, it’s time to focus on publications," she said. While noting that some graduate students need the pay from working as adjuncts, "I have advised students they would be better to take a job at the front door of the library letting people in, and having the energy to work on their research.”
  • Have the job talk down. Hula of Michigan State said he was hesitant to raise the issue because it seems "so obvious," but he said almost half of those who visit his campus for interviews blow their job talks, and clearly don't have them perfected. He said that while he personally thinks the job talk may count too much in overall evaluations of candidates' potential, it simply does count so much that otherwise top candidates lose their shots by not being as prepared as they should be. "If you don't give a really good job talk, you will not get the offer," he said. (Audience nods suggested he wasn't the only one surprised that candidates don't have their job talks as polished as they should be.
  • Methodology alone may not be enough. Perez described a recent search in which her department was seeking a comparative politics scholar. No regional focus was required, but the notice said that candidates should be able to teach the graduate seminar in quantitative methodologies. While the department attracted outstanding candidates and a great pool of finalists, Perez said she was struck by the number of candidates who didn't make it to the finalist stage because they did quantitative work but "didn't have very much training beyond the topic they were doing quantitative work on." Conventional wisdom among many political scientists is that methodological expertise trumps other issues, but Perez said she worries that graduate students may think methodology is their ticket when it may not be. She said methodology should be viewed as "a strong extra card" to have on top of other qualifications. but isn't enough. Candidates who were focused on methodology and "didn't know a whole lot about countries or a region, or who lacked a certain depth" didn't advance in the search, she said.

Of course, perspective on job searches -- and what gets someone an interview -- is subjective. At another session here, Terry Moe of Stanford University bemoaned the trend that he thinks methods experts are getting the best jobs. "They may not know anything," he said. But because journals are "methods crazy," many faculty members are too, and they share that with their graduate students. "They then have these methods for these very narrow problems, and they get the best jobs," he said.


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