Recovery in Political Science

Discipline shows signs of an improved job market, with strong gains in assistant professor positions. Plus a new analysis of tenure decisions.
July 28, 2011

While the debt ceiling talks have many Americans bemoaning the state of politics, there are signs that the state of political science is getting healthy once again.

The total number of open jobs listed with the American Political Science Association was up 11 percent in 2010-11, and the number of assistant professor positions (a key measure for those looking to launch their careers) was up 15 percent. In the case of total positions, the increase follows two years of declines; for assistant professor openings, the increase follows three years of declines.

Also notable is a one-year shift in the percentage of jobs in certain categories. As a percentage of all jobs listed, those for assistant professor positions are now 43 percent, up from 41 percent a year ago. Meanwhile, the percentage of listings that are for temporary positions dropped to 17 percent from 18 percent.

Postdocs are categorized differently from temporary positions, and their numbers have shown a steady increase, going from 4.2 percent to 8.4 percent of positions over the last five years.

These data have just been published in PS, one of the journals of the political science association, in a paper by Jennifer Segal Diascro, director of APSA's institutional programs. The data are from the association's job listings (which don't include every new job in political science), and the trends in those listings are generally considered reflective of the field, especially for the assistant professor positions that new Ph.D.s so desire. A separate article explored tenure issues (more on that below).

The data also show shifts in the research and teaching specialties of the job openings. Over the nine years that APSA has collected these data, the top three subfields for job openings have been American politics, comparative politics and international politics. Nine years ago, that was the order within those fields, but there are now more openings in international politics than in either of the other fields.

Percentage of Openings, Among Political Science Listings, in Top Subfields

  American Politics Comparative Politics International Politics
2002-3 24.7% 18.0% 16.0%
2010-11 17.6% 14.0% 20.5%

Other data in the study focus on a survey of graduate departments on the placement of students in 2009-10 (and therefore before the recovery apparent in the analysis of job listings).

Of those on the market that year, 49 percent obtained permanent academic positions, 24 percent took temporary positions, 19 percent accepted postdocs and 9 percent took political science jobs outside of academe. Smaller percentages reported not being placed at all, and the figures were notably different for men (6.1 percent not placed) and women (14.2 percent not placed).

The 2009-10 figures reflected an 8 percent decline in placement in permanent academic positions, and an 8 percent increase in postdocs.

The data also show significantly different odds of landing an assistant professor job depending on specialty. The largest number of positions went to scholars of comparative politics, but those with other areas of focus had a better chance of being hired. And several of the fields with the greatest chances of being hired as an assistant professor are relatively small specialties.

Field of Those Hired as Assistant Professor of Political Science, 2009-10

Field Number of Hires % on Market Who Were Hired
American politics 99 56.6%
Comparative politics 124 43.2%
International politics 90 41.5%
Methods 10 62.2%
Political philosophy 38 26.6%
Public administration 7 38.9%
Public law 5 100%
Public policy 15 51.7%

And Who Gets Tenure?

A separate article (abstract available here) in the new PS turns to the question many would want answered after being hired as assistant professors: What are the odds of earning tenure?

While tenure decisions are obviously based on many individual factors related to the candidate and the department, Bryan W. Marshall and John M. Rothgeb Jr. -- both political scientists at Miami University in Ohio -- looked for statistical clues that may go beyond the quality of individual candidates.

Many of the findings won't be surprises. For instance, departments that have high publishing demands are more likely than other departments to deny tenure bids. But some of the other findings may not be intuitive:

  • Candidates are more likely to be rejected if they are in larger departments.
  • Public institutions are more likely than private institutions to reject tenure candidates.
  • Urban institutions are slightly more likely than are other institutions to reject candidates.
  • Coming up for a tenure on a unionized campus had no notable impact on the chances of winning tenure.
  • As to the role of service contributions, a strong record in advising appears to help tenure bids, but committee work and community and public service appear not to have an impact.

The authors -- who work at a public university in a state where a new law (currently being fought with a referendum drive) would bar public college unions -- write that their findings may be relevant to that debate. "Two claims commonly heard from promoters of reform are first, that private educational institutions are more efficient and less likely to spend money carelessly and thus are more diligent about granting tenure, and second, that a unionized faculty leads to more readily available faculty privileges, including tenure," they write. "Our research here indicates that these arguments may not be valid as far as higher education is concerned."


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