In a previous post I outlined some of the steps graduate students can take to prepare for their time on the job market. I want to emphasize again that much of this really reflects my own set of experiences and training (i.e. three years applying for tenure track jobs at research universities). Much of what I’ve written is also the product of spending time on a search committee myself, but also speaking to several other people with much more experience on search committees than I have. That said, I suspect teaching programs and smaller liberal arts colleges are often looking for different things. Accordingly, parts of this may be useful, other parts less so. So talk to other graduate students and faculty and see what they have to say. The same goes for this post.
The previous post was intended more as a guide to basic organizational and administrative preparation. And as I mentioned before, the job market can be incredibly stressful, and this post is intended to address some of the less tangible aspects of preparing for the market. In this second entry I’ll focus primarily on expectations and market prospects. I think this is one of the more difficult things about the market—both in terms of simply establishing or measuring, but also in terms of personally grappling with the implications of whatever expectations you settle on. I certainly struggled with this constantly. To a certain extent the market reveals information, and if there is a substantial difference between your expectations at the outset as compared to several months into the process, well that will also affect how you choose to cope. I’ll save my discussion of coping strategies for the next post.
So what should you expect? What are your prospects? How do you estimate your likelihood of getting a tenure track job? This can be really difficult to determine, and while there’s really no single metric that will provide you with all of the information you need there are a few indicators that, taken together, can help. First, one of the most basic things you can do is sit down with your advisor and ask them point-blank, “do I have what it takes to get a job?” Presumably you wouldn’t be on the market and would have been given the boot at an earlier stage if you didn’t meet some minimum level of capability. Binghamton had at least three points at which this could happen prior to going on the market: 1) Qualifying exams, 2) Comprehensive exams, and 3) Dissertation prospectus/prospectus defense (the actual dissertation defense could be considered a fourth). Still, it’s very possible that you could make it past these kinds of barriers but not be an overly competitive job market candidate. Whether or not you meet some intradepartmental standards does not necessarily equate to being highly competitive on the market. Even if you’ve met some minimum threshold of skill, there’s still tremendous variation in terms of the quality of applicants when you consider the market as a whole. Getting a vote of confidence from your advisor is not a guarantee, but if you can’t even get that much then you may need to seriously reevaluate your career trajectory.
For most people applying to tenure track research jobs, publications will probably be at, or near, the top of the list of indicators of success. I’d say that at least one publication is a virtual prerequisite for even getting your file included in a list of “maybes”. The quality of the journal is another factor, as it can serve to indicate the quality of the work and some element of how competitive or attractive the research is. Publications can serve as one of the basic gatekeeping mechanisms for search committees who are looking to sift through 200+ applications. Is it perfect? No, but you have to use something. Still, if you view the search process as one in which committees are trying to find the candidates who are most likely to successfully make tenure, this seems like one of the better measures they could use. Sure, there’s certainly a stochastic element to the publishing process, and we’ve all marveled at how one piece or another made it into APSR, JOP, etc. Still, it also requires skill and self-discipline to produce work of publishable quality. Especially if that work is above and beyond your dissertation. It can also demonstrate your ability to play well with others. Even solo-authored projects require you to successfully navigate the review process, and part of that process involves the tactful defense of arguments or methods, or expression of your own opinions. It’s not enough to be the smartest guy/gal in the room. We’re involved in a scientific enterprise, which often requires us to work with people who have a different skill sets and expertise, one where there are not always clear-cut right and wrong answers. Publications don’t necessarily give you crystal clear answers on all of these deeper questions, but they’re a useful starting point.
Committees are certainly going to look at other information as well. We were repeatedly advised very early in our program to think about how we package ourselves—how we package our broader research agenda. Do you have a clear identity as a scholar? What is the committee expecting when they hire you? To be honest, I think this is one area where I hurt myself. My first year on the market I had several ongoing research projects, but I’m not sure I did the best job at tying it all together. My dissertation, and the ideas that motivated it, touched on a lot of diverse issues/outcomes of interest. I also spent a lot of time talking with friends and colleagues about our respective interests and where they overlapped, and many of my coauthored projects arose from these sorts of discussions. In my mind, and in the context of these discussions, these projects made sense. And let’s be honest—sometimes these discussions lead you to places and ideas that are not necessarily immediate extensions of your dissertation research. Still, you don’t have a lot of space to make these relationships and ideas clear in the context of your CV and cover letter. If committee members aren’t certain as to what they’re getting, then that may count against you.
I’ll note that while I suspect most people will agree on the importance of publications, I’m less sure how folks quantify or weight the importance of packaging. I suspect there’s probably more variation on this point. Some departments may be looking for someone to fill a very specific niche, while others are less concerned with this particular point. I also don’t really have solid evidence that this issue actually caused me any problems in my time on the market, but I suspect it mattered to some extent. Gut instinct is not a great yard stick, so talk to other faculty members and advisors to see what they have to say.
Another factor is pedigree. I mean this both in terms of your intellectual parentage, and the university/department where you are getting/got your degree. This is another area where there is likely to be some disagreement. Still, I think this is one of those things that we know matters, somehow. To be clear, I’m not saying pedigree is deterministic, but I suspect it acts more to augment other factors. Sure, you remember hearing about that one Ivy Leaguer with no publications who got a job, but what about all of the other ones who didn’t? Pedigree, to the extent that it matters, can only take you so far. So if you didn’t get a job, I don’t think you can lay all the blame here. Maybe a good way to view its influence is in regression terms. We might assume there’s a positive slope coefficient for the number of publications and the probability of getting a job. Alternatively, pedigree might affect the intercept. Publications still have that positive relationship, but perhaps that Harvard degree just increases the baseline probability of getting a job to some extent. But there’s still going to be some error. Prominent advisors, or coming from a prominent department (even if the university itself is less prominent), might have similar effects. I haven’t seen any systematic analysis of these ideas, but I think this is a rough approximation of widely held views on the subject.
Who else is on the market? If you’re an ABD job candidate it’s likely that you’re not competing just against other ABD candidates. Post-docs and other junior faculty (maybe even some tenured faculty) may also be competing with you for the jobs you’ve applied to. These folks likely have more publications, they have the degree, they’ve prepped and taught courses, and they likely have established some sort of reputation. If you can choose between a highly successful assistant professor who has been out of graduate school for several years, has a great record, and is a terrific colleague and person to spend time with, why would you choose the ABD who is a relatively unknown quantity? Budgetary reasons might factor in (experience pays), but my guess is that this is rarely going to play a huge part in the process.
The point here is to try to take stock of where you’re positioned in the broader pool of applicants. Though this can be difficult to estimate in any accurate way, I think it’s important to engage in a process of honest self-evaluation. If you have no publications, no pipeline,come from a university or department that really has no reputation in the field, and are up against a million junior faculty members, it may be wise to consider other options. Doing this sooner rather than later can be a big help. I’ve had these discussions with peers and advisors, and I generally received encouraging feedback, but I was still on the market for three years. I didn’t look seriously for non-academic employment during my first two years on the market, and as I moved through my third year, still with no job, I started to seriously worry (I say this as though I wasn’t worried before). This is when I did start to consider non-academic jobs as a serious option. I came from a relatively small program that emphasized training PhDs to go into research jobs. Consequently, we weren’t given a lot of exposure to non-academic career paths. From the department’s perspective this makes perfect sense, but this is where you have to realize that you’re interests and the department’s interests may be growing apart over time.
The process of exploring non-academic options can be an incredibly stressful decision at a personal level. It can also be difficult to broach the subject with faculty or other graduate students. Looking for non-academic work can make you feel like you’re compromising or not demonstrating the dedication and resolve necessary. Am I endangering my position in the department by talking openly about this? Will I lose funding? Will I be seen as a quitter? What the hell do I do with a PhD in political science in the private sector? What’s a resume? There’s a page limit to these things? Does five years as a TA/RA really count as a job? How much am I actually worth in the private sector? Will I lose touch with all of my friends? Etc. Kate Kidder has some good advice over at the Duck of Minerva for PhDs looking for non-academic jobs in DC, and she notes that this is very different from the academic search process. University career centers may be able to offer you additional advice. Again, it’s better to grapple with these questions sooner rather than later. Even if you’re only exploring privately in the beginning, gaining some knowledge of your alternatives can be incredibly helpful and somewhat freeing. If nothing else, it can take a some of the pressure off by reducing uncertainty. When we don’t have this basic information I think the choice we face implicitly boils down to an academic job vs. unemployment/oblivion. Of course this isn’t true, but it’s easy to fall into that trap.
For those who choose to continue in the search for an academic job I would again advise you to talk to more senior colleagues about their experiences (have you noticed this is a recurring theme?). A temporary position like a post-doc or a visiting position can be a relief, but you can also sort of feel like you’re just temporarily postponing the inevitable. As I’ve talked to more people, though, I’ve discovered that these kinds of temporary positions are quite normal in our field. It’s understandable that a temporary position can give you the sense that you’re just prolonging the anxiety of being on the market, but they can also be really wonderful opportunities. I’ve definitely benefitted from having a year with no teaching responsibilities as it’s allowed me to get more of my work out the door, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with people who take the time to talk to me and offer me advice. In the long run I’m probably better off for it. Even a temporary position with a high teaching load can be helpful if it allows you time off the tenure clock to prep courses. It also gives you an opportunity to get the degree in hand. This is another point that counts in your favor, but it probably varies quite a bit in terms of how much of a boost it gives you with search committees. At the very least, it removes some of the uncertainty in terms of whether or not you’re capable of completing and defending your dissertation. As with publications and a coherent research program, it’s just one more thing that counts in your favor. Remember, if you do get a visiting position it may be a blessing in disguise, even if it doesn’t feel like it right away.
So being on the market for 2–3 years is a fairly common experience, as I’ve discovered. But one more thing to consider in light of this information is how your record changes over the course of that time period. I was partly able to keep plugging along because my record improved. I went from 0 publications when I first hit the market, to 2–3 at the beginning of my second year, to 4–5 in my third year. Beyond publications I was adding to projects during this time period, finding new coauthors, my dissertation improved, my methods skills improved, etc. If your record is constantly improving then it may be worth your time to continue on. I had a couple of preliminary phone interviews during this time, and I also heard through the grapevine that I made a couple of other short lists. You get better with each crack at the market and I could see that improvement over time, which helped motivate me to continue. I also had great departmental support. However, if you spend year after year on the market and your record looks the same from year to year, then revisiting your expectations and goals is probably appropriate.
Again, it can be hard to distill all of this down to something meaningful, and ultimately you need to decide for yourself how much time you’re willing to devote to the market. The market still isn’t great, and taking steps to prepare yourself for the possibility that you’ll have to find other opportunities early on can help. In the next post I’ll talk more about coping with the job market.