This is not the PhD advice you were Looking for, either

Some recent attention has focused on the difficulty of getting a tenure-track position in Political Science and thus the desirability of enrolling in a Ph. D. program in the first place. Dan Drezner in blog posts here and here has done an excellent job chronicling the long odds of getting a tenure-track job after earning a Ph. D., especially if this degree does not come from a highly-ranked program. Many of you reading the Quantitative Peace might be considering a Ph.D. and I think it’s worthwhile to not only acknowledge the difficulty of gaining tenure track employment, but the reasons why it’s not likely to get any easier in the future.

Side note: I have a tenure track job I love, but unlike Professor Drezner, I do not have tenure and I am thus more vulnerable to allegations of trying to limit competition by limiting the supply of Political Science Ph. Ds. Nevertheless, I want to help potential Ph. Ds understand the dynamics of the current academic system and make an informed enrollment decision because I didn’t think very carefully about what I was doing when I enrolled in a Ph. D. program. Drezner is right to point out that blindly enrolling in Ph.D. programs is probably not a good strategy even if the decision turned out well for many people, including me. He’s right on this count, too: prospective grad students who are concerned about their job prospects sincerely believe they will be the one in three that finds themselves with a tenure-track job upon graduation. I think the situation is worse. There’s a good chance 0 in 3 have such a job….at least a job they want. Consider this: joining the academy is one of the few career tracks where choosing one’s geographic location is almost impossible.

I work for Boise State, in Boise Idaho and I am extremely lucky I was able to get that job, which was at the top of my list for all jobs that year. I was also very lucky that Boise, Idaho flies under the national radar as a great place to live and features a strong, albeit small Political Science department. As a result, I’m also very lucky I only faced about 120 competitors for my position as opposed to 450, which is the number of applications a colleague of mine in a Portland department said his school received for an open post the same year. I got the job I wanted in Boise, but I doubt I would have gotten a similar job at a similar school in Portland due to that difference in the size of the applicant pool based on what seems like a universal desire to move to Portland. If other recently-minted Ph. Ds are lucky, they will have one tenure track job offer on the job market. There’s also a very good chance it will be for low pay, feature a high teaching load and be in a place where they don’t want to live (frequently a flight or two away from their spouse or partner, who is also an academic, but that’s another story).

Competition and lack of geographic agency aside, the point of this post was not to echo Dan Drezner completely, but to point out a few reasons why the situation for Ph. Ds in Political Science is likely to get worse in the future. Political Science is losing majors nationally. So are all of the social sciences and least we’re not in the humanities. Nevertheless, fewer majors means fewer faculty lines, which means fewer jobs.

1. Why is the number of majors falling?

Several reasons. First, law school is no longer as attractive as it once was because jobs as attorneys are scarcer and less well paid than they used to be. The population of prospective law students that used to feed Political Science, History and Philosophy departments is shrinking with the desirability of employment in the legal field. Second, students increasingly want to major in a field perceived to lead more directly to employment following graduation. Political Science may foster critical thinking and meta cognition among undergraduate majors, but it’s not tied to a specific career (very few majors become political scientists).

2. But aren’t all of the baby boomers finally going to retire and won’t their lines open up for me?

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Some boomers are retiring (not Professor Chong, I hope), but many faculty lines will disappear as departments continue to lose majors. Beyond the loss of lines, the great prophesied wave of retirements is just starting to occur, and it looks more like a trickle than a flood. This is reasonable, of course; full professors have great jobs and often keep them for a decade longer than the average retiree. Furthermore, universities are under increasing funding pressure to admit more graduate students to teach classes, thus ensuring at least a steady flow of Ph. Ds onto the market. Eventually a few Ph. D. programs might disappear, but universities that seek to rise through the ranks often add Ph. D. programs without considering their graduates’ job prospects. The bottom line here is that supply of Ph. Ds may even increase.

3. I REALLY want to be a professor. Can’t I just wait out my fellow underemployed graduates? I’ll be careful.

You’ll be dead! Well, not really. You can wait out some members of your national PhD cohort, but it probably won’t matter. Political Science Ph. Ds are fortunate in that their skill sets make them competitive for work across the public, private and non-profit sectors- at least compared to Ph. Ds in some other disciplines. This means many Political Science Ph. Ds will drop out of the applicant pool for tenure track jobs after three or four years. However, hiring committees can also lose interest in bringing those who have been out of school without a tenure-track job into their departments. In my experience this is because the constant job search, and extra teaching load as a lecturer or adjunct leaves little time for publishing and places the applicant at a greater and greater disadvantage compared to others in the pool. These prejudices may not be entirely fair, but I suspect they are common among tenured and tenure-track faculty.

4. So should I end it all and get my eMBA instead?

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No. A Ph. D. in Political Science is something some people should still pursue because they enjoy the prospect of producing knowledge as the director of one’s own research program, but not because they value one sort of employment over another. Odds are the job you want on the way in won’t be there on the way out- especially for students outside of the top 30 or 40 schools. But there will be a job somewhere where your skill set will be highly regarded. Completing a Ph. D. signals an incredible work ethic, perseverance, self-discipline and high intelligence. Employers value all of these things and will likely hire you. You just have to be ok with this option going in and avoid the cult of the Ph. D., which as Professor Drezner notes, is easier said than done.

5. Is there anything departments can do to help out?

I think so. A good start would be to admit smaller classes of Ph. D. students if current students are not being placed in tenure-track or professional careers upon graduation. Extra job market support could then be given to the smaller number of graduates, with recent graduates who do not have tenure-track options picking up the slack on the teaching front…usually for less money than it costs to employ graduate students. Another option is to do a better job of retaining undergraduate majors to keep lines following retirements. Reforming the curriculum to offer more tangible, marketable skills is at least an experiment worth pursuing. For instance, offering a set of courses in quantitative analysis would generally not take too much effort and it would make political science undergrads stand out from those who major in other social sciences, business or the humanities. This may drive away some majors, but it would also let departments test hypotheses surrounding whether their majors really need tangible job skills or if the movement away from majoring in Political Science stems from other factors.

Finally, good luck out there if you’re a new Ph. D. on the job market. If you’re considering a Ph. D., the best thing you can do is talk to the grad students who are finishing or recently finished their doctorate in the program where you might enroll. You should trust them to give you the information you need to make your decision because their eyes may not have been open to the challenges surrounding the Ph. D. when they started, but I guarantee their eyes are open now.

About Michael Touchton

Mike Touchton (Ph. D., University of Colorado) is an assistant professor of Political Science at Boise State University. He studies the comparative political economy of development and underdevelopment around the world- particularly in Asia and Latin America.

6 thoughts on “This is not the PhD advice you were Looking for, either

  1. Isn’t your first point counter to the narrative that PhD jobs will be hard? If less people are becoming political science majors, then less will apply to graduate school, and so less will be looking for tenure-track jobs. But then that reduces demand for professors I suppose. Why is the force of reducing demand stronger than the force of reducing supply?

    • Hi! Do you think that the situation has changed changed during the last year? If yes, in which way? Did it get better or worse? Cheers, M.

      • I think it’s probably about the same- retirements are happening faster at a lot of universities, but Political Science is losing national majors at a rapid pace and many of those faculty lines are not being replaced. You’ll be ok as long as you really like doing the kind of research a Ph. D. will train you to do and see it as its own reward. Also, don’t get a doctorate if you are unfunded as a graduate student….that almost never works out.

        • Thanks, but I wasn’t asking for myself – I was just curious: I have a friend, she and her boyfriend applied at a good university at the west coast and both got a full PhD scholarship in political theory (I’m aware of the fact that it’s not the same as political science). I don’t know about him but I once asked her something about the “Frankfurt School” and she openly admitted that she doesn’t know much about political theory – she is just “very interested” in it. I found this rather surprising. Now I’m asking myself: is being interested really enough to qualify for a full scholarship? Should that have made her suspicious? It definitely made me suspicious! I’ve studied philosophy and I didn’t even look for a PhD program because I know that chances to start a career as an academic in this field are rather small. How bad must the odds be in political theory if they are accepting students that don’t even have a major in this field and know nothing about the fundamental basics (she didn’t even know who Adorno and Horkheimer are… Hobbes and Mill also seemed to be new to her )? – But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe chances are meanwhile not that bad anymore… I don’t know. I’m sounding a bit bitter – I know – but I just can’t see why one wouldn’t get skeptical if one were offered such a big scholarship without real qualifications apart from “being interested”. Anyway: good luck to them and all the others who give academia a try! (If I were interested, I’d have started with reading a book instead of applying for a PhD though… especially if I already had to repay a 40k student loan).

          • There are very few jobs in political theory relative to the rest of the discipline, but any department with more than a few theorists probably has space for some graduate students interested in pursuing political theory as a Ph. D. subfield. A lot of factors determine which applicants get those spots- in a year with few theory applicants (which could be most years if applicants understand the job market), those with strong undergraduate records, GREs, and letters of recommendation might be admitted and funded with a teaching or research assistantship. The selection committee would likely take such applicants at their word that they wanted to study theory. There may be internal pressure to admit applicants fitting that profile for teaching purposes If the university is public. The worst case scenario for the department at that point would be that the students would wash out after a few years of inexpensive labor. That having been said, it’s probably even cheaper to hire adjuncts so I doubt departments are actively admitting students they plan to wash out. Anyway, it’s tough to know whether pursuing a Ph.D. makes sense for you and it sounds like you’re eyes are open wider than many who do choose to go forward with it

  2. Pingback: Advice for Ph.D. Job-Seekers in Political Science | Paul Musgrave

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