The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Reflections on the International Relations job market

November 8, 2005

There’s an interesting discussion (see also here) of the issues raised by the existence of an “information aggregator” for the International Relations job market over on IR Rumor Mill.

The experience of looking for a job in the academy – or, at least, in the field of International Relations – can be a very difficult one.[fn1] At least some of the comments are best seen, in my view, as reflecting the psychological toll the job search takes on individuals, and how they respond differently to the experience.

On the other hand, it is nice to see discussion of the job market’s pathologies in an open setting, particularly from the perspective of people currently in it. One of the points of discussion concerns the tendency of colleges and universities – specifically those in the “first” and “second” tier – to cluster around at least one candidate. The comments, either implicitly or explicitly, raise a number of different hypothesis about why this is the case:

(a) There really are a few superlative candidates on the market each year;
(b) For whatever reason, a few candidates happen to have chosen dissertation topics (and, perhaps, methodological approaches) that prove “sexy” when they enter the job market – usually a number of years after they made their decision about what to write about;
(c) Colleges and universities are insecure in their own judgments and hence they exhibit “pack” behavior with respect to interviews;
(d) There’s no pattern – clustering is stochastic.

I have few ideas about how to tease out these explanations. One could argue that “a” and “b” are more plausible to the extent that the same candidates also receive job offers since. First, merit and “sexiness” would be more likely to overcome idiosyncratic factors at specific institutions then processes associated with “c” and “d.” Second, may institutions might want to avoid expensive bidding wars over candidates, so they would be less likely to make an offer to a candidate if that candidate has multiple offers elsewhere unless that candidate was truly superlative. Of course, if “c” is a really powerful factor, then we might also expect clustered job offers regardless.

There’s also a (related) discussion about the overall efficiency of clustering at the interview level. One of the commentators expressed envy with regards to a specific individual who has received a lot of interviews this year. Another made the standard response: one person can’t take every job.

This is true, but as another individual remarked: might there not be real inefficiencies created by the clustering of interviewees? After all, if we assume that many, many aspiring job candidates would be perfectly good hires, then there are a lot of people who get excluded from full consideration who probably shouldn’t be Such applicants might stack up rather well against some of the other people who are being interviewed (remember that many institutions don’t have the resources or energy to reopen their job searches, and hence will take a candidate who “passes the bar” once they lose their top choice – or even their second or third choice). Obviously, this is not a good state of affairs for applicants, but it might also be a bad state of affairs for institutions and departments, who wind up in pareto-inefficient equilibira.

Another issue, which has not been raised at the IR Rumor Mill, is market segmentation. A few years back, a friend of mine -who was something of a star on the market that year – commented that s/he had applied to a number of third-string schools that s/he was genuinely interested in. My friend received zero interviews from these schools. One reason might have been the general issue of “fit”: how departments specialize, what courses they need taught, or how they need to “round out” their programs. But such outcomes may also be a consequence of status-based market segmentation.

Many C-list schools, I believe, don’t often look at graduate students from A-list departments. The most powerful rationale for this is that someone who was socialized and trained at, say, an Ivy-League institution may be totally unsuited to teach at a regional state school, but there may also be a presumption that the candidate wouldn’t take the job and, if he or she did, that he or she wouldn’t stay.

At the same time, it is difficult for candidates coming from lower-tier institutions to be competitive for the most desirable (from a research, pay, and status perspective) institutions. It does happen, but not to the degree we might expect given how competitive graduate-school admissions are. There are a lot of really good scholars – or potential scholars – who can’t get into the “best” graduate schools. Graduate-school admissions rates, even at lesser-ranked departments, can be as low as one and five percent. Given how many excellent scholars wind up teaching at these institutions themselves, we should expect a lot of strong candidates to be coming from (at least) second-tier PhD programs.

At the end of the day, I suspect that market segmentation – and perhaps the phenomenon of interview clustering – has something to do with the “cognitive scripts” academics adopt in the face of, on the one hand, information overload and, on the other, the often poor quality of that information. There are a lot of applicants for any given position but, particularly with respect to newly minted PhDs and ABDs, very imperfect indicators of future scholarly and teaching success.

There are, however, some interesting studies that suggest status concerns may be one of the most important factors at work in the selection of first-time candidates and hires.

In sum, it strikes me that we have a situation which is far from ideal. Yet there are not easy ways to improve it. The condition of the academic job market, in some respects, calls attention to the conflicting roles scholars have: as members of a particular department, as mentors to students, as individuals concerned with our own careers, and as members of the discipline as a whole.

1None of this should be construed as an attempt by myself to imply that academics don’t have it better than a lot of other people; certainly, their overall employment prospects, and the nature of their employment, looks pretty good when compared to other professions or people at other levels of education.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.