Explaining the Academic Job Market To Friends and Family

25 July 2018, 1057 EDT

This topic came up on twitter–how do we get our friends and relatives to understand the academic job market?  My first take: don’t bother.  It can get really confusing really fast.  I consider my family well-educated, yet deep into my career, my mother thought that my appearances on TV and radio would help me get another job.  Nope. Given that job market season is approaching (sorry!),* here’s my listicle of things you have to explain:

1. The Adjusted Bar Closing rule: you can’t go home, but you can’t stay here.  Few grad programs will hire their own products at all, and very, very few hire their own students straight out of grad school.

2.  “You can control what you do, but you can’t control where you do it” rule.  That academia mostly provides a lot of autonomy about what you research, how you research it, what you teach and how you teach it (military schools are a big exception here and perhaps other places), but the tradeoff is that you have very, very little control over where you do it.  I compare myself to the flotsam and jetsam that gets washed ashore by the vagaries of the tides. That may be too much but close.  I had one student who only wanted to live/work in one spot on the Earth…. and she got it.  But that is far, far, far from the norm.

3.  The Rummy rule: you have to go with the job market you have, not the one you wish for.  Again, not completely true, but almost: job listings exist and you react.  You cannot cause a job to come into being.  Each year, there are only so many spots in one’s area of expertise.

  1. Fads are a thing.  When I was first coming out, “new topics in International Relations” were hot.  I thought I was in good shape since the IR of ethnic conflict was new-ish.  But I ended up being behind all of the hot IR of the Environment folks.  Seriously, the same four or five people got most of the interviews, and then the job market settled once the first few decided where to go.  Feel sorry for those who were studying the Soviet Union in 1990.  Feel good for those who study trade wars these days.
  2. Which gets to something that has been tweeted lately:

4.  The Networking Rule: Networking matters, but not the kind of networking that civvies think.  How many folks have heard: well, I know someone who knows the Dean of Engineering, they can put in a good word for you?  Nope, those kinds of contacts are utterly irrelevant.  It does help if one’s adviser or oneself has some relationship with professors in the department one is seeking employment.  As one progresses in one’s career, having a wider network can help.  How much is up for dispute.

5.  “It Just Doesn’t Matter” Rule:  Most of what people think matters doesn’t.  While this varies as places vary in how much they care about teaching, what matters most of the time is some combo of ability to publish, being seen as smart, being articulate (that does not mean being a good teacher), and that prestige thing.  Let’s break this down.

  1. Publications uber alles: most places want to hire people who can get tenure and who can advance the reputation of the place.  Even at teaching schools, if you can’t get published, you can’t get tenure.  And with very competitive markets, even those places will be able to compare strong teachers with meh publication records with strong teachers with good publication records and choose the latter.  At research universities, it is all about the pubs.  How do you know someone will publish in volume and in quality (at the more visible, selective spots)?  Past performance.  And, yes, we get this wrong a lot.  To get a job interview, one’s CV should have some indication that one is going to publish.
  2. Being seen as smart.  I remember the word “Smart” being used a whole lot in job searches of yore.  Yes, anyone with a PhD might be bright, but some folks are seen as smarter–that they ask really interesting questions, they have a strong ability to think theoretically, they have sharp methods skills.  This “smart” thing is mostly socially constructed–that if the community of people think someone is smart, well, then they are.  A topic for another post someday.
  3. Being articulate–can you talk about your stuff very clearly and persuasively?  I am fundamentally convinced that some of the most influential people in the discipline are not those with the smartest arguments or best research, but are best at articulating them.
  4. Oh, and prestige matters.  Sorry, but the students from Harvard and their ilk get heaps of play in the job market just because of their school’s name.  Is there a correlation between prestige of a place and the quality of the student (that they are smart and well trained)?  Um, not always.  The worst talks I have seen are those by folks from the schools with the best reputations—because mediocre students from lesser schools don’t get invited to job talks but lesser students from big name schools do.  A selection effect.

6. Any Given Sunday Rule: While everything else matters, what one does during the job talk is most important.  Not everyone in the department will read the file (most people will not).  They will vote in large part on what they see at the job talk and perhaps the other interactions they have (one on one chats, committee interrogations of candidates [I have only experienced that a few times], meals).  So, one can do good work, be prepared, and yet, well, choke.  And one can give that same exact talk brilliantly a week later.  I had a talk deep into my career where I didn’t present the independent variables slide and then brain-farted about what my IVs were.  Probably because the person before asked: “so, your topic explains why war happens, so what?”  Anyhow, job talks matter far more than they should, kind of like athletes performing great at the combine (the event where various measurements are taken), as performance in the job and performance in a job talk are not entirely related.

7. Arrow Rules: Yep, Arrow’s Paradox plays a big role in who gets the offer.  Sure, sometimes, one candidate is superior on all measures in obvious ways.  However, in many cases, there are multiple attributes that people are considering, and you will get different outcomes depending on which attributes are more salient at a given meeting.  And this is where department politics comes in–is there someone advocating for your candidacy?  Are there folks advocating against your candidacy?  Yep, politics can matter.  Less so if the other 1-3 candidates blew their job talks.

So, good luck conveying this to your friends and family.

*  All of this applies maybe to US/Canada and only to Poli Sci. I have no idea how other disciplines work or how it works elsewhere.  All I know is that the UK is strange.