Tag: advice

I’d like some lemonade with my advice, please

lemonadeAs a junior faculty member, I am not in a position to turn down advice. Fortunately, I receive good advice from mentors, colleagues, and friends.  I am very thankful. Lately, I have also been getting advice from a few organizations for faculty development. They provide free tips on writing and productivity, navigating the job market, and balancing responsibilities as well as seek to debunk some of the myths about success in the academia. On average, their advice has been fairly useful (I have not signed up for paid services, and I certainly do not have a representative sample here).

But based on my experience, I take issue with the advice industry’s focus on mistakes. A laundry of list of mistakes junior faculty must avoid seems ubiquitous: taking on service, supervising theses, investing too much into your current institution, working on multiple projects at once, not eating healthy, not seeking out mentors, not having work-life balance… Avoid these mistakes!

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The Tenure Two-Step

I have spent the past several days at orientation meetings at my new place of employment.  I am coming in with tenure (just as I did the last time), so I am not concerned about tenure directly.  I do care about tenure procedures because the granting of lifetime employment (essentially) is a pretty serious enterprise and how academic units deal with it shapes the culture of the place.  So, in the course of events, I asked questions about it, and I also watched the folks around me get heaps of advice from the various panelists.  As a result, tenure is on my mind.  Not the first time of course, as as a search of my blog will turn up many posts related to the future of tenure, the apparent randomness of tenure decisions, what a strange institution it is, how poorly it is portrayed in movies, that promotion to full can be problematic,* and so on.

*  One of the strangenesses at Canadian schools (I know have an n of two) is that tenure seems to be easier than promotion.  At Carleton, the tenure and promotion to Associate Professor are two distinct decisions and processes, and only one of them seems to have university-wide standards, and it ain’t tenure.  I don’t understand it at all, but that does seem to be the reality.

While one can give lots of advice, I just have two pieces of advice for this post: think about the profession’s expectations and do not think big

First, your department/school/college/university may or may not provide clear tenure guidance.  Do consult your colleagues, do try to observer what has happened in the recent past, and so on.  But as you strategize towards meeting the local standards, do try to get a sense of your discipline’s standards** and try to match those.  In many places, the profession’s standards are the same as or tougher than the local department. Those places that seem to be far more strict than the profession’s?  Well, you should know that going in and prepare accordingly.

**  This is mostly written with research intensive schools in mind.  Liberal arts colleges will be similar but not identical.  The norms regarding research output for folks at liberal arts colleges may be different than for research universities, so keep my bias in mind–based on my experiences at the research schools.

Why care about the profession?  Well, since it includes more people, it is unlikely to change quickly.  A department can radically revise its standards in a short period of time.  But that is not really the important reason.  The two reasons are:

  1. Many places require letters to be written by folks outside the department to provide an external check. These folks are probably not familiar with the local standards and will probably rely on their judgment of what it means to be a good x … a good political scientist, a good economist, whatever.
  2. Besides personal glory, satisfaction, ego, whatever, one should try to meet the profession’s standards to maintain at least the appearance of mobility.  It is almost certainly always better to be seen as mobile than not.  You don’t have to constantly threaten to leave.  But if you can leave by getting a job elsewhere, then you can if that needs to happen (your state/province goes to hell, the department blows up, your team gets bought by Dan Snyder, whatever).  Also, one of the only ways to get a pay increase is to be desirable.  Some places may give you a pre-emptive offer so that you do not even go on the job visit.  Most of the time, you will only get a big raise if you have a job offer from elsewhere.  That is not going to happen if you do not at least match the profession’s expectations.  

Second, the idea of getting everything done by the time one is consider for tenure is awfully daunting.  I tell my PhD students that each day they are not writing a dissertation and not even a chapter but a section of a chapter.  For assistant professors, each day/week/month, they are not working on the entire tenure file, but a piece of it.  Just try to be productive, not that you have to birth a book by tomorrow.  If you need to average an article a year, then try to always have a couple under review.  Do not send something out and then wait and wait for it to come back like a Raven with a note from Winterfell.  Write something, send it out for review, and then write the next piece, and then send it out for review, and then go onto the third thing.  Do not try to be writing multiple things at once–having three articles on one’s desk means there are three pieces not under review. As much as possible, have stuff in different parts of the process, so that if one thing gets rejected, you still have another piece under consideration and you can try to fix the rejected piece after you get whatever is on your desk off of it and in the mail. [Books are different but mostly the same–work on pieces of the book, get feedback, submit sooner rather than later]

A few points related to this:

  • Do share your research before you submit so that you can get feedback.  You probably cannot anticipate all the likely criticisms.  Get your friends/colleagues/contacts to help you out, and you can do the same for them.  
  • Perfection is the enemy of the good enough.  A major cause of tenure failure is when people either work forever without finishing something or take something they wrote and spent time on and dump because it is not great.  Folks who leave their dissertation behind without getting much in the way of pubs out of are putting themselves at a huge disadvantage.

Anyhow, there is heaps of advice out there.  My two bits again are: think about what the profession expects; AND do not focus on the end so much as the step in front of you.  

The big thing to keep in mind for new faculty is this: if you have a tenure-track position (at a place that actually grants tenure), you have won the big battle.  Let me repeat, you have WON!  That is the hardest part in the 21st century thus far.  Navigating the next several years is stressful, certainly, and uncertain, certainly.  But you can get tenure at most places without working 80 hour weeks.  It is not easy, it is not certain, but you have far more control than you did when you were on the job market. 

And, yes, this entire post is about research.  There are places where teaching matters a lot, but at most research schools, being good enough at teaching is good enough for tenure.  You should aim for more because it matters and because it is a huge part of what one does.  But the aim in the first few years of teaching is just be clear, organized and enthusiastic.  Do not invest months of time on perfecting some slides or a syllabus or whatever until you have enough publications in the right places that make you feel a bit more comfortable.  Be selective about what service you do–try to make it work for you.  Do learn to say no but don’t say no to everything.

Of course, your mileage will certainly vary.


Your life’s work

To respond to Patrick (and then I promise this will be the last I’ll say on this until late August…), I largely agree with important parts of what he says, but as a friend pointed out to me, to be able to occupy the position required to realize such a vocation requires a certain degree of luck and privilege. Moreover, I think it is perhaps time to apply some of Patrick’s own ontological commitments to the notion of a vocation itself.

As Patrick points out, the idea of a vocation, a calling, is explicitly religious. But our understanding (and his) of that concept is filtered through Christianity, and perhaps here is where some distance from that religion is helpful. In the classic sense, the vocation was a calling to serve one’s religion, and in the Medieval context, the only institutional form for such service was the Church. And to this day, it largely remains so—the vocational calling to religion in the Christian context has one institutional outlet, the Church (of whatever denomination), which sets the terms of service, traditionally through the clergy (to which Patrick compares scholars, the high-priests of knowledge).

Things are different today—this is not the world our students enter. Perhaps lets us think of a vocation not as an essential way of being, but as a set of practices that orient one’s life. Thus, the calling is not to embody a certain essence or acquire certain qualities, but rather to engage in certain practices, certain ways of life. The vocation is not to be a university professor, but rather to engage in the practice of teaching, mentoring, researching, or mastering a certain domain of knowledge. As a friend and colleague said to me yesterday—if I had realized that my vocation was teaching, I would have scrapped IR for a much more lucrative profession and taught technology or something.

The vocation to which Patrick aspires exists only in limited institutional forms—the small subset of top 100 (maybe 200 if we are generous) universities in the US (I’ll exclude the rest of the world for now as most of my students aren’t oriented in that direction, and understandings of scholarship and teaching differ enough in other cultural settings to matter for the purposes of this meta-discussion). To get a job in this realm, you usually need to have a Ph.D. from a top 20 school. You must do as Patrick did, not as he does now—a Ph.D. from our institution doesn’t position you all that well to get the type of job that allows one to realize the vocation Patrick describes. Most academic jobs are like that friend of mine just landed—-its tenure track at a small, second tier state school in the middle of nowhere. He’ll be teaching a 4-4 load of large classes to mostly mediocre students not all that interested in Political Science. His department is small, he’ll be one of 2 jack of all trade IR / comparative guys also required to teach a service section of US government every other semester. His research requirements are to stay active in the profession—an article here, a conference paper there, but not the degree of engagement in the profession that Patrick celebrates. Indeed, such engagement in the profession is difficult from such a position given the teaching load and paucity of resources available—resources one requires to attend conferences, conduct research, subscribe to journals and buy books to keep up with the latest research.

What worries me most about Patrick’s discussion is the idea that the University is the only institutional form in which his vocation can be realized. Rather, I think one must understand what vocation actually calls them, and then explore the ways of life in which that vocation can be realized. As I was recently telling a student currently at a crossroads in her life, trying to decide upon graduate school or some other path, realize that you can engage in these ways of life in any number of institutional and professional forms.

If the calling is to teach, one can teach many places. While the classroom is the traditional place for such exploration, there are many classrooms, and many more teachable moments. Professors teach. But so can high school teachers, coaches, nurses, movie producers, artists, parents, baseball analysts, and many others. If the calling is to mentor, one can mentor in the university, but also in the community center, as a youth group leader, or even in the professional workplace. If the call is to research or to produce knowledge, again, the academy has no monopoly on that.

Why must the production of knowledge and research only rest in the academy? I’m reading (slowly—as newborns don’t allow much free reading time) Peter Singer’s Wired for War, and the introduction to the book lays out his biography, his calling to research war. He has all the requisite “scholarly” training (Harvard Ph.D. no less), but he is able to research war from a think tank, and his work has significant impact on how many (including many in the policy relevant community) are thinking about war. Some tenure committee would probably reject the book as not at a university press and not methodologically sophisticated enough, but that’s not the point, and clearly he didn’t write the book for them. He wrote the book because he couldn’t imagine himself writing about anything else. Luckily for him, it also pays well.

So, the question is, what exactly is it that you couldn’t not do? What practice must you engage in, what way of life must you lead? These days, I would submit, there are many, many opportunities and institutional forms to realize that vocation, most of which are outside the academy. One can have a love of numbers, charts, research, and public policy, and start a blog about it and turn that into a job. One can love to teach, and find teachable moments in nearly any setting. One can mentor a Big Brother, a co-worker. Why couldn’t Patrick realize his calling working for Baseball Prospectus? They research rigorously, challenge conventional methodological orthodoxy, use innovative technology to teach those lessons to wide ranges of regular and fantasy baseball enthusiasts, and the results of these endeavors have fundamentally changed how many of us understand and pursue the passion that is baseball.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the children of academics do quite well in this profession. They want to enter it, they know what it is, and they know what it is they like about it. They understand the “game” and have an intuitive sense of how to play, having grown up steeped in the family business. I grew up steeped in welding equipment and industrial gasses (the Howard family business once upon a time—can you imagine me selling gas?). For quite a while, that led me to a math, science, and chemistry focus, though eventually my love of politics and fascination with the international let me to a shift away from a math-science track to a poli sci / IR track sometime in college.

To be able to realize the life of the academic in today’s institutional form requires a significant degree of luck and a significant degree of privilege in addition to a significant degree of skill. Being smart is no longer enough—indeed it was never enough—you must also know the right people, have the right pedigree, and be in the right place at the right time. One must get the right guidance as an undergraduate in order to know which graduate programs to apply to and how to get in—its not something you can do on your own. One must get into the right grad programs with the right advisers to be competitive for a job (and grants and publications and all those other things that help get a job). And, one must have the right topic (and theory and methods) that are ‘hot’ or ‘in vogue’ to impress hiring committees. Privilege can provide a lot of this—access to the right undergraduate situation, ability to engage in the practices that impress admissions and later hiring committees, and most importantly, time to contemplate. Luck also plays a role, as some are simply fortunate to find themselves in the right time. A very bright friend from high school went to Ohio University (not known as a gateway to anything, really) but happened to get along with his history professor quite well and have a strong appreciation of the subject. His history professor was lured away to Yale and brought my friend with him as his graduate student. Indeed, the luck of age is a significant part of this. Patrick and I have discussed where our top students should apply for graduate school to do what we do, to take the next step in realizing the vocation. It’s a tough conversation, as departments have changed and there aren’t a lot of top graduate programs that can train students in our line of inquiry—Patrick’s experience at Columbia is sadly no longer possible, as the particular configuration of faculty, environment, and students have moved on and Columbia is now a different place.

What’s missing here is of course the merit part. We like to think of the academy as merit based and merit driven, and on occasion it is. Brilliant people can in fact succeed by being brilliant. But, more and more, merit is merely a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in this field. There will always be room at the top for the best of the best, but none of us are that person (well maybe one of us is—but its not me). There will always be the exceptional student slightly more driven than the rest, able to overcome lack of privilege to succeed –Patrick and I have had such students, and I’m proud of one in particular to say she’s doing quite well as a young scholar and she’s going to make it in this field all on her own.

But, the contemporary reality is the institutional forms in which one can realize Patrick’s vocation are disappearing. If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, then yes, this profession is for you. Expect significant suffering along the way. Be prepared to accept conditions you otherwise would find untenable to realize your dream. Realize that other portions of your life will suffer to fulfill this one deeply felt need.

But for the rest of us, take the time to reflect on the calling you hear toward a vocation. Consider—what is it, exactly, that provides the satisfaction, that fulfills the desire, that provides a way to organize your life. This is in fact more difficult than it seems, and requires some serious personal reflection. It is not a choice to be made lightly. With that in mind, then set yourself free to realize that calling in all the novel and exciting ways that the 21st century provides.

Post script— the answer to the obvious is: Yes. But more on that later. I’ll endeavor to return to substantive postings on the actual IR stuff we all enjoy.


Perpetual Hiring Difficulties

For any students out there who aspire to graduate education to launch a career in this discipline, allow me to offer the one bit of advice that no one wants to tell you: Don’t. I really hate to be the one who rains on the parade, but the stark reality is that the Academy is a collapsing profession–while we seem to be producing more and more PhD’s, the academy has fewer and fewer jobs to ply the trade of “academic.” We don’t appreciate or really recognize the contributions of those operating outside the university / peer reviewed journal realm, and yet that’s where more and more of our students are going to end up.

The economy’s collapse hasn’t helped things at all. The NYT reports today that graduating PhD’s are facing incredibly tough times:

“This is a year of no jobs,” said Catherine Stimpson, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at New York University. Ph.D.s are stacked up, she said, “like planes hovering over La Guardia.”

They may find a post-doc here or a temporary / adjunct position there, but I can pretty much guarantee you that these disappearing jobs won’t come back as fast as we can flood the market with more graduates.

Andrew Delbanco, the chairman of the American studies program at Columbia University, said that the system producing graduate students was increasingly out of sync with the system hiring them.

“It’s been obvious for some time — witness the unionization movement — that graduate students are caught between the old model of apprentice scholars and the new reality of insecure laborers with uncertain employment prospects,” Mr. Delbanco said. “Among the effects of the financial crisis will clearly be shrinkage both in graduate fellowships and in entry-level academic positions, so the prospects for aspiring Ph.D.’s are getting even bleaker….”

Many students now finishing their doctorates began working on them when the economy was in much better shape. It often takes about nine years to complete a dissertation in English, said Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard, explaining that students have to devote so many hours to teaching and making money that they don’t have time left over to write.

William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich., who writes a column for The Chronicle of Higher Education under the name Thomas Benton, has frequently tried to dissuade undergraduates from pursuing a graduate degree in the humanities. He is convinced that the recession will push universities to trim the number of tenure-track jobs further.

“It’s hard to tell young people that universities recognize that their idealism and energy — and lack of information — are an exploitable resource,” he wrote in a recent column. “If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault.”

Unless you are independently wealthy or really well connected, don’t apply, he advised.

At ISA this year, much of the conversation was about how the budge crunch was impacting everyone’s department. I heard about departments where they let go all the non-tenure line faculty, departments where people had to take pay-cuts, departments where classes were cut, job searches canceled, and candidates going on interviews only to have searches canceled before an offer could be made. In IR, we’re about to have a glut of 2 to 3 year’s worth of top graduates on the market unable to find jobs. They aren’t there.

As a profession, we need to really reflect on our place in the world and perhaps find a way to get these people the jobs they need to survive, while at the same time not alienating them from the profession.

So, if you’re thinking about getting a PhD– don’t. And after all that, if you still want to, be forewarned, this is what you’re up against.


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