Monday, March 7, 2011
As a final post, I want to leave on an optimistic note, and a personal one.
When I was finishing my PhD, I was very pessimistic about my academic job prospects. I was already heavily embarked on my own Plan B, and my partner and I had set definite geographic boundaries on what positions to consider. And it was the usual heavy going. One tenure-track job looked perfectly tailored for me...and I didn’t even make the shortlist. Another place I interviewed at forgot to even send the rejection letter. (I know because they later apologized.) Worst of all, Plan B was not working out; one opportunity in particular seemed absolutely, totally right - but, again, nothing.
Then a tenure-track opening came up, and I got it.
I got that job partly because I had worked hard and made some good decisions. But luck played a big role; I now know a number of things lined up just right to make me the winning candidate, and my career went from there. I'm not promising that a job will eventually fall from the sky for you. But I do say that the best is yet to come.
Academia has such a grooved career path and insular culture that it's hard not to assume that the best can only be the tenure track. It’s worked for me, and I hope I’ve explained a bit about the hiring process. But sometimes things just don’t line up; good people who made all the right decisions are still left out. This makes it so important to remember that academia is only a small corner of the world, and even that all those years in grad school are just a short time in your life. Things will happen for you. The best is yet to come.
This may sound pretty maudlin and a case of tenured smugness. But I remember one day in grad school, as I was listening to the radio while revising my dissertation yet again, when one of my favourite songs came on. (Yes, a real radio. Streaming did not exist). I can still picture that moment, because I suddenly felt really good, and I remember the feeling – with no job yet in sight and Plan B in decline – that not only had I done good stuff in grad school that no one could ever take away, but that life was good and something would turn up for me. I knew the best was yet to come. I still believe that, and forgive me for the sappiness, but I believe it for anyone reading this as well. I’ve come a long way myself since that radio moment. And the best is yet to come.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Last fall, I urged readers to get their CPSA proposals in. Now that CPSA and other spring and summer conferences are on the horizon, a few words on maximizing the experience of conferences.
As noted previously, getting meaningful feedback on a conference paper is strictly a bonus. Discussants are usually hit and miss; even diligent ones often struggle with papers and disparate panels that just aren’t in their main area of competence. The main payoff is the discipline of forcing yourself to write the paper – hopefully a dissertation chapter – in the first place, and think about how to summarize it in fifteen minutes.
Having said that, one of the most baffling things I see is people who fly in, go to their panel, present their paper, and then leave without doing anything else at the conference. I don’t understand the point of even bothering, given the likely risk of nothing more than halfhearted feedback. It seems like an expensive way to make yourself write a paper.
Whether large or small, conferences are about new ideas. Listen. Go to panels; some will be duds, but some will surprise you. A good conference experience often involves hearing for the first time about a new theme, book or thinker, then soon hearing and recognizing it again, and realizing this is something you should check out. And you can’t beat the fired-up buzz after a conference; that inevitable urge to sketch out entire new projects on the flight home.
Conferences are also about people. This was largely covered in my earlier post, but again – meet people. Hang out with old friends too, but make sure to connect with new individuals - both peers and senior people - at every conference. Don’t waste the chance, like people I see hundreds of miles from home who still spend all their time hanging out with people from their own department. And again, this is not about networking for a job. It’s about networking for the opportunities that may later get you a job.
Finally, conferences are about being part of a profession. While sometimes loathe to admit it, academics are deeply proud of their profession, their discipline, and the traditions behind it. The CPSA presidential dinner always sells out – despite occasional discontent over some of the venues – because it’s an understated but genuine celebration of Canadian political science, whether it’s your first or fortieth time. Saying too much of this sounds pompous, but it's true.
So I'll see you for an early Oktoberfest in May.
Monday, February 21, 2011
You may know the general 40-40-20 rule of thumb for faculty that suggests 40% of time be spent on research, 40% on teaching, and 20% on “service”, which means everything from advising undergraduates to reviewing articles for journals to sitting on the CPSA board. The formula for grad students is more like 90% research and 10% TAing, the latter solely for economic survival. I’ve already said a bit about why teaching rarely counts.
Service usually gets zero. A search committee might take an interest in conferences you’ve organized, etc., but any such stuff will be outshadowed by your research, which needs to tower over your service. You want to come across as a strong researcher who perhaps can also organize things, rather than the other way around. (Of course, this doesn’t apply for certain positions that identify a specific service responsibility as part of the job, like running a research centre or program. But such entry-level positions are rare.)
Service clearly connected to your research can be neutral or positive; unrelated and time-consuming service - say, being the student rep on the university board of governors - could be a negative if you don’t have a strong publication record. I also strongly advise against getting too involved in your TA union, not out of anti-labour sentiment but because such passionate activities tend to suck up all your time and energy (though a career in organized labour is a plausible Plan B).
Now, most academics like to moan about service responsibilities and how draining they are. But some people are energized by service; they like to help out, especially after reading about the problems of free riders and lone bowlers and seeing - or imagining- needs they can fill. (Thus this blog.) But such people risk getting distracted and filling up their time with interesting and useful things that won’t get them a job, or later, tenure and promotion. Sort of like how when you work at home, it’s easy to do the dishes and clean your desk rather than buckling down for another monotonous day of lit review.
Once you become a faculty member, the 20% rule (or some variant) slowly kicks in, usually not fully until after tenure. You’ll gradually be expected to do more things, and hopefully find ones that energize rather than drain you. Until then – do things that interest you, but never lose focus of the main thing.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Does this blog need to be here? Is there anything that ABDs can’t get from their own supervisors? That question was recently raised elsewhere.
Answer: Not really. But this blog exists – at least for a few more posts – because there is a lot of tacit knowledge that does not always seem to get passed on to new waves of grad students; and multiple sources of advice are good in any case. I see enough struggling sessionals that I strongly believe in helping PhDs understand the market as much as possible, and to think about alternatives beyond academia.
Yes, your first source of advice for all these matters should be your supervisor. But one of the crushing facts of life for grad students is that while their scholarly world revolves around their supervisor, it’s not the reverse case. Your supervisor can’t read your mind, and you may not know the right questions to ask. Furthermore, shared intellectual interests doesn’t always mean compatible personalities, creating professionally vigorous but personally awkward relationships. Some people really click with their supervisors on all levels, especially for this kind of informal mentoring. Others don’t.
Does this blog feed early ABDs’ “obsessing about the job market”? It depends a bit on personalities, and again I’d stress that we academics – for all our shared social awkwardness – are really varied in how we think and approach the world. What for some is obsession and unnecessary distraction is another’s prudent long-range thinking. Yes, if you are in the 2nd year of your PhD, there’s no need for you (or really, anyone) to slavishly follow job market gossip and rumors. But I think it’s very important to get an understanding of how things work – especially when no one person really does know how they work. This blog is just my hopefully informed observations; not everyone agrees with them (see The Two-Body Problem).
As an alert grad student, you should be gradually adding information from different sources and broadening your knowledge of academic culture and especially the quirky ways of Canadian political science. Besides…we’re social scientists; we should always be curious about how things work.
So read this blog – and pass it on to others – and then get back to work.
Monday, February 7, 2011
First and quickly – yes, degrees from the top American schools are definitely preferred, because they are among the best universities in the world. No Canadian university can ever match the consistently outstanding excellence of Harvard, Yale and other top-tier schools – at least without tens of billions of dollars. We’d be nuts not to look very seriously at a candidate from these schools. (And undergraduates with outstanding records should aspire to such places.)
But looking at American-trained candidates from any tier commonly becomes a struggle over not just methodology but broader questions about the candidate's disciplinary orientation and outlook - with mutual suspicion among all concerned. It's broader than just a quantitative-qualitative thing (although that's a big part). Search committees can easily polarize over American-trained candidates; to some they’re impressive; to others, narrow and insular.
This opens up the big can of worms, and I’m going to hand off to Alan Cairns – himself an excellent example of “world famous in Canada” – and his 1975 article “The Americanization of Political Science in Canada” (in the CJPS, naturally). Cairns comments on a study led by Winnipeg native Allan Kornberg (BA Manitoba, PhD Michigan, longtime Duke prof) that downplayed concerns of “Americanization.” Cairns writes (p 211) that Kornberg and his co-writer “are unable to consider an argument for any Canadianness to the political science of Canada, because they are unprepared to recognize any Americanness to the political science they view as the instrument of modernity.”
If you don’t understand what Cairns means, I’m unlikely to convert you. If you think American programs are more rigorous and offer better training than Canadian ones, you’re kind of right. But if you think Canadian schools are much broader and more open to different dimensions of political science, you’re also kind of right. (And let's consider the rest of the world for a moment - take a look at the ECPR conference program to get a sense of the variety out there.) Having said all this, I agree that many Canadians indulge a delusional sense of superiority over what they see as the number-crunching Americans.
Getting back to the hiring issue – as good Canadians, we naturally want candidates somewhere in the middle. I’ve seen some great American-trained candidates (Canadian-born or not). I’ve also seen some very bad ones that seemed incredibly narrow and ignorant of the wider world of political science. Usually we can’t really tell until the interview, and even then we disagree. It’s a fundamental tension in Canadian political science, whether in 1975 or today.
Monday, January 31, 2011
As previously mentioned, there are too many variations here to give more than general advice – be flexible, emphasize transferable skills, blatant schmoozing and hustling is rewarded, etc. So….after some hesitation….this week will briefly profile specific individuals, who I either know or share acquaintances with, as examples of alternative career paths for PhDs.
I apologize, but all my examples are male. I’m not sure if there’s a larger significance there.
I already mentioned work in survey research, if you have such skills, and this widens into broader areas of public consultations and other varieties of research methods. David Coletto, a recent Calgary PhD, has set up a successful research company of his own in this area; another entrepreneurial example is Peter Macleod.
If government itself is too vast for you, consider the smaller quasi-public foundations and organizations dedicated to information and research. Andrew Parkin now has a different job, but he used his political science research skills to good use in building a research-based career. And of course there is the non-government sector. Craig Jones took his PhD and worked for many years for the John Howard Society, working for reality-based views on crime.
But, you say, I don’t want to leave academia completely! I love the CPSA! Take as your example Leslie Seidle, who has held various positions, especially at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, while publishing his own work and being an active CPSAer (including Secretary-Treasurer for a number of years).
And…a sector that none of us ever talk about is colleges. They don’t need advanced theorists and most of you probably want to get away from teaching rather than closer to it, but colleges have so many different programs and needs that there may be a position for you. Look at Ted Glenn as an example.
There are no simple Plan Bs. But I hope that mentioning these successful individuals might give you some inspiration and ideas as you think about your own options.
Monday, January 24, 2011
But first, do you really want one? Two kinds of people seem to do well in the public service. One group are very serious lovers of minutiae and rules; they embrace buzzwords and flavour-of-the-month ideas. More power to them. The second – which may describe you – has a healthy sense of the absurd that allows them to roll with the punches and put up with the first group. Since government work seems to consist of long meetings about projects that suddenly end because the deputy minister changes their mind, it’s no place for the earnest or those with a low affinity for bullshit. Irony is essential. If you keep that in mind, a lot of people actually like the variety and interest they find in government work, and the pay and job security are similar to academia.
Irony is also needed to get the job. Academic jobs are models of transparency and order compared to the Byzantine complexities of getting hired by government. I’m going to write about federal government jobs here; each province has its own programs and quirks, but if they are anything like my own, the same basic silliness prevails federally and provincially.
In addition to the standard job application service and the regular post-secondary recruitment program for ordinary B.A.s (usually accountants and economists), the federal government has some specialized programs for advanced degrees. These seem to come and go and I can’t keep up with them, but the one I know about for sure is the Recruitment of Policy Leaders that started a few years ago. It’s supposed to be a high-flyer program to get smart Ph.Ds from any discipline into government. But the rumour is that they barely look at Canadian PhDs at all, preferring to chase down ex-pats from Harvard or Cambridge. (If “Cambridge” in some way describes where you study, more power to you as well.) And it’s any discipline. This is what I mean when I say your polisci degree isn't anything special.
Pretty much all my students or acquaintainces who got into government did so the back way; they knew someone. It’s a scandal, but it seems the only way to get a public service position, federal or provincial, is to get hired temporarily into some job that makes you an insider eligible for other jobs. Another common rumour – I’ve got a few of those – is that many government jobs are only advertised for a day, since they’re meant for designated insiders or somebody’s cousin. I don’t know how often that happens. But the system is so complicated and bewildering that there are many such rumours and they're all believable.
So how do you make these insider connections if you don’t live in Ottawa and rub shoulders with deputy ministers? Public policy types may have an edge here, not because of what they study but who they hang around with. One of my grad school colleagues suddenly vanished after he got a job through his well-connected supervisor, leaving behind nothing but some half-baked dissertation chapters (that had nothing to do with his new job). So hang around people that seem to know someone in government, and try your best at icky networking. Also, swallow your pride and head down to your campus career office to see about co-op and summer positions. Anything to get inside the system.
Français? All part of the complications. Advertised jobs, especially the ones a political scientist might be interested in, usually require bilingualism; but if you get those insider temp jobs it’s often not required, and once you’re permanent you can get language training while getting paid for it.
Don’t be discouraged! Government is not an easy backup plan. But as long as you’ve got that sense of the absurd, and a high tolerance for bullshit, you might make a great civil servant.