The post yesterday of figures detailing the trends in poli sci jobs got a huge number of hits and more than a few questions.
First, yes, this looks like a cycle, but without the data before 2002, it is hard to tell whether the low or the high numbers are the more normal ones. If it is a boom and bust cycle, rather than a spike with a more enduring trend downwards, it still sucks for those who emerge from grad school during the bottom of the cycle. Spending a few years adjuncting or even temp VAP-ing (visiting assistant professor) does not usually help one's credentials much: more teaching experience is helpful but usually at the cost of research productivity. Moving takes time and effort, which limits how much one can do research. Plus all the effort to constantly search for jobs is another distraction. Which means that even if the market improves, one who did not get lucky immediately is likely to be competing with the new generation of finishing students who do not look used/dated/old and the more productive members of the your cohort who are looking to move as they might have been underplaced. So, the point here is that even if this is cyclical, it sucks to be at the wrong part of the cycle in a very path dependent, career influencing way.
Second, the numbers are jobs listed, not jobs filled. Not every job gets filled. Indeed, I have lost on more than a few occasions to "none of the above." So, the numbers indicate the best possible outcome, but really the number of jobs filled is going to be lower across the board and particularly so in years where the economy worsens. The jobs that are advertised in July, August, and September may not exist a few months later. This happens in Canada as well--I had a great interview experience a few years ago, and the job disappeared the day before the committee was going to decide. So, these numbers are (with the exception of the last set of data) optimistic to a fault.
Third, that last set of numbers is just a bit deceptive, as it is only the numbers for most but not all of 2012-2013's job market. Given how front-loaded the job market is, we can expect that the real numbers at the end of the academic year will be in between the dip of 2009-2010 and the semi-peak of 2011-12. So, this makes the trend harder to detect.
Fourth, I am too lazy to get the numbers for PhDs produced in political science over this range, but these numbers in APSA figures only really gain meaning if we know how percentage of new PhDs are getting jobs and what kinds of jobs they are getting.
Fifth, the hardest part to convey is this: the second figure that breaks things down by subfield is illusory. How so? There may have been 122 jobs in IR in 2011-12, but most candidates are not competitive for most of these jobs. Huh? Well, if one does International Security, then one is not a real competitor for most International Political Economy jobs. Even worse, if you do IPE, you may not be competitive for all IPE jobs as you do trade but some of these jobs are focused on the financial side of things. And this is true for most jobs--that the actual job description (which does not always constraint the search committees) is narrower. So, there may be only a handful of jobs that one might really be competitive for.
Sure, you may think: hey, I do stuff that crosses boundaries so that I am even more attractive. Maybe. I have been living at the juncture of IR and Comparative my entire career. I know what I think I am, and I know what my record now demonstrates (IR, baby), but when I started out, the comparativists would not be interested in me since I was not a true comparativist (lousy language skills, not any real field work), and the IR people would look at me and wonder why I cared about the literature on ethnic politics. Indeed, saying that I was doing Security broadly defined way back when was pretty much a red flag to a large hunk of the IR security community.
Anyhow, the point is that the numbers of jobs in a subfield again represent a maximum that is a bit unrealistic. This is before factoring in other stuff, like location.
Sixth, we can have lots of anecdotes about people doing well on the market. Only one of my students has not gotten a tenure track position, so in my experience, there is no problem, right? To be clear, I did not select my students based on whether they were competitive on the market. They chose me for a variety of reasons, and I had much less to do with their getting good jobs than their passionate pursuit of interesting questions. But the point is that I could think that there is no problem. But the numbers are speaking to me, and they say this: DON'T GO TO GRAD SCHOOL. Sorry.
For a similar opinion, see Dan Drezner's post.
One of many reasons why I left McG to come to NPSIA is that I feel less morally compromised being in an enterprise aimed at producing the next generation of policy-makers than the next generation of professors. Yes, the Canadian policy market has also crashed, but government will inevitably grow again. Academia? Not so much.