Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Only Path to Academic Success

The title to this post is troll bait.  There is no one single path to success.  I am inspired to write this post by the complaints of Peter Higgs of Higgs-Boson fame, as he said he would not have been successful in this current academic climate that forces folks to publish many papers rather than slowly let an idea germinate.

I have many reactions to this.  There is something to this as others in political science have complained that grad students are too busy publishing articles that marginally make a difference (add a variable here, run an additional test there) so that they cannot develop path-breaking dissertations.  My second reaction is BS! as I have been stunned and amazed by some of the stuff that grad students have been producing the past five or ten years--the Erica Chenoweths, the Jason Lyalls, Kelly Greenhills, the Idean Salehyans knock my socks off.   My third reaction is to read the rest of the article about Higgs and realize ... he is an iconoclast with strange opinions (does not watch TV, may vote for Scottish independence, doesn't do email, etc).  My fourth reaction is that he would have adjusted to the constraints of the new time frame and done fine.

So, instead, I started thinking about how to get ahead in this academic business (with the caveat that I only really know about political science).  My thoughts turned to two non-random sets of cohorts--the folks I went to grad school with and the folks whose dissertations I supervised.  In neither case is there a single recipe for getting tenure track jobs.

I started grad school at UCSD 25 years ago.  Which means I am old, but it also means that my cohort is an interesting one to look at because we are about half-way through our careers and we all entered the job market at a relatively dismal time--right after the early 90s recession.  It was not as bad as today's market, but historically, it sucked.  Of the twelve of us, ten of us completed our PhDs.

  • As far as I can recall, only one of us had a significant publication before going on the market (this was just about the time the market was shifting to emphasize pubs rather than just being done), and he managed to get a very good job.  He also made the classic "mistake" of falling in love with one of the grad students in the program. However, because he has been wildly successful (important books and articles=7k cites!) and she is pretty terrific, too, they made the two-body academic career look easy (although it probably was not).  
  • One got a job at Harvard and moved onto get tenure elsewhere.
  • One got a job at Chicago and then realized that the academic life was not for him.
  • One had an adviser who did a tour around the country talking about his own work but also promoting the student.  As a result, the student got heaps of interviews and got a good job. 
  • One got a job at an Historically Black College/University (HBCU) and got tenure at another.
  • One got a law degree in addition to his PhD and ended up teaching at a law school where he can surf.
  • One got a good academic job in DC, published well but didn't get tenure and now works for a military educational institution.  
  • One was the trailing spouse that was able to get a job at the same place as his wife (yes, another "foolish" pair of folks who fell for each other in grad school--do not try this at home) because he did some seriously interesting stuff (comparing Soviet/Chinese institutions/change).  Both realized that the academic career was not for them, and now he is apparently running the city council of a major American city.  
  • One got a job at a good liberal arts college, married a political scientist and now works at a different one. 
  • and then there is me.  I probably got the least desirable placement--92nd ranked Phd program out of a 108 or so in a place that few folks desired to live (as proven by the lack of growth rates).  And it took me three years to find that job.  In time, I was able to get enough done and get enough job talk opportunities that I was able to move on.
All of us who finished got tenure track jobs, one left before being denied tenure, two got denied tenure, one of us got denied promotion to full professor (me).  A few of us have endowed chairs.  Not too shabby.  Yet there was no single plan/strategy.  We started with very different records and interests.  We left grad school with very different records, with very different relationships with our advisers, with advisers taking varying levels of effort in our job pursuit.  Those who had the two body problem--loving and marrying another political scientists--seemed to manage that challenge.

What did we have in common?  The name on our badge--UCSD.*  Which was becoming a top ten school as we were leaving.  I think what meant more was that our training led us to focus on important and interesting questions.  We could design good research, although our numbers skills varied quite widely (I learned mine on the streets--after grad school as required by the various projects I worked on).  I think most importantly, we had a very supportive environment where the Americanist grad students attended the IR students' practice job talks and gave very valuable feedback and vice versa.  Oh, and we had a good time playing soccer, softball and basketball (more than a few knees got blown out).
* To be clear, other cohorts at UCSD had more and less success than our year.  The class before mine was one for five ultimately, for instance.  It is all online and pretty easy to evaluate except for those who didn't finish.

All this success might be due to the label, but I have another set of data with which to compare--my former students.  All but one got tenure track positions in the 2000's (well, one has a tenure-ish position at a religious school that does not formally have tenure).  Some got jobs in the US, some got jobs in Canada.  McGill is one of the top three schools in Canada, but would probably not be ranked in the top 20 in the US (but probably not that far from it).  These students picked a myriad of topics, and few had pubs when they went on the market.

What did they have in common?  Well, me.  But I am a middle sized fish in this business, so I did not get them their jobs.   They pursued really interesting projects so that search committees would look at their files and be excited about these ideas.  They also listened to me some of the time--they didn't publish as much in grad school as I would have liked but they got away with it--as they listened to the feedback they received on their dissertation, their CV, and so on and took that feedback seriously.  Their adviser (me) was not always right, but taking feedback seriously means often telling me and everyone else why I am wrong in a coherent, non-defensive manner.

To be clear, I still think that publishing in grad school is the least risky, most successful way to go.  But having interesting ideas is also important.  Which means that Higgs would have gotten a job in today's market.  If he didn't at least publish it, he would have been denied tenure.  And many of the better places have recent records of giving tenure to folks who have not published tons but have published a few very impressive pieces.  Quality still matters, not just volume.  Indeed, those who focus so much on volume may find themselves losing to those who have a few very good ideas.  Again, it may be very different in physics.

It is certainly tougher now that it was when I finished grad school and far tougher than when Higgs left grad school. All I really know is that there is no single way to get ahead in academia. 


SamStanton said...

Full Disclosure: I am one of Steve's former students. Probably for that reason I tend to think about issues similarly to Steve, but usually arrive at a different answer for better or worse. Sorry I didn't try to publish more in grad school and in the first few years after grad school. Heck, I still have not published as much as the big fish or the middle fish. I do, however, have a great job at a private liberal arts college, where despite a 4/4 teaching load I am able to spend my summers reading and writing and keep dabbling with publication attempts and stay in touch with current research. I think Steve's comment about the commonality of being UCSD grads is fairly important. I am a grad of Steve's first tenure-track position. A lower ranking school meant more time as a visitor, but ultimately did not keep me from being interesting to places I applied. I believe from feedback that I was interesting because of breadth of study/teaching experience in grad school, ability to engage in empirical methods of research, and because of my personal research (and pretty much in that order). The path to success is varied, find yours and be persistent.

Anonymous said...

Terrific post! I will share the link with my doctoral students next semester.