The Math of Getting a Job in Political Science

The “academic job market season” in political science starts in the fall and continues through the early spring.[0]  If you aren’t familiar with how the academic job market works, it’s basically still old school: schools post ads looking to hire for a more or less specialized position, applicants (“candidates”) send in “packets” containing a curriculum vitae (“CV”), a statement of their teaching and research interests, some writing samples (“papers”), and typically three letters of recommendation.[1] At this point…

Obviously, this is a stressful time for applicants.

…a committee of faculty will review the applications, create a “short list” of candidates to interview.

Still stressful for applicants…and sometimes committee members.

Those candidates then typically visit the campus, meet with faculty, and give a “job talk” concerning one of their writing samples.  After that…

VERY stressful time for the short-listed candidates…

…and oftentimes members of the department, too.

the committee makes a recommendation to the department, the department chooses somebody to recommend to the Dean, and the Dean then (usually) authorizes an offer to the department’s recommended candidate.[2]  Negotiations then ensue, but I’ll leave that matter for another day.


In this post, I want to offer a brief series of pieces of advice about how to approach this stressful time.  I’ve been lucky enough to see both sides of the market a few times, and there is a lot of uncertainty/misinformation/folklore about how it works.

Before diving in, let me be clear that I understand that this is all “through my eyes.”  Everyone’s experiences and opinions can differ from my own, and my stating something to the contrary should not be taken as evidence that I disagree with conflicting advice.  In other words, you get what you pay for.

The CV. (Writing this, it dawned on me I should put some skin in the game.  This is my publicly available CV.)

Without a doubt in my mind, the CV is the most important part of the typical packet.[3]  Search committee members have to review sometimes hundreds of files, and time waits for no one.  For better or worse, committee members use various cues in determining whether to dig more deeply into a file.

For the sake of parsimony, there are three key characteristics of a “good CV.”

1. Clarity. Don’t get fancy with formatting.  The top of the first page of the CV should include:

a. Your contact information,

b. Your education history from Bachelor’s Degree through to the (perhaps expected) PhD (including title of, and committee for, your dissertation),

c. Your publications and working papers  available for circulation.

It probably should not contain:

a. Work experience (this goes later in the CV, if relevant to your research or if you’ve spent significant time (>1 year) working in the real-world),

b. Descriptions of your papers (these go in your research statement, in the abstracts of the papers themselves, and on your website)[4]

c. Awards/grants/media appearances/blogging[5]/etc.  (These should go later in the CV, see “Papers: Appear Prepared to Publish or Prep to Perish,” below

2. Keep It Short. Despite the meaning (“courses of life”), this isn’t about your whole life.  Your CV on the job market is arguably the best indicator of what your CV will look like at “tenure time” in 6-8 years.  Accordingly, because—from a CV standpoint—tenure is about publishing,[6] and the only thing faculty dread more than not hiring is hiring somebody that they will have to worry about at tenure time, the easiest thing to focus on in your CV should be your research.

What I’m saying here is that you don’t need to put your proficiency in using WordStar/LaTeX/R/Stata/SAS/SPSS/etc, your high school awards, your Mensa membership, etc. on your CV.

3. That said, don’t worry too much about #2. The point is that you should make the “top of your vita quickly indicate what you’ve written and where you’re coming from. If you’ve still got the reader’s attention, they are probably interested in knowing more about you.  Just remember to keep it brief.

When in doubt, remember this: your CV needs to make a case for youand quickly.

Realistically, think about what academics talk about when describing other academics:

1. What they’ve published (or sometimes what they are currently working on),

2. Where they work (and have worked), and

3. Where they got their PhD.

You want your CV to communicate with a busy reader who talks about other people in this way.  You need to communicate with him or her quickly about how he or she should convince others to read your papers/letters/etc.


Papers: Appear Prepared to Publish or Prep to Perish. This piece of advice is easier to give than to follow:

Have several papers.  On different (but not too different) topics.  Write papers on your own and with other graduate students and (less valuable to you at this point) other faculty.  In general:

Be active. Write lots of papers.

There are two sufficient conditions to “kill” (or least seriously harm) a candidate:

1. The file doesn’t make a case quickly. (See “The CV,” above: keep it succinct.)

2. The file doesn’t precipitate a clear narrative of what your “tenure-able CV” is going to look like in 6-8 years.

 In short, publishing is always a crapshoot: the more ideas you put on paper and send out, the more publications you will have.  More importantly, the more interesting and vibrant a colleague you will be likely to be.[7]

Put another way, the “quality or quantity” question presents a false dichotomy in the sense that—at least in my experience—it is nearly impossible to accurately judge the quality of your own ideas and schemes in any a priori way.  This is due to the fact that quality is ultimately judged by your peers upon publication. Accordingly, to accurately and precisely judge the quality of one’s idea prior to writing it down and sending it out for review requires (1) knowing what others will judge “high quality” and (2) knowing what will get accepted/published.  Take it as a maxim that almost nobody is good at judging either of these, much less both, and even more so much less with respect to their own ideas.

Outside The Packet. The final piece of advice I have is beyond your packet.  It is simple:

Put yourself out there.

This is a job that requires, and indeed is made of, rejection.  It requires fortitude to write something and claim that it is “new,” “important,” and “worthy,” only to have 2-3 nameless unpaid, busy peers look upon it skeptically.  In and beyond the job market, every “key to success” I’ve seen or experienced can be described as

Letting others know what you’re interested in and what you’re doing.

Practically, how does one do this?

a. Send emails.  Unsolicted, email others to see if you can buy them coffee at conferences.  Do not be ashamed of emailing those at schools that are hiring in your field: this is your career, and sending that email is not only possibly the best way to get your packet “looked at twice,” it indicates the kind of gumption and initiative that positively predicts having a tenure-able CV in 6-8 years (see above).

b. Send your papers to other people/conferences/special issues.  Rejection is the future.  In general, people don’t like to reject something, people like to be thought of as important/worthy of seeking advice from, and scholars got into this job to read/argue/write.  Engage.  You will not always like what you hear back (e.g., “nothing”), but this is the game. Taking the risks now is costly, and signals you’ll keep taking them on the tenure track.

c. Volunteer to do the things that you want to do. Graduate students and junior faculty frequently ask “how do I get asked to review papers by journal X?”  The answer is simple: email the editor(s) of Journal X and tell them you’d like to review papers for Journal X.[8]

Summary. Look, there ain’t much you can do after you send in the packet (except email people—see above).  Relax as best you can, and finish the dissertation/dive into the next project. I don’t have a silver bullet, but hopefully I have provided some support for the contention that a research academic career in political science is generally promoted by presenting an efficient picture of what you have done and will do, and making it clear that you’re willing and able to “take the emotional risks” generally required to get others to pay attention, and respond, to your thoughts and work.  In the end, the applicant is always “the prospective new kid at the table.”  Make it easy for your future colleagues to see why you’ll be a good, productive, and vibrant neighbor and colleague.  In other words: (1) keep it simple and to the point, (2) put yourself out there….(3) have a drink, take a nap, try to forget the stress for a moment, and (4) get back to work.

Because, when you’ve won this crazy lottery, you’ll need to repeat steps (1)-(4) for about 6-8 years.

With that, I leave you with this.


[0] For better or worse, my discussion here is focused on academic jobs at “research Universities.”  Again, and throughout, I readily acknowledge that my experience and the applicability of my “advice” is limited in this, and doubtlessly other, respects.

[1] There are usually other items, too, including a cover letter, transcripts and teaching evaluations.

[2] Lots of (generally minor) variation here across departments.

[3] Some people say the cover letter is the most important for the same reasons I say the CV is the most important.  I understand why these people say this, and report it faithfully, but I aver that more faculty look at the CV first than the sum of those who even read the cover letter.  That said, cover letters are part of the packet and should be treated seriously: higher-ups of various sorts can and do review packets, and a sloppy cover letter looks bad in any event.  That said, “the shorter, the sweeter” in my opinion: fewer words implies fewer opportunities to write “you’re job” instead of “your job.”

[4] Note at this point that I say this because the CV’s importance is that it minimizes the reader’s cost in establishing “who you are.”  While you want people to know the details of your work, you first want them to think that they are interested in you as a scholar/potential colleague.

[5] See what I did there?  Do I?

[6] I say “From a CV standpoint” for an important point.  Tenure is about research, teaching, service, and research, plus a little research…but it’s also about teaching and service (and not being a jerk).  The important aspects of teaching and service from a tenure standpoint aren’t (and arguably can’t/shouldn’t) be described on a CV.  That’s my point: your CV is first and foremost your self-proffered portrait of your research presence.

[7] Yes, there is a theoretical limit beyond which you are publishing “too much.”  But, let’s be honest: simple realities of life and finitude of mental energy will keep most of us from ever approaching that event horizon.

[8] I write this as the coeditor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics. Accordingly, I feel I can speak for my fellow co-editor, Torun Dewan, when I encourage you to email me with such an pronouncement.