What can you tell me about being a PoliSci prof.?
February 7, 2006 5:00 PM   Subscribe

I want to become a professor of political science. What do I need to know?

Any general knowledge would be appreciated, but I have these specific questions:

1. I've always envisioned myself working abroad. Would this be possible? How?

2. How does a professor's typical day look, especially in terms of time teaching, preparing, researching, etc.?

3. What things do I need to do/grades do I need to get in Undergrad to be able to realistically pursue this goal?

4. I've heard finding work as a professor has become very difficult. Is this true? If so, will my status as an under represented minority be of any value?
posted by matkline to Work & Money (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
1. I've always envisioned myself working abroad

Uh, what's your current location?
posted by docgonzo at 5:07 PM on February 7, 2006


Pittsburgh, PA, USA
posted by matkline at 5:09 PM on February 7, 2006


Sorry to answer a question with (sort of) another question, but the first thing you need to know, before you can ask the rest of the questions, is: Why do you want to become a professor of political science if you don't know the answers to those other questions?

For a while there, I thought I wanted to go into academia. Fortunately, I learned before too late that the academic life would have driven me bonkers.

To answer some of the others:

1. Yes - sabbaticals.
2. Mercifully, I can't accurately answer this one. I suspect there's not really a "typical day."
3. Extremely good ones, especially if you hope to work abroad on sabbatical. You'll need to go to top notch graduate schools if you hope to be a professor at a good school when you're done.
4. Yes, your status as an underrepresented minority will most likely be of value.
posted by JekPorkins at 5:18 PM on February 7, 2006


You'll need to get a Ph.D. first to even get on the career path, so your first step is researching poli sci programs that sync up with your interests and figuring out exactly what those programs look for in graduate candidates (grades, etc.).

How does a professor's typical day look, especially in terms of time teaching, preparing, researching, etc.?

My sister is a tenured professor of history, and she frequently spends 12+ hours a day doing some combination of all the following: teaching, grading, advising, handling administrative duties (she's currently chair of her department), researching, writing, corresponding, applying for grants, attending conferences, working with editors (for outside publications), and serving on committees -- all while trying to raise 3 kids. Seriously, she sleeps about 6 hours a night, tops, and basically works 6-7 days a week most of the year (even though she may only be on campus 3 or 4 days a week and doesn't teach during the summer).

So this is not meant as snark, but if you have any dreams that being a professor = a leisurely life of intellectual pursuits, you're going to be sorely disappointed. (I admire my sister tremendously, but I'm grateful every single day that I left academia after my Master's.)
posted by scody at 5:19 PM on February 7, 2006


You'll likely have a higher probability of success if you have some sort of enthusiasm for the subject rather than just the lifestyle.
posted by docgonzo at 5:21 PM on February 7, 2006


I'm in English, not Poli Sci, but some things are (alas?) universal...

1. I've always envisioned myself working abroad. Would this be possible? How?

This depends on what you mean by "abroad." It's extremely difficult, for example, for a Yank to get a position in either the UK or Canada, as their schools are usually required to consider native-born citizens first. But I've known some Americans who have successfully landed jobs in the UK. A number of Eastern and Middle Eastern countries frequently advertise for US-trained academics.

2. How does a professor's typical day look, especially in terms of time teaching, preparing, researching, etc.?

This really depends on where you are in your career. I teach three courses per semester, but I do some courses over and over again (e.g., British Literature II, which I teach just about every semester). Expect tons of prep time at the beginning, much less so as you establish a lecture bank. As you move along, however, committee work, independent studies, and MA theses/dissertations will step in to fill the gap; my teaching schedule this semester runs MWF, but I've got regular committee meetings on Tuesdays and some Thursdays, plus weekly meetings with an independent study and an honors student. Not to mention our department's four job searches... There are also office hours (usually 3 hrs/week), departmental meetings, and so forth.

Research time also depends. A lot of my writing requires travel to some place with books, so vacations tend to be about, um, work. Right now, I'm working on an article, so I try to schedule at least an hour per day to be devoted to my project; my father, who had a heavier teaching schedule, wrote every morning before going to work. Most of my leisure reading has some relationship to my line of work.

Grading goes in spurts. While exams go quickly, papers require at least three to five days.


3. What things do I need to do/grades do I need to get in Undergrad to be able to realistically pursue this goal?


To get into a high-quality school, an "A" average is usually your friend, along with strong GRE scores and letters of rec. Most schools have their minimum cut-off at 3.0, but in practice, most applicants will have GPAs considerably higher than that.

4. I've heard finding work as a professor has become very difficult. Is this true? If so, will my status as an under represented minority be of any value?

Yes, finding work as a professor is exceptionally difficult; there are just too many Ph.D.s roaming the world. You really do not want to go the adjunct track, which will usually land you in very suboptimal working conditions (low salary, little institutional support, few or no benefits, etc., etc., etc.). Yes, your status as an underrepresented minority will help, but it's still no guarantee of a job.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:23 PM on February 7, 2006


thomas j wise: It's extremely difficult, for example, for a Yank to get a position in .. the UK .., as their schools are usually required to consider native-born citizens first

Do they? Could you elaborate? I'm not doubting you. As a UK student, I'm curious to know more about this.
posted by matthewr at 5:46 PM on February 7, 2006


Job descriptions from the UK and Canada always stipulate that, while they'll consider all applications, the home-grown folks will have "priority." It's not impossible for someone from the US to get a UK/Canadian job without citizenship, but it requires jumping through lots of hoops. By contrast, applicants from abroad usually have (or have had, anyway) much less trouble getting positions in the US; in fact, a few years ago, some classicists were complaining that US departments were actively biased in favor of UK scholars...
posted by thomas j wise at 6:03 PM on February 7, 2006


I am a history professor in a department that includes political science.

1. I've always envisioned myself working abroad. Would this be possible? How?


There are a number of ways: 1) research trips, 2)Fullbright or similar situations where you teach overseas for a year, 3) working at a foreign university, 4) taking students abroad.

2. How does a professor's typical day look, especially in terms of time teaching, preparing, researching, etc.?

No typical day. You will spend anywhere from 6 to 25 hours a week in the classroom, and another 20-30 grading papers, writing lectures, meeting with students, serving on committees, writing grants, researching, etc. At most institutions you can have a very flexible schedule, teaching in the mornings for instance, so you can meet your children when they get out of school. You can do a lot of work from home, but those papers will have to get graded eventually.

3. What things do I need to do/grades do I need to get in Undergrad to be able to realistically pursue this goal?


Excellent grades are a start, but not enough by themselves to get in a really top program. Do your professors know your name? Are you active in campus organizations related to your discipline? Give a paper or two at student conferences. Study overseas a year, minor in a language, do things to distinguish yourself from the other A students.

4. I've heard finding work as a professor has become very difficult. Is this true?

Oh yeah, it is brutal. If you want to witness the gut wrenching desperation of the contemporary job search, go over the the Chronicle of Higher Education and spend an hour on the Job-Seeking Experiences forum.

If so, will my status as an under represented minority be of any value?


It will be a HUGE help. Before I read that part of your question, I was going to advise you not to go to grad school.

Go talk with your professors about the idea and see what they say.
posted by LarryC at 6:12 PM on February 7, 2006


I do political science.

First, something you didn't ask. Go and look at the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, and Journal of Politics. Read recent abstracts and thumb through the articles. This is what, if you're lucky and if you're doing good work, you'll be spending most of your time doing.

1. I've always envisioned myself working abroad. Would this be possible? How?

Temporarily, sure. By faculty exchange or fellowship (ie, Fulbright). Not necessarily easy to do, but you might be able to. Or by doing field research in foreign lands.

On a permanent basis? Harder, as thomas j wise notes.

2. How does a professor's typical day look, especially in terms of time teaching, preparing, researching, etc.?

There is no typical day.

Preparation depends on how many times, if ever, you've taught a class before -- your first time takes a major effort, second time another serious effort to fix some of what went wrong, but by the time you've done a course 10 times, your real preparation is all the other times you've taught it.

Teaching, in terms of contact hours and grading, varies from say 12 hours a week with a 2-course load to 30+ if you had a 4/4 load.

There's also service, which means doing stuff for departmental, college, or university committees. This might mean putting together paperwork to satisfy your accrediting body that your department has good assessment mechanisms, or might mean working on faculty grievances at the university level, or might mean picking who wins department awards. This can be an astonishing time-suck.

Research takes most of your time, and as much as you'll give it, but this runs in cycles too. In the 6 weeks before a conference presentation, you might be spending 40+ hours/week on the relevant project, while in the week after one you might spend zero. Similar to the cycle you go through with writing papers as an undergrad, but not as stop-start as that.

3. What things do I need to do/grades do I need to get in Undergrad to be able to realistically pursue this goal?

Things to do: take polisci courses. Get A's and some B's in them. Do well on your GRE.

I have not sat on graduate admissions committees. But unless it has some bearing on your proposed research program, I seriously doubt that any PhD program worth its salt would care in the slightest whether you'd spent a year abroad or speak 18 languages. Note the unless. If you want to do research on Africa and speak 5 African languages, that's good. If you want to study American politics, nobody gives a damn whether you're fluent in German or Swahili or spent a year studying in Brussels.

Things that would be helpful:

Unless you want to do political philosophy, brush up on math and statistics before you go. Most grad programs will assume you don't know beans, but starting with a good foundation will give you a leg up. Ideal would be some basic calculus, some linear algebra, and some basic statistics.

If you want to do political philosophy, then give it up unless you are a freaky-smart genius. Jobs in that field are hard to come by.

Talk to professors about what you might be interested in doing or working on.

4. I've heard finding work as a professor has become very difficult. Is this true?

Sort of. If you are coming from a good program and are doing good, interesting work, you should not face a significant problem getting a tenure-track job. You might well have to go on the market twice, or take a one-year or postdoc, but you can bet that you'll end up in a tenure-track job.

But there are a lot of people from undistinguished programs doing uninteresting, derivative work. These people have a tremendous problem finding jobs.

And the political philosophy / theory types have a huge problem because there approximately a billion really excellent people competing for every job.

If so, will my status as an under represented minority be of any value?

Probably. Most likely it would help you get interviews but not be a great help after that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:38 PM on February 7, 2006 [1 favorite]


If you want a very general sense of the odds, it's common for one tenure-track job to get over 100 applications, and 300+ is not uncommon. That's not 300 yahoos, that's 300 people with PhDs. Competing for one job.
posted by underwater at 10:17 PM on February 7, 2006 [1 favorite]


If you want a very general sense of the odds, it's common for one tenure-track job to get over 100 applications, and 300+ is not uncommon. That's not 300 yahoos, that's 300 people with PhDs. Competing for one job.

Sure, but it's not like each of those people only applies for one job. But yeah, you have to do a lot more then just slog through school to get a professorship.
posted by delmoi at 10:57 PM on February 7, 2006


The economics of teaching and research are stacked against you. There is a glut of labor, and few jobs, so many PhDs are underemployed, or are employed doing things other than teaching at universities (esp. good ones -- see underemployed above). Being an underrepresented minority will help, but will by no means be a free ride. Hiring decisions are about research work, professional connections, and dumb luck (a department where you know someone, and they do research that is inline with yours, or the dept. wants to build expertise in your area(s) just happens to have a job the year you are looking for one) in that order.

A lot more PhDs are produced than there are positions for PhDs. The same is true for lawyers also -- there are as many lawyers in law school (3 year program) than there are lawyers practicing in the U.S. That just means that a) some people leave the US and b) lots of lawyers are not practicing as lawyers.

If you were thinking of living abroad, in, say Bangkok, or Dubai UAE, or somewhere else kinda-exotic kinda-just-far-away, then this might be a good thing. Getting a professorship there, when you've got a US PhD is much more doable.

But yeah, only get a PhD if it's not about the money, not about the lifestyle (which is not that good esp. considering the money), and not about the prestige. Get a PhD if you cannot not get one -- if your soul must know the answer to some problem so interesting that it keeps you awake at night. I'm not that romantic all the time, but it does help if you can think of your work getting a PhD as the "stuff I want to do" instead of the "stuff I have to do." But, really, all jobs are like this.
posted by zpousman at 5:13 AM on February 8, 2006


My uncle was, for many years, a professor of political science in the SUNY system, and head of his department. He's written a number of books, and at the end of his career, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, became interested in that process, and went to Moscow on several sabbaticals, learning Russian, and writing several articles for academic journals regarding the development of democratic institutions and the transition of government functions from their communist precursors. He's now retired.

One thing that I think may be hard for a young person to understand while considering an academic career, that my uncle and I have discussed, is the changing relationship with young people that academics have over the course of their careers. I know that he found teaching undergraduates more and more disappointing as the years went on, and he did what he could to avoid that, but as he was working in a relatively small college upstate, his program wasn't large enough to support any position of full time work with only graduate students. So, he remained in teaching roles with undergraduates throughout his career, and I think that he found, as he entered his 50's and 60's, that taking yet another batch of semi-bored 19 and 20 year olds through yet another discussion of the various forms of government as outlined in the approved syllabus was unsatisfactory work, to the point, some years, of being disillusioning.

"50% of the students come in to these courses only aiming for a C or D, and willing only to do the minimum possible reading and coursework. The remaining 50% expect a laundry list of specifications for assignments with their syllabus at the first class, and do exactly what they feel is required for the A's they expect." he told me once, near the end of his career. "Grade inflation is rampant, and there is constant pressure to give students 'the benefit of the doubt' in grading, whether they, by dint of effort or accomplishment, truly deserve that benefit."

Yet he valued his life as an academic, and enjoyed raising his family in a quiet town in upstate New York. And since he's been retired, I think he's been able to enjoy his life much more, because of the retirement program of his institution. He has time for his writing now, and travel, and he's done some adult teaching in the Elderhostel program, which has been rewarding.

But I know he doesn't miss, for a minute, those classrooms full of sleepy undergrads. So you might look around a bit, as you sit in similar classes, and imagine some future filled with wave after wave of people who will always be 18 to 22, while you grow older, and try to imagine whether you will find opening young minds perennially rewarding. Because if it is not, you may be a long way down an expensive road before coming to that realization.
posted by paulsc at 5:14 AM on February 8, 2006


f you want a very general sense of the odds, it's common for one tenure-track job to get over 100 applications, and 300+ is not uncommon. That's not 300 yahoos, that's 300 people with PhDs. Competing for one job.

Again, sort of. Let's say a job gets 100 applicants.

Of those, maybe 50 are truly miserably unqualified -- people who are in the first year of their program, people who clearly can't write a competent cover letter much less a high-quality article, local businessmen who think it would be fun to teach, people whose work has nothing to do with the advertised position, people who only send one little piece of an application package. That's half of the applicant pool who you wouldn't hire even if they were the only applicant and you really needed to fill that position right away.

Another 15--25 will be very easily eliminated -- people who won't be done before next fall, people whose project seems dumb or uninteresting or poorly tied to the job, and so on. These are people you'd only hire if there were no other applicants.

You still have to read all of the stuff in these first groups' applications, which can be annoying.

Which leaves 25--35 real, nominally competitive applicants -- 25 to 35 that you haven't instantly eliminated. Of these, some will be from better programs and others worse, some will have good letters of recommendation from good people and others bland letters from nobodies, and so on. Ten or so of these people really just aren't very competitive at all.

Which leave 15--25 people in the actual running for the job. If you are coming out of a good program and doing good work, you'll be one of those people. And you'll be applying for ~50 jobs, so the odds of getting a job in one or two years of looking are good.

If you want to try, apply to only excellent programs. Depending on what you want to do, this will vary. If you are not accepted by an excellent program, go and do something else..
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:48 AM on February 8, 2006 [1 favorite]


Thanks for asking this. I'm a recent poli sci graduate in the working world and I've given some thought to academia. This is very helpful.
posted by TunnelArmr at 8:46 AM on February 8, 2006


Get a PhD if you cannot not get one

Best advice ever.
posted by LarryC at 3:31 PM on February 8, 2006


ROU_Xenophobe, you say 'I do political science' but based on your comments I am wondering what that means. Are you a prof, a grad student, or in poli sci in a non-university setting? Or if you want to stay anonymous, maybe tell me if you have ever served on a hiring committee. I'm not trying to be snarky/elitist, but your suggested numbers don't accord with my experience at all.

Let's say a job gets 100 applicants. Of those, maybe 50 are truly miserably unqualified

In my field (humanities/arts), out of 100 maybe 15 are like this. The truth is that 75% of applicants are probably qualified to teach basic courses competently. What they are competing for at a research institution is whether they are the top 1% of researchers that match the department interests and in a teaching college whether they are outstanding teachers--not whether they are basically qualified. I have had several committee chairs tell me that the applicant pool is so deep now that they would be thrilled to get anyone in the top 20% of applicants, all of whom are more qualified than most of the current faculty at these schools.

people who are in the first year of their program

Wow, I've NEVER seen a 1st year grad student apply for a job. I can't imagine this.

Another 15--25 will be very easily eliminated -- people who won't be done before next fall

ABDs are commonly hired in my field, although it's a minus. Who applies and says 'I won't be done'? If they say they will, how could you possibly tell from their cover letter and CV? You can't just easily eliminate these people, you need to talk with them and/or talk to their chairs to find this out.

Which leave 15--25 people in the actual running for the job.

Assuming that there are 100 applications and not 470 like there was for a Bowdoin job this round

If you are coming out of a good program and doing good work, you'll be one of those people. And you'll be applying for ~50 jobs, so the odds of getting a job in one or two years of looking are good.

This comment is really what makes me wonder if you have been through this process. If there are 50 jobs, you are not just competing with the many more than 50 PhDs minted this year, you are competing with all of the other asst. profs at institutions that want to move.
posted by underwater at 12:58 PM on February 9, 2006


Are you a prof, a grad student, or in poli sci in a non-university setting?

Prof.

Or if you want to stay anonymous, maybe tell me if you have ever served on a hiring committee.

Eight to ten times.

In my field (humanities/arts), out of 100 maybe 15 are like this. The truth is that 75% of applicants are probably qualified to teach basic courses competently.

You should read "miserably unqualified" as "miserably unqualified for the specialities in the advertised position." People who study public opinion applying for a Congress job, people who study parties and interest groups applying for a job on the judiciary. People who do Congress applying for a job where the ad says in no uncertain terms "Don't bother applying if you study Congress."

Wow, I've NEVER seen a 1st year grad student apply for a job. I can't imagine this.

Well, I can't say for certain whether we've had actual no-kidding first-years apply. I have looked at applications from local lawyers and businessmen who seemed to think that was qualification enough, and I've certainly received applications from students who didn't seem to have completed their comps.

If they say they will, how could you possibly tell from their cover letter and CV?

(1) They're barely past comps, if that
(2) They've never done so much as a conference paper
(3) They don't submit chapters as writing samples
(4) Letter-writers conspicuously fail to say that they'll be done

This comment is really what makes me wonder if you have been through this process.

Yes, I've been through this process. A couple times trying to find a job, and then more times than I care to think about on the other side.

Good people doing good work from good schools get jobs in a year or two with very few exceptions. The problem, such as it is, is that there remain an a lot of people doing very dull or downright bad work from schools whose reputations cannot be a saving grace.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:15 PM on April 2, 2006


« Older intended for external use only - do not put in...   |   Chimney question Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.