Praxis : The CPSA Career Blog / Le blogue carrière de l'ACSP

Practical career advice for those who want to turn their political science degree into their ideal job, whether in academia or as a practitioner / Des conseils de carrière pratiques pour ceux qui souhaitent obtenir le maximum de leur diplôme de science politique, que ce soit dans le monde académique ou à l’extérieur de celui-ci.

Job Interview / Entrevues, Networking / Réseautage, Postdoc

How to Navigate the American Job Market by Debra Thompson

It is entirely possible for Canadian PhDs to get hired at American universities, though there are some important differences between the two markets. What follow are some scattered notes informed by my experiences, as they say, on both sides of the aisle: as a successful job candidate and a member of search committees at several American universities. These are all, of course, just my opinions,* so take them with a grain of salt.

1. Where do I find job ads? The best source of information is the searchable online listings (e-jobs) from the American Political Science Association (APSA), access to which requires that you have an active membership. The American job cycle is fairly standard: most tenure-track jobs are posted between August and October, and universities will scramble to finish their searches by January. There is a smaller market for Visiting Assistant Professors, or VAPs (the American terminology for adjunct positions) that sometimes coincides with the timing of the tenure-line cycle, but often extends into winter and spring once departments determine their teaching needs for the following academic year. There is an interview circuit that takes place during the annual meeting of APSA (usually over Labor Day weekend), but not all schools will choose to hold interviews and many debate whether participating really gives candidates any kind of advantage. The APSA website (www.apsanet.org) also has a number of other resources worth checking out, from surviving the job talk Q&A to negotiating your offer.

2. Know your audience. There are several different types of American universities. The Carnegie classification system (http://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/classification_descriptions/basic.php) is a little outdated, but still forms professional vernacular understandings of these differences. R1s are considered research intensive universities. R2 and even R3 institutions are often more teaching focused (especially with regard to undergraduate programs), but will still have tenure standards that require some research and publications. Selective Liberal Arts Colleges – or SLACs – will have teaching-heavy workloads, and are often very focused on maintaining high academic standards and providing unique student experiences. Whether it’s R1s or SLACs, it’s pretty clear that rankings matter – the higher you go, the stiffer the tenure standards. This is true of “flagship universities,” the most well-known public university in each state, as well. It’s also important to note that there will be differences between public (i.e. state-funded) and private universities and between PWIs (Predominately White Institutions) and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). There are also a lot of private religious universities in the United States* and they have the legal authority to discriminate in the hiring process on the basis of religion and in some states, sexual orientation and family status. While some of these religious institutions are pluralistic, others are not; working at a religious university may affect faculty’s access to, for example, a health insurance plan that covers contraceptives. If applying to these jobs, you should consider your comfort levels with various degrees of religious affiliation.

You need to know what type of university you’re applying to because, first, you should know what you’re getting yourself into should you get a job offer. If the thought of having to meet tenure standards that require a book and 6-7 articles in top political science journals makes you want to run for the hills, then seeking those coveted Ivy League positions might not be the best idea. Likewise, if the possibility of teaching three or more undergraduate classes per quarter or semester sounds terrible, then a position at a SLAC won’t be for you. The basic, but hard truth is that if you’re not entirely sure what balance of scholarship and teaching is right for you, your CV will probably tell a search committee what it needs to know. SLACs specifically look for candidates with teaching experience, who can prove they are excellent, conscientious educators. R1s probably won’t short-list candidates that don’t already have at least one, or, frankly, several, well-placed publications.

Speaking of the application process, you must make sure that your cover letter speaks to the job ad. I cannot stress this enough. This does not mean that you have to write a unique cover letter for each job you apply to. However, a little research into the institution can go a long way toward demonstrating your professionalism as a candidate. If you’re applying to a teaching-focused institution (that is, a small or selective liberal arts college), your letter should speak to your experiences and strengths as a teacher. If the ad explicitly states that the department is looking for a candidate that can teach courses on research methods, you need to identify your ability to do so somewhere in your letter. Obviously, this is true when applying to Canadian schools as well. But the American market is bigger, both in terms of jobs advertised and candidates vying for positions, and search committees will regularly get over 100 applications for each position. Make sure that your cover letter demonstrates that you can fulfill whatever research or teaching niche the ad identifies.

Does this mean you need unique reference letters for each position? Absolutely not. But I would recommend having letters and letter-writers that speak to the kind of position you’re applying to, both in terms of sub-field and research-versus-teaching expectations. So, for example, if you’re applying to an R1 job, you’ll want three letters that speak to your research trajectory. If you’re applying for a job that identifies a specific sub-sub-field (say, Comparative Politics, but the ad wants someone that focuses on the Politics of Development), make sure that at least one of your letters can speak to your research as it pertains to the Politics of Development. And for the love of all that is good in the world, use a service like Interfolio (https://www.interfolio.com/) – this is fairly common practice for candidates in the US.

A quick word* about post-docs: American post-docs have changed a great deal in recent years. They are rarely the SSHRC-style zero-teaching research positions that you’re thinking of. In the United States, they are increasingly becoming a short-hand for short-term, poorly paid “prestigious” VAP (adjunct) lines. This means that most post-docs will involve substantial teaching responsibilities. However, (a) they are still great positions if you can get them, and (b) they are an easy way for a Canadian to get their foot in the door of the American market, since having some American credentials on your CV is critical to becoming legible in the US. Also remember that having an American institutional affiliation during your SSHRC post-doc can be a great entry point to the American market. My advice would be to aim as high as you can – I did my SSHRC post-doc at Harvard, and it was a useful, though at times disconcerting, crash-course in the norms of American political science.

It’s also worth mentioning that starting salaries in the United States vary tremendously – they can be far lower than those in Canada, and much, much higher. It all depends on the institution. Bear in mind that the cost of living in the United States varies considerably as well. Not all cities are as expensive as, say, Toronto, and not all universities are in cities.

3. Use your resources. Things might have changed since I finished my Ph.D., but I have found that professionalization efforts and mentoring relationships tend to be more prominent in American Ph.D. programs. That dreaded activity, “networking,” is actually a thing that Ph.D. students are taught to do. The big conferences (APSA, ISA) provide a lot of opportunities for candidates to get to know people in their sub-field (and sub-sub-field). If you’ve never been, these conferences can be totally overwhelming; one of the best ways to navigate these spaces is to ask people on your dissertation committee to introduce you to the people in their network during section receptions. Another great way to start networking is to attend section business meetings, and if you’re so inclined, to volunteer to serve some kind of role (most sections have specific positions for graduate students). There’s been a recent initiative at APSA to reduce or eliminate section fees for graduate students, so join all the sections (http://www.apsanet.org/sections) that you’re interested in while it’s free to do so!

I get that the idea of networking is incredibly stressful for many people, but it is necessary, since the academic world is both small and nebulous. If my university were to hire for a job in Race and Ethnic Politics, for example, there’s a really good chance that I would know the members of any given candidate’s committee. There’s also a really good chance that I might have encountered that candidate at APSA, because she contacted me beforehand to have coffee and talk about our mutual research interests, or because I ran into him at the REP or NCOBPS reception/business meeting and his advisor (who is also my Facebook friend, because that’s how it works) took the time to introduce us. I’m going to notice that candidate’s application because I’ve already heard of them. And since I’ve been tasked with reading over 100 applications, having already heard of someone can be really useful.

4. At the interview stage: This could be an entire blog post in itself. For now, just a few points: (a) there is an increasing use of Skype to turn long-lists into short lists; (b) there is less likely to be a formal interview with a search committee or a required teaching demonstration at R1s, but at SLACs you might have to meet the President of the university (this actually happened to me once); (c) remember to ask questions about things that may not be obvious to Canadian candidates – for example, what kind of retirement benefits are offered, whether the faculty is unionized (not always or even often the case), and what the health care plan is (and pay attention to deductibles and co-pays!). These vary considerably from institution to institution. I’m sorry to have to say this, but you also need to be careful* about the questions you ask. It could be perceived as problematic to ask about whether the university will provide support for you to obtain a visa or permanent residency at the interview stage – it’s better to wait until there is an offer in hand. Similarly, while getting information about what parental leave is offered is really important (a quarter or semester of paid leave is considered “good” here, and it’s ridiculous), this can backfire, especially for women candidates. It sucks, it’s morally wrong, and it’s probably illegal, but I have heard of circumstances where job offers have been rescinded for reasons related to pregnancy and parental leave. The best advice to give a Canadian is that American universities are horrendous at all these things, and you will probably have to fight hard for your benefits once you get to the negotiating stage; (d) don’t forget that above all else, your job is to be poised, prepared, and professional.

With all this being said, why would anyone want to apply to American schools? The basic fact is that the American market is much, much bigger, so if you want to be a professor, you’ve got a better shot in a market in which there are hundreds of jobs advertised each year instead of dozens. For example, there are 126 colleges and universities in Ohio alone. And there many truly excellent universities in the United States where your colleagues will help to make you a better scholar and teacher. You might not want to work everywhere in the United States, but there’s at least a chance that you could end up working somewhere.

*Big thanks to Rebecca Sanders (University of Cincinnati) and Alex Livingston (Cornell University), both of whom are grad school friends and Canadians working in the United States, for reading this blog post and providing useful, if not sobering, feedback, which I stole word-for-word from our Facebook chat.

Dr. Debra Thompson is associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon. She is author of The Schematic State: Race, Transnationalism, and the Politics of the Census (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

1 Comment

  1. Monique

    This is so helpful. Would you be willing to write (or point to) a similar piece about the Canadian market?

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