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The Letter and The Resignation

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With respect to the Letter, I have a great many thoughts, almost all of which can be framed as wholehearted support for the sentiments described in the letter. I would use the term “scam” only with great reluctance and prefer to think of the situation as the accretion of a series of institutional prerogatives, failures to update, and furious backfilling against the impending collapse of reality. Also there’s really not all that much money in political science so I’m not sure it would even deserve the term “scam” if there was an intentional effort to defraud.

On the contents of the letter itself, the facts are essentially inarguable. The job market is awful for graduate students working at non-elite schools. Everyone has known this for many years, but relatively few departments have determined to do anything useful about it. This reluctance stems from a variety of sources: departments are reluctant to admit any kind of decline in the face of competition for tenure-track lines; faculty like having RAs; faculty like the idea of having graduate students who will contribute to their legacy; faculty prefer the Noble Purposes of Academia to the grimy reality of actual job markets; departments need graduate students to staff large survey courses (this last is by far the most important). In consequence, many (although not all) political science departments have continued to enroll graduate students at rates which are clearly unsustainable given the realities of the academic job market.

One response from faculty who work in departments that have a poor placement record in actual academic jobs is that doctoral students are increasingly finding jobs in non-academic fields. There is some truth to this, but the claim is largely illusory. A doctoral education in political science should include training in four areas:

  • Methodology
  • Research Design
  • Subject Matter Expertise
  • Teaching

Methodology has increasingly (and unfortunately) come to mean mastery of quantitative methods, usually including the development of skills in one or another statistical software suite. Research design is connected to this but distinct; all the math in the world can’t help when the data is bad. Subject matter expertise has decline in relevance for Ph.D. students as methodology and research design have taken up more course time. Teaching is teaching; almost all Ph.D. seekers need to do some of it, and some need to do a lot of it.

A faculty position in political science requires a degree of mastery of all four of these areas. With some few exceptions, a non-academic Ph.D. job excludes one or more. Most often, non-academic jobs demand expertise in methodology and research design, skills which can be transferred to any number of government, NGO, and private sector vocations. Such jobs only rarely include a requirement for subject matter expertise, and almost never include a teaching requirement. The exceptions to this are highly field and subfield dependent. In my field-subfield (international relations-national security) there are jobs that most definitely demand the first three, and some that even value subject matter expertise above all else. Lockheed Martin is willing to pay for people who know things about the global defense industry! Most subfields are not so lucky. This means that someone who has done five years of work on a Ph.D. in political science who finds work in a non-academic position has effectively wasted a lot of time on stuff that is not at all relevant to their professional success. In a great many cases, such students would be better advised to seek a master’s degree in statistics (these usually include a research design component). The degree will probably cost more money than a Ph.D. in political science, but it will take less than half as long and the time difference can be spent a) making actual money rather than the starvation wages graduate students subsist on, and b) building out the foundation of a non-academic career.

Long story short, I would never, ever, ever encourage someone to enter a Ph.D. program in political science in order to improve their prospects for finding a non-academic job. In almost all cases a master’s degree is going to be a better decision from a career building point of view. Add to this the fact that many of the folks working in political science departments consider non-academic jobs an indication of failure, meaning that there’s never the necessary degree of support for pursuing such jobs.

But of course things are worse on the academic side. The degree to which the entire industry is willing to ignore the demographic cliff that will hit all of American higher education is remarkable. In the next five years we will begin to see a drop in the number of American freshmen. The slowing growth of the freshman population has been a problem for some time, with many universities attempting to resolve the issue by making up for the lack of US students with international students (many of whom pay full tuition, making them extremely attractive). Covid, changes in immigration policy, and the narrowing of the gap between the US university system and its international competitors have combined to make this effort less attractive. THERE AREN’T GOING TO BE MORE FRESHMEN. Departments will lose lines. Colleges will close. It is, as the gentleman on the Titanic said, a mathematical certainty.

There’s also a political angle. Republicans aren’t as stupid as you’d like to think, and they definitely know that higher education as an industry is their enemy. Closing off as many paths as possible for international students to study in the United States isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Republicans absolutely want to gut the higher education industry, and absolutely understand that the immigration system is a way to do this. Moreover, the GOP has increasingly displayed a willingness to make university life (and faculty employment in particular) less attractive. Tenure will increasingly come under fire, as will the discretion of universities to spend as they see fit. Republican legislatures will control a great number of states, including some that are quite large and have a great many universities and colleges. Reducing the number of jobs in these states and making the ones that remain less attractive will absolutely have a negative impact on the job market as a whole.

Another long story short, I have no confidence that even the most capable student will be able to get an academic job after earning a Ph.D. in any but the most elite program. It is one thing to say to a student “you are not a special snowflake,” because of course a great many students will believe that they can prove you wrong. It is more accurate to say “even special snowflakes melt in a heatwave, and it’s getting pretty fucking hot.”

I consider myself fortunate that I am not part of this process. I work in a policy-oriented MA program, and while MA programs have their own issues they generally don’t ask for five years of someone’s life. For reasons beyond my control I do not serve on Ph.D. committees, and Ph.D. students only very rarely seek my counsel. I do not write letters of recommendation for political science Ph.D. programs, which is to say that I write them extraordinarily rarely. I can count the number of Ph.D. letters of recommendation that I have written in the last seventeen years on the fingers of one hand and still have fingers left over. I work in a policy MA program that does not easily translate to Ph.D. work, which makes things easier for me. Unless a student can make a concrete case that a Ph.D. program is likely to lead to an improvement in their professional prospects, I will not write a letter. Few students have tried to make that case and fewer have succeeded. I can say with a degree of pride that a fair number of graduates of my 18 month program make more money (in salary, anyway) than I do in their first professional year, and that’s an awfully nice feeling. It makes me sad that that academic world that I worked for and (to large extent) work in will not last for long, but it does no one any favors to pretend that things are other than what they are.

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