The Job Talk Debate

This is what blogs are about, eh?

The issue of value of the job talk, a blogosphere phenom [1] initiated by Dan Nexon has now escalated to the usually rarefied policy precincts of Dan Drezner [2], so rather than work on the [long] list of things I was going to do as soon as I got into the office, I will briefly [for me] chime in.

Specifically, on the side of the pro-job-talk faction.

The political science academic job market has many flaws, but the job talk is not central to these, nor is it completely artificial.

1. Organizationally, it is the one time most of the faculty see the candidate at the same time and have a common base of comparison. Furthermore, since usually the candidate will present on a topic fairly close to those reasons he or she has been interviewed in the first place, it is relevant information.

2. As several people have noted, the key part of the talk is not the presentation—though I have, in fact, seen people screw up at the presentation level, albeit usually with a research design that has some stunningly obvious flaw—but the questions, and these can be very revealing. The frequency with which the candidate lost the position—either outright or, more commonly, someone else simply did a better job: remember, you may not have done anything wrong, rather someone else may have done better [3]—due to the questions  is probably two or three times higher than the next most frequent reason.[4]

The University of Kansas has—or had: things may have changed—an absolutely devastating approach to candidate questions. A certain category of candidates typically come to interview at Kansas expecting to find cows grazing in front of the [small] library and a barely literate faculty—they did not, apparently, bother to check where the faculty had obtained their degrees. So the candidates would tend to be caught off-guard by the level of the questions and—I will use the technical term here—start to bullshit an answer.

At many institutions, the response to such activity is that a few designated pit bulls, either senior faculty who do this sort of thing when they aren’t engaged in alternative amusements such as pulling wings off flies, tossing kittens into wood chippers and the like, or the junior faculty desperate to stomp someone into the ground in hopes this will somehow qualify them for tenure, go after the candidate, questioning their training, their overall cognitive ability, the civil status of the candidate’s parents at the point the candidate was conceived, and similar issues.[9] These rants typically go on for some time, giving the candidate a breather, who then lets the awkward topic die out with some comment like “Well, yes, I suppose that’s another theoretical perspective/nuanced social construction…” and goes on to something else. Whew.

That’s not what we would do at Kansas. When the candidate started bullshitting, we’d quietly nod and ask them to elaborate, and see just how far they’d go before they’d realize they were making a complete fool of themselves.

Life can be cruel.

3. The job talk is not an artificial exercise. Someone who cannot put together a carefully rehearsed one-off presentation for 45 minutes in their area of specialization is very unlikely to be able to pull off six to nine hours a week of newly-prepared lectures for fourteen consecutive weeks. And teaching pays the bills.

Forward through time and there are a surprising number of occasions where someone is presenting something that looks a lot like a job talk. To take an extreme example—and of course I’m very proud of this, and I’m not pretending this is typical—I was once asked to give a talk to a very high level audience—a couple of two-stars and one three-star, as I recall, plus a scientific advisory committee [5]—at the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, and was told it would be twenty minutes. The speaker following me had a flight delay and I ended up talking for more than hour, essentially doing a review of quantitative approaches to political analysis. Extreme example, but it can happen.

4. In my experience, the quality of contemporary job talks borders on the intimidating, the sort of thing that leaves senior faculty saying “I’m glad I’m not on the market.” Most of those I saw by candidates at both Kansas and Penn State have been extraordinarily polished and professional, and the standards have risen substantially over the past two decades. At Penn State, no student goes out for an interview without at least two full-scale practice talks, and if it takes more, we do more. Based on the quality of most talks we see, I assume that other programs do the same, and if you are in a program that doesn’t, you are at a serious disadvantage.

The system is not perfect: obviously some people are simply better presenters than others [6], native (or fluent) speakers of English have a clear edge, and I’ve known some cases where individuals are highly qualified but were sufficiently introverted that they didn’t make a good impression [7]. But I don’t see an obvious alternative, and I don’t think the existing system is that dysfunctional.

Back to dealing with that enthusiastic R&R from APSR. [8]


1. Pronounced “feeeee-nom”

2. Who also has the other relevant blogy links, which I won’t copy at the moment.

3. We call this “life.”

4. #2: Making it clear to the assistant professors and graduate students that you are way too qualified for the position and the department is lucky you even came out for the interview. Such folks usually end up as baristas, though their stories are long repeated in departmental lore.

5. You get a quirky little medallion for this, the same sort they used to give Native American leaders at the end of treaty talks on the annexation of, say, South Dakota.

6. I’m guessing debate experience helps. Improvisational theater experience—formal or just street theater—probably really helps. Seriously.

7. Class background also can be a factor. Albeit in my favorite instance of this, the individual—a former pipefitter—went on to a highly successful nonacademic political science career and more than once has been courted by institutions which would not give him the time of day while he was on the market to hire their students.

8. A joke, a joke!!!

9. Those wolf-like creatures chasing the dwarfs in Hobbit: The Movie?—those are the assistant professors. The orcs?—those are the vengeful fulls. You?—probably Thorin after about the third time he’s whacked by Azog’s mace.

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7 Responses to The Job Talk Debate

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Morning Omnibus Post » Duck of Minerva

  2. Joey says:

    This is a funny blog post. But I was disturbed to see you using “where the faculty had obtained their degrees” as a proxy for quality. Do you mean to say that if they had PhDs from Kansas they would in fact be “barely literate”? I doubt you meant that consciously, but you are reproducing sort of institutional prestige bias when you make this sort of comment.

    • schrodt735 says:

      *I* don’t think that, but from some of the reactions we got from job candidates (not all — we did, after all, hire a pretty decent faculty over the years) you’d think so. Along with those ever-so-clever “Little dog Toto” jokes — wow, I never heard that one before!

      That said, graduate students at a program like KU’s, or any of the eighty or so Ph.D. programs outside the “top 20” (which in reality is more like 30) have very close to a zero chance of placement at a peer institution: all you have to do is look at the [closely guarded] placement figures. Those programs should either go out of business altogether — and I say this fully acknowledging my complicity in maintaining the one at KU for many years, a lapse for which I will probably pay the karmic price of being reincarnated as a GTA — or reconfigure themselves to focus on training students simply to teach political science, not to do R1-level research.

      The University of Kansas is a fine institution and has produced some undergraduates who have gone on to very successful careers in political science — the new editor of International Organizations, for example, and a senior advisor to the president of the University of Chicago. There are also some excellent instructors in liberal arts colleges, and a few in good non-academic positions (largely through their own initiative) who did their Ph.D. work at KU. But like so many programs below the top 30, KU pretends to compete and place at the R1 level. It doesn’t.

      And it gets worse. Even if a search committee were to identify someone at a not-top-“20” institution, you’ve got to sell it to a dean, who is looking at an investment on the order of $1M — that’s with fringe and indirects, not with political science assistant professors making $140,000/year: deans think salary+fringe (+ opportunity costs) — before their tenure is resolved. That’s a lot of money, and a hard sell: the top-20s are a known brand, and deans don’t like unknowns. That’s an uphill climb.

      Again, a very sad situation, and one I’ll address at a later date.

  3. RobW says:

    I’m a new reader to the blog here. Love the style and appreciate the end notes save one thing. By the time I get to them, I’ve forgotten the reference. Given your programming prowess, any chance you might provide quick-jump links? Just a thought.

    • schrodt735 says:

      Yeah, that’s on the “to do” list — I’m also new to WordPress and there’s probably a straightforward way of doing this; I’ll try to figure it out sooner rather than later.

  4. Pingback: A hundred or so questions to think about asking at an academic job interview | asecondmouse

  5. Pingback: A Job Talk Talk | Tom Pepinsky

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