La Profesora Abstraída

Weblog of Michelle Dion, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at McMaster University. My blog has moved to Visit my other website.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

So you want to get a Ph.D.? Part II

Subtitle: (Advice for those thinking about Ph.D.s in Political Science)

I imagine the process is similar in other social sciences, but there may be important differences.

Since a Ph.D. is a means to an end, you should begin by identifying what 'end' you are seeking. I ask students what type of academic position they would like. Do they want to primarily teach? Do they want to primarily do research? Do they want to keep their options open?

Many students think they want to primarily teach, but then I explain the different types of teaching options. There is community college, small state university, liberal arts college or university, a range of research state universities, and then flagship state universities and/or private top-flight universities. All positions will include some teaching, but some more than others. And, as another undergrad advisor once pointed out to me, you can still be a good teacher at a research university--it just won't be valued as much as your research. Pay will also vary, and often inversely with the emphasis on teaching.

If students don't really know what type of professor they'd like to be or whether they'd really like to be in a research-driven position, I suggest that they work on the assumption that they might prefer more money and more research. If you come from a strong Ph.D. program and begin with a strong research record, you will have more options on the job market.

The job market, or how markets work with little information.

I explain that when most Ph.D. students go on the job market, their research record will be bare or minimal. Hiring departments must then weed through 100+ applications for their one position quickly. Since newbie Ph.D.s won't have extensive publication records, hiring committees seek to narrow the field quickly using the paucity of information available: Ph.D. granting department, principal Ph.D. advisor, dissertation topic (for fit), and grants or publications (if any).

Unfortunately, to make that first cut is a lot easier if you are an average Harvard Ph.D. than the best student ever from North Texas (and that's a growing/improving program....there are a lot less productive departments out there handing out Ph.D.s), for example. It pays to go to the best department possible to maximize your options on the job market.

You can think of it as an informal tier system among Ph.D. granting departments, where the top 5-10 are Tier I, through top 20-25 Tier II, and the rest in Tier III. [Also, the categorization into a particular Tier for each department or even subfield within a department may be debatable.] But Tier I schools usually only hire from other Tier I. Tier II would hire from Tier I and top students from Tier II programs. Tier III would hire from Tier II and top students from Tier III.

Non-Ph.D. departments are a little more tricky since there are a wide variety of these, e.g., state schools, liberal arts colleges, and even some flagship universities without Ph.D.s (like my Georgia Tech).

Of course, there are caveats or qualifications for "best" departments for a Ph.D. Remember that "best" refers to the department, not university. There are a handful of top universities with less than top departments of political science, and vice versa.

Also, if you're interested in African politics, only sometimes (i.e., a top 5 department) would it make sense to go to a top department that had no Africanist.

Usually, I recommend that students seek departments that are highly ranked and that have well-known faculty in their specific area of interest. Also, students should seek "well-known" faculty who are still publishing and working with graduate students--often this means highly productive Associate Professors or recently promoted to full Professor, or at least not someone in semi-retirement.

Like with undergrad, it's a good idea to apply to a couple of hard, medium, and easy programs each, with the understanding that if you only get into an "easy" program, you might consider moving after your M.A.

Next installment.... How to research Departments, what to look for in a Ph.D. program (or what questions to ask), and why I think you should never have to pay for your own Ph.D. training.

posted by Michelle @ 1:59 PM,


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