what matters? ask a scatterbrain

From a student:

I’m a few years away from the job market. But not THAT far away. What matters? Everyone I talk to alternates between telling me how hard it is to predict the job market while acting surprised that I’m not doing what I “should”. So, what “should” I do? What matters on my CV? What matters that isn’t on my CV?

31 thoughts on “what matters? ask a scatterbrain”

  1. For a job in a business school at a research university, top tier journal publications are the gold standard.

    Having at least one good hit and a solid pipeline (preferably completed working papers or revise and resubmits) are virtually mandatory.

    Good relations with your supervisor and committee are also important, both for co-publishing of above mentioned articles and opening doors through referrals to good schools.

    A strong liberal arts school will demand evidence of teaching performance but still expect some research productivity.

    I don’t know about sociology departments but would be curious to learn.

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  2. It depends, in part, on what kind of job you’re looking for. It’s also important to remember there are many aspects of the job market that you cannot control. However, any way you go, there are two essential things that you do have control over that will make you a better job candidate:

    a) get as many quality publications as you can, and

    b) get moving on your dissertation (being able to send out a high quality chapter or two can help a lot).

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  3. This is a much tougher question than it seems on the surface. Of course, the easy answer is: publications! in big journals! lots of them!

    But there is more nuance to the process than this. Candidates without publications in top journals get jobs, too, and lots of schools outside the top tier are looking for someone who is does interesting research to be sure, but just as important is the fit with the needs of the department. Liberal arts colleges will look for an emphasis on teaching, including experience teaching your own courses and selecting books, writing assignments, and so on. Still, in these schools, publications in top journals is very impressive.

    There is not total agreement on whether more publications in highly specialized journals is the best thing to have on your CV. In some places, this will be just fine, but in others, it will be interpreted as a lack of ambition or talent.

    I would like to hear others’ take on how contributions to edited volumes and other non-journal publications are evaluated. Is it worth the effort of writing these publications?

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  4. I think the first thing to do is to figure out what kind of job would make you happy–how much of your time do you want to devote to teaching or research? Do you have geographic preferences? Does the ranking of the department matter and how? Do you want to work with graduate students? Do you want to be able to incorporate media, or service learning into your pedagogy? (Etc. etc.)
    Once you’ve got a list of attributes, match them to departments (and you might ask the kind folks at Scatterplot, or your advisors, to help you do this).
    Then look at the CVs of the current faculty at the departments on your list of possibles. Specifically, you might figure out what the CVs of the juniors looked like in the year they were hired. Set this as a minimum expectation of yourself (since every department seeks to increase its quality).
    And although the question is specifically aimed at learning about meeting the criteria set by the market, I would encourage the author to also consider spending time generating meaningful interior criteria for success. After all, you cannot guarantee that ASR/AJS/SF/ASQ/Whatever will publish your genius work, nor can you control whether or not just getting a job at Perfect University will fulfill you as a person.

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  5. Even at small liberal arts colleges, publications are essential. Good teaching experience, evaluations, and sophisticated syllabi are simply the price of admission to even being considered at a SLAC. Especially elite SLACs will want good pubs and a compelling (and cohesive) research agenda.

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  6. I agree with all of the above. Here are some ideas for getting the information you need to be able to generate publications, know where you are going, etc.

    (1) Read the journals, not just your course assignments. Read ASR/AJS, read Social Forces, Sociological Quarterly, & the other next tier general journals, read your specialty journals. Figure out: (a) what a journal article looks like and (b) what is the difference among the articles in the different tiers. Discuss with colleagues & faculty what makes an article good and what makes it suitable for different journals. Look around for or create opportunities to start writing for publication for whatever targets seem feasible.

    2) Commit to graduate school and not just your rock band or your second job or or your political organizing or your other “outside” activities. I’m not saying don’t have outside activities. I’m saying that if you want a cv that will get you a job, you need to do more than just what other people tell you to do. Don’t assume that your advisor will tell you everything that you need to do. Commit. Be proactive. Care enough to do more than the minimum, and make time for this in your life.

    (3) Study up on the different types of academic institutions and the different types of non-academic jobs. Learn what is out there, what the conditions of employment are, and what the characteristics of the people in them are. Note that there may be credential escalation, so you cannot assume that the credentials of the people already there are sufficient, but this will at least get you in the right ballpark.

    (4) If you want to be in a teaching institution, develop a record of good teaching. Not just adequate, but excellent, innovative, etc.

    That’s enough for now.

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  7. This probably hasn’t been mentioned because it’s obvious, but I hereby embrace the identity of lower-tier scatterplot commenter.

    I initially approached grad school the way I approached undergrad. It was helpful to me when a prof pointed out that nobody will care whether I got more As or more Bs, and that re-doing an assignment to raise its grade isn’t always the best time use.

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  8. @8: Some people might care if you get “more Bs”. B’s tend to be considered a marginal grade in graduate school. So, to the extent that the faculty members making decisions about funding and other matters look at grades, “more Bs” could harm your prospects. In general, I think it’s wise not to be overly grade conscious in graduate school (nobody on the job market will ask you your GPA). But, in terms of the internal dynamics of a department, funding, getting through gradate school, grades can matter.

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  9. I am a graduate student in a sociology program who is very interested in this topic, and especially interested in the answers of the esteemed bloggers on this site, and would like to express thanks to all of you for this great public service.

    moving forward…

    I am puzzled by the responses so far. About a year or so I looked at all the new assistant professor hires for about 40 research 1 schools in sociology, including programs that are generally considered to be top tier programs. Startlingly, there seemed to be little correlation between publications and job placement. For every assistant prof with an ASR, JMF, and Demography, there was an assistant professor who had a single coauthored publication and a couple working papers. Yes, publications will get you a job, but I see plenty of (first year) assistant professors at top schools that have produced rather little. How are these people getting jobs? It seems like school reputation and adviser play a large role?

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  10. Lots of good advice above, here is an additional consideration.

    If your work is in some way interdisciplinary (and much work can be) then I recommend thinking about other fields where you may be marketable. This should come pretty naturally from the work you’re doing, but it’s still worth thinking about consciously. That is, if you notice relevant conferences from other areas or journals you read from other fields then consider targeting related jobs in the future. However, you’ll want to start going to such conferences and may consider submitting to such journals before going on the market.

    If you realize all this too late then you can still try to make an argument in your cover letter as to why you’re a good fit for another program. But you really do need to make the link explicitly in the letter. I’ve seen several applications from sociology PhDs for jobs in my department over the last few years and almost none of them have addressed why the person would be a good fit for a Communication Studies Department. While in some cases we can tell that the person is probably very smart and looks to be productive, if there is no sign of trying to speak to and engage with people in the Comm field then it’s unlikely the file will even make the long short list. (This in a department that’s hired people with PhDs from about 7-8 different fields in the last five or so years.)

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  11. Here is a thought. The lots of publications in big journals only works… if you are going for one of the top positions per year…. and how many of those positions are there. Elsewhere, the best strategy I would say is to be able to demonstrate a clear focus combined with extensive capability. Interdisciplinarity is important to some fields, but so is being able to cover two or more subfields. Similarly, being able to teach the ‘large intro lecture’ is usually very important (because usually no one else wants to do it).

    I am not sure why people always say, ‘lots of publications in top journals’, I’ve seen people like that not get jobs as I’m sure others have. The key, it seems to me, is to place yourself in a position to be ‘recruited’. One way to do that is to journal strategy, but… that does not always work, one way to clearly do that is to build your network of respect. Sometimes your respect network is not based on those big journal articles, but it based on bringing projects to completion, demonstrating leadership amongst your peers, etc. Things like book reviews are important, I had one senior academic tell me in an interview that hiring a person that had never published a book review was impossible for him, as the book review is the clearest form of engagement with a known text. Book reviews are also a great way to get your name out there, and they used to be much more widely appreciated for that function. Such ‘minor publication’ fills a network building function, which is key to future success.

    I always recommend… Phil Agre’s Networking on the Network, it will get your a job and it is online.

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  12. I very much commend the idea, if you’ve an idea of what kind of job you want, to try to track down market-year CVs of people hired into those jobs.

    As for the experience @10, yes, school reputation and the sway of people writing one’s letters can be very influential, especially in advancing the case at a research I school for someone who doesn’t have much of a publication record (yet).

    Note that, for better or worse, it is much easier to switch late in graduate school from having a high-research aspiration to a high-teaching aspiration and still build a strong case for one than it is to switching from a high-teaching aspiration to a high-research one.

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  13. @10 & 11: You’re right. Many top departments read papers and dissertation chapters in the pipeline and make a decision based on quality. You can recognize work that will be famous, even if it isn’t yet. Also, wildly enthusiastic letters from top people make a difference. (Note that you earn these wildly enthusiastic letters, you cannot expect someone to write such a letter just because you attach yourself to him/her as an advisor.) Also how quickly you went through school. It is understood that if you get out in 4-6 years, you are going to have fewer publications than if you spend 10+ years in grad school. Also, getting to know the people in your area at conferences may get you on people’s radar while you are still a student.

    @11 reminded me of another “development activity” to suggest: read job ads now. Ask yourself whether you would fit any of them. Consider how to go about developing an “areas” profile that fits the jobs. The smaller the school, the more important it is that you be able to cover several different areas in your teaching. Similarly, figure out now whether there is an interdisciplinary angle to what you do and, if so, what you need to do to look qualified for posts in other kinds of departments or programs.

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  14. @13 ’tis true, but it is possible to move between institutions after your first job if your research trajectory is upward relative to your early career. Not saying easy, just that it has been done and I have in mind several clear examples of people whose first jobs were at unranked institutions who ended up at R1s.

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  15. Let me make a point similar to Jeremy, only differently. I think it is a very good idea to figure out what kind of job you want. I gave a little talk to new grad students here at Columbia recently. What I told them,

    Not everyone wants my job. In fact, being here isn’t always pleasant. It’s pretty darn stressful. You work an enormous amount. The expectations (even if they’re just you’re own) are exceptionally high. And put simply, it’s not for everyone. Some people (like me) like it. Others would hate it. The problem with being a grad student here is that everyone who teaches you made the choices necessary to be here. And so those choices seem like the only ones you could make. And for them, other outcomes would likely be coded as “failure”. But remember that 70% (maybe even 90%!) of academia doesn’t look like us. And that people who aren’t here (or at other R1s) didn’t “fail”. They probably just made different choices. Those choices are perfectly reasonable and may in fact be better for you.

    So part of your task here in grad school is to figure out what kind of life you want. Not just what kind of sociologist you want to be. However, there is a catch: moving in some directions makes some outcomes less likely. [Though I acknowledge OW’s point]: positioning yourself to be a liberal arts professor makes it harder to get an R1 job, because you work on different things. There’s a second catch: in general, people at R1 schools think they made the right choices, or the “best” choices. So it can be dangerous to reveal that you want to make very different choices. Put simply, people may be less willing to work with you, if you’re not on the R1 track. So, at least early on, I would keep alternate choices to myself.

    Maybe that was bad advice. But it was what I gave.

    I have a second piece of advice: keep in mind the decisions people made when they’re giving you advice. If someone has given up on lots of things that are important to you to be where they are, you should keep that in mind when they recommend you act in certain ways. They are likely very happy where they are. But given that they may have given up on things important to you, you likely would not be.

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  16. Having at least one good hit and a solid pipeline (preferably completed working papers or revise and resubmits) are virtually mandatory.

    Stupid question: what exactly is a working paper? I keep seeing this term.

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  17. One day, while searching for myself (or avatars thereof) on the internet, I came across a chart made (and posted! online!) by a university (R1) at which I had been short listed when I was on the market (I cancelled my interview there when I took my current position). For all candidates, the chart listed current position, publications (noting which were NOT peer reviewed), who had written letters of recommendation, and details of extramural funding (including the dollar amounts for each grant).

    I offer this both as more evidence for the many good points made above re: peer reviewed publications and letters, and to suggest that having a record of successful grant writing seems also to be a consideration at some R1 universities.

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  18. shakha: very astute!

    @17 A working paper is a completed paper that you are posting or circulating for comment before you submit to a journal.

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  19. Sara –
    were you totally freaked out that you found that? That info was on the WEB with NAMES? Yowza. Next thing you know we’ll need the IRB to be reviewing search procedures. I wonder if any on this list were already holding positions and applying on the DL hoping to move?

    On the question at hand – on your point about variation among new prof publication levels at top schools, try to keep in mind that you aren’t seeing the whole enchilada when you visit a dept. web page. You may not be able to see on a school’s website that this new prof was called “the best student I have worked with in 20 years” in three letters or that they have a book contract with a top publisher or that they have won awards or grants. Believe me, those folks who get hired at top jobs (and even second tier jobs, for that matter) ususally do have something special that makes them stand out from the stack.

    Sometimes what makes someone stand out (among other qualified people) is the way the present themselves too — as Eszter alludes — your letter, the way to describe yourself and your interests as related to the department and the position — absolutely makes a difference, even in straight soc jobs. There is a big range among applicants, some are very skilled at the art of applying and some are just terrible.

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  20. sara & mom, yeah I had the same reaction: who screwed up? We use the web for posting some recruitment stuff, and it is supposed to be in a password-protected place so others cannot get to it. But it is easy to mess this up, as many recent scandals have indicated.

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  21. Mom & OW – Yes, certainly someone screwed up! At the time, I was so fascinated by the whole search process that I actually was more curious than irate. Though, I did mention the availability of the data to a friend of mine in the department (in a “don’t you want to do something about this” sort of way) and the page eventually disappeared from public view.

    As for being on the market “on the DL” – do y’all really think this is possible? One of the things that somehow never fails to surprise me is how many “secrets” of this kind are not very secret.

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  22. I’m all eyes for a response to sara’s question about being on the market on the DL, even though it’s off topic. I’m thinking about this for next year and wonder if I shouldn’t just be open about applying to jobs that are recruiting me (assuming I will in fact apply), rather than be secretive and ultimately found out anyway.

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  23. @19: thanks for answering my question about working papers!

    Follow-up: why have them? If you have something that’s good enough to circulate (publicly, not just among your advisors or collaborators), why not submit it for publication? Is this common? Do people beyond the grad school stage routinely read and comment on one another’s papers (outside the formal peer review process), and do grad students get this kind of feedback from people who aren’t their advisors?

    Possibly this could even suggest a further “ask a scatterbrain”: how do you go about establishing networks outside your program, and what do you use them for?

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  24. @25 Working papers are typically under submission for publication, but in the mean time they have some citable* existence. Or they may be drafts (like conference papers) that need more revision before they are ready for submission to a top journal, but contain some basic descriptive or other preliminary results.

    Yes people who already have PhDs and are in faculty positions, even tenured, often ask professional colleagues to comment on papers in draft and count themselves fortunate if they can get their friends or colleagues to do so. (Professional friends always say they will try to read your paper drafts, but whether they get around to it given their other obligations is a different issue.) Grad students can and should certainly get this kind of feedback from other faculty in their department besides their advisor. Whether you can get it from faculty at other departments depends on whether you have been able to establish some kind of prior connection, as there is the same problem with getting around to it that adheres to one’s professional peers.

    * Not just “unpublished paper” but Something Center Working paper # xxx which, if listed in a bibliography, would refer back to you. It both sounds more official, and means that the paper is available to the public in some way. Old working paper series were paper publications that were produced by research centers and sent to libraries and others. New working paper series are often web sites. But a paper in a working paper series stays there as a fixed object. You are not allowed to edit and update it.

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  25. Thanks, olderwoman! That helps a lot.

    How does a grad student go about getting professors in their program to read their papers, besides their advisor? I know that you can write papers for classes that help with your larger projects, and of course when you’re working on a thesis you have a committee. Can you just ask faculty to read your stuff outside those channels?

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  26. @27: Yes, it is very common for grad students to ask faculty to read their work. It was very helpful for me to learn as a graduate student that some consider it offensive for students to include the piece to be read in the email making the request–too presumptive, I think. If you do ask by email, just make the request, and then follow up with an attachment with the paper.

    I think you will find that faculty are particularly eager to help when you have a specific issue you would like help with, so if you can point people to particular concerns, you’ll find they are happy to help.

    I would also recommend that you not send your paper to a dozen people at the same time. Select those who will be particularly able to help you with whatever issue that you are working on. That said, don’t put all your eggs in one faculty member’s basket. Sometimes, a faculty member will promise to read your work and then not get back to you. This is frustrating, but common enough. If you wait an appropriate amount of time (folks here might have an idea what that time is), a gentle reminder is called for: “have you had a chance to look at my paper?”

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  27. @28: 3 weeks during term. If I haven’t read it in 3 weeks, you’d better remind me it exists. But you should ask this question in the email where you send the paper. I would also tell your reader what *specific questions* you’d like addressed (e.g., have I chosen the correct audience, do I give too much detail on x part of the analysis, etc.).

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