As the fall approaches, the academic job market in political science is heating up. Well, perhaps I should say it’s lukewarm, as Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty explains:

Political news was plentiful last year but political science jobs were down significantly year-over-year, and to their lowest point since 2010, according to the American Political Science Association’s annual jobs report.
The report, released earlier this month, presents data on subfields, positions type and location of colleges, universities and institutions advertising jobs with the political science association’s jobs platform. While many jobs in the field may not be listed there, the trends in the association’s job board tend to match those in the profession, experts say.
In 2016-17, there were 1,141 just postings — some 7 percent lower than the 2010-17 annual average of 1,230 jobs. In 2015-16, there were 1,260 available jobs in political science.

For those newly minted PhDs who ignored my past advice and chose to enter this profession, this raises the stakes a little bit. Even scoring an interview is an impressive accomplishment. Getting a job offer is even better.

For those three nonacademics who are still reading this, let me explain what the final stage of an academic job interview is like. Those happy few on the short list are usually flown out to a university one at a time to meet with interested faculty, have requisite interviews with the administration, gab with students, be wined and dined, and — most important — deliver a job talk about their research and answer questions about it afterward. For junior positions, delivering a good job talk is a necessary condition to securing a job offer.

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Twenty years ago, back in the days when I was newly minted, I wrote that the political science job market is “a capricious process.” I stand by that assessment. But if you are so fortunate as to merit an interview, I have noticed some advice being posted on how to do it right. Distinguished political scientist Robert Axelrod gave some useful advice back in 1985. Steve Saideman’s advice from 2016 is also worth perusing. Tom Pepinsky’s advice from this year is sound.

To add to these guides, I would only stress or reinforce the following five bits of advice:

  • Find out the exact rules of the game. You would think that the contours of a political science job talk would be standardized across universities. It ain’t. Find out from whomever invites you what the expected length of the job talk should be, and how long the Q&A will be after that. DO NOT EXCEED THE SUGGESTED LENGTH OF THE JOB TALK. Run-on academics are the worst academics. The last thing you want to do in a job talk is have members of the department you want to join thinking to themselves, “Sweet Jesus, why is this person still talking?”
  • Get your main point across within the first five minutes. No one attending a job talk is as interested in your subject matter as you are. Most of the people attending your talk are not in your subfield. You need to convince this audience that you have found an interesting puzzle, what your provisional answer to that puzzle is, why this answer is a big deal, and why you should care even if you do not study this particular area of politics. The first five minutes should be aimed at the political scientist in the room who knows the least about your topic. The rest of the talk is devoted to how you can prove your answer is correct. That is the segment that can be directed at your particular subfield.
  • Don’t try to put everything you know in the job talk. It’s a rookie move to worry that you will neglect a key part of your research and therefore overstuff the talk. Again, DO NO EXCEED THE SUGGESTED LENGTH. If nothing else, a hard time constraint disciplines you to be sure that you offer up the most important portions of your argument. And do not worry if you have to elide some details — this is what the question-and-answer period is for. The less that is in your talk, the more that will come out in the Q&A. And this is good, since …
  • The Q&A matters even more. With enough prep, anyone can give a good job talk. What separates the successful from the less successful is how they answer questions about their work. Search committees are looking for confident answers that demonstrate a thorough grasp of the material. Do not try to bluff your way out of a question that you do not understand. Ask for clarifications when necessary. Say “I am not sure” when necessary.
  • Have technical backups. The worst feeling is being ready to give a talk only to find that the technology is acting buggy that day. As Saideman notes, “Do have a PDF of your slides in case your software does not work so that you can at least page through on the projector through your outline/figures/tables.  Keep your files on your laptop and on a usb key and on dropbox—plan for technical failure.  Have a printout.” Even if you do not need to use any of these technical backups you will probably rest easier knowing that they are there.

None of this advice, properly followed, guarantees you a job. Not following this advice, however, guarantees that you will not get a job. So follow the advice. And good luck!

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