A look at the American Political Science Association’s data on job listings and graduate placement.

In May and then again in June, the American Political Science Association (APSA) released reports detailing the information it has about job listings for political scientists and doctoral student placement. I reviewed these documents so, as Placement Director, I can advise students in my department more knowledgeably.

The good news is that the APSA’s reports suggest the market for political scientists is improving. The organization, though, reports the information it has about the demand for political scientists separately from the information it has on the supply of candidates. This makes it difficult to judge the amount of competition for available positions.

So, I spent an hour putting data from the APSA’s reports on job listings and placements onto a spreadsheet to get a different perspective on the political science job market. Consistent with the APSA’s reports, the data suggest that the prospects of getting hired out of graduate school improved slightly over past three years (2010-2013). Combined, there are more academic and nonacademic job openings advertised than candidates and, overall, competition for assistant professor positions is less intense than it was in 2009-2010. However, the market for assistant professors has not loosened up for everyone. On the contrary, in some sub-fields there were more applicants per assistant professor position in 2012-2013 than during the recession-hit 2009-2010 market.

The APSA’s reports on job listings for political scientists and graduate placement rates paint a cautiously optimistic picture of the political science job market. Here are some of the most important reasons why:

  • The number of Assistant Professor postings to APSA’s e-jobs website and other positions open to graduate students appear to have returned to and, in some cases, surpassed 2009-2010 levels.
  • Slightly more than 79% of Ph.D.s in political science secured employment at the time of their graduation in 2012-2013. This success rate is about 10 percentage points better than Ph.Ds in other social science disciplines.
  • The majority of graduate students who got jobs over the past three years secured tenure track offers.

As encouraging as these numbers are, the APSA also reports several pieces of worrying news. ABDs are not faring well on the market and fewer positions in Comparative Politics and International Relations were listed on e-jobs in 2012-2013 than the year before. As the above figure also suggests, help wanted ads for political scientists still have not returned to the levels seen between 2005 and 2007. In fact, 2012-2013 was the third worst year for Assistant Professor listings in the twelve year history of e-jobs.

Supply and demand, together

By splitting its data on the supply of jobs openings from its data on the applicants, the APSA’s reports make it difficult to asses these positive and negative numbers. Just how hard it is for applicants to get positions and how easy it is for employers to address their needs?

By comparing the number of applicants to the number of advertised positions, we can get an indication of the amount of competition for political science jobs and candidates. By this measure, the political science job market looks favorable for applicants. As the above figure shows, demand for political scientists is greater than the candidate pool.

When it comes to competition over Assistant Professor positions though, job seekers face a more difficult environment (see below).

The ratio of all applicants to Assistant Professor positions fluctuates around the 2:1 mark. Candidates with Ph.D. in hand are somewhat better off, facing slightly less than 1.5 applicants per job.

The overall level of competition for Assistant Professor positions, though, masks substantial variation by sub-field where there can be as many as five or six applicants per advertised position.

As this figure shows, the situation in Theory is the toughest by far. In 2012-2013, there were more than six applicants per advertised position on e-jobs. Comparative Politics is the next most difficult market for applicants to navigate with roughly three applicants for every advertised position, followed by IR and American Politics. Public Policy, which is a smaller field than the others, appears to provide easiest route to acceptance in the academy.

Thinking about these data, I’ll tell the students in my department who are searching for jobs this year that, based on historical data, the odds are good that they will find employment. There are a lot of opportunities for people with degrees in political science and they should be open to considering them even if they are outside the academy. Getting Assistant Professor positions will be harder, but students from my department usually beat the odds because they have strong research profiles, quality teaching portfolios, and are able to make compelling cases for themselves in application materials.

A more difficult question to answer is whether students should wait to complete their dissertations before searching for jobs. The APSA’s data suggests that finishing is a key to success on the market. This convinces me that students with uncertain completion dates should consider delaying their job searches. My experience on job search committees and watching students from my program on the market, though, suggests that those who can credibly tell hiring committees that they are close to defending are still able to secure good positions.