Common Questions for the Political Science Job Market Candidate

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Note: This post is centered around a list of questions that political science PhDs can use on the academic job market. 

Another start of the semester means another start to the academic job market. The job market can be incredibly overwhelming. In addition to the strenuous process of filling out applications, job candidates have to learn how to fit a mold. In a typical academic year, this means attempting to reconcile your own personal teaching and scholarship goals into multiple university settings.

However, being on the market is an opportunity to be incredibly reflective. The market forces scholars to consider choices that can strongly influence the direction of their lives in the next five to ten years. Maybe more so than any other point in an academic career, the market allows for a meaningful reflection of one’s own goals and objectives.

Part of this reflection process is evaluating your strengths and weaknesses as an academic. Like any other interview, this evaluation requires a substantial amount of preparation. Candidates should do their best to anticipate the questions that may arise during an interview. In an academic job interview, which can last from one to three days, the variety of these questions can be daunting and somewhat overwhelming.

While on the job market, I found that my own greatest asset was preparation. The market is a low-information environment. In most cases, you have little to no knowledge about what a search committee is looking for, when the decisions are made, and who is actually on the search committee. Even if you are fortunate enough to make it to a campus visit, you are still operating with an information deficit. You have no idea what a faculty member may be looking for. In fact, the questions and approaches during one-on-one conversations tend to dramatically differ between faculty members.

While your mentors and colleagues can provide advice, they are limited by the view of their own institutions. The types of concerns and questions you get during a campus visit are typically aimed towards assessing your potential fit at that particular institution. As such, you are largely on your own in your search for an academic job. This makes preparation absolutely essential to the campus visit.

During my own time on the market, I spent a significant amount of time brainstorming questions that could potentially come up during an interview. Throughout the year, I started to develop a running list. Most of these came from through the help of my mentors and colleagues. However, I also updated the list as I went on interviews. As I added questions to the list, I would also make sure to add brief notes about how to answer the questions.

Days before a campus visit, I would revisit the list by answering the questions with far more detail. At that point, since I had been regularly taking notes on the questions, this process was fairly streamlined. I would only slightly alter my answers based on the institution I was interviewing for. At the end of my time of my market, I had amassed an extensive library of questions. I’ve included this list of questions in this article, organized in four sections: research, teaching, university life, and questions to ask.

While this process definitely helped on individual visits, this process actually gave me a far better sense of self. I found that I could speak much more confidently about my own research trajectory and pedagogy. While I was prepared to answer specific questions, I had developed a systemic way of thinking by incorporating the answers to these questions into a larger theoretical framework. This framework gave me a strong command and ease in answering questions that came up, even if they were not on my list. In addition, I used this framework to sell myself to the institution I was applying to. I was able to tailor my answers using this framework to each university. And the ability to do so, came from these questions.

Also, be sure to check out my job market page for more links to helpful posts and information I’ve encountered over the years.

Nine Things I’ve Learned Before Turning Thirty

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Skydiving three days before turning 30 in Wellington, New Zealand

I’d say turning thirty is a significant milestone. It’s the start of a premature mid-life crisis, right? A lot of my childhood friends are going through many of the same emotions this year, good and bad. With the obligatory celebratory Facebook posts, it’s also accompanied by some sort of reflection about the past. If I had to choose one word that described my first 30 years, it would have to be ‘luck’. I could never convey the amount of gratitude to the existential forces at work that have put me where I am today. But at the same time, I’d like to think I’ve learned a couple of things along the way.

At age 20, when I graduated from one of the world’s most selective and prestigious institutions of higher learning, UCLA, I was an emotional and physical mess. Although I graduated two years earlier than most others, I have a lot of regrets about my time at UCLA. My life as an undergraduate was miserable. I was riddled with so many insecurities and deep-seated emotional problems, that it was amazing that I even got to graduation. Worse, I had no direction whatsoever when I graduated.

Ironically enough, it was In the first year after I graduated that I began to learn to be disciplined, and I mean, really disciplined. Different elements of this skill have come together in a series of seemingly fortuitous events after graduating. Traveling alone across Europe for two months definitely opened my eyes in a way that nothing else could. I had also decided to pick up long-distance running, for better or worse, as the it probably became something of an obsession. And finally, graduate school taught me what it meant to work and to be proud of my accomplishments.

Two days after walking across the stage at Pauley Pavilion, I went to Europe and backpacked for nearly three months. In a train car headed from France to Switzerland, I had a pretty significant life-changing moment that wasn’t anything particularly special at first glance. In that train car, I met another American who was headed to a PhD program. At the time, graduate school always seemed as a lofty, unattainable goal. All my TAs at UCLA were ridiculously intelligent and dauntingly articulate. It never entered my mindset to set out to become a professor. For whatever reason, that single conversation probably changed the course of my life. I thought, ‘if this guy could do it, so could I.’ And by the age of 25, skipping over most of the story, I found myself teaching my own courses at UC Santa Barbara.

In the year I turned 26, I ran a full marathon and did a 22-mile hike on the north shore of Kauai. I mention this because they are probably the most physically demanding things I have ever put my body through. And this becomes even more impressive when you consider that I was incredibly overweight and unhealthy through the end of high school and in college. Although there are obvious superficial benefits to staying fit, nutrition and exercise continually challenge me on a day-to-day basis.

And finally, with the discipline I picked up in my 20s, I earned my doctorate and became a tenure-track professor at 27. Tenure means security; a position that is becoming increasingly rare. And incredibly enough, my tenure-track position was in the city I love, close to my family, and where I ultimately wanted to spend the rest of my life. Age 30 carries a fair amount of significance for me, but it also marks the halfway point to tenure. This means my journey is far from over, and in many respects, is only the beginning. But thus far, I can say a lot of it has been luck. I never set out to do any of this. As a professor, my students always ask why and how I did it. There was no master plan to speak of. I think I made a ton of mistakes along the way and I definitely have little to offer in way of a formula for doing everything right.

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Bungee jumping four days before turning 30 in Wellington, New Zealand

Nonetheless, in my 30 years of life, I feel like that experience has led me to a number of lessons that I’ve come to through trial and error. They are pretty general guidelines, but they serve as a pretty good navigational tool for the ups and downs of life.

1. Take time to be reflective. One of the greatest investments that you can make is to allow yourself the time to think. Since I can remember, I had a tendency to obsessively assess and evaluate whatever it was I was doing with my life. The reason why traveling is so great is that you have a ton of down time, often with little distractions. Spending two weeks without a phone in New Zealand and Fiji gave me the time to think of this list. Although it can be scary and cause anxiety, self-actualization constantly pushes me to be better and better. The answers don’t come quickly, but being proactive about the future helps tremendously.

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Connected to the first point, one of the hardest parts of being thoughtful is not to be over-analytical. As a kid, this was one of my greatest flaws. I worried about every. single. damn. thing. While it’s important to give yourself the time to think, it’s also important to realize that there are some things just out of your control. Everyone deserves the time to relax and take a break.

3. Work hard. This is a big one. A strong work ethic has the ability to help you overcome adversity in a way that nothing else can. The old adage, good work is hard to find, is pretty accurate. At least in my years in higher education, I can say that most people seem to look for the easy way out. Nothing impresses people like the ability to work hard. But moreover, there’s a lot of personal satisfaction and pride behind a job well done.

4. Focus on positive energy. The energy that you give off and surround yourself with is important. If you’re around negative energy, you’ll eventually give into that energy. It’s far easier to be gracious, supportive, and friendly than to be an asshole. Although I know I have my moments, I know that giving off positive energy only invites more of it in. And there’s nothing better for productivity and success.

5. Evaluate who you surround yourself with. Connected to the last point, it’s important to have meaningful relationships with others. Interaction with other people is what life is about. And although I’m the first to say, ‘I have no friends’, other people is really what makes life worth living. That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with people that encourage positivity and only bring out the best in you.

6. Celebrate your friends and family. That being said, it’s also important to not take the people you choose to surround yourself with for granted. Although we can be hyper-focused on school, careers, and professional lives, we tend to regret the time we didn’t spend with friends or family. They’re the group that are your strongest supporters and source of inspiration anyway.

7. Maintain perspective. Whenever something goes wrong, my initial response is usually anger. But these moments always serve as a contrast to when everything is going marvelously well. Was it cool to be sitting in a beach in Fiji for my 30th birthday? Fuck yeah. But am I going to feel this way next week when I have 10-hour days, have to sit in LA traffic, and be up late at night to prep my classes? No… but that’s the point. Knowing that my life could easily be a shitstorm tomorrow gives me even more gratitude for the blessings of today.

8. Aim for the stars. One of the things about the transition into adulthood is that life tries to beat the hopes and dreams right out of you. Once you encounter the ugliness of the real world, you begin to temper your expectations and goals. And I refuse to give in. At some point, I guess you’re supposed to finally feel like an adult, but even at 30, it still hasn’t really hit me. I still think that I’m a kid and I don’t want that to change. There’s something extremely motivating about the ability to daydream and wonder.

9. Recognize that life is short and it’s okay to take risks. Finally, if this list wasn’t cliché enough, this last one isn’t really about letting loose and having fun. Rather, it’s to remind yourself that life is to short to be so structured and regimented. Sometimes, life doesn’t lend itself to neat little lists like these. Sometimes, life will present you with options with undeniable risks. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s preferred. Because what is life but without risk?

Twitter predicts the winners of congressional elections

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During the 2010 midterm elections, a group of researchers found that Twitter posts could pretty accurately predict who win congressional elections. Although the social networking site has been around since 2006, political scientists have done little to tie Twitter to political behavior.

In any election, the two major party candidates are likely to mentioned on Twitter. However, this article finds that the candidate who is mentioned more on the social networking service is likely to receive more votes. The effect is equal to 1,035 votes for every percentage increase in Twitter mentions over the other candidate.

While it’s nice to see this quantified, the findings are not surprising. Most congressional elections are not competitive. In 2010, 86% of officeholders in Congress were re-elected to office. In terms of mentions on Twitter, I would expect incumbents to receive far more tweets than challengers.

This article, “More Tweets, More Votes: Social media as a quantitative indicator of political behavior” was presented at the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in New York, NY on August 10-13, 2013. (Link)

Do older people use Facebook to lecture younger people about politics?

As a researcher, I have co-authored a paper that investigates political Facebook use amongst younger age cohorts. Stephen Wolfram, author of Mathematica, released a series of different statistics on Facebook usage using a sample that includes over a million people.

A small fraction of this data examines the political use of Facebook:


Figure 1. Age distribution of Facebook users compared to the US Census.


Figure 2. The number of friends based on age.


Figure 3. Age distributions of users based on age.


Figure 4. The popularity of topics discussed in status updates.


Figure 5. Status update word cloud: politics.


Figure 6. The discussion of politics based on age and gender.

These graphs, taken together, seem to be telling an interesting story. Figure 1 shows that Facebook seems to be in strong popularity amongst younger users. This fact is not immediately surprising. In addition, Figure 2 shows that younger users have more friends.

Having more friends is not necessarily a good thing. On average, Facebook users in their 20s have 400 friends. Here, it’s appropriate to cite the Dunbar number, suggesting humans can only maintain 150 meaningful relationships at one time. Younger Facebook users may be collecting friends, while perhaps older users spend more time fostering the fewer relationships they have on the social networking site.

Figure 3 shows the distribution of ages for users based on their own age cohort. Most users have a strong base of friends that are their own age, the only exception being users over the age of 70. Another surprising finding of Figure 3 suggests that users between the ages of 50 and 70 have a substantial proportion younger friends. Thus, Figure 3 suggests that older users are using Facebook to communicate with younger users.

The political use of Facebook is shown in Figures 4, 5, and 6. In comparison to other topics, politics is not a popular item of discussion on the site. Facebook tends to focus on fairly personal topics, with topics on special occasions, life philosophy, and general mood being the most popular topics.

However, when politics does come up, it seems to be focused on presidential elections and candidates, as shown in Figure 5. Again, not surprising. Most people tend to ignore politics except when elections are at their most salient. Figure 6 suggests that as a topic, politics seems to be much more popular with older cohorts. When political discussion occurs on Facebook, it is more common amongst cohorts that are older.

Taken together, these figures may suggest that older users are discussing politics with younger users on Facebook. This informal analysis is not showing causality, but it would be an interesting to use a large-n study to follow up on this hypothesis. Older users are one of the last adopters of Facebook. However, given its extreme popularity with one billion active users around the world, researchers should be more concerned about how all populations interact with the medium.