A View from International Relations and Political Science in the UK

I discuss pressures for PhD candidates to publish in the fields of international relations and political science and the potential adverse effects these pressures may have on mental health.

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Oct 10, 2019
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The academic job market in international relations and political science

In recent years, two factors have combined to create an intensely competitive academic job market for PhD candidates in the intertwined disciplines of international relations and political science. The first of these is the large number of PhD students trained relative to the number of academic jobs available in any given year. The second is a growth in mobility among previously-placed junior tenure-track faculty. As a result, new-to-the-market PhDs face an uphill battle when it comes to landing their first academic job.

When considering early-career job candidates, search committees look for research and teaching potential. While the latter can be demonstrated with evidence of teaching experience, the former has traditionally been determined based on the candidate’s dissertation.[1] This decision can be made easier with a publication or paper under review at a quality journal. This favours job candidates holding post docs or tenure-track positions, as they will have had more time to realize some of their research potential than PhD candidates.

Facing more experienced competition, new-to-the-market job candidates are likely to look to international positions as a way to build experience. From this perspective, the UK can offer some attractive options, although its market also may reward those with a publication record.

REF and characteristics unique to the UK market

The UK has become a significant international destination for American-trained PhDs over the past several years. While the British higher-education sector has distinct differences from American academia, American PhDs hold a distinct competitive advantage in the British market. An American PhD takes longer to earn than a British PhD because it includes two or three years of coursework to form a disciplinary and methodological knowledge base. This methodological advantage is particularly valuable as British departments adapt to incorporate a greater emphasis on quantitative approaches in their teaching and research. Consequently, for permanent positions and in the American market, British PhDs face greater pressure to demonstrate their abilities through publications. However, the UK market has a number of features that distinguish it from the American market.

The first of these features is a general preference for job candidates with post-PhD experience. While there are exceptions, most competitive candidates for junior permanent positions in the UK (a lectureship, the equivalent of an assistant professorship) are usually previous holders of a post doc or teaching fellowship. As a result, job candidates without this additional experience need to be able to demonstrate research or teaching proficiency beyond their dissertation and teaching assistance.

The second distinguishing feature is the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which occurs roughly every six or seven years, ties universities’ research performance to the distribution of public funding.[2] Despite its many issues,[3] the REF cycle exerts a dramatic influence on hiring decisions for permanent (tenure-track) posts. The REF cycle can alternatively provide headwinds or tailwinds for PhD candidates on the job market in the UK. Early in the cycle, search committees are more likely to seek job candidates who show significant research potential, even if it is not yet realised, with the aim of being able to add top-quality publications to the department’s REF submission farther down the line. As the REF submission deadline approaches, search committees become more risk averse, favouring candidates with established publication records as a means of building the department’s REF publication submission. In practice, this means that job candidates should have several publications to be competitive for a lectureship at a top department.

To summarize, some characteristics of the UK market favour American-trained PhDs who are new to the academic job market. In particular, the ongoing evolution in British departments toward incorporating quantitative approaches to empirical work is something that provides American PhDs with a competitive advantage. However, the REF cycle can lead search committees to prioritise experience over potential, reducing the likelihood of success for first-time entrants to the job market.

Pressures to publish and mental-health implications

When compared with other highly educated populations, graduate students (as well as academics more generally) are at high risk of work-related stress and other mental-health issues.[4] A need to publish, whether implicit or explicit, prior to entering the job market only compounds the pressures that contribute to these problems. A typical PhD student frequently has to divide time between coursework, dissertation research, and the development of teaching materials. Some PhD students may also take on paid research work or other activities to make money or build work-related experience. All of these competing demands for time also run up against personal activities and obligations, creating what can easily become a very stressful working environment.

A growing need to publish, whether real or imagined, simply adds to this already challenging environment, either through additional workload or increased pressure to perform, and further complicating the relationship between PhD study and mental health. An individual article-length composition can be expected to take at least a year from inception to publication; two rounds of review at a typical journal can easily last at least six months, and if the paper is unsuccessful at its first venue, the path to publication can take much longer.

When starting a side project from scratch, looking at a couple of years until a payoff is daunting, especially given the opportunity costs for a typical PhD student. However, there are a number of ways to reduce these costs. One common approach is to shop a dissertation chapter or job-market paper to journals. However, this can potentially come with costs: dealing with sustained criticism on a meaningful early-career project can result in a harsh awakening. Other strategies can reduce this adverse effect, as well as potentially lead to an earlier payoff. For example, collaborative projects with other PhD students or faculty can allow co-authors to focus on their comparative advantages, potentially leading to a quicker publication-ready manuscript. An additional benefit of collaboration is that if criticism is shared, it is less likely to be interpreted as a demoralizing personal disapproval.

Another option, particularly for those trained in programmes that follow the American organizational standard, is the use of papers written for foundational seminars as the basis for a publication. If these are successfully executed, they may provide the basis for a publishable study. An additional benefit from translating a seminar paper into a publication-bound article is the access to early feedback from a faculty member, which should both contribute to a stronger finished product and open the door for further conversations relating to the research project.

While each of these approaches to publication while in graduate school can enable early entry into the publication process, they may also provide an additional potential source of work-related stress. PhD students seeking a leg up on the academic job market through publication can benefit from beginning the process early in their doctoral careers: doing so can allow for greater workload flexibility than attempting to publish while simultaneously preparing for the job market. An additional benefit to beginning the process early is the opportunity to draw upon university resources, from feedback from departmental colleagues to professional and personal development workshops geared toward early career researchers.

References

Evans, Teresa M., Lindsay Bira, Jazmin Beltran Gastelum, L. Todd Weiss, and Nathan L. Vanderford. 2018. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology 46: 282-284. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089

Guthrie, Susan, Catherine A. Lichten, Janna van Belle, Sarah Ball, Anna Knack, and Joanna Hofman. 2017. Understanding mental health in the research environment: A Rapid Evidence Assessment. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2022.html

Hyun, Jenny K., Brian C. Quinn, Temina Madon, and Steve Lustig. 2006. Graduate student mental health: Needs assessment and utilization of counselling services. Journal of College Student Development 47(3): 247-266. DOI: 10.1353/csd.2006.0030

Jones, Alex, and Andrew Kemp. 2016. Why is so much research dodgy? Blame the Research Excellence Framework. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/oct/17/why-is-so-much-research-dodgy-blame-the-research-excellence-framework

Levecque, Katia, Frederik Anseel, Alain De Beuckelaer, Johan Van der Heyden, and Lydia Gisle. 2017. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy 46(4): 868-879. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008

Martin, Ben R. 2011. The Research Excellence Framework and the ‘impact agenda’: Are we creating a Frankenstein monster? Research Evaluation 20(3): 247-254. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3152/095820211X13118583635693

Murphy, Tony. 2017. Revising the Research Excellence Framework: Ensuring quality in REF2021, or new challenges ahead?. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education 21(1): 34-39. DOI: 10.1080/13603108.2016.1246386

Sayer, Derek. 2014. Five reasons why the REF is not fit for purpose. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/dec/15/research-excellence-framework-five-reasons-not-fit-for-purpose

Sivertsen, Gunnar. 2017. Unique, but still best practice? The Research Excellence Framework (REF) from an international perspective. Palgrave Communications 3: 17078. https://www.nature.com/articles/palcomms201778

[1] PhD-granting institution and network strength also influence these outcomes, but like teaching, are outside the scope of this comment.

[2] The current REF cycle ends in 2021.

[3] Jones and Kemp (2016), Martin (2011), Murphy (2017), Sayer (2014), and Sivertsen (2017) all discuss different aspects and shortcomings of the REF in its various iterations.

[4] Evans et al. (2018), Guthrie et al. (2017), Hyun et al. (2006), and  Levecque (2017) discuss these patterns.

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Go to the profile of Michael Plouffe

Michael Plouffe

Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in International Political Economy, University College London

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