At the end of each PhD journey awaits the dreaded job market.
As part of deciding which doctoral programmes to apply to, Joris Frese, PhD researcher at the EUI Department of Political and Social Sciences, wished to compare various institutions' success at placing their graduates on the academic job market. To his surprise, Frese discovered that the future career success of PhD recipients did not figure in the major rankings of graduate programmes in his field. A personal project soon became a systematic research endeavour.
Frese's findings appeared in autumn 2022 in European Political Science, a journal of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR). The article, with its up-to-date ranking that includes PhD graduates between 2000 and 2022, provides a more reliable view of the job market than was hitherto available.
In an interview with the author, the EUI asked about the challenges of this project and the main takeaways.
How did you design your study?
Basically, I was asking: how does a given department perform when it comes to their graduates finding a job in academia (in my case, political science)? To establish a scope for my sample, I looked at highly ranked departments (as those are typically the most competitive to get into) as hiring institutions. My definition of top quality for the 'receiving' (hiring) department uses existing metrics, which come from major international ranking exercises in higher education. Luckily, in the past two decades or so, these ranking outfits have moved from evaluating universities as a whole to comparing academic departments.
How did you identify and track ‘successful placements’?
I needed data both from the 'sending' departments – those which have educated the PhD holders – and from the 'receiving' departments – those which hire applicants with PhDs. This is not information that can be found conveniently in one place. I had to scour websites and other reports produced by universities and departments, as well as the faculty and personal profiles of all the academics involved.
I realised once I got started that the data collection was going to be far more labour intensive than the data analysis. Overall, I collected information on the educational background of 3,500 individuals! For my analyses, I then considered all placements by faculty who graduated in the twenty-first century (that is, starting in the year 2000), to make sure that the placement ranking represents the current job market situation.
The steps were: 1) define the pool of the most renowned departments, which I then consider to be the sites for successful placement; 2) record the institution that granted the PhD of all faculty in these departments; 3) sum up, for each year from 2000 through 2022, the number of graduates from each sending institution who eventually got a tenured or tenure-track job in my (predefined) pool of departments; 4) analyse the data for gender differences in placement success, and for differences between Europe and North America.
Your main findings?
The gender gap in faculty placements has not gone away. Among the sending institutions, only three of the top 30 political science departments in my sample, whether in Europe or North America, have managed to place as many women as men, and in the top receiving departments, women are underrepresented at every seniority level.
The gap is especially large among full professors – unfortunately, no surprise. If you break down the data on women in top departments by their seniority, you find that slightly less than 25% of the full-professor positions are filled by female scholars. For assistant- and associate-professors, the portion of female scholars rises to 40%. This could be due to greater awareness of gender equality issues in recent years, and appropriate action taken by departments, but it could also simply reflect the fact that the hurdle for promotion to full professor remains higher for women than for men.
How does the EUI perform here?
Actually, this is worthy of some home-team pride. Among the best-placing institutions, the EUI ranks third from the top for relative placement of women. With half its placements at top departments since the year 2000 being women, it comes in behind only the University of Gothenburg and Uppsala University.
This news should send readers running to see how their alma mater stacks up in your data tables! Are there other striking findings?
I saw very different patterns in cross-Atlantic placements, depending on which direction you are going. This resonates with people’s observations, and I spend much of the article discussing these data. Only 37 different universities have placed five or more recent graduates at the top-ranked North American departments, but 63 have placed five or more recent graduates at the top European departments.
Also, there is a much higher share of American graduates at European universities than vice versa. While only one European university managed to place more than five graduates at top North American departments in my time frame, 16 North American departments placed well in Europe – although none of them managed to break into the top twenty.
Incidentally, Frese's doctoral supervisor at the EUI, Professor Simon Hix, was a pioneer in the assessment of political science departments; in 2004 he published the first global comparison, based on absolute and relative numbers of peer-reviewed journal publications.
While Frese's 2022 study makes a big contribution with its integration of graduate placement into excellence rankings for political science, it highlights several issues that call for future study. These include devising a way to include placements of PhD holders outside academia – for example, at think tanks or non-academic research organisations. Data for such industrial placements are difficult to gather, not to mention difficulties in determining the 'success' or prestige of non-academic placements. "This would be an important study to undertake, as it is very possible that many of the female graduates who are underrepresented in top departmental placements have in fact chosen to work outside of academia."
The open-access article and its data appendices can be found here.
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