The Economist on “The Disposable Academic”

Having devoted one of the very first PoliSciZurich blog entries to recruitment strategies and students’ incentives to pursue a PhD in political science, I enjoyed reading this article in the economist. The author criticizes higher education and claims that there is a large oversupply of PhDs. Here are the key points:

  • Pyramid scheme character of the academic system: Tenured and well-paid academics use armies of low-paid PhD researchers and postdocs to bring in grants and beef up their publication records.
  • A PhD does not pay off in monetary terms: In non-academic sectors the earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. The premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely [According to this article in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, there is no difference in the premium for an MA and a PhD in the social sciences for men. For Women, the difference is actually -4 percentage points].
  • Limited use for non-academic job market: Those who pay for research have realised that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market. Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience.
  • Socially benefical, but bad individual choice: Academics tend to regard asking whether a PhD is worthwhile as analogous to wondering whether there is too much art or culture in the world. They believe that knowledge spills from universities into society, making it more productive and healthier. But doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.

EPSA General Conference 2011

A few weeks ago we had a couple of posts on the new European Political Science Association (EPSA) (here and here), announcing that it would hold its first general conference in June 2011. The call for papers is now open, with a submission deadline of December 10. The conference is structured in ten sections. Have a look especially at these two: “International Organization,” chaired by our own Frank Schimmelfennig, and “Public Policy,” which I co-chair together with Charles Shipan.

We matter, but maybe not as much as we think

What difference does the quality of education make for student outcomes? Establishing a causal relationship is difficult especially for PhD students, because it is likely that the best students are drawn to the best departments, so that a positive correlation between departmental strength and students’ success is at least in part due to a selection effect. An article in the latest issue of the Journal of Political Economy uses a smart identification strategy, namely the expulsion of mathematics professors in Nazi Germany as an exogenous shock to faculty quality. The abstract sums up the main results:

I investigate the effect of faculty quality on PhD student outcomes. To address the endogeneity of faculty quality I use exogenous variation provided by the expulsion of mathematics professors in Nazi Germany. Faculty quality is a very important determinant of short- and long-run PhD student outcomes. A one-standard-deviation increase in faculty quality increases the probability of publishing the dissertation in a top journal by 13 percentage points, the probability of becoming a full professor by 10 percentage points, the probability of having positive lifetime citations by 16 percentage points, and the number of lifetime citations by 6.3.

These effects look sizeable but maybe not as large as we, as professors, like to think. Self-selection is probably as strong a determinant of success as departmental quality, possibly even more.

As an aside, this research is a nice illustration of the causal inference trend that is well established in economics and is catching up quickly also in political science. In this regard, see also this previous post.

EPSA – a new association for political scientists in Europe

The European Political Science Association EPSA is off and running. It has a website, it is on Facebook, it twitters, and offers receptions. You can now join its ranks at a reasonable price and you will very soon be able to submit papers and panels for its first General Conference in the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin, on 16-18 June 2011. But why have another association in Europe? Why pay more membership dues and add another conference date to an already packed calendar? 

EPSA is the only Europe-wide association based on individual membership. ECPR (the European Consortium for Political Science Research) has institutional membership, and ECPSA (the European Confederation of Political Science Association) is an organization of national political associations. EPSA thus follows the example of American associations – and it does in other ways, too. As Ken Benoit (Trinity College Dublin), one of the founders of EPSA, explained at the association’s inaugural workshop in June this year, the idea is to provide well-organized and high-quality conferences at conference centers and hotels in easy-to-reach locations – a bit like “Mid-West” and in contrast to ECPR’s conferences in often peripheral universities. Again in contrast to ECPR, which sometimes makes it hard and costly to cooperate with US-based colleagues, EPSA explicitly seeks to promote transatlantic exchange. In addition, it plans to “publish a general journal of political science that will have a profile, impact, and structure on a par with top general political science journals in the United States”.

At the same time, EPSA may well become a niche association in Europe in the beginning. ECPR has made great efforts, with some success, to integrate Southern and Eastern European political science, and it is a platform for diverse methodological and theoretical approaches. At the inaugural workshop of EPSA, the participants came almost exclusively from the northwest corner of Europe and the US and predominantly represented quantitative political science. Some even called for formally committing the new organization to an EITM (empirical implications of theoretical models) standard. It will be a challenge for EPSA to combine high (professional and organizational) standards with credible openness. The first general conference will show where EPSA is heading. Come and see for yourselves. And pour your own pint on the way (out).

Finally some competition

Rumours were already around, but at this year’s APSA (American Political Science Association) conference it became clearer what was going on: the European Consortium of Political Research will have to face a challenger,  the European Political Science Association (EPSA). EPSA has  been founded in June 2010 as a competing organization to ECPR which has not always been perceived as the most efficient organization. ECPR as the central political science association in Europe organizes quite popular joint sessions (week-long workshops on certain fixed topics) and since 2001 also general conferences. However, in particular with regard to the general conferences ECPR seemed to be an organization with a declining learning curve. At last year’s ECPR conference in Potsdam it was not possible  to organize a fully working paper room in which conference papers are distributed easily before the conference takes place, also the coordination between section organizers, panel organisers and paper presenters has often been criticized. A couple of political scientists  now founded EPSA which  demonstrates its difference by being organized according to individual and not organisational membership (as ECPR) and by being active on Facebook and on Twitter .

At this year’s APSA, EPSA already challenged ECPR by organizing its reception at the same time as the popular ECPR reception funded by Cambridge University Press. This competitive approach did not seem to be the most successful since only few people turned up whereas the ECPR reception received the usual crowd. This might already be a hint that it might be more successful in the long run to organize complementary conferences than challenging conferences to ECPR. However, it is to be hoped that political science in Europe benefits from this challenger by motivating ECPR to improve and by offering attractive alternative or additional conferences.  In June 2011, EPSA will organize its first conference in Dublin – the call for papers will be out soon.