global politics, relationally

A Different View on “Lower-Ranked” PhDs: Own It

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Many of my Facebook friends have commented on Fabio Roja’s post on orgtheory called “Advice for Students in Lower Ranked Doctoral Programs.” More than usual, their reactions have been polarized. Some have found humor in the best line in the post (“That Ivy League grad can get away with doing a post-modern rational choice auto-ethnography of snowball fights, but you won’t.”). Others have found the post’s advice (to engage in overcompensation and counter-signaling, to be persistent, to choose allies competently, and to show mainstream competence) to be spot-on. Still others have found the post’s acceptance of PhD-program-rank as a signifier of scholarly competence annoying and outdated.

On the one hand, I find myself viscerally identifying with the post (that is, that one of the first questions asked of me on the job market for the first several years of my career was about my Ph.D. institution, and I used many of the tactics outlined in the post to deflect that). On the other hand, I find myself needing to reject, or qualify, almost every word in it – and to suggest that the best way to deal with having a PhD from a lower-ranked institution is to own it.

By “own it,” I don’t mean, in Rojas’ terms, allowing it to become “an excuse for rejecting the mainstream or not seriously engaging with it” (though I think there are plenty of good excuses for that). I mean that, if you got good training that make you a competitive scholar with a competitive CV, then there’s nothing to apologize for.

I got a PhD from the University of Southern California School of International Relations – I was close to the last person who got a PhD from the School of International Relations before the PhD Program became Politics and International Relations (POIR). I don’t know the ranking of that program, but I know that (at the time more than now), it was nothing to write home about. Going there was a conscious choice – I went to work with Ann Tickner, one of the preeminent feminist scholars in International Relations. While I was there, I had the privilege of learning from Hayward Alker’s humanistic approach to international studies, from Stephen Toulmin’s thinking about the philosophy of science, and from Steven Lamy’s impressive approach to pedagogy. I believed then, and I believe now more than a decade later, that I got the best education available to me for what I wanted to do. And I think that’s important to “own” in a number of contexts.

Most importantly, I think it should be owned in terms of Rojas’ first point: Accept what you cannot change. I cannot change how people look at where my degree is from – that’s true. But I can change my answer to the question. Once I establish the street credibility independently to let people know that I am good enough to be taken seriously, I can credit rather than demure from my graduate training. You think that what I’m doing shows engagement with the discipline, creativity, and mainstream competence? I learned those things from the people who taught me at the institution you refuse to credit. There is, of course, no reason to say it that way – more subtly works much better. When someone complements my take on methodology,  I can say that it started in conversation with Hayward. When someone suggests that my work is accessible to the mainstream, I can credit Ann’s diligent work to get me to understand both how to do that and why it is important.

And yes, Rojas’ second and third points about overcompensation, counter-signaling, and persistence are important to take account of – sometimes it is harder to get your stuff out there and to have people notice it when you or your work have signifiers of low status (be that work outside of the mainstream, a low-rank PhD institution, a low-rank job institution, or even sex, gender, race, etc.). What Rojas misses in that discussion, though, is that these tactics need to be pursued taking advantage of the strengths that a particular scholar has. In other words, my counter-signaling and overcompensation is much more likely to be successful when I take advantage of the unique benefits that I got from my ‘non-traditional’ education – feminist theory, qualitative methods, political theory, etc. then when I try to produce exactly the same sort of material that someone at a program well enough resourced to allow graduate students to produce databases does. My educational choices were substantively strategic, and I think it is important both to make substantively strategic choices, and then to have the confidence to back those up by using them.

Which brings me to Rojas’ fourth point: choosing your allies carefully. While I agree with the general point, I approach it significantly differently than Rojas does. I think the choice of an adviser is career-strategic, but I also think that it is, as mentioned above, substantively strategic. An advisor is someone who, more than anyone, teaches you to do the scholarship that you will do for the rest of your career – both by example and in conversation. As a result, picking someone who places students matters, but so does picking someone who can teach you to be good at what you do – in fact, I’ll argue, the latter matters more for your marketability as a placeable student yourself.  I think that something Rojas doesn’t mention, though, is that your ‘allies’ for the purposes of job placement (especially, though not only, at a lower-ranked PhD program) extend beyond your advisor or even the faculty members at your institution. Each conference presentation that you give in graduate school, each meeting you have at a conference, and each engagement with senior faculty outside of your institution – is an opportunity to get more people invested in your professional success. The more people who are invested in your professional success from various places in the profession, the more likely you are to land on your feet professionally, regardless of the institution your PhD comes from. Getting noticed early in graduate school translates well to help with placement (letters, favors, informal recommendations) later – and wide circles of allies can only help one’s career, not only in placement, but in publications, leadership roles, and the like.

I also don’t disagree with Rojas’ fifth point that showing mainstream competence is a key part of success on the job market for people from lower-ranked institutions. Not only did I go to ICPSR and IQRM, but also attended the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference, the SAIS Basin Harbor Teaching Security Studies training, and a number of other trainings that were available to me. When I go to Peace Science (and I do, years that I can), I ask questions within the framework of quantitative work which demonstrate quantitative competence – not (only) to demonstrate competence, but because I think it is important to take all different forms of work seriously. I would (and do) do the same thing when I have the opportunity to go to conferences that feature critical and post-structuralist work. Showing, in Rojas’ words, that I ‘get it’ is important to me, both strategically and on its own terms intellectually. However, performances of mainstream competence, for me, cannot trade off completely with what I want to accomplish in the discipline. I write about, and engage in, feminist approaches to war and conflict – not ignoring the ‘mainstream,’ but engaging it to the extent that it is useful to my work, and, when I don’t engage it, ignoring it respectfully rather than disrespectfully. I engage the work because it ought to be taken seriously, not because I need to do so to compensate for my perceived-inferior graduate training. I think that makes my work stronger at the same time it makes my CV more marketable.

My overall reaction to Rojas’ post, then, is that the advice is useful in a lot of ways instrumentally – but that there is less owning it inherent in the advice than would be both professionally advisable and intellectually honest. My PhD is from the USC School of IR? Damn right it is. And let me tell you about the awesome training I got there.