Sociologists must publish twice as much as before to get first job

Oversupply of young scholars means employers’ productivity demands are much higher than a generation ago, study finds

April 8, 2019
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Early career sociologists in the US have to publish twice as much as their counterparts a generation ago to get their first permanent academic job, according to a study.

Research by Rob Warren, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, found that academics had an average of 2.5 peer-reviewed papers under their belt when they secured their first assistant professor position in a US sociology department at the start of the 1990s. By 2017, this figure had risen to 4.8, according to an article in Sociological Science.

Professor Warren said universities were able to be increasingly selective about who they hired because the expansion in the supply of PhD graduates continued to dwarf the demand for new faculty.

He said he feared that growing numbers of promising scholars would conclude that securing a permanent job in sociology was “unattainable” and quit the field, doing “long-term damage” to the discipline.

For his study, Professor Warren looked at 21 leading sociology departments in the US and identified faculty members who had been new assistant professors or newly promoted associate professors between 1991 and 2017.

Researchers then counted how much the academics had published in the period up to and including the first year they took up the role.

The demands on new associate professors have also grown significantly over time: in the early 1990s they had an average of 6.4 peer-reviewed articles, but this figure had risen to 11.1 by 2017. The increase was even more rapid among new associate professors who had not published a book.

While the number of PhDs awarded in the field has expanded by 50 per cent since 1991, the number of new assistant professor positions has “not nearly kept pace”, the paper says. This has allowed hiring committees to be “more selective and favour applicants with higher numbers of publications before they start their first faculty jobs”.

Professor Warren said that his research provided “no evidence” about whether early career sociologists were actually working harder than their predecessors a generation ago, highlighting that technological advances and the growth in publishing opportunities, particularly in non-sociology journals, might be important factors.

But he said that the swelling publication expectations placed on sociologists seeking their first permanent job could have a damaging impact.

“If a talented scholar with creative ideas that are valuable for addressing social problems leaves the field, that is a bad thing,” he said.

“My fear is that promising young scholars will perceive that career success is unattainable – that the bar for achieving their career goals is too high in terms of publication expectations – and will consequently go into other lines of work.”

Professor Warren said it was incumbent on those sociologists who do secure staff roles to address the problem.

“Sociology faculty themselves play a big role in perpetuating this trend because they comprise the committees that hire new assistant professors and review candidates for promotion to associate professor,” he said.

“If sociology faculty themselves collectively decided to make hiring and promotion decisions more on the basis of the quality or impact of research and less of the quantity of that research, this trend would dissipate.”

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