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justanotherperson

assistant profs for POIs

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Hi all,

perhaps a bit random question, but I was wondering whether it would be "dangerous" to list in SOPs names of assistant professors as professors I'd like to work with. Not that they are bad, but somebody said something like non-tenure stream professors can leave the school while you're still there, and if that happens and if you went to that particular school only for that particular professor, you're out of luck.

I'm still searching for schools I'd apply for Fall 2012 admission, but have a few schools where faculty research interests overlap with mine but they are newly minted phDs themselves and are listed as assistant professors. Some schools do make it clear if certain professors are tenure-track or not, but others do not explicitly say so.

So... what do you think? Please feel free to discuss anything! Thank you.

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Great question and as a fellow 2012 applicant I would also like to hear the answer. Also, is it a generally safe assumption that associate professors are tenured while assistant professors are not?

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At most places, associate professors are tenured. Some schools (e.g., most or all in the Ivy League) have longer tenure clocks, and do have untenured associates. There also are a few other rare exceptions, such as public universities that are not allowed by state law to hire with tenure, meaning newly-hired associate and even full professors may be untenured for a year or two.

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of listing specific faculty with whom you'd like to work. It's better, in my view, to say that your interests are in the areas of X, Y and Z, and it's clear that the department has considerable strength in those areas, and leave it at that. When you list a specific person, that person may be 1) the department's most disliked member, 2) about to be denied tenure, 3) about to leave for another university, 4) increasingly unproductive, 5) unwilling to work with grad students, 6) fine in general, but on bad terms with one or more members of the admissions committee, 7) about to move into administration, 8) in the process of shifting the focus of his or her research, etc. It's really hard for you as an applicant to know this, yet there's a risk that the admissions committee will view you as being clueless for naming who you named.

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I'm not an adcom so I can't say for sure, but the advice I've heard has kind of contradicted Wesson's:

(1) If you *only* like the school because of assistant faculty who were just recently hired, beware. As you note, they might leave for greener pastures and leave you up a creek. If they did only recently get a PhD and you're interested in their work, you should look to where they got their PhD instead potentially.

(2) If you're applying to a school because of a series of faculty that you like, and let's say of 3 folks of interest, one is an assistant, you can feel free to list them all by name, but make sure to list the professors in order of their rank (i.e., don't list the assistant professor as your first POI and then the tenured folks last).

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Lots of good points raised above, but one footnote: assistants are more likely to be temporary at top 5-10 departments. Elsewhere, they are hired with the expectation that they will be tenured, and you can be more confident that they will be around for a while (though people do, of course, move...)

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I've heard that the general rule with assistant profs is that it's okay to reference them in your SOP, but don't make them the cornerstone of your application. Also, see where that newly minted PhD went, maybe that's a place you should be looking.

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You don't want them as the cornerstone of your application and you don't want them as your primary adviser. It's fine to mention them in the statement -- I don't think that really matters much either way. In general, it's nice to have an assistant in your area on the faculty. They tend to be a little more accessible and in some cases more willing to co-author with graduate students. The downside is that they're also -- in general -- more mobile, so there's no guarantee that they'll stick around. They're also focused on tenure, so while an advanced associate or a full professor takes some pleasure from the reputational benefits of placing a student in a good tenure track job (and are willing to pick up the phone to do that), assistants generally do not. Finally, and most importantly, when you hit the job market, your letter writers matter a great deal. A letter from a junior faculty member holds much less weight than someone who has a well-established reputation in the field.

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^ good point! if there are assistants in the field that you are looking at it can actually mean that the department is investing in that area and trying to build the subfield. but you need some tenured professors too. you should find at least 2-3 people (I would say 3) in a department who you could imagine working with if you want to have a department with a good fit.

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Above comment is exactly right. But remember that 3 faculty you could work with does not equal 3 faculty who work on exactly the country/region/institution you're interested in. You'll find that very few places if you're a comparativist for example. Instead, you want to find 3 people who, together, cover both the substantive issues and the theoretical issues, as well as the broad approach to political science that you prefer.

To take an example from the part of the discipline I know best, folks working on Latin America should not only apply to Notre Dame and Texas (places with LOTS of Latin America faculty) but also consider quite seriously the wide range of departments that may also suit their theoretical interests even though they only have 1 or 2 Latin Americanists.

Edited by Penelope Higgins

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perhaps a bit random question, but I was wondering whether it would be "dangerous" to list in SOPs names of assistant professors as professors I'd like to work with. Not that they are bad, but somebody said something like non-tenure stream professors can leave the school while you're still there, and if that happens and if you went to that particular school only for that particular professor, you're out of luck.

Not random. This is a question that gets asked frequently around here. Here's the thing: even associate and full professors can move to another university. My advisor came to my university as a full professor, having left another top 10 program where he was a tenured full professor. He brought the junior graduate students (who wanted to come along) with him when he did this. If the person is reasonable, they will at least ask their graduate students if they want to stay behind or come to the new place.

One thing that's important to consider. People are considered assistant professors for the first 5-7 years of their career. That's a long time. People in their fifth year are in a much different place than those in their first year. Keep that in mind when looking at CVs.

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of listing specific faculty with whom you'd like to work. It's better, in my view, to say that your interests are in the areas of X, Y and Z, and it's clear that the department has considerable strength in those areas, and leave it at that. When you list a specific person, that person may be 1) the department's most disliked member, 2) about to be denied tenure, 3) about to leave for another university, 4) increasingly unproductive, 5) unwilling to work with grad students, 6) fine in general, but on bad terms with one or more members of the admissions committee, 7) about to move into administration, 8) in the process of shifting the focus of his or her research, etc. It's really hard for you as an applicant to know this, yet there's a risk that the admissions committee will view you as being clueless for naming who you named.

I just want to respond to this. In my current department, you will basically not be admitted if you do not list specific faculty members. The reason is because these faculty members are then given the files of students who name them and get to share their thoughts with the admissions committee. If you don't have any faculty members willing to serve as your advisor, you are not admitted. Now, they might circulate your file among all those working in that general area, your best bet is to make sure your application gets in the hands of the person/people you want to work with, which is done by naming them.

Also, almost all of the issues listed by Wesson (specifically, #2,4,5,8) could be found out by a diligent applicant. Again, faculty movement to another university is tricky. But you should already be in contact with people to know whether they are taking students, where their research is and is headed, etc. Intra-departmental politics you can never know about and, even once you're there, you may want to stay out of.

You don't want them as the cornerstone of your application and you don't want them as your primary adviser. It's fine to mention them in the statement -- I don't think that really matters much either way. In general, it's nice to have an assistant in your area on the faculty. They tend to be a little more accessible and in some cases more willing to co-author with graduate students. The downside is that they're also -- in general -- more mobile, so there's no guarantee that they'll stick around. They're also focused on tenure, so while an advanced associate or a full professor takes some pleasure from the reputational benefits of placing a student in a good tenure track job (and are willing to pick up the phone to do that), assistants generally do not. Finally, and most importantly, when you hit the job market, your letter writers matter a great deal. A letter from a junior faculty member holds much less weight than someone who has a well-established reputation in the field.

Why wouldn't you want an assistant professor as a primary advisor? I had an assistant professor as my advisor during my MA program and it really wasn't a problem at all. She helped me network, was excellent when it came to my thesis, and helped me get into PhD programs. But, she was not a first year assistant professor. She was a fourth year assistant professor, meaning that she had a chance to get to know the department and was in a position to be helpful to her students. She was not so focused on tenure that she wasn't able to help me.

FWIW, when you apply for job, you're going to have 3 letters, not one. And, regardless of where you go, it's likely that one or more of those three letters is going to come from an assistant professor. My current letter writers (I'm in a PhD program now) are a full professor, an associate professor, and an assistant professor.

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