How to succeed on the academic job market?

By Marius Zoican - July 25, 2017 - -
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Advice for candidates and supervisors

Albert J. Menkveld is Professor of Finance at VU Amsterdam and Fellow at the Tinbergen Institute and at CEPR. Albert’s research agenda is focused on securities trading, liquidity, asset pricing, and financial econometrics. He has published in various journals, for example, the Journal of Finance, the Journal of Financial Economics, and the Review of Financial Studies. Interview by Marius Zoican.

MZ: Albert, you successfully supervised quite a few doctoral candidates over the years. Most of them finished within three years and landed positions at places such as INSEAD, the Bank for International Settlements, or Paris-Dauphine University. Broadly speaking, how important is the supervisors’ contribution to a successful job market placement?

AJM: I think the supervisor’s contribution is crucial in two key ways. First, to make sure that PhD students start thinking about the job market at an early stage – from day one of the program if possible – and devise a strategy to achieve their objectives. Second, the advisor actively engages as a “coach” during the market period itself. At some point in the process, this may imply almost daily contact with the student to answer their questions and offer practical advice.

MZ: How important is it for students to have a single-authored paper by the time they apply for jobs? Are joint papers with PhD colleagues acceptable? How about joint papers with faculty?

AJM: In finance, a solo-authored paper is all but mandatory. In other fields of economics, it might be an option to coauthor. Even then, job market candidates may only write with another PhD student, never a faculty member. I strongly recommend a single-authored paper, though. The fundamental role of a job market paper is to signal quality as a scholar. By co-authoring, one adds noise to the signal: students pool themselves with other researchers. This creates uncertainty for hiring committees. Also, hiring committees are perfectly rational: If a student chose to write their job market with their supervisor, then the supervisor will be credited with most of the contribution. It’s still possible, maybe, to get a job, but the odds are stacked against the candidate.

It is also important that the supervisor protects students and encourages them to allocate time to writing and polishing the job market paper, rather than taking on additional co-authored projects – especially in the final year.

MZ: How do you feel the supervisor’s role and relationship with the student should evolve over time, from the first day of the PhD and until going to the market?

AJM: One metaphor I find particularly useful is to see the PhD process as learning how to drive. For the initial project, the supervisor is still behind the steering wheel – with the candidate in the front seat next to them. For the second project, they switch places: the candidate drives and the supervisor sits in front next to the candidate, making sure all goes well. However, the student has significant discretion over where to take the car next, left or right. The supervisor is typically one of the co-authors in these projects. Finally, for the job market paper, the supervisor steps out of the car and the candidate does all the driving by him/herself. He is the only author after all. As a supervisor, you’re still available for communication, but it should all be from a distance. It’s a neat transition and I think it reflects well what the role of the PhD advisor is in the grand scheme of things. So far, it has worked very well for me!

MZ: What, and how many, departments should students apply to? Do you have different advice for PhD candidates interested in academic and policy-making positions?

AJM: I think it’s important that the candidate has a feel of all potential opportunities. Initially, students may be too focused on a particular university, institution type, or country. I believe the role of the supervisor is to challenge such a narrow perspective, open up the set of options and encourage students to cast a wider net.

Of course, I understand students face a number of constraints. However, with time, such constraints (for example, family ties) will only grow in number. The marginal cost of one additional interview or one additional flyout is tiny; the potential benefits are large. Even if, in the end, students stick with their original choice, they will have exposed themselves to a worldwide audience. They have a better idea of what a job in a central bank, or a university, or the industry could look like – and they greatly expanded their network in the process.

In other words, there might be an opportunity out there that could surprise you, as a student, in terms of how enthusiastic a particular group is to take you on board, given research topic synergies. You might have the opportunity to work with unique data. I believe that, beyond type and prestige of the institution, the match between the candidate and the job is of ultimate importance.

MZ: Apart from the job market paper itself, how important are research visits abroad and conference presentations for a successful placement? How can a supervisor help with planning a long-term strategy?

AJM: Of course, the job market paper and the other papers are very important. However, students also benefit from some prior network building. I encourage all of my students to spend a semester at a university abroad, ideally at a top school in the United States. As a PhD candidate, you not only get to meet their faculty, but also their, usually very smart and ambitious, doctoral candidates. It gives a glimpse of the kind of international competition the candidate will soon be facing.

In addition, there might be additional advantages. It is possible that, while visiting, a faculty member of the host institution gets excited about writing a co-authored paper. This opportunity will also come in handy during the job search process. Students might get letters from very well-known professors, even somebody who might have won or is about to win the Nobel Prize. This is not a purely hypothetical option; it was the case for a recent TI alumnus who got placed extremely well as a result! Such letter is obviously a positive signal in itself, but at the same time it is an independent signal that comes from outside the Tinbergen Institute and therefore carries lots more weight with hiring committees.

MZ: How do you know a student is ready for being on the market? What are the signals that one should postpone the market for one year?

AJM: I feel the three years deadline is very important and students should do their utmost to finish on time. Extending by one year sets you back relative to the pool of candidates who did finish on time, and therefore sends a bad signal with respect to research efficiency.

However, students can be unlucky. A dissertation is fundamentally different from solving homework. With homework, you know there is a solution. With research, you don’t. Even if you are creative, identify a first-order question, and use all the right tools, the results might not be there, or not convincing enough for a solid paper. It’s disappointing, but eventually it is just a bad draw.

If the student and the supervisor actively write papers, submit them to conferences, but fail to draw enough interest, then one can consider to postpone the market as an emergency measure (and I do emphasize the emergency part). Examples of such measures involve getting a visiting position, or looking for a new dataset.

One common trap for students is to think of the PhD thesis as their lifetime achievement. Ambitious doctoral candidates and their supervisors would like to publish everything before the defense. That’s impossible! The thesis should be a couple of high quality drafts, but are necessarily still somewhat rough at the edges. Of course, some students may already have a revise and resubmit at a journal, or will have already presented at top conferences – but there is no need for the work to be immediately publishable in the best journals. What I like to see is evidence of a candidate who is highly capable of writing thoughtful, important, and creative scholarly pieces.

MZ: To what extent do you think successful placements reflect on you, the university, and the Tinbergen community as a whole?

AJM: They have a tremendous impact. For example, McKinsey (a global consulting company) is never really disappointed when somebody leaves to take over as CEO in a top firm. Quite the contrary! This only extends the company’s reach and expands its network. Our alumni will never forget where they got their education from. They will remember us when receiving future job applications from TI, and recognize the high quality of the program. In a sense, our alumni are our best ambassadors. We need to improve visibility in the best places around the world, be it university, regulatory institutions, or industry. Supervisors should of course take pride in their students’ achievement but, let us not forget, it also greatly benefits TI and the three universities that it represents in terms of reputation.

Finally, let us not forget prospective PhDs, who are not part of the institution yet. Everything else equal, if an institution places its students on the job market at most prestigious institutions, it will attract the best doctoral candidates. It’s a virtuous circle.

MZ: Thank you, Albert. Do you have, perhaps, any final advice for students?

AJM: One thing is that it is important for PhD students to talk about the job market very early on with their supervisor, but also with other PhDs and alumni. In the final year, one benefits from reading a book and online material that is out there on the job market. You might know 80% of it already, but there is always 20% that you didn’t hear before. Given how competitive the job market is, that 20% might set you apart from the crowd.

As a final thought, pitching your research is crucial. As researchers, we are used to summarize our papers in 100-word abstracts to get past journal submission screens. Students should do the same verbally: be able to tell what they are doing and why it is important for each project they do – all in one minute or less. This is not the same thing as reciting the abstract: the goal is to get someone else excited about the subject and your idea’s contribution to science and/or society – we often tend to overlook the latter. It’s essential to be able to convey the importance of your work in a concise and muscular manner. Sometime you may only have the time of an elevator ride: by the moment you get off at the 11th floor, the other person might remember you, or forget you immediately. You want to be remembered, and it’s never too early to start practicing this skill!


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