What does it take to become a professor, Thomas König?

YJEA: I would like to start by asking how you first became interested in the field of political science and European politics?

Thomas König: My primary interest was stimulated by a very creative and unconventional professor in Mannheim, Professor Wildenmann, who focused on political institutions. We, his students, were very different in terms of theory, methods, and substance, but we had one thing in common, namely the focus on political institutions. Theoretically and methodologically, we decided to study the interactions between political actors and institutions, first from a comparative perspective and later in European politics. For me, European politics set up a kind of laboratory for political science research. In a variety of political institutions, in which a large number of actors pursue distinct interests, have diverse beliefs etc., the same policies, such as directives or treaties, have to be concluded, ratified, implemented, and complied with.


Which specific topic or topics are you currently researching and what do you find particularly interesting about them?

Currently, I am changing my research agenda a bit and I am moving from studying the interactions between political actors and institutions in the making of policies to the analysis of their consequences – public approval and disapproval in times of affective polarisation. In a forthcoming American Political Science Review (APSR) paper, we combine two types of methods to study the behavioural implications of affective polarisation of partisans in European democracies for solidarity and trust. We combine a conjoint analysis with decision-making games to find out group-specific in-group favouritism and out-group derogation. We identify not only which social cleavages are more or less important – class, gender, age, religion, or party – for solidarity and trust but also what factors reduce affective polarisation, such as coalition governance, which is rather the rule than the exception in Europe.


What does your day-to-day work look like?

My day-to-day work has changed. Until June, I have been the speaker of this big collaborative research centre on the “Political Economy of Reforms”, funded by the German National Science Foundation. There, we had about 50 young researchers, and my main task was to coordinate the interdisciplinary collaboration among political scientists, economists, sociologists, and computer scientists. Now, after finishing my lead editorship of the American Political Science Review, one of the most prestigious international journals in political science, I have more time to teach young scholars how to read, write, and publish articles in such journals – a skill that is becoming more and more important for their careers in- and outside academia.


Did you have a clear plan of what you wanted to do after your studies? Did you always know you wanted to stay in academia?

No, I always had a plan B. For example, to study European politics, I applied for a so-called “stage” at the secretariat of the European Council, where I immediately had exclusive access to data on the bargaining of several regulations and directives. At the end of this “stage”, they offered me a job in Brussels, but I decided to continue with my habilitation. This was certainly a risky decision as the German academic system in political science was not in good shape – a guilt system in which the chair-holding senior professors claimed to have expertise without international recognition.


“Young people always challenge your established views and are creative, which keeps you running.”


Talking about professorships: What’s the biggest challenge you faced on your path towards becoming a professor?

At the beginning, the biggest challenge was to understand the guilt system in political science. To become a professor, it was more important to engage in professional services than to publish in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Although peer-reviewing is not a perfect solution for achieving the highest quality, it is very competitive and avoids discrimination in our search for the truth. However, due to my publications in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, I became a Heisenberg Fellow of the German National Science Foundation, which allowed me to move to Stanford University. At Stanford, I enjoyed the freedom of academia within a stimulating environment. Surprisingly, I then got this call, and they offered me a professorship at the University of Constance. And since Constance was one of the best German universities in political science, I had to take one of my most difficult career decisions.


Was there a point when you considered changing your profession?

Not really. I decided to make efforts to change the German guilt system in political science. And following my experience at Stanford University, we have established an environment in Mannheim in which students, PhDs, postdocs, and professors collaborate in their search for the truth.


What is it you like most about working in academia?

It is the privilege to collaborate with young people who come and go. Once you are outside of academia, you collaborate almost exclusively with the same people, of your own age, and I think that makes you already old. Young people always challenge your established views and are creative, which keeps you running.


Having talked about the upsides, what do you think are the greatest challenges or downsides of working in academia?

Some people in academia are more interested in prominence and power than in searching for the truth. They claim to have expertise on topics without having done serious research on these issues. Students can easily identify those people by googling their publications when they see them making claims on evening talk shows. But the day is only 24 hours long, so you may have to decide whether to spend your time doing research or preparing for talk shows.


Talking about this trade-off, many students are considering but are still on the fence about a career in academia. In your opinion, who should go down that path?

I think that this is a very individual decision. A professorship is a top job in many aspects. Like top jobs outside academia, it is not easy to become a professor. However, I believe that the German academic system in political science is changing toward international recognition. That’s good news for those who are able to compete internationally.


What skills and qualifications do you think aspiring political scientists need to possess or acquire to succeed? And how can students hone those skills already during their studies?

International competition is more transparent than a guilt system. You start with identifying the leading scholarly journals, you continue reading their articles systematically before you summarise their findings. Over time, you acquire an academic foundation about a discipline’s state of the art. You learn in classes about theories and methods to conduct your own analysis. In Mannheim, we furthermore observe that these skills become more and more relevant for private companies. For example, we teach textual analysis, and one time, someone form Roche, a pharmaceutical company in Mannheim, demanded more exchange with Mannheim students due to their skills in textual analysis. In response, I asked, “What are you doing with textual analysis?” They said that the development of pharmaceuticals requires making long-term predictions. It takes about 10, perhaps 20 years, to develop a new product. And what they do is conduct research on the state of the art to figure out where research is headed. Once they find in scholarly journals that there is increasing research on a particular type of cancer, for instance, the company infers that this will be an interesting field in the future and starts investing in that field. So, you can see that academia and the private sector are not always so different after all.



So, would you say that acquiring quantitative skills while studying would be an advantage?

Of course. Pure quantitative analysis does not work, but pure qualitative analysis is very difficult to generalise. Put it this way, a quantitative scholar can always do qualitative analysis, but not vice versa. You may run a quantitative study and then pick particular cases to illustrate qualitative variations. This is how it usually works. The next generation in quantitative research will follow the trend toward causal identification. Think about Covid – we want to know whether a policy really affects people’s behaviour, and for that kind of analysis, we need to set up experimental studies, etc. As social scientists, we are interested in puzzles. Start thinking theoretically about the kinds of puzzles that might be of interest to a broader audience. To solve these puzzles, you need to have the necessary skills. Quantitative skills are demanded in- and outside academia, so those who do not want to stay in political science should acquire these skills as well.


As a political scientist, you are trying to understand and explain the world of politics. How often are you in contact with policymakers, and how does this affect your research?

Occasionally we collaborated with Greenpeace on inflated claims by the automobile lobbyists. We delivered a method, which not only convinced policymakers on a particular policy, but can also improve the difficult relationship between private (lobby) and public (societal) actors. It was the time when the automobile industry was very much against introducing higher EU car emission norms. Greenpeace feared that lobby influence on the French, German, and Italian governments – among others – would lead to lower EU emission standards because they claimed that higher standards will cost many jobs in the automobile industry, etc. Our method was based on evaluating the recommendations of automobile lobbyists for former EU directives and regulations. We simply compared their predictions with conservative evaluations of third parties and with what happened several years later. For instance, it was predicted that the introduction of the catalyst car will cost about 2000 German Mark, so about €1000. It turned out it was just about €250. We found a lot of other cases, such as the costs and benefits of the security belt. The lobbyists also claimed that it would be too costly and in the end, the British Ministry for Health found that it reduced health costs by millions of pounds. In sum, we made a table about their original claims and the factual outcome, which was published under the German headline “Wer einmal lügt, dem glaubt man nicht, und wenn er auch die Wahrheit spricht” (He who lies once will not be believed, even if he speaks the truth) by Greenpeace in a nice small brochure, which was distributed before the hearing in the European Parliament. In the European Parliament, the majority finally approved higher EU car emission standards. Unfortunately, our method to store and evaluate the recommendations given by lobbyists was not implemented by the EU institutions.


“As social scientists, we are interested in puzzles. Start thinking theoretically about the kinds of puzzles that might be of interest to a broader audience.”


Do you have an answer on how to convince policymakers to adopt such an evaluation system?

Not really. I remember a phone call from the European Commission when they asked me about that, and I said, “I can tell you how you can really do something to get better information from lobbyists, which would really benefit our societies, but I fear that you won’t do it.” And in response they asked, “why shouldn’t we do it?” And I said, “Because you are part of the game. Some of you become lobbyists. Some work for these organisations. Why should you change the rules of the game?” They were a bit shocked, I think. Ever since, I was not invited again.


From your experience, how long does it usually take to publish a paper?

There is a pretty easy formula, which depends on the author’s own skills and the level of the journal. For me, writing an article in the F.A.Z or the ZEIT (leading German newspapers), usually takes a few days. In a standard German journal a few months, in a European journal about a year, and in a top international journal between 3-5 years. So, it’s really a matter of the level of competition. Top international journals only publish between 5 to 10% of submitted manuscripts, which means that you need the necessary skills (and some luck). During my APSR editorship, we received about 1500 submissions and published around 80 articles per year, so about 4%.


Do you think that it has become easier or harder to publish over time?

Usually harder, because publications in international top journals – like in other disciplines – are the currency for career-making. In my generation, it was still sufficient to publish books and in special issues. However, top international journals do not edit special issues, and books are published without serious peer-reviewing processes.


What is the most annoying or frustrating thing about publishing?

Paradigmatic reviewers. These reviewers do not accept new research and their rejections frustrate ambitious researchers. The problem is that peer-reviewing is a very dynamic process, in which the quality of reviews stimulates ambitious researchers, not necessarily the approval for publication. With 4% of publications, the biggest challenge is to convince authors, who have been rejected, to write sophisticated reviews that help authors to improve their research. Most of the authors get rejected and the only reason why they help us in the future is that they got very important feedback on their research. So, they can say, “Okay, I’m not happy about this outcome, but it helps me to improve my research and perhaps resubmit it or submit it elsewhere.” To succeed in this dynamic game, you need to get people to write excellent reviews. And that’s the biggest challenge, because when you have bad reviews, you get a very bad reputation as a journal, you get low-quality submissions, and then you get a lot of rejected invitations to review for your journal.


“Do ask successful people about the ingredients for their careers rather than trying to get that information only from other students. Start reading, formulate interesting puzzles, and learn the tools for solving those puzzles, which will help you in- and outside academia.”


You were the lead editor of the American Political Science Review between 2016 and 2020. How does one become an editor or peer reviewer for a political science journal?

I was elected as the first and eventually the only lead editor of the American Political Science Review from outside the United States since 1906. That was a story by itself, but by the end of our editorship, we were asked to continue with it. The background problem is that APSR sets the standard or currency for career-making in the top departments like Harvard, Princeton etc. Without APSR articles, it is very difficult, if not impossible for a standard applicant to become a (tenured) professor at these departments. For most members of the American Political Science Association, it was not possible or imaginable that this standard can be defined in Mannheim (despite our collaboration with the London School of Economics and Political Science). To become a reviewer is certainly easier: you usually have to have published about a similar topic.


As a wrap-up, do you have any other general piece of advice for political science students that you would have liked to have received yourself when you were younger?

Find out where you can learn the most. In my case, it was not easy to retrieve this information, since there were no rankings and every institution claimed to be top. Today, you can use rankings, check the websites for syllabi and the international recognition of the teachers. An important step is also to become a student research assistant in a research team, in which you can learn from other colleagues. Do ask successful people about the ingredients for their careers rather than trying to get that information only from other students. Start reading, formulate interesting puzzles, and learn the tools for solving those puzzles, which will help you in- and outside academia.