The Academic Job Market and The Draft

20 October 2012, 1300 EDT

No, not conscription (see what I did there), but sports drafts where teams take turns picking the next generation of superstars/busts.

I am inspired to think about this as October is when anxiety of academic job aspirants begins to spiral.  The thread du jour is whether the job market is “fair.”  As some get heaps of love and attention, others do not, leading them to ponder their fate.  But if we think about the job market as a draft* (despite the fact that there really is no set order of who goes first), then some stuff makes sense:

* Am focusing on NFL and NBA as they are better known (well, Canadians obsess about the NHL but who else, am I right?)

  • First, and the most important: just because one invests heaps of time and effort in figuring out who to draft, it does not mean that teams/schools end up making the best choices.  Past performance (with varying and often conflicting indicators) is not always going to lead to choosing the best candidates.  Indeed, sports teams invest millions of dollars and heaps of expertise when they seek to draft talent, but often make big mistakes.  Ryan Leaf? Greg Oden?  The list of draft busts is huge.  Universities invest far less resources–instead of dedicating individuals to scout, assess and advise, academic departments–with busy members of the department squeezing in the job search in their spare time.  So, busts should be even more likely in the academic job market, right?  Unless expertise is a bad thing, and that kind of goes against everything we stand for.
  • Second, teams will vary in whether they draft to fill in specific holes in their lineup or will draft the best available athlete.  Academic departments will also vary in whether they focus most on fit or whether they want the scholar with the best perceived trajectory.
  • Third, even if we focus on best available athlete, we will vary in what we consider to be most important: raw athleticism, displayed skill, football IQ, etc.  For academics, for many but not all schools, it is about the publications–will they publish high quality stuff in sufficient quantity?  Some places will value (overvalue?) someone with one great idea that could shake the field and be highly cited, highly visible, but it may be the case that the idea is incredibly hard to execute/finish/publish.  It may also be the case that a scholar may have just one very good idea but will not be able to move beyond that.  Other places (most) will value publications, but pubs in grad school may or may not be a good indicator of publications down the road (anybody study that?).  Perhaps it is about skills–that certain skill sets are associated with better chance of publication (high tech quant, formal modeling, whatever).
  • Fourth, if we focus on fit, well, different folks will have different perceptions about fit.  For some sports teams, there is one decision-maker who makes the call on this stuff, so there is a clear assessment of what the team needs and what kinds of players satisfy those needs.  For others, each draft decision is a battle of conflicting views.  Well, in the academic world, we are much closer to the latter than the former–each job decision is competition among folks with their own ideas of about what the department needs and who best fits.  A department can actually have the same fight several times: who belongs on the short list of people to be most seriously considered, who to bring in for an interview, the Q&A period can be a competition as well, and then the committee and department meetings about whom to hire.
  • Fifth, players are often drafted onto teams for whom they do not want to play.  In sports, this is because the worst teams get the best draft slots.  In the academic world, it is because people end up taking a lousy job (however defined) that is preferable to unemployment.  This usually means that the player has to play well in the first several years of their career so that they can become a free agent and then try to sign with a team that they like (low tax place like Florida or Texas, a more competitive team with more resources (Yankees? hee, hee), etc.  Well, in the academic world, if one does very well, by publishing enough interesting (cited) stuff in the better outlets, one can get offers and move beyond their starting point.

Sure, this analogy has its limits, but the key point is still valid: the academic job market is inefficient.  Good scholars often do not end up at the “better” places and often the “better” places hire people who end up producing very little.  If it happens in sports where the inputs and track records are far more obvious, where the outputs are far easier to measure, and where much more resources are dedicated to the task, then, of course, it will happen in the academic world.  So, is it unfair?  I have no idea since we can find 150 political theory job candidates to disagree about what is fair and unfair.

But does it suck? Absolutely, the academic job market sucks, as it creates a huge amount of anxiety.  In October, for most political science job aspirants, one has very little control of one’s fate.  The record is established, the CVs cannot be fudged much, the letters of recommendation are written, etc.  All one can do is wait and wait.  Actually, what one can do is (a) write and write so that one has a better record next year if things do not work out and even if they do; and (b) prepare the job talk in case one gets a shot.  Because one does have control over the talk itself, even if one has absolutely no control over how a department receives it.

Good luck.