describing the academic job market

At Inside Higher Ed, Gerry Canavan has published an interesting article on the metaphors that academic job-seekers use to describe their employment market. Many people in such a position compare the market to a lottery. Typically this metaphor is supposed to describe the one-in-a-million chance of getting a tenure-track position. But Caravan argues, correctly in my view, that "many people who call the academic job market a lottery in practice describe something more like an anti-meritocracy: only the worst, least-deserving people get picked." Nothing could be more fair from an actual lottery, in which everyone would have the exact same chance of winning. I cannot imagine that many people would truly prefer such a system.

Canavan suggests that the best metaphor is a game, because it combines the elements of rules, skill and chance. Personally, I think he overestimates the role of luck in most games. Unless competitors are pretty evenly matched to start with, luck is hardly likely to be the deciding factor. In the academic job market, by contrast, the factor that Canavan calls "the genuinely random matrix of whatever departments happen to be hiring in your particular subfield in a given year" plays what I would argue is the most important role in the process. If someone is not hiring in your area, it simply does not matter how good you are.

Of course, if you look at the "game" as beginning not when a candidate goes on the market, but when he/she applies to a graduate program, forms relationships with certain professors rather than others, then picks a dissertation topic, the metaphor might be more apt. But if we look at it that way, then the element of chance more-or-less disappears. Some of the things that might have seemed arbitrary in the other model now appear to be elements of either skill (reading the tea leaves correctly in choosing your areas of specialization) or privilege (coming from a prestigious program). The first casts the market more as a meritocracy, while the second makes it more of an anti-meritocracy.

In any case, I digress in quibbling over the metaphor. Professor Canavan's main purpose is to combat the "cruel optimism" that motivates people to gamble their entire lives on obtaining something that the vast majority of them can never have. His goal as I understand it is to reframe the thinking behind both the meritocracy and the lottery models simply to help people make better decisions. Based on my own experience, I don't know if it will work. It would have been awfully hard to convince me, when I entered graduate school, that I should be basing my decisions on the job I might or might not get several years down the road. But I appreciate the effort nonetheless.

politics and culture in The Invisible Bridge

interview on New Books in Political Science