Grad students lack market power, and it shows: Or, the UC-Riverside non-scandal

A brief wave of academic outrage hit when UC-Rivderside’s English department sent job candidates an e-mail about MLA interviews five days before the conference. (MLA stands for “Modern Language Associate;” it’s big the soiree for English jobs). The outrage is somewhat justified because UC-R is in fact acting like a jerk. But many of the angry commentators are also missing something essential: from an employers perspective, a job search is often not about getting the absolute “best” or the most right person for the job. It’s about getting someone who meets or reasonably exceeds the qualifications. Search costs are real and high. Paul Graham wrote about these issues in “Two Kinds of Judgement” (The excerpt is long, but I can’t find a way to make it shorter while still retaining the point):

There are two different ways people judge you. Sometimes judging you correctly is the end goal. But there’s a second much more common type of judgement where it isn’t. We tend to regard all judgements of us as the first type. We’d probably be happier if we realized which are and which aren’t.

The first type of judgement, the type where judging you is the end goal, include court cases, grades in classes, and most competitions. Such judgements can of course be mistaken, but because the goal is to judge you correctly, there’s usually some kind of appeals process. If you feel you’ve been misjudged, you can protest that you’ve been treated unfairly.

Nearly all the judgements made on children are of this type, so we get into the habit early in life of thinking that all judgements are.

But in fact there is a second much larger class of judgements where judging you is only a means to something else. These include college admissions, hiring and investment decisions, and of course the judgements made in dating. This kind of judgement is not really about you.

Put yourself in the position of someone selecting players for a national team. Suppose for the sake of simplicity that this is a game with no positions, and that you have to select 20 players. There will be a few stars who clearly should make the team, and many players who clearly shouldn’t. The only place your judgement makes a difference is in the borderline cases. Suppose you screw up and underestimate the 20th best player, causing him not to make the team, and his place to be taken by the 21st best. You’ve still picked a good team. If the players have the usual distribution of ability, the 21st best player will be only slightly worse than the 20th best. Probably the difference between them will be less than the measurement error.

The 20th best player may feel he has been misjudged. But your goal here wasn’t to provide a service estimating people’s ability. It was to pick a team, and if the difference between the 20th and 21st best players is less than the measurement error, you’ve still done that optimally.

It’s a false analogy even to use the word unfair to describe this kind of misjudgement. It’s not aimed at producing a correct estimate of any given individual, but at selecting a reasonably optimal set.

One thing that leads us astray here is that the selector seems to be in a position of power. That makes him seem like a judge. If you regard someone judging you as a customer instead of a judge, the expectation of fairness goes away. The author of a good novel wouldn’t complain that readers were unfair for preferring a potboiler with a racy cover. Stupid, perhaps, but not unfair.

Most of the angry applicants for the UC-R job appear to have been in school for too long and not to realize that each employers’s goal isn’t to judge them perfectly. It’s to get someone who is reasonably okay and then get on with their lives. It’s also almost impossible to tell based on interviews and recommendations alone whether someone is a good for for a job; usually it takes months of working together to realize whether someone is actually good. In academia, I’m not sure one professor ever really knows if another is any good, since they don’t tend to take each other’s classes.

UC-R appears to think that it can get someone reasonable even though it’s doing something mean. They’re probably right.

English PhDs feel the heat because they lack market power. Many posted jobs get dozens or even more than a hundred very good-seeming candidates, almost any one of whom would be fine. They’d show up to department meetings, teach competently, publish in peer-reviewed journals. At that point, departments can pretty much post the candidates’s photos on a dartboard and pick the one who their darts hit.

A lot of grad students (and professors) also appear to have or want to have the same relationship with universities that children have to parents. But the universities aren’t there with their best interests in mind; the universities are doing their own thing. Realizing this is quite painful and probably helps to explain the anguish being expressed on blogs and Twitter. To the extent those blog posts and Tweets discourage others from starting or continuing grad school, they’re doing something useful (I myself have contributed to the genre).

In normal employment situations, employers who behave like jerks get punished because people won’t work for them. UC-R is unlikely to have that problem. They could probably restrict their entire search to Southern California and still easily have 10 or more very good candidates. Given that, UC-R isn’t even behaving in a way that is “stupid,” to use Graham’s word.

The curious thing is that so many people want to stay in academia despite the way it treats them. Megan McArdle wrote about the obvious solution: “Can’t Get Tenure? Then Get a Real Job.”

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