On the Market

October 04, 2005

Little wonder that my professors in economics tend to have huge egos. As a Ph.D. candidate in the field, I have had to jump through an enormous number of hoops just to get this far, and the ones I have yet to jump through are more daunting still. At every level, the screening of aspirants is severe, and at every level, the bar is raised.

Valedictorian of my high-school class, I made it through the highly selective undergraduate-admissions process at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I breezed through four degrees in as many years (three bachelor's in economics, mathematics, and computer science, and a master's in electrical engineering and computer science).

Of the many economics majors at MIT, I was one of only three in my class to make it into a top Ph.D. program. I chose the program that easily has the best placement record for getting its students into tenure-track positions at top departments. I had the highest score on the qualifying exams in my class and breezed through masters' degrees in political science and education along the way.

All of those lines on my CV have clearly inflated my own ego, but I am still humble enough to recognize that the probability that I will be considered qualified to take a tenure-track position amid the august faculty of any top department is a long shot.

The vagaries of ranking systems mean that roughly 15 research universities can claim to have a top-10 economics department. A tenure-track position at any one of them would be a dream job. But each of those departments graduate 20 or more Ph.D.'s a year, and each only hires 1 or 2. That translates into more than 300 people vying for fewer than 30 tenure-track positions at the best departments in any given year.

My mathematical training tells me that since the Nobel committee chooses to award its prize to about two economists each year, then a simple flux argument implies that among those applying for coveted tenure-track jobs, an average of two will one day be laureates.

That is my competition.

My expectations have been fluctuating wildly over the past year as the date of the job search approaches. Sometimes I think I have a real chance. My adviser encourages those thoughts.

Yet I also take care not to set myself up for disappointment. Having read the research on the prospective academic job market, I know my chances are slim. I am heartened by the fact that economics, as one of the most popular and well-supported majors, has better job prospects than English at least, where I am told admissions letters to top doctoral programs often come with warnings that many of their graduates aren't able to find academic positions at all.

Still, my friends and family don't seem to understand the realities of the academic job market. They ask where I want to work, and I have to explain that I will have little choice. The typical candidate only has two or three offers to choose from out of the dozens to which he or she applied. Of course finding a job at a city in the Northeast would be nice. My family is mostly clustered around New York, and my girlfriend lives in Baltimore. I'd like to plan around her, but even if I could, she will have her own geographically restricted search for a medical residency in two years.

My friends and family also always phrase the question as "So, you want to teach?" That always amuses me because of how little teaching is emphasized, it seems, in the positions that I am seeking.

I actually like teaching. I served as a teaching assistant in four courses, and as a lecturer for a fifth, managing a class of 70 students and redesigning the course. A position at a liberal-arts college actually holds a lot of appeal to me, though given the culture in which I have been socialized, that would be seen as somewhat of a failure.

In the end, I am fairly committed to pursuing an academic career. I actually worked for a year, trying the paradoxically hedonistic yet puritanical life of a Wall St. banker. I enjoyed it -- the excitement, the fast-paced environment, the smart people -- but decided I wanted something more.

I am trying to avoid, however, setting my heart too firmly on a faculty job. The uncertainties of the academic job market make such wariness a practical necessity. As my friends and family have recently had to deal with job insecurity in uncertain economic times, I now have greater appreciation of the near complete security offered by academe -- complete except for twice in your career, first when you seek a tenure-track job and then when you try to keep it by earning tenure. Academics experience plenty of job anxiety, it's just hypercompressed into a shorter time frame.

Despite the stress and fears, I am excited about the job search, which will mark the culmination of my five years in graduate school. The first two years I spent worrying about qualifying exams and class work. I spent the third year in the doldrums, common in economics, as students make the transition from coursework to research and often get lost in the process. The past year has been the final push to the finish.

For those of us in economics, the job search starts in November. Unlike the more ad hoc process adopted by most other disciplines, economists, enamored with efficiency, have a very centralized system. You send application packets out in November to somewhere around 70 departments, including your dream jobs and some in which you are only remotely interested.

Each packet contains three letters of recommendation, your CV, and a job-market paper. That paper is essentially one chapter from your dissertation, a paper that you eventually intend to publish and that is hopefully representative of your future output. Those 70 packets, with any luck, lead to around 10 half-hour interviews at the discipline's main conference in January. Your conference interviews, with a little more luck, lead to three or four full day fly-outs, which, if all goes well, lead to one or two offers. Like I said, it is a brutal screening process.

Human institutions like this job-matching mechanism fascinate me. I suppose that is in line with my research interests which attempt to apply economics to areas where it has previously feared to tread. I am riding the latest fad in economics, one that has yet to acquire a proper name. Steven Levitt gave it the ill-advised title of Freakonomics, which, despite a massive media blitz, never stopped sounding stupid.

The basic idea is to apply the tools of economics to questions typically reserved to sociologists, and hopefully to be receptive to their input. That "sociological economics" is still largely an off-shoot of another more dominant fad, behavioral economics, the admixture of economics with psychology. Some of my current interests are using economic tools to explain concepts such as creativity, legitimacy, opportunity, and identity.

I am happy that I seem to have caught the leading edge of this trend; few other students in my year are pursuing research in the same vein. Graduate school is all about the daunting task of producing novel knowledge the world has never seen before. After struggling over questions that very smart people have been working on for generations, I found it easier to pick easy questions that no one had been crazy enough to ask before, such as, "What does economics theory have to say about apologies?"

I hope that the media hype has made search committees more receptive to such research, although the hype could just as easily help start the backlash that will return economics to more sober questions. In either case, the next year will be an interesting one.

I just hope the (likely apocryphal) Chinese saying, "May you live in interesting times," doesn't turn out to be the curse it was intended to be.

B. Ho is a Ph.D. candidate in economics. He will be chronicling his search this academic year for a tenure-track job.