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« You Don't Deserve the Job You Land Any More than You Don't the One You Don't | Main | You're a Vortex of Misfortune, Charlie Brown »

Sunday, 09 December 2007

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Rich Puchalsky

I think that you're still missing something. You're writing about a single trial, which will look fairly random even if it isn't.

Now let's say that you repeat this trial a number of times. If, completely unknown and unpredicted by you, your literary journalism experience gives you a 20% advantage over whatever extra experience the other candidates have for half of those jobs -- well, I'm not going to bother to figure out how many times the trial would need to be repeated to give you a significantly greater chance of getting one of the jobs, but it isn't that many times. A "qualification" need not be something mentioned on the job sheet, it can be any experience that the hiring committee thinks is relevant.

So, will you "deserve" the job? Who knows. "Deserve" seems vaguely theological in this context. But you'll have a better chance of getting a good job than some other people.

Sisyphus

Rich, the "secret thing" that gives a candidate advantage will be totally different from job to job and year to year --- that's what makes the whole process so mind-bogglingly frustrating. Scott could just as easily apply someplace where, up until the year before, the journalism dept. was part of the English department, and they have just split acrimoniously; the mere mention of literary journalism gets him tossed from the pile even though his "explicit" qualifications from the job ad are superior to everyone else's who applied. (And I know a couple people who had this happen w. English and comp splitting apart with much rancor; one person it helped, the other it tanked their application.)

As I reported in a post on job interview advice about a month ago, departments have a history. That history determines your success, and there is no way to suss it out or plan for it.

And I disagree with your comment on the last post about merit --- no one is saying that every person in America is capable of doing a good job as a professor, but everyone who makes it through grad school and into the application bin, yeah, I think they could. So your argument that adjuncts should consider themselves lucky is completely backwards. It's not that hard and we've been training for it; it's just that with the competition and the oversaturated market, we have to be way more qualified than the minimum.

surlacarte

1) There are differences in qualifiedness between candidates. Scott, consider yourself as a candidate if you had not had the opportunity to teach and design courses in Lit-J, and instead had spent that time teaching a couple extra quarters of composition. The real you gets the job in the scenario above, while the hypothetical you doesn't. Conversely, there does not exist a single job out there that the hypothetical you gets and the real you doesn't.

2) More qualified candidates will on average get more jobs than less qualified candidates.

3) It can never be concluded definitively that being more or less qualified was the reason for getting or not getting any particular job.

4) Nonetheless, it follows from #2 that if you get a job, it is more likely that you are qualified than and if you didn't. How much more or less likely is the question here, but it's certainly neither 0 or 1, which is to say, not enough to give up if you don't get a job in a given year, but also not enough that it's irrational to be concerned; or, put the other way, enough to feel good about yourself for getting a job, but not enough to get an attitude about it.

5) We all (hopefully) deserve jobs when we graduate. Anyone with a PhD from a reputable institution ought to be qualified for a tenure track position.

6) None of us "deserve" jobs, which is to say, none of us are entitled to a position if the market doesn't demand someone with our particular job skills.

SB

Your scenario skips a typical aspect of the hiring process, which is the request for the submission of a writing sample. (Maybe you consider this luck as well, since no ad says "you must be an excellent writer with a great idea." However, in my department that is a basic qualification for employment). While, as a past member of search committees in history, I would tend to agree that at the short list level and sight unseen, the candidates tend to be equally qualified, getting to a short list usually involves the sifting through of a dozens of writing samples to find the best ones. In fact, I would argue that the people my department puts on its short list are more qualified for our position than the others in the pool, usually through a combination of meeting the qualifications listed in the ad and through the quality of their research and writing. Otherwise we could simply skip the process of reading applications and choose a dozen at random to evaluate more closely.

Rich Puchalsky

"Rich, the "secret thing" that gives a candidate advantage will be totally different from job to job and year to year"

But there's no way you can really know this. Sure, comp might help one person's application, tank another's obviously, but if it helped a number of others by 30% or something, you'd never know it.

I think that everyone is probably willing to reject the two extreme positions: 1) it's completely random, 2) it's completely deserved. That leaves a mixture of talent and work and luck and chance that it pretty much undecipherable for anyone who isn't willing to go at the problem with a broad-based, rigorous statistical approach. I just don't think that you'd really be able to know whether it's dominated by random / overdetermined elements or not.

That leaves that word "deserved", which indicates to me that the real question isn't how the job search system works, but how people feel about it. We can break the process into extreme cases again: 1) there are real variations in ability of newly minted Ph.Ds, but the system is unable to detect them or doesn't care to, as it looks only for things like match to the department that aren't really "ability" but only a form of accidental specialization; 2) there are real variations in ability, and the system can detect them well enough to significantly outweigh pure randomness; 3) there are no significant variations in ability of newly minted Ph.Ds, and therefore nothing to detect; 4) even though there are variations in ability, the system shouldn't detect them; everyone should get a job.

But you can see how the description above combines empirical questions (do academic superstars exist, and can they be detected at that stage?) and political questions (is the purpose of the system to find people who will best help the department? to find the most likely-to-be-superstars and get them the best jobs? to get everyone a job?) -- and then the whole thing is wrapped up in that word "deserve" which in itself implies a political stance. If everyone should have a job, then no one can preferentially deserve a job, pretty much by definition.

I have no trouble with the last as a political statement, but if you make it, I think that you have to extend it down. There seems to be a subtext of "I deserve this job in the sense that I put in a lot of work to prepare for it". Well, yes, but other people didn't put in that work only because they had no ability or desire to do it; some never got the chance for other reasons. If you insist that doing the work needed to get a Ph.D. should be a fairly guaranteed ticket to a good job, then don't think that you've rejected rationing or competition. You've pretty predictably shifted it one level down.

JPool

People seriously use the term "minoritarian?" What the fuck?

I'm with Rich on the points that a) the fact that the thing that curries favor for you (or destroys your chances) with the search committee isn't listed in the position description doesn't make it something that you haven't achieved (and to claim otherwise -- to stick with the italicized "as advertised" -- is a petty legalism in terms of the larger discussion), and b) "deserve" does a really poor job of describing either the results of the process or what's at stake for those participating in it.

The central issue with the job market, as I've seen it, is that it can in fact do a really poor job of matching people up with institutions (it, to continue the reification, can also do a fine job, but that's less interesting). People may want more the prestigious or higher paying jobs, that they then may or may not get. They could, in some discernable way, be more or less qualified for said job or, more importantly, better at performing in said job than the people who got/ did not get the job. But the thing is, these jobs are not the best jobs that only the best people therefor desrve to get. They are simply the most prestigious or best paying. In my field, even if you wanted a nice teaching-emphasizing position at a liberal arts school, you still have to apply for research positions because that's where most of the jobs are. You may, therefor, be offered job x, which others would covet, and accept it because, hey, you need to work, even though you'd really rather have job y, where you were beaten out by someone who is now busy resigning themselves to their apparent lot in life.

So, you could excise the whole "deserve" thing, and end up instead with an argument that "There are many factors in either securing or being denied a job that are unknowable or unpredictable to us, and we should therefor remain humble in our sucesses as in our failures." This, however, would not have inspired much in the way of discussion.

A White Bear

A wise person once told me the job market is like internet dating. You put up an idea of what you think you want, and what you think your qualities are, and you get all these responses, most from probably really nice people who don't seem to "get" the thing you want behind your description of it, which probably wasn't clear anyway, because you weren't too sure to begin with. A lot of them are ruled out because they're, frankly, just not the sort of person you were looking for, and there are still like 20 potential dates with broader qualifications than you'd asked for.

But when it comes down to it, you're only going to go out with the three or four who made you realize there are other things you want, things you dare not ask for. Wow, all this, and he cooks? And has a cute dog? You'd never have limited your search to guys who cook and have dogs, but man, it sure is nice.

Does that guy "deserve" to fall in love with you any more than the others? Only an asshole would think in those terms. But it worked out for the two of you and you had a nice time.

Scott, I think the language of "deserving" is really troubling here. We should be happy for people who get the jobs they get, which are really hard to get. And they do get them because of skills they have that other people don't have that might not have been advertised. I will get a job, if I get one, because of my administrative experience and my ability to think on my feet in person. Is that "fair"? Who cares? I'm not going to flagellate myself in front of everyone who didn't get the job I take. It won't make them feel any better, and it won't help me make the transition into the "professional colleague" part of my life.

Jonathan Dresner

"Deserve" seems vaguely theological in this context.

This gets at something which has been nagging me about this discussion as well. In the hypothetical (and yes, Scott, everyone who's sent out an application has dreamed about the possibility that they've got the magic something which someone really, really needs) Scott has posited that that candidates are all roughly equal: they've all earned serious consideration. But if they are all roughly equal on the publicly stated quantifiable qualifications (there's a mouthful), then the committee has to consider other factors: potential for growth, utility to the department in other ways, personality fit to the department, likely connection to the students, possibility of attracting a candidate's advisor as a guest speaker, whatever.

There's no question then, in my mind, that the hypothetical Scott deserves the hypothetical job: they're not compromising the process in any way by hiring him, but rather getting more than they hoped out of the process. It's not unfair to the other candidates: what Might be unfair -- and certainly a better liminal case -- would be a situation in which hypothetical Scott is clearly inferior to several of the other candidates on the stated qualifications, but gets the job anyway.

Now I'm out of colons and italics, so I'll let someone else take up the discussion from here.

tomemos

Thanks, Scott, but let's not overstate my even-keeledness. I am normally quite agreeable but I have my sticking points, points which can make me respond with (possibly exaggerated) snappish irritation. So says the Monstrous Compendium: Graduate School Edition.

Anyway, this whole discussion has pushed a blog entry idea I've had bouncing around my head for a while, to the forefront, plus informed it with a lot of interesting perspectives. So yes, definitely glad for the chance to discuss/debate.

David Moles

Scott, can you provide a sample argument why you might not deserve the job? Just because you happened to unknowingly apply for a position for which you were more qualified than the other candidates doesn't mean you're not more qualified. Or are we postulating that each of the other quasi-qualified candidates also has some secret special skill that the department needs, only the hiring committee forgot to ask?

September Blue

While I can see what's troubling people about the language of deserving and not deserving, I'm with Scott on this one (or, at least, with what I think Scott's saying). It's not unreasonable for the hypothetical hiring committee to choose him over the competition, since he can offer a particular thing which the department needs, and which the competition can't provide; it is unreasonable to conclude from this that there exists some abstract scale of Job Market Worth on which Scott scored a 9.5 and everyone else came in somewhere below an 8.

Which isn't to say that the committee's motivations are murky and impure. We all know that they're going to get a lot of applications from people who can do the job as advertised, and we all know that among those candidates, they'll have to decide based on factors which didn't make it to the job specification as advertised. Could this person help us develop the new creative non-fiction course? Could that one take over Professor So-and-so's job in charge of X department matter without needing too much training, since Professor So-and-so wants it shifted as soon as possible? Does that one seem likely to form a coalition with disliked department members who share his/her research interests?

Like Sisyphus said, departments have histories, and they're going to make decisions based on factors we don't know about and can't plan for. It's not that Scott doesn't deserve the hypothetical job, in the sense that he fits their needs better than the other candidates do; it's just that couching things in terms of 'deserving' implies that an abstract scale of academic worth is the main governing principle behind who gets hired and who doesn't, and, well, no.

A White Bear

But, if I may ask a dumb question, why is getting a job in academia to be treated completely differently from getting any other high-stakes job anywhere else? I don't mean to be obtuse here, but unfair stuff probably happens even more outside academia, where it's considered reasonable to hire the stupid rich white guy who was in a different chapter of your fraternity. Is your point, Scott, that people shouldn't be happy and proud to get jobs under difficult and competitive circumstances? I suppose it would be obnoxious if tenure-track hires went around talking about how they were obviously the best candidate on the market that year, but that's plainly stupid and I don't know anyone that lacking in grace or self-awareness.

Rich Puchalsky

Yeah, people need to expand on what they think is wrong with "deserving".

Is it that people who think well of themselves are jerks? That was part of my earlier maximally evil advice, but I'm not sure whether it has general validity.

Is it that deserving == meritocracy, and that meritocracy is a good thing, but that since the system doesn't actually implement it, the system should be reformed if that's possible?

Is it that deserving == meritocracy, and meritocracy is a bad thing? I've been trying to break the "==" part of this one by saying that one can deserve a job on the basis of ability, but that this isn't meritocratic ability, and one can still dislike narratives that tell people that they should work harder without having to pretend that everyone is equally good at everything.

Is it that deserving == capitalist allocation == adjunctification? Here I go with Social Limits To Growth again, but even in a socialist society, there is only a limited percentage of jobs for professor-equivalents. There's no real reason to think that there would be any less competition for them. Actually, in a socialist society in which everyone was guaranteed a good education, there'd probably be more competition for them.

Adam Kotsko

AWB, Apparently you don't subscribe to the Irvine comp-lit listserv.

SEK

More later, but for the record: Adam, it's not a UCI listserv. It's a professional one, which makes the behavior all the more reprehensible.

Adam Kotsko

I was on a listserv like that once. One of the conditions was that I not talk about the conversations there publicly.

Rich Puchalsky

I was once on a listserv on which someone ended up getting a divorce because of material revealed on the listserv, even though people were supposed to not talk about the listserv conversations publicly. You should never depend on these confidentiality agreements to hold; neither should you be seen to publicly break them.

If all this is about a few people being jerks, I'm kind of disappointed. Going back to the maximally evil advice, it's possible to get equally annoyed at people who are on any of the branches. Haven't people ever heard someone complaining about their failure over and over and finally thought "OK, you're a failure at that, do something else already"? Or when people go on about how they don't deserve their success, sure it can be charming if done wittily, but if they seem to really believe it don't you kind of get the idea that they aren't going to be happy until they fail? And of course an attitude of stoicism, much less apathy, if taken too far can be the most annoying of all. An argument that is ostensibly about the academic hiring process but that's really about annoyance with jerks is a bad generalization.

SEK

To start with the last first and work back up:

Adam,

It's a listserv, not Fight Club. Were I to copy-and-paste their statements and attach their names to them, that'd be one thing. To speak generally of my annoyance with the behavior of people on a listserv -- without even naming it -- seems utterly kosher to me. Plus, as I wrote someone this weekend, I've even received emails from some of the triumphalists, who claim they didn't realize what they were saying and are mortified by their own behavior.

Rich,

I don't believe people who think well of themselves are jerks ... but I think people who broadcast their self-satisfaction are annoying, especially when they do so to people who should -- but because of market-induced sensitivity, currently can't -- know that the feeling of self-satisfaction floats upon a sea of lucky breaks.

I suppose my problem is that we know it's not a meritocracy until we succeed, at which point we believe we've earned our new positions. If it's not a meritocracy, it's not a meritocracy. Period. The end.

AWB,

I suppose it would be obnoxious if tenure-track hires went around talking about how they were obviously the best candidate on the market that year, but that's plainly stupid and I don't know anyone that lacking in grace or self-awareness.

I think falls under your "lacking in self-awareness" clause: being English Ph.D.s, they're more likely to be socially inept. (And are, who am I kidding?)

But, if I may ask a dumb question, why is getting a job in academia to be treated completely differently from getting any other high-stakes job anywhere else?

I think so. The computer programmers I've kept in touch with have risen as far as their talents and work ethic would take them ... and in a predictable manner, inasmuch as I could've told you ten years ago where they'd all be today, and that's where they'd be. The jobs are highly competitive, certainly, but they need people who can do X, and they seem to take the person who can do X best. (Granted, X is a quantifiable thing in that industry, and some people can do it better than others.)

Now for the earlier comment:

Scott, I think the language of "deserving" is really troubling here.

More and more, I'm starting to see this. It's difficult not to think of the market in these terms though, isn't it? Your internet dating analogy (banned, um, wait, wrong protocol) actually works for me, though, andd throws the questions of "fairness" and "deservedness" into relief ... but it's not a fully functional work-around for them, I don't think. You know those wonderful people who aren't single by choice, who would make great mates if only they could find the right person? Wouldn't you say they deserve to meet someone? Wouldn't you think it's unfair that the local ass who beat his ex-girlfriend found a wonderful woman to settle down with? It may not be the correct thing to think -- I'm increasingly seeing the illogic here, gut feelings notwithstanding -- but don't we often think it?

September Blue,

You pretty much nail it:

It's not that Scott doesn't deserve the hypothetical job, in the sense that he fits their needs better than the other candidates do; it's just that couching things in terms of 'deserving' implies that an abstract scale of academic worth is the main governing principle behind who gets hired and who doesn't, and, well, no.

And yet, as Tomemos pointed out in the other thread, we all have a few people who we think are more qualified for academia than others -- those people we know, given their work ethic and native intelligence, deserve jobs. I'm as guilty of this sort of thinking as the next person, but really, we need to stop thinking about the market in those terms, and start understanding it in the systemic terms Karl and adjunct whore advocated in the previous thread.

David,

Scott, can you provide a sample argument why you might not deserve the job?

I don't not deserve, I just don't deserve it more than the other candidates ... but here I am talking about it in the terms I just now rejected. Wait! A way out:

Or are we postulating that each of the other quasi-qualified candidates also has some secret special skill that the department needs, only the hiring committee forgot to ask?

Absolutely. Everyone has this other thing they do well, an extra asset available to any department that hires them. Ideally, this is revealed somewhere in the CV. But as adjunct whore pointed out earlier, many of these qualities may be intangible, the unquantifiable results of professionalization. For example: we all know a department needs one person who can massage the egos of feuding professors without sounding condescending -- a mediator, if you will, without which the department would factionalize into stagnation. But where would a candidate put that on their CV?

Tomemos,

You are even-keeled and fair-minded. Deal. I look forward to reading your further thoughts on this.

Jonathan,

This is a damn fine point, and one I hadn't considered:

But if they are all roughly equal on the publicly stated quantifiable qualifications (there's a mouthful), then the committee has to consider other factors: potential for growth, utility to the department in other ways, personality fit to the department, likely connection to the students, possibility of attracting a candidate's advisor as a guest speaker, whatever.

Seems the problem would be built into the system then. Or maybe I can back up from the stronger claim I've made and say that no two candidates are ever equally strong? (This jibes with what I wrote David above.) (And sorry to keep refering to what I've written, but this is a thought-experiment-in-process at the moment.) I think the ire of the jobless is the belief that this frequently occurs:

what might be unfair -- and certainly a better liminal case -- would be a situation in which hypothetical Scott is clearly inferior to several of the other candidates on the stated qualifications, but gets the job anyway.

I'm thinking, in particular, of Oso Raro's comment. How often do these situations arise? How often are there multiple qualified candidates but, for whatever reason, the job search is left open and is picked up again next year? (I don't know the answer, and don't want to generalize from my experience here.)

JPool,

People seriously use the term "minoritarian?"

Mostly Deleuzians, and I'd been reading Deleuzians yesterday. I should've just written "minority literatures." Stupid Deleuze.

The central issue with the job market, as I've seen it, is that it can in fact do a really poor job of matching people up with institutions (it, to continue the reification, can also do a fine job, but that's less interesting).

I'll quibble with your "central," but agree with the rest.

But the thing is, these jobs are not the best jobs that only the best people therefor desrve to get. They are simply the most prestigious or best paying.

... or they're the ones with the lightest teaching load, the best amenities, the best location, &c. All of these being relative, of course, but you see what I mean: it's not all about prestige and pay.

More on the first three comments later, as 1) I've still got to finish digesting the rest and 2) need to get to work.

adjunct whore

wow, i don't read your blog for something like twelve hours and it continues....i'm impressed by your return to clarify.

for the record, i agree with september blue as well--he/she put it quite right.

it was, it turns out, "deserve" all along for me as well. now i must go grade!

Jonathan Dresner

How often do these situations arise? How often are there multiple qualified candidates but, for whatever reason, the job search is left open and is picked up again next year?

As someone who has watched the market over the last few years, and speaking only for my own field, than answer seems to be rarely. But each time it happens, it affects dozens -- hundreds in some sub-fields -- of candidates (the ones who make the short list are most obviously affected, but not the only ones), so it's not to be taken lightly. The power struggle between departments and deans/provosts is an eternal one.... and one of the questions I ask when I'm being interviewed is how well the department gets along with the institution. I've changed my rankings of desirability based on the answer, too.

The biggest problem I've seen -- and this is something we've been discussing on H-Asia -- is searches in which the job requirements are so numerous and diverse that it's basically impossible to find fully qualified candidates (unless, and this is what we were discussing, there's someone in particular for whom the ad is written), in which case committees sometimes deadlock. Then they run the search next year without one or more of the intransigients (and that's an interesting process, putting the second committee together), and someone gets hired.

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