Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Meritocracy, Lottery, Game: Notes on the Academic Job Market

with 5 comments

I’ve been puttering around on Twitter this afternoon thinking through my sense that framing academic job searches as a “lottery” might actually encourage, rather than combat, the cruel optimism involved in the process. The commonplace description of the market as a “lottery” has emerged in response to the framing of academia as a “market” or even as a “meritocracy,” both of which suggest some rationalistic evaluation of a candidate’s value vis-à-vis the other candidates, with the “best” candidate ultimately being selected. The market/meritocracy framing is naturally a source of anxiety for academic job-seekers, to which the lottery framing is experienced as a relief (especially for those who have been through one or more cycles without finding tenure-track employment): not getting a job isn’t “failure,” it’s the arbitrary outcome of a random and capricious system. That the applicants-to-job ratio for the most desirable jobs is now in the many-hundreds-to-one undoubtedly fuels this pervasive sense that all you can do is hope your name is the one that gets pulled out of the hat.

But the lottery framing, despite its comforts and its useful provocations, also has its limits, including some conceptual problems that may cause more harm than good in prospective job seekers. Some of this can be seen from the thought experiment of simply taking the lottery idea seriously. People use the idea of the lottery as a critique of a logic of merit and moral desert — but, perversely, nothing could be more fair than random allocation by lottery. (This contradiction is why 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.)

In reality, academic jobs aren’t really distributed at random at all, but according to a network of preexisting conditions that are both “earned” and unearned; some of these conditions look a lot like “merit” (that’s great that she got hired, she does such good work!) while other parts of it look a lot like “privilege” (of course he got that job, he’s wealthy, white, and able-bodied from an Ivy). While of course it is impossible to predict the outcomes of any individual person on the market — in no small part because there are now so few jobs that no one, no matter how talented or privileged, is a “sure thing” — it’s nonetheless obvious that some people have skills, advantages, resources, and networks to draw on that others don’t, and that academic job market outcomes reflect these inequities. To the extent that the academic job market is a lottery, then, it’s a cosmic one, as much about the luck of birth and brain chemistry and the quirks of your personal history as anything else.

It just as surely isn’t absolutely irrelevant what you do on in your job letter or application materials, as it would be if the academic job market were a lottery; in fact an entire industry has now sprung up around giving panicked Ph.D. job applicants advice on how to perfect their applications. Again, in a market this bad there are no sure things and no silver bullets, but there are still things in preparing your application (and in building your teaching and research profile more generally) that can be done better or worse. On the other side of the search committee people are making decisions based on what they think will improve their situations in their departments; as an applicant you can make appeals to those people in ways that are more or less likely to be successful.

So as a job market applicant you start with a base of resources and strategies that give you better or worse “chances” than others. This is then all filtered through the genuinely random matrix of whatever departments happen to be hiring in your particular subfield in a given year, repeated each year until the candidate is either hired for a sustainable job or else quits the profession. This kind of truly blind luck now structures the process to such an overwhelming degree as to threaten to swamp resources and strategy altogether (hence, again, the appeal of the lottery framing) — after all, there’s probably no amount of preparation or pedigree as good as having your advisor’s best friend in the world on the search committee, especially in a world with so many qualified applicants where the number of jobs has constricted this tightly. But it’s a mistake to think that because the market is conditioned by luck it’s reducible to luck, or absolutely irrational in some maximum sense. There’s a lot about the way the academic job market functions that is quite rational, including (yes!) some genuinely meritocratic elements along the way.

If the rejected thesis is that the academic job market is meritocracy, and the failed antithesis is that the academic job market is a lottery, my suggestion today was that perhaps the proper synthesis here is conceptualizing the academic job market as a game. Outcomes in games are structured by resources, strategies, and luck; games involve competition between parties with differing capabilities, using different strategies, interacting with a set of rules that may not make sense, much less be desirable, rational, or fair. In RISK you array your given armies from an arbitrary starting position as best as you can, and then you start to roll the dice. In poker you play the hand you draw as best you can, given your strategy and skill level and the odds of success. In many games navigating the ruleset — working the refs — is itself the crucial part of the competition; in other games, cheating is allowed, as long as you do it right (like our corrupt search committee filled with advisor-BFFs).

With the people I was chatting with I passed through a bunch of games on Twitter, including Settlers of Catan, Dungeons and Dragons, Oregon Trail, even beloved-catastrophe-machine-of-my-childhood Fireball Island. But I’d propose tonight that the game the academic job market is most like may be Scrabble. Players in Scrabble have preexisting resources (a vocabulary, which is built out of everything from the socioeconomic profile of your childhood home to deliberate, calculated memorization of the official wordlist), a tile-placement strategy (play the biggest word you can each time vs. limiting your opponent’s options vs. holding out for bingos or bonus tiles, etc. etc.), and blind luck (even the best player in the world can draw IIIEEUU.) The rules in Scrabble are fair, but totally arbitrary, with letter distributions and relative values that make little internal sense, tons of legal words that should be disallowed, and tons of disallowed words that should be legal. For some players Scrabble is a game of pure intellect; for others it’s the art of the bluff.

The game framing has, I think, a couple of advantages over the lottery framing for discussions of the academic job market. First, it’s simply a more accurate representation of how the academic job market works — no small thing. Second, it suggests the genuine importance of starting position and strategy in pursuing academic jobs without tipping us back into meritocracy, because games don’t reflect some transcendent value or essential “merit,” and because no matter how “good” you are or think you are you still need to know the rules and get some good rolls of the dice if you hope to “win.” (TINY UPDATE: I make this point a bit more strongly in the comments, I think: One of the things that I think is most valuable about the “game” frame for the academic job market is that you can do everything right in a game and still lose.) Third, games call our attention back to probability and prediction as they manifest in the academic job market; there are always outliers, upsets, and million-to-one lucky breaks, but all the same we can look realistically at a person’s poker hand and evaluate whether they should raise, see, or fold. Sometimes we find ourselves in gaming positions from which we just can’t win, and there’s no amount of either luck or “merit” that can save us. Likewise, calling the academic job market a lottery totally erases the real costs of entry, because lottery tickets are cheap and there’s another drawing every few days — while re-understanding it as a game reminds us that the process takes a long time, takes a lot of work, is a competition but not a fair one, doesn’t say anything meaningful about your ultimate value as person, and it isn’t worth continuing if it makes you miserable. You might as well go ahead and enter a lottery, why not; you only play a game if you’re going to get something out of the experience.

If I had an overarching piece of meta-advice for job applicants I think it would be to try to analyze the academic job market and your position within it as a player in a game: know the rules, understand your position, figure out how to get the best possible outcome from your current position and then make your next moves accordingly. That could mean staying on the path you’re already on, it could mean doubling down on a risk you think might pay off, it could mean “folding” and finding another line of work entirely. Maybe it means forging new alliances with other players; maybe it means changing the rules, finding loopholes, knocking over the table. For the would-be grad student, it could mean that the only winning move is not to play. But apprehending the academic job market through the lens of games, I hope, might push us back from the conceptual errors of both meritocracy (it’s just about working really hard and being the cream of the crop) and lottery (there’s nothing you can do, it’s all just random) towards a recentering of pragmatism, agency, and strategic thinking. The idea, in any event, seemed to be worth writing up, if only to think about it some more.

5 Responses

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  1. I think you might be right about the game framing, but you are kind of glossing over one really essential part of the process: the rules. You say, one should “know the rules”, but this is where it gets really tricky. As with game theory (in this case Salen/Zimmerman), there are three kinds of rules – operational, constituative and unwritten. Operational rules are given in how a committee runs a search, how many entries are possible (all potential candidates) vs. how many positions there are, how attractive a position is, that a decision should be based on merit but is also dependent on other factors etc. Constituative rules are stuff like correct grammar for the letter, paying the postage when mailing it, correct formatting, keeping the due date etc. … but here is the kicker: the unwritten rules – the shit you can never really know and prepare for – that is what will screw you over. You don’t know that the prof on the committee had a student that worked in a similar field and that he absolutely hates, thus throwing you out by association of fields. You don’t know that the head of the committee is just looking for a hire that is safe and will not threaten her power base at the department. You don’t know that Prof A and Prof B are really having an affair and are now battling over who gets to be on top … none of the interdepartmental or intra-field politics are known to you. And this is how they make decisions. Got 300 applications? Cut all applicants whose names start with a “B” because I have an ex-wife named “Brigit” and hate the letter… These unwritten rules are what makes it so hard to play the game. And really, once you are at this stage, not playing at all is not going to work either. Because outside the academic market, you are too old, too educated and too much into your own shit to really become a player for the “free market.” Sorry, third year on the wagon and hating every minute of this game, just don’t see a good way to quit it.

    XL

    September 30, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    • I think that’s right — there are rules we can know and rules we can’t know and you can only control for so much. (You can direct the perfect SLAC-oriented letter to a SLAC department that thinks of itself as research-centered; you can direct the perfect research letter to an R1 that’s undergoing cuts and transition to a teaching-intensive curriculum.) One of the things that I think is most valuable about the “game” frame for the AJM, which seems not to have quite made it into the post, is that you can do everything right in a game and still lose.

      Good luck in your search. I’m sorry it’s still going on…

      gerrycanavan

      September 30, 2014 at 6:30 pm

      • Just to add to that, one thing that was probably in the back of my mind here was the Ian Bogost post a lot of people didn’t like, but I did: “The Oppose of Good Fortune Is Bad Fortune.” His take on it is a bit different than what I write here but the idea of understanding academic job-seekers as agents is key to both.

        gerrycanavan

        September 30, 2014 at 6:41 pm

  2. MARIA DANIELS: Get out of it.
    CEDRIC DANIELS: How do I do that?
    MARIA: I don’t know. But you can’t lose if you don’t play.
    CEDRIC: I always heard it that you can’t win if you don’t play.
    […]
    MARIA: The game is rigged. But you cannot lose if you do not play.

    — The Wire 1.2, “The Detail”

    Stephen Frug

    October 1, 2014 at 7:32 am

  3. […] market as a kind of battle royale for tickets onto the Titanic. But in a really insightful piece, “Meritocracy, Lottery, Game: Notes on the Academic Job Market,” Gerry Canavan offers a much more useful […]


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