On the quality of matches

Apr 11 JDN 2459316

Many situations in the real world involve matching people to other people: Dating, job hunting, college admissions, publishing, organ donation.

Alvin Roth won his Nobel Prize for his work on matching algorithms. I have nothing to contribute to improving his algorithm; what baffles me is that we don’t use it more often. It would probably feel too impersonal to use it for dating; but why don’t we use it for job hunting or college admissions? (We do use it for organ donation, and that has saved thousands of lives.)

In this post I will be looking at matching in a somewhat different way. Using a simple model, I’m going to illustrate some of the reasons why it is so painful and frustrating to try to match and keep getting rejected.

Suppose we have two sets of people on either side of a matching market: X and Y. I’ll denote an arbitrarily chosen person in X as x, and an arbitrarily chosen person in Y as y. There’s no reason the two sets can’t have overlap or even be the same set, but making them different sets makes the model as general as possible.

Each person in X wants to match with a person in Y, and vice-versa. But they don’t merely want to accept any possible match; they have preferences over which matches would be better or worse.

In general, we could say that people have some kind of utility function: Ux:Y->R and Uy:X->R that maps from possible match partners to the utility of such a match. But that gets very complicated very fast, because it raises the question of when you should keep searching, and when you should stop searching and accept what you have. (There’s a whole literature of search theory on this.)

For now let’s take the simplest possible case, and just say that there are some matches each person will accept, and some they will reject. This can be seen as a special case where the utility functions Ux and Uy always yield a result of 1 (accept) or 0 (reject).

This defines a set of acceptable partners for each person: A(x) is the set of partners x will accept: {y in Y|Ux(y) = 1} and A(y) is the set of partners y will accept: {x in X|Uy(x) = 1}

Then, the set of mutual matches than x can actually get is the set of ys that x wants, which also want x back: M(x) = {y in A(x)|x in A(y)}

Whereas, the set of mutual matches that y can actually get is the set of xs that y wants, which also want y back: M(y) = {x in A(y)|y in A(x)}

This relation is mutual by construction: If x is in M(y), then y is in M(x).

But this does not mean that the sets must be the same size.

For instance, suppose that there are three people in X, x1, x2, x3, and three people in Y, y1, y2, y3.

Let’s say that the acceptable matches are as follows:

A(x1) = {y1, y2, y3}

A(x2) = {y2, y3}

A(x3) = {y2, y3}

A(y1) = {x1,x2,x3}

A(y2) = {x1,x2}

A(y3) = {x1}

This results in the following mutual matches:

M(x1) = {y1, y2, y3}

M(y1) = {x1}

M(x2) = {y2}

M(y2) = {x1, x2}

M(x3) = {}

M(y3) = {x1}

x1 can match with whoever they like; everyone wants to match with them. x2 can match with y2. But x3, despite having the same preferences as x2, and being desired by y3, can’t find any mutual matches at all, because the one person who wants them is a person they don’t want.

y1 can only match with x1, but the same is true of y3. So they will be fighting over x1. As long as y2 doesn’t also try to fight over x1, x2 and y2 will be happy together. Yet x3 will remain alone.

Note that the number of mutual matches has no obvious relation with the number of individually acceptable partners. x2 and x3 had the same number of acceptable partners, but x2 found a mutual match and x3 didn’t. y1 was willing to accept more potential partners than y3, but got the same lone mutual match in the end. y3 was only willing to accept one partner, but will get a shot at x1, the one that everyone wants.

One thing is true: Adding another acceptable partner will never reduce your number of mutual matches, and removing one will never increase it. But often changing your acceptable partners doesn’t have any effect on your mutual matches at all.

Now let’s consider what it must feel like to be x1 versus x3.

For x1, the world is their oyster; they can choose whoever they want and be guaranteed to get a match. Life is easy and simple for them; all they have to do is decide who they want most and that will be it.

For x3, life is an endless string of rejection and despair. Every time they try to reach out to suggest a match with someone, they are rebuffed. They feel hopeless and alone. They feel as though no one would ever actually want them—even though in fact there is someone who wants them, it’s just not someone they were willing to consider.

This is of course a very simple and small-scale model; there are only six people in it, and they each only say yes or no. Yet already I’ve got x1 who feels like a rock star and x3 who feels utterly hopeless if not worthless.

In the real world, there are so many more people in the system that the odds that no one is in your mutual match set are negligible. Almost everyone has someone they can match with. But some people have many more matches than others, and that makes life much easier for the ones with many matches and much harder for the ones with fewer.

Moreover, search costs then become a major problem: Even knowing that in all probability there is a match for you somewhere out there, how do you actually find that person? (And that’s not even getting into the difficulty of recognizing a good match when you see it; in this simple model you know immediately, but in the real world it can take a remarkably long time.)

If we think of the acceptable partner sets as preferences, they may not be within anyone’s control; you want what you want. But if we instead characterize them as decisions, the results are quite differentand I think it’s easy to see them, if nothing else, as the decision of how high to set your standards.

This raises a question: When we are searching and not getting matches, should we lower our standards and add more people to our list of acceptable partners?

This simple model would seem to say that we should always do that—there’s no downside, since the worst that can happen is nothing. And x3 for instance would be much happier if they were willing to lower their standards and accept y1. (Indeed, if they did so, there would be a way to pair everyone off happily: x1 with y3, x2 with y2, and x3 with y1.)

But in the real world, searching is often costly: There is at least the involved, and often a literal application or submission fee; but perhaps worst of all is the crushing pain of rejection. Under those circumstances, adding another acceptable partner who is not a mutual match will actually make you worse off.

That’s pretty much what the job market has been for me for the last six months. I started out with the really good matches: GiveWell, the Oxford Global Priorities Institute, Purdue, Wesleyan, Eastern Michigan University. And after investing considerable effort into getting those applications right, I made it as far as an interview at all those places—but no further.

So I extended my search, applying to dozens more places. I’ve now applied to over 100 positions. I knew that most of them were not good matches, because there simply weren’t that many good matches to be found. And the result of all those 100 applications has been precisely 0 interviews. Lowering my standards accomplished absolutely nothing. I knew going in that these places were not a good fit for me—and it looks like they all agreed.

It’s possible that lowering my standards in some different way might have worked, but even this is not clear: I’ve already been willing to accept much lower salaries than a PhD in economics ought to entitle, and included positions in my search that are only for a year or two with no job security, and applied to far-flung locales across the globe that I don’t know if I’d really be willing to move to.

Honestly at this point I’ve only been using the following criteria: (1) At least vaguely related to my field (otherwise they wouldn’t want me anyway), (2) a higher salary than I currently get as a grad student (otherwise why bother?), (3) a geographic location where homosexuality is not literally illegal and an institution that doesn’t actively discriminate against LGBT employees (this rules out more than you’d think—there are at least three good postings I didn’t apply to on these grounds), (4) in a region that speaks a language I have at least some basic knowledge of (i.e. preferably English, but also allowing Spanish, French, German, or Japanese) (5) working conditions that don’t involve working more than 40 hours per week (which has severely detrimental health effects, even ignoring my disability which would compound the effects), and (6) not working for a company that is implicated in large-scale criminal activity (as a remarkable number of major banks have in fact been implicated). I don’t feel like these are unreasonably high standards, and yet so far I have failed to land a match.

What’s more, the entire process has been emotionally devastating. While others seem to be suffering from pandemic burnout, I don’t think I’ve made it that far; I think I’d be just as burnt out even if there were no pandemic, simply from how brutal the job market has been.

Why does rejection hurt so much? Why does being turned down for a date, or a job, or a publication feel so utterly soul-crushing? When I started putting together this model I had hoped that thinking of it in terms of match-sets might actually help reduce that feeling, but instead what happened is that it offered me a way of partly explaining that feeling (much as I did in my post on Bayesian Impostor Syndrome).

What is the feeling of rejection? It is the feeling of expending search effort to find someone in your acceptable partner set—and then learning that you were not in their acceptable partner set, and thus you have failed to make a mutual match.

I said earlier that x1 feels like a rock star and x3 feels hopeless. This is because being present in someone else’s acceptable partner set is a sign of status—the more people who consider you an acceptable partner, the more you are “worth” in some sense. And when it’s something as important as a romantic partner or a career, that sense of “worth” is difficult to circumscribe into a particular domain; it begins to bleed outward into a sense of your overall self-worth as a human being.

Being wanted by someone you don’t want makes you feel superior, like they are “beneath” you; but wanting someone who doesn’t want you makes you feel inferior, like they are “above” you. And when you are applying for jobs in a market with a Beveridge Curve as skewed as ours, or trying to get a paper or a book published in a world flooded with submissions, you end up with a lot more cases of feeling inferior than cases of feeling superior. In fact, I even applied for a few jobs that I felt were “beneath” my level—they didn’t take me either, perhaps because they felt I was overqualified.

In such circumstances, it’s hard not to feel like I am the problem, like there is something wrong with me. Sometimes I can convince myself that I’m not doing anything wrong and the market is just exceptionally brutal this year. But I really have no clear way of distinguishing that hypothesis from the much darker possibility that I have done something terribly wrong that I cannot correct and will continue in this miserable and soul-crushing fruitless search for months or even years to come. Indeed, I’m not even sure it’s actually any better to know that you did everything right and still failed; that just makes you helpless instead of defective. It might be good for my self-worth to know that I did everything right; but it wouldn’t change the fact that I’m in a miserable situation I can’t get out of. If I knew I were doing something wrong, maybe I could actually fix that mistake in the future and get a better outcome.

As it is, I guess all I can do is wait for more opportunities and keep trying.

What would a better job market look like?

Sep 13 JDN 2459106

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but getting a job is really hard. Indeed, much harder than it seems like it ought to be.

Having all but completed my PhD, I am now entering the job market. The job market for economists is quite different from the job market most people deal with, and these differences highlight some potential opportunities for improving job matching in our whole economy—which, since employment is such a large part of our lives, could have wide-ranging benefits for our society.

The most obvious difference is that the job market for economists is centralized: Job postings are made through the American Economic Association listing of Job Openings for Economists (often abbrievated AEA JOE); in a typical year about 4,000 jobs are posted there. All of them have approximately the same application deadline, near the end of the year. Then, after applying to various positions, applicants get interviewed in rapid succession, all at the annual AEA conference. Then there is a matching system, where applicants get to send two “signals” indicating their top choices and then offers are made.

This year of course is different, because of COVID-19. The conference has been canceled, with all of its presentations moved online; interviews will also be conducted online. Perhaps more worrying, the number of postings has been greatly reduced, and based on past trends may be less than half of the usual number. (The number of applicants may also be reduced, but it seems unlikely to drop as much as the number of postings does.)

There are a number of flaws in even this system. First, it’s too focused on academia; very few private-sector positions use the AEA JOE system, and almost no government positions do. So those of us who are not so sure we want to stay in academia forever end up needing to deal with both this system and the conventional system in parallel. Second, I don’t understand why they use this signaling system and not a deferred-acceptance matching algorithm. I should be able to indicate more about my preferences than simply what my top two choices are—particularly when most applicants apply to over 100 positions. Third, it isn’t quite standardized enough—some positions do have earlier deadlines or different application materials, so you can’t simply put together one application packet and send it to everyone at once.

Still, it’s quite obvious that this system is superior to the decentralized job market that most people deal with. Indeed, this becomes particularly obvious when one is participating in both markets at once, as I am. The decentralized market has a wide range of deadlines, where upon seeing an application you may need to submit to it within that week, or you may have several months to respond. Nearly all applications require a resume, but different institutions will expect different content on it. Different applications may require different materials: Cover letters, references, writing samples, and transcripts are all things that some firms will want and others won’t.

Also, this is just my impression from a relatively small sample, but I feel like the AEA JOE listings are more realistic, in the following sense: They don’t all demand huge amounts of prior experience, and those that do ask for prior experience are either high-level positions where that’s totally reasonable, or are willing to substitute education for experience. For private-sector job openings you basically have to subtract three years from whatever amount of experience they say they require, because otherwise you’d never have anywhere you could apply to. (Federal government jobs are a weird case here; they all say they require a lot of experience at a specific government pay grade, but from talking with those who have dealt with the system before, they are apparently willing to make lots of substitutions—private-sector jobs, education, and even hobbies can sometimes substitute.)

I think this may be because the decentralized market has to some extent unraveled. The job market is the epitome of a matching market; unraveling in a matching market occurs when there is fierce competition for a small number of good candidates or, conversely, a small number of good openings. Each firm has the incentive to make a binding offer earlier than the others, with a short deadline so that candidates don’t have time to shop around. As firms compete with each other, they start making deadlines earlier and earlier until candidates feel like they are in a complete crapshoot: An offer made on Monday might be gone by Friday, and you have no way of knowing if you should accept it now or wait for a better one to come along. This is a Tragedy of the Commons: Given what other firms are doing, each firm benefits from making an earlier binding offer. But once they all make early offers, that benefit disappears and the result just makes the whole system less efficient.

The centralization of the AEA JOE market prevents this from happening: Everyone has common deadlines and does their interviews at the same time. Each institution may be tempted to try to break out of the constraints of the centralized market, but they know that if they do, they will be punished by receiving fewer applicants.

The fact that the centralized market is more efficient is likely a large part of why economics PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate of any PhD graduates and nearly the lowest unemployment rate of any job sector whatsoever. In some sense we should expect this: If anyone understands how to make employment work, it should be economists. Noah Smith wrote in 2013 (and I suppose I took it to heart): “If you get a PhD, get an economics PhD.” I think PhD graduates are the right comparison group here: If we looked at the population as a whole, employment rates and salaries for economists look amazing, but that isn’t really fair since it’s so much harder to become an economist than it is to get most other jobs. But I don’t think it’s particularly easier to get a PhD in physics or biochemistry than to get one in economics, and yet economists still have a lower unemployment rate than physicists or biochemists. (Though it’s worth noting that any PhD—yes, even in the humanities—will give you a far lower risk of unemployment than the general population.) The fact that we have AEA JOE and they don’t may be a major factor here.


So, here’s my question: Why don’t we do this in more job markets? It would be straightforward enough to do this for all PhD graduates, at least—actually my understanding is that some other disciplines do have centralized markets similar to the one in economics, but I’m not sure how common this is.

The federal government could relatively easily centralize its own job market as well; maybe not for positions that need to be urgently filled, but anything that can wait several months would be worth putting into a centralized system that has deadlines once or twice a year.

But what about the private sector, which after all is where most people work? Could we centralize that system as well?

It’s worth noting the additional challenges that immediately arise: Many positions need to be filled immediately, and centralization would make that impossible. There are thousands of firms that would need to be coordinated (there are at least 100,000 firms in the US with 100 or more employees). There are millions of different jobs to be filled, requiring a variety of different skills. In an average month over 5 million jobs are filled in the United States.

Most people want a job near where they live, so part of the solution might be to centralize only jobs within a certain region, such as a particular metro area. But if we are limited to open positions of a particular type within a particular city, there might not be enough openings at any given time to be worth centralizing. And what about applicants who don’t care so much about geography? Should they be applying separately to each regional market?

Yet even with all this in mind, I think some degree of centralization would be feasible and worthwhile. If nothing else, I think standardizing deadlines and application materials could make a significant difference—it’s far easier to apply to many places if they all use the same application and accept them at the same time.

Another option would be to institute widespread active labor market policies, which are a big part of why #ScandinaviaIsBetter. Denmark especially invests heavily in such programs, which provide training and job matching for unemployed citizens. It is no coincidence that Denmark has kept their unemployment rate under 7% even through the worst of the Great Recession. The US unemployment rate fluctuates wildly with the business cycle, while most of Europe has steadier but higher unemployment. Indeed, the lowest unemployment rates in France over the last 30 years have exceeded the highest rates in Denmark over the same period. Denmark spends a lot on their active labor market programs, but I think they’re getting their money’s worth.

Such a change would make our labor markets more efficient, matching people to jobs that fit them better, increasing productivity and likely decreasing turnover. Wages probably wouldn’t change much, but working in a better job for the same wage is still a major improvement in your life. Indeed, job satisfaction is one of the strongest predictors of life satisfaction, which isn’t too surprising given how much of our lives we spend at work.