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.

If you really want grad students to have better mental health, remove all the high-stakes checkpoints

Post 260: Oct 14 JDN 2458406

A study was recently published in Nature Biotechnology showing clear evidence of a mental health crisis among graduate students (no, I don’t know why they picked the biotechnology imprint—I guess it wasn’t good enough for Nature proper?). This is only the most recent of several studies showing exceptionally high rates of mental health issues among graduate students.

I’ve seen universities do a lot of public hand-wringing and lip service about this issue—but I haven’t seen any that were seriously willing to do what it takes to actually solve the problem.

I think this fact became clearest to me when I was required to fill out an official “Individual Development Plan” form as a prerequisite for my advancement to candidacy, which included one question about “What are you doing to support your own mental health and work/life balance?”

The irony here is absolutely excruciating, because advancement to candidacy has been overwhelmingly my leading source of mental health stress for at least the last six months. And it is only one of several different high-stakes checkpoints that grad students are expected to complete, always threatened with defunding or outright expulsion from the graduate program if the checkpoint is not met by a certain arbitrary deadline.

The first of these was the qualifying exams. Then comes advancement to candidacy. Then I have to complete and defend a second-year paper, then a third-year paper. Finally I have to complete and defend a dissertation, and then go onto the job market and go through a gauntlet of applications and interviews. I can’t think of any other time in my life when I was under this much academic and career pressure this consistently—even finishing high school and applying to college wasn’t like this.

If universities really wanted to improve my mental health, they would find a way to get rid of all that.

Granted, a single university does not have total control over all this: There are coordination problems between universities regarding qualifying exams, advancement, and dissertation requirements. One university that unilaterally tried to remove all these would rapidly lose prestige, as it would not be regarded as “rigorous” to reduce the pressure on your grad students. But that itself is precisely the problem—we have equated “rigor” with pressuring grad students until they are on the verge of emotional collapse. Universities don’t seem to know how to make graduate school difficult in the ways that would actually encourage excellence in research and teaching; they simply know how to make it difficult in ways that destroy their students psychologically.

The job market is even more complicated; in the current funding environment, it would be prohibitively expensive to open up enough faculty positions to actually accept even half of all graduating PhDs to tenure-track jobs. Probably the best answer here is to refocus graduate programs on supporting employment outside academia, recognizing both that PhD-level skills are valuable in many workplaces and that not every grad student really wants to become a professor.

But there are clearly ways that universities could mitigate these effects, and they don’t seem genuinely interested in doing so. They could remove the advancement exam, for example; you could simply advance to candidacy as a formality when your advisor decides you are ready, never needing to actually perform a high-stakes presentation before a committee—because what the hell does that accomplish anyway? Speaking of advisors, they could have a formalized matching process that starts with interviewing several different professors and being matched to the one that best fits your goals and interests, instead of expecting you to reach out on your own and hope for the best. They could have you write a dissertation, but not perform a “dissertation defense”—because, again, what can they possibly learn from forcing you to present in a high-stakes environment that they couldn’t have learned from reading your paper and talking with you about it over several months?

They could adjust or even remove funding deadlines—especially for international students. Here at UCI at least, once you are accepted to the program, you are ostensibly guaranteed funding for as long as you maintain reasonable academic progress—but then they define “reasonable progress” in such a way that you have to form an advancement committee, fill out forms, write a paper, and present before a committee all by a certain date or your funding is in jeopardy. Residents of California (which includes all US students who successfully established residency after a full year) are given more time if we need it—but international students aren’t. How is that fair?

The unwillingness of universities to take such actions clearly shows that their commitment to improving students’ mental health is paper-thin. They are only willing to help their students improve their work-life balance as long as it doesn’t require changing anything about the graduate program. They will provide us with counseling services and free yoga classes, but they won’t seriously reduce the pressure they put on us at every step of the way.
I understand that universities are concerned about protecting their prestige, but I ask them this: Does this really improve the quality of your research or teaching output? Do you actually graduate better students by selecting only the ones who can survive being emotionally crushed? Do all these arbitrary high-stakes performances actually result in greater advancement of human knowledge?

Or is it perhaps that you yourselves were put through such hazing rituals years ago, and now your cognitive dissonance won’t let you admit that it was all for naught? “This must be worth doing, or else they wouldn’t have put me through so much suffering!” Are you trying to transfer your own psychological pain onto your students, lest you be forced to face it yourself?