Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Job Market Story

Noah Smith tells his economics job market story over at Noahpinion, and it inspires me to tell one of mine.  (Bravo, Noah, not just for landing a good job, but for doing it nonrobotically.)  I have a lot of stories, because I was on the market a long, long time.

In this case, the time was December 1987, the place was Chicago, site of the annual economics meetings that year.  I had just completed my dissertation, a theoretical treatment of wage compensation for dangerous work.  (My chair was Herb Gintis, an extraordinarily generous and helpful advisor.)  I had sent out a whole slew of applications but had landed hardly any first interviews.

My plane landed in Chicago just as a powerful snowstorm was blanketing the city.  Since O’Hare closed for a while, the beginning of the meetings was disrupted, and the entire event felt a bit surreal.  I had some extra time the first morning—OK, with few interviews I had a lot of extra time all the way through—so I decided to get some exercise.  My hotel’s fitness room was shut down for renovations, and they were giving away vouchers for a health club down the street.  I went down to the concierge desk to pick up mine.

Standing next to me was a woman of about my age, also picking up a voucher.  Since neither of us quite knew where we were going, and the snow was blowing furiously in the wind, we decided to find our way together.  I asked where she was from; she said the Duke school of public policy, and she was at the meetings to recruit.  Amazing, I said, since I’m on the market, and I had applied to Duke public policy, and I was sure I would get an interview, since I am really a policy person, but I didn’t.

She asked about my dissertation, and I described it.  (The snow was fierce.)  She seemed very interested.  Why hadn’t they scheduled me, she wondered.  Then she asked what school I was from.  UMass-Amherst, I said.  There was an uncomfortable silence.  You could see her face simply drop, as if it were about to fall off.  “Um, don’t they have a lot of Marxists there?”

Well, that was that: no last minute possibility at Duke.  And it went downhill for the next half-dozen years, desperate and unproductive job-hunting with a smattering of amusing stories along the way.

The best comeback lines occur to you too late.  I wish I had calmly replied, “Don’t worry, it’s sort of like AIDS.  You can’t get it from casual contact.”


Steve said...

Your post highlights how it's a lot easier for people from the "good" schools to do things "nonrobotically": you're automatically given more credibility.

JW Mason said...

On behalf of the many brilliant UMass Marxists who you've just compared to carriers of a deadly disease, can I just say:

What the hell, Peter. Seriously, what the hell? (I'd like to say something ruder.)

Anyone who's spent time around left politics is familiar with that special brand of liberal anti-solidarity, where, faced with an attack on anyone even an inch to their left, liberals' instinct isn't to defend an ally but say, "Oh gosh no, I have nothing to do with them." But this one really takes the cake. Yeah, you were in the vicinity of radicals, but you never had any intimate intellectual contact. You always used protection so you weren't infected with any of that nasty Marx-stuff.

Me, I'd be thrilled to be teaching at a place like Evergreen. I wouldn't be pining for the Duke that got away. I wouldn't' be wishing, 25 years later, that I had cringed more abjectly when I was red-baited.

And I'll tell you something else. Ok, I don't know what things were like in the 1980s, but it is definitely not true today that you can't get a job if you admit to heterodoxy. Quite the opposite: for some schools it's a big asset, and for the majority where it's not, all the apologizing oh-I'm-not-one-of-thoseing in the world won't help. So you might as well wear it. As a matter of fact, the most recent two UMass grads to get jobs teaching economics at the PhD level (I won't name them b/c they don't want to get drawn into my stupid blogfights) were both unapologetic Marxists. Because for schools that do want that, UMass is the best. And for the ones that don't -- well, there are hundreds of places that produce mediocre mainstream economists. The people I know who've worked the hardest to package themselves as acceptable to the profession, are the ones who've done worst on the market.

And, so you were a student of Gintis. The guy whose author bios don't even mention the school he taught at for 25 years. The guy who tells audiences that he wished he'd never gone to UMass. So may have warm memos of him, but he's ashamed to have taught you. That's what you get when you start playing the I'm-not-a-nasty-radical game.

chrismealy said...

If you ever want to get your revenge on Gintis just read his reviews on Amazon. It's not pretty. You'll find he has plenty of nice things to say about nice folks like Charles Murray and Cleon Skousen, and not much nice to say about anyone an inch to his left. I'm pretty sure his current project is to synthesize the social sciences in a defense of feudalism.

I bet if he read Corey Robin's book his brain would explode.

Peter Dorman said...

JWM: Please reset your irony/humor dial. I wanted to make fun of treating Marxism like it was a dread disease and that I needed to be quarantined.

Second point: I spent eight hard years on the temp labor market, packing up my stuff into a U-Haul in the spring and driving off to my next gig. Some of it is my own fault, of course, but still....

Third: Herb Gintis was a fantastic dissertation advisor for me. I want that on the record. Feel free to criticize his other words & deeds.