Sunday, December 30, 2007

Have You Ever in Your Life Seen So Many Economists...?

I'll get back to taxes soon, but I have been too busy to do much reading of the literature partially because I am preparing for a trip to New Orleans to attend the Allied Social Science Association's (ASSA) annual conference. This is primarily a conference for the American Economics Association (AEA) and it is huge. I was completely astounded the first time I attended it, back in 1999 when it was held in New York City. Apparently, for some unknown reason, attendance for this year's conference is much bigger than normal. So if you have ever wanted to find yourself in a crowd with literally thousands of economists (the horror....the horror...), get thee to the Big Easy January 4, 5 and 6. Or just keep tuned to this space, as I hope to do just a little bit of blogging from there. For you OSU students thinking of possibly pursuing a career in academics - here is a little inside look at how the sausage is made.

The reason I am going is because the Economics Department at OSU is hiring for two replacement positions and the main job market for mew economists is at the ASSA meetings. It works like this. By mutual agreement, all jobs for economists are listed in the AEA's Job Openings for Economists. The main ones (the ones with all most of the new jobs for a given academic year) are published in September, October and November. Newly minted PhDs (or those anticipating their PhDs by September) apply for jobs and, if selected, have initial interviews at the ASSA meetings. These are usually 30 to 45 minute meetings, in hotel rooms, where the candidate gets a brief opportunity to talk about their dissertation research, their teaching experience and themselves, and the department gets to tell the candidate a little bit about the wonders of life there. So, on top of thousands of regular attendees at the ASSA meeting, there are hundreds of (mostly) 25 to 35 year-olds running around looking anxious and stressed. You can tell who they are because they are the ones wearing the brand-new suits. I had 36 interviews in a four-day stretch when I was coming out of grad school and it is one of the worst experiences of my life. The interviews themselves are usually cordial and friendly, but the process is grueling: you are constantly stressed, tired from running from hotel to hotel and trying to keep your thoughts straight. You feel like a piece of meat being poked and proded and evaluated.

After the meetings are over, departments usually invite their top 3 to 5 candidates out to the campus for 'campus visits.' These are also gruelling: lots of travel in winter, all day interviews, hotel rooms and more travel. A typical visit starts before dawn for breakfast, meetings with faculty and deans, lunch, more meetings, a presentation of some part of your dissertation and then dinner. I had seven of these in a row and kept getting stuck with weather. Finally, top candidates are made offers, most of which expire in about a week.

Many economists are very proud of this market, considering it highly efficient. But you have already probably spotted the problem: with so many departments and so many candidates, finding the right matches is often confounded by the quick timing of it all. I had an offer that expired before another very attractive job was even making an offer, so I had to decide if I should take it or leave it in hopes the other place would make me an offer (I took it and it was a good thing: the other place decided not to make any offers). I had another offer on the table, however, that I didn't really want because of location - it turns out there was a woman from U of Virginia who really wanted the job and may have well been offered it if I had turned them down straight away, but I did not and she had to take another job. So the outcomes are decidedly not efficient.

So here I go off to sit in a hotel room for three days and interview 32 people. Though the stress is gone (whew!) the process is no less exhausting. And the worst part is if I even have the energy to go out and find a nice place for dinner - inevitably the place will be filled with economists loudly conversing about the marginal gain from spending the extra $10 for the better bottle of wine and the Pareto optimal allocation of hors d'Ĺ“uvres. Oy.


Unknown said...

Have... er... fun?

Jeff Alworth said...

Fascinating post. I wonder if it will be less anxious being on the other end. Though it will be a different kind of anxiety, some percentage of the people who come in will be decidely not qualified or appropriate, and that produces its own anxiety. Sitting in judgment isn't always so delightful. At least when you were the interviewee, you knew the candidate would be good.