From a distance, I’ve always looked at the academic job 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 metaphor.
Most people talk about getting an academic job in one of two ways. Some think of the job market as a great meritocracy—your advisor, for instance, may have said something like, “Oh don’t worry, there are always jobs for the people who do great work.” This, of course, is false. There are fewer jobs than there are great grad students, so some great grad students are definitely not going to find tenure track work. Others describe the job market as a sort of lottery—whether or not you get a job is just a matter of luck! This, Canavan argues, is equally false. Luck is a factor, to be sure, but it isn’t the only one.
Rather than thinking of the job market as a meritocracy or as a lottery, Canavan suggests that we think of it as a game:
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.
[…] 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 a 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.
This framing makes a lot of sense to me. And as Canavan points out, it’s much more helpful to the job seeker:
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.” […] 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.
If the job market is a game and you want to win, then you’d better take a sober look at your hand, think long and hard about the rules, and come up with a decent strategy.
One thing I might add is that the game metaphor also helps us see the job market as something that could be improved. If we view the market as a system of pure luck, then there’s nothing we can do to fix it. And if we think of it as a meritocracy, then we don’t have any reason to. But if the job market is a game, structured, as Canavan says, by “a set of rules that may not make sense, much less be desirable, rational, or fair,” then those in positions of power in the academy (including people on hiring committees) could work to change the rules. In large and small ways they could work to make it a more rational and fair game.
I highly recommend reading the whole piece. And godspeed to everyone playing!