The Economics PhD Job Market As a Reality-Distortion Field: STEM PhDs, We Made a Bad Career Move

Noah Smith, who just took a faculty position at Stony Brook University, describes the job market for economics PhDs; I’m assuming his description is reasonably accurate. It’s a little different than the one for STEM PhDs (boldface mine):

The Job Market is the main process by which PhD economists get jobs, though not the only process. There are plenty of jobs outside the Job Market, which you get by applying in the normal way (cold calling, resume mailing, connections, etc.). But the Job Market has three advantages, namely:

1. The job advertisement, application, and interview processes are all centralized,

2. You get the resources of your academic department to help you send out your applications, and

3. You are almost completely assured of getting some sort of job at the end of the process.

Jobs that are included in the Job Market are almost all posted on one website: Job Openings for Economists, which is run by the American Economic Association. You find the jobs you want to apply for, you send a list of these to your department, and you find three or four people to write you letters of recommendation.

The department then does two things. The administrative people forward your letters to the employers, and the Placement Coordinator tries to help identify good targets to call and recommend you directly….

After applications go out, employers contact grad students for interviews. These interviews take place at the AEA’s Annual Meeting in early January, which is a gigantic confab where most of the economists in the country go to eat free food and hobnob. As an interviewee, you generally don’t have time to go to any of the presentations or speeches; you’re running back and forth from hotel to hotel, going to interview after interview. This year’s AEA Meeting was in Chicago.

You then wait a week or two, and the employers who are interested in you call you back and schedule a flyout. Flyouts, which happen in February and March, involve going to the place, meeting the people, getting taken to dinner, and presenting your research. After that, offers go out.

There is also something called the “Secondary Market” or “scramble,” in which people who don’t get jobs through the aforementioned process get matched with employers who couldn’t find anyone to fill their slots. I don’t know exactly how this works, but I think the Placement Coordinator has to do a lot of work, making phone calls and such. The sense I get is that essentially everyone at a top 50 school eventually winds up with some kind of job.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty awesome. Especially as things currently stand in our economy. Being an econ grad student has its drawbacks, but joblessness afterward is definitely not one of them.

So we have a profession in which a significant proportion of its members espouse free markets and other anti-worker policies, who themselves have never fought for a job in an open market, who have never had to hustle. Hell, they don’t even have to contact the institution offering the job (I misunderstood).

This would be like celibate men telling people what to do in their sex lives.

And that’s just too crazy to even contemplate. Oh, wait. Anyway…

Actually, no. Fuck anyway. If this system applied to biologists, it wouldn’t really matter: a key component of our jobs does not involve analyzing, critiquing or enacting policies that directly or indirectly affect employment. Mind you, these economics jobs aren’t like 2-3 year postdocs that pay, if you’re lucky $45,000 per year (usually much less, and the high salaries are found only in expensive university towns) and then you’re out on your ass; these are real jobs. And only one of out seven STEM PhDs will wind up in a tenured position.

To me, the economics job hunt strikes me as a major reality-distortion field. It certainly could account for the lack of alacrity I see when many, though not all, economists discuss unemployment. I would imagine the ‘elite’ economists–the ones most prone to have the opportunity to speak to the larger public–will have likely had the easiest time of it, with the best, and for the rest of us, unrealistic outcomes.

Anyway, congratulations to Noah. I hope he likes Stony Brook (longtime readers will know that I spent over four years there).

EXTRA BONUS HEAD EXPLODYNESS: Here are the publication requirements (boldface mine):

You need a Job Market Paper, or “JMP.” This is a piece of original research, usually the first chapter of your dissertation.

That’s it! Really! That’s all you need! In the words of the great professor Yusufcan Masatlioglu, “All you need is that one damn paper.”

At your AEA Meeting interviews, you will mainly discuss your JMP. At your flyout, you will present this paper. You don’t need to have published this paper; in fact, you don’t need a single academic publication (most people save publishable papers for when they are already working as assistant profs, where the papers will count towards tenure). “All you need is that one damn paper.”

Well then. It’s five o’clock somewhere, STEM PhDs have a drink.

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15 Responses to The Economics PhD Job Market As a Reality-Distortion Field: STEM PhDs, We Made a Bad Career Move

  1. sciliz – 5 things: *Grad student in molecular medicine *love science *snarky sense of humor *passionate about politics *obsessed with lizards
    sciliz says:

    DFS. That’s a better deal than the MDs get in residency match, which I’ve always envied. How hard could another PhD be?

  2. Rodrigo Reyes – Aguascalientes, México – Diseñador de Sitios Web y Asesor Web 2,0. Interesado en temas de Redes Sociales, MKT, Diseño, Tecnología, Ciencia, Fotografía, Cine y Música. Ayudo a empresarios y profesionales independientes interesados en contar con presencia web.
    Nicholas says:

    Then, what you should do is to copy this instituion in Biology as well, not to blame economists for understanding how to get the market to work well

    • mikethemadbiologist
      mikethemadbiologist says:

      That’s not the point. The point is that economics PhDs aren’t experiencing a labor market like most other people (or even other PhDs). Their personal experience is much more akin to a medieval guild. Like it or not, one’s experience influences how you approach problems. That’s why I referred to it as a “reality-distortion field.”

    • HCA says:

      Low standards are nothing to copy. I’ve already got 4 first-author papers to my name (3 are 10+ pages), and I’m not even halfway done with my PhD. If I work hard, it’ll be at least twice that by the time I graduate, plus the output via my collaborations.

      And these lazy econ PhDs don’t even have *one*? What’ve they been doing for 5+ years?

      • Well, there’s high standards, and then there’s ridiculous standards. One should not need to have the output of an assistant professor during grad school to have a ghost of a chance at a decent position.

      • EconPhD says:

        Econ PhD here:

        Our publication process is quite different than in your fields. Academic papers are 30+ pages, job market papers are almost always single-authored, and the publication process takes, on average, two years (from first submission, so that’s after all the work is done and you have presented at a few conference presentations). Some people have a published paper when they are on the job market, but they are rare. Also, though it’s true that you always talk about the paper that you would present if they invite you to campus for a “job talk” seminar, it would sink your candidacy if you had no other work to talk about.

        It’s not right to say that we don’t operate in a real labor market, it’s just one that operates efficiently. Let me flesh out some more details: typically what happens is students manually apply to over a hundred (often over two hundred) different places with some help from department staff, then typically they receive 15-30 interviews that take place in the space of three days, then they have to wait around for some number of flyouts, then hope to get a job offer (if they don’t there is a secondary market for less desirable jobs that are not tenure-track). There is a huge amount of uncertainty at every step in the process. It is true that people usually end up with some kind of job, but it may be a very undesirable one. Also, I should say, what I describe is typically only true of the top 15 or so PhD programs. There are hundreds of programs where the prospects for students are much more grim (meaning they get fewer interviews and are far from guaranteed a job).

        This process is a full time job that typically takes all of one’s time from November through February. Not only is there a lot of paperwork to do, but you work hard on practice interviews, writing and rewriting your papers, and practice seminars. I assure you it is a huge amount of stress.

        • The funny thing is, bio/STEM fields are becoming much more like this publication process; depending on your individual field, papers can be quite large and sit in peer review for 6 months+. I’d say what you’re describing is pretty similar to the experience of STEM Ph.Ds, it’s just that their ultimate job prospects are considerably worse.

          However, I’d also like to note that this whole discussion involves a certain amount of subjectivity and circle-jerking; the ultimate unemployment rate for people with Ph.Ds in technical fields is quite low.

    • Brey says:

      From what I read here, they in fact don’t get the market to work for them, they set up a process that allows them to completely bypass the market in a way unique to their field.
      In terms of getting jobs, well good for them.
      In terms of the impact on the rest of us, well, it’s pretty easy to see how that’s problematic when these very people are often called on to about how the market works or should work for the larger population. Since a person’s lived experience tends to be the baseline reference point they use for examining a larger issue, it’s not exactly “blaming” to note that it’s difficult to make a sound analysis on the job market when your own lived experience is so outside the norm.

  3. Janet D. Stemwedel
    Dr. Free-Ride says:

    Philosophy grad students (at least at Leiteriffic programs) get institutional support akin to this when they go on the job market, but the candidates far outnumber the available academic posts (and lately searches get cancelled midway through because of budget crises), and there is not a “scramble”. So, there’s nothing like a “guarantee” of employment at the end of the Ph.D. program. At best, the institutional support confers a prayer of employment.

    Also, starting Philosophy faculty jobs (even tenure track) tend to be paid a lot less and valued a lot less. And there’s less expectation of private sector jobs to run off to (or jobs advising presidents of whatnot).

    But sweet liquor eases the pain.

  4. Janet D. Stemwedel
    Dr. Free-Ride says:

    Oh, but more on point:

    These economists actually think their models are capturing real phenomena? When did this happen?

  5. Noah Smith says:

    Hell, they don’t even have to contact the institution offering the job.

    Actually, that’s not true, you do contact them yourself. the department only sends your recommendation letters.

  6. Noah Smith says:

    Also, we work much less hard than (many) STEM PhDs and get paid more.

    There is one reason for this: the salaries available in the finance industry. This industry is the natural alternative for economists and business PhDs, and it pays ridiculous amounts of cash. To get economists not to go into this industry you need to pay them a lot and not make them work as much as finance-sector workers do. Entering assistant profs at Michigan get, I believe, $116k/yr…

  7. Really, what this is about though, is leverage.

    What do economics Ph.Ds do otherwise? They go into finance, or various consulting positions. There are other job opportunities for bio/chem/phys/eng Ph.D students: patent agent, technical writer, consultants, etc–but they’re utilized at extremely low rates. If say, 40% of STEM Ph.Ds were willing to “leave” their fields (the way economists are technically doing to go into finance or whatever), they’d have a lot more leverage.

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