Line-drawing and merits in job hunting

Although not tailored to the specifics of the legal job market, an analogous debate concerning the mechanics of the academic job market is taking place over Inside Higher Education (hat tip:  Tax Prof Blog).

First up:  Joshua A. Tucker in Academe as Meritocracy, arguing

  1. that only the paternalistic would stifle the dreams of potential Ph.D students, and
  2. that a robust meritocracy exists within the academy.

As Tucker puts it:

Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old who is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will?…Like it or not, academia is a meritocracy. It may be a highly flawed meritocracy susceptible to overvaluing labels or fads of the day, but ultimately tenure is bestowed on those who earn the respect of their peers, and the more of your peers that respect you, the more job offers you are going to get and the more money you are going to make.

Tucker does recognize that a certain amount of truth-in-advertising is necessary, but he seems comfortable with letting admitted Ph.D students decide for themselves whether they should actually attend:

I fully believe we need to be honest with graduate students about what they are getting themselves into — the same way a minor league baseball player needs to know what the odds are of making it to the majors — but if they want to take a shot at achieving success in this kind of a career, I see no reason why we should excessively limit the number of people who have the opportunity to do so. And at the end of the day, that’s the trade-off here: the fewer students we admit to Ph.D. programs, the earlier we make the decision regarding who gets to be the next generation of professors.

While I sympathize with Tucker’s paternalism argument, I think his analysis fails to appreciate that lines must be–and are–drawn somewhere.  All of us are unfit for certain occupations, and each of us must either (1) realize this ourselves or (2) be told this by others.  Moreover, this must happen (1) sooner or (2) later.  Tucker does not escape the inevitable moment of line-drawing simply by choosing “later”, i.e., after his Ph.D. admission committee has sent out its acceptances.

Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean by expanding on Tucker’s example of professional baseball.  Personally, I am objectively unfit to play for a minor league baseball team, let alone to be drafted into the majors.  Let us suppose that, for whatever reasons, I am too deluded to realize this for myself and will need to be told by others that I will never be a major league baseball player.  Should a minor league team still admit me to its roster?  What about a college team?  High school varsity team?  At what point should I be told, “Kid, you don’t stand a chance of ever playing in the majors.  You should pursue another career”?

This is a difficult question that will need to be answered differently for different individuals based on their own specific circumstances.  Tucker, however, does not attempt to answer this question or provide guidelines on how it should be answered under various circumstances.  Rather, he simply implies that Ph.D. students should be admitted first and allowed to sort themselves out later, regardless of changing job market conditions or the odds of success.

In contrast to Tucker’s faith in the meritocratic process, “Dean Dad” responds in “Meritocracy and Hiring” that the academy is NOT the sort of meritocracy that should be generating smug feelings of superiority:

As someone whose job it is to actually hire faculty, I can attest that merit is only a small part of the picture….In this funding climate, we can only afford to staff a few of the positions (whether faculty, staff, or administration) that we need. If the position doesn’t exist, then the relative merit of the prospective candidates means exactly zero….Of course, there’s also the basic incompatibility of life tenure with the idea of meritocracy. If incumbents don’t have to keep proving themselves against newcomers, then you do not have a meritocracy. Tenure violates the foundational assumption of meritocracy.

The key is to recognize that hiring is always more about the employer than about the employee. Employers hire to solve problems they consider important. If you’re the best darn German professor who ever walked the planet, congratulations, but I don’t need you. I don’t doubt your brilliance, your hard work, your civic virtue, or your habit of helping old ladies across the street. They just don’t matter. It’s not about you.

I think Dean Dad is onto something here.  In discussions about job markets, the “right-place-at-the-right-time” factor is far too often overlooked .  Despite, for example, evidence that simply graduating from college in the middle of a recession can permanently lower lifetime earnings.  Dean Dad helpfully reminds his readers that failure to land a job in one’s chosen profession does not necessarily have moral overtones:

I’m convinced that one reason some people won’t let themselves let go of the dream, despite years of external signals suggesting that they should, is a sense that it would reflect a personal moral failing. They’ve identified so completely with the ‘meritocracy’ myth that they feel a real need to redeem themselves within it….[T]hey see the status of “tenured professor” as a sort of validation of everything they’ve done. Leaving the academy would be admitting defeat and accepting failure; lifelong “A” students, as a breed, aren’t very good at that. It’s not what they do….[L]et’s recognize the academic job market as the uneven, unpredictable, often unforgiving thing that it is. Good people lose. Frankly, some real losers sometimes win. It’s not entirely random, of course, but it’s a far cry from a meritocracy.

Although Dean Dad is writing about the academic job market, I think this is also a helpful point for recent law graduates to remember, especially in the midst of a recession.  Things don’t always work out, and that’s OK.  Sometimes, you just have to let it go and try something new.