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.”


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