Meritocracy, Lottery, Game

Gerry Canavan questions the metaphor commonly used to describe the academic job market.

November 3, 2014
Risk dice

This short essay arises out of my sense that framing academic job searches as a "lottery" might actually encourage, rather than combat, the cruel optimism involved in the process.

The commonplace description of the market as a "lottery" has emerged in response to the framing of academe as a "market" or even as a "meritocracy," both of which suggest some rationalistic evaluation of a candidate's value vis-à-vis the other candidates, with the "best" candidate ultimately being selected. The market/meritocracy framing is naturally a source of great anxiety for academic job-seekers, to which the lottery framing is experienced as a relief (especially for those who have been through one or more cycles without finding tenure-track employment): not getting a job isn't "failure," it's the arbitrary outcome of a random and capricious system. That the applicants-to-job ratio for the most desirable jobs is now in the many-hundreds-to-one undoubtedly fuels this pervasive sense that all you can do is hope your name is the one that gets pulled out of the hat.

But the lottery framing, despite its comforts and its useful provocations, also has its limits, including some conceptual problems that may cause more harm than good in prospective job seekers. Some of this can be seen from the thought experiment of simply taking the lottery idea seriously. People use the idea of the lottery as a critique of a logic of merit or moral desert, but, perversely, nothing could be more fair than random allocation by lottery. (This contradiction, I suspect, is why many people who call the academic job market a lottery in practice describe something more like an anti-meritocracy: only the worst, least-deserving people get picked.)

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).

Of course it is impossible to predict the outcomes for 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. To the extent that the academic job market is a lottery, then, it's a cosmic one, as much about the luck of birth and brain chemistry and the quirks of your personal history as anything else.

It just as surely isn't absolutely irrelevant what you do on in your job letter or application materials, as it would be if the academic job market were truly a lottery; in fact an entire industry has now sprung up around giving panicked Ph.D. job applicants advice on how to perfect their applications. Again, in a market this bad there are no sure things and no silver bullets, but there are still things you can do in preparing your application (and in building your teaching and research profile more generally) that can be done better or worse. On the other side of the search committee, people are making decisions based on what they think will improve their current situations in their departments; as an applicant you can make appeals to those people in ways that are more or less likely to be successful.

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 as 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 is 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.

In the game of Risk, you array your given armies from an arbitrary starting position as best as you can, and then you start to roll the dice. In poker you play the hand you draw as best you can, given your strategy and skill level and the odds of success. In many games navigating the rules itself -- working the refs -- is actually the crucial part of the competition; in other games, cheating is allowed, as long as you do it right (like our corrupt search committee filled with advisor-BFFs).

When I first proposed this idea on Twitter we collectively passed through a number of games that might be thought to model the academic job market, including Settlers of Catan, Dungeons and Dragons, Oregon Trail, even the beloved catastrophe-machine-of-my-childhood Fireball Island.

But I'd propose that the game the academic job market is most like may be Scrabble. Players in Scrabble have preexisting resources (a vocabulary, which is built out of everything from the socioeconomic profile of your childhood home to deliberate, calculated memorization of the official wordlist), a tile-placement strategy (play the biggest word you can each time vs. limiting your opponent's options vs. holding out for bingos or bonus tiles, etc., etc.), and blind luck (even the best player in the world can draw IIIEEUU.) The rules in Scrabble are fair, but totally arbitrary, with letter distributions and relative values that make little internal sense, tons of legal words that should be disallowed, and tons of disallowed words that should be legal. For some players Scrabble is a game of pure intellect; for others it's the art of the bluff.

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 resources and strategy in pursuing academic jobs without tipping us back into meritocracy, because outcomes in games don't reflect some transcendent value or essential "merit," only that you won or lost that particular round, and because no matter how "good" you are or think you are you need a good strategy and some good rolls of the dice if you hope to "win." This is one of the things that I think is most valuable about the “game” reframing for the academic job market: you can do everything right in a game and still lose, just as you can make a really bad bet but still randomly draw the one perfect card you needed 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. Sometimes we find ourselves in gaming positions from which we just can't win, and there's no amount of either luck or "merit" that can save us. Likewise, calling the academic job market a lottery totally erases the real costs of entry, because lottery tickets are cheap and there's another drawing every few days -- while re-understanding it as a game reminds us that the process takes a long time, takes a lot of work, is a competition but not a fair one, and isn't worth continuing if it makes you miserable. You might as well go ahead and enter a lottery, why not; you only play a game if you're going to get something out of the experience.

If I had an overarching piece of meta-advice for job applicants it would be to try to analyze the academic job market as a player in a game: know the rules, understand your position, figure out how to get the best possible outcome from where you are, and then make your next moves accordingly. That could mean staying on the path you're already on; it could mean doubling down on a risk you think might pay off; it could mean "folding" and finding another line of work entirely. Maybe it means forging new alliances with other players; for the would-be grad student, it could mean that the only winning move is not to play.

But apprehending the academic job market through the lens of games, I hope, might push us back from the conceptual errors of both meritocracy (it's just about working really hard and being the cream of the crop) and lottery (there's nothing you can do, it's all just random) towards a recentering of pragmatism, agency, and strategic thinking.

The game framing also suggests that real change is possible in academic hiring practices in a way that neither meritocracy nor lottery does. As a commenter on the original version of this essay noted: "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 ... then those in positions of power in the academy (including people on hiring committees) could work to change the rules." The rules of any game are inherently political, always subject to revision in the service of fairness, player safety, and fun. If the game called the academic job market seems to us today to be rigged, dangerous, and miserable, let's rewrite the rules.


Gerry Canavan is assistant professor of English at Marquette University. His Twitter handle is @gerrycanavan.


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