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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Ready, Set, Interview!
December 18, 2008 - 8:45pm

We economists have great respect for “markets”, the interaction of buyers and sellers of some good or service. While sometimes, as with the mall, these markets are easy to locate, other times they do not reside in any particular time or place, as is the case of e-bay. For a few days in January each year, these economists who believe so strongly in markets meet in one city at one time to create a visible labor market. I understand from my colleagues in other fields that similar things happen for them, too.

Being part of the academic labor market is a strange experience. Where else does one go to job interviews in hotel rooms? Graduate students used to a life in jeans and tennis shoes find themselves hobbling around awkwardly in suits and high heels. And, for this first stage, the cost is borne by the job candidate, which is often difficult.

The best way to approach the interview process is with a sense of humor and a perspective of what really matters. I recall being interviewed by people who said things like “we had a woman in our department once- it worked out fine” and of being asked questions that tried to get information they knew they could not ask. “What does your husband think of you moving to our city” was a not-so-subtle way of asking the forbidden question of “are you married?” As a labor economist interested in “reservation wages” (the minimum wage one would be willing to work for), I should not have been so surprised to be asked “what would we need to offer you to come here?” Of course, everyone is going to be done with their dissertation by June, and every city is a wonderful place to relocate to. I kept wondering if anyone had told them (all economists) that Adam Smith’s infatuation with the free market was dependent on the assumption of perfect information.

After the labor market in January, schools offer second interviews. The advantage of these to a graduate student is that the school is paying. The disadvantage is that they are held between January and March, the worst time for weather in much of the United States. I seemed to be particularly cursed in this area, as I found myself stranded and diverted several times during the interviewing season. I soon learned that if my flight was delayed for more than a short time, I should run to find myself a reservation at a local hotel, while I still had a chance. Once I was trying to get to New York State in a snow storm and our plane could not land. Its eventual destination was Washington, D.C, so the plane just flew on to D.C. and dumped us there. Since the delay was weather-related, there was no interest in helping us find a place to stay before the next flight to our original destination- at 7AM the next morning! Luckily, I knew someone in town, and was able to find a couch to crash on before taking the red-eye to a very unspectacular interview.

I have never really loved flying or dealing with airports, but by the time I was going for second interviews I had lost my sense of balance almost completely. Every turn or bump of the airplane went straight to my head and then immediately to my stomach. I started to learn some tricks to dealing with this; I requested the seat in the middle of the plane over the wing, so I would be sitting in the center of gravity of the plane. Any roll to up or down or to one side or the other would be minimized for a passenger sitting there. And I started to avoid talking to the people next to me. Once, as we were taking off in what was a very steep ascent (and I was reaching for the little bag), the passenger sitting next to me asked me “if we crash, can I have one last kiss before I die?” I guess I lied by saying that there were people in Boston who would not like what he just said, but then, none of my friends would have!

Adam Smith, the founder of economics, pointed out that it was as if an “invisible hand” leads buyers and sellers to meet in exchanges that are mutually beneficial. It is hard to have confidence in that process when one is both the seller and the commodity being sold. However, in the end, the chaotic labor market brought me at a school that was down the road from a world-class hospital. Only four days after my health insurance became effective, I found myself a patient in that hospital being cared for by some of the best doctors in the world. I can’t imagine any hand, visible or invisible, that could have planned things any better.

To everyone who will be in the academic labor market in the next few weeks: Good Luck; my thoughts are with you. You can do this!

To everyone who will be celebrating a holiday this next week: have a wonderful holiday.

I will see everyone in the New Year!


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