The bias against stale labor

Rational or not?  Brian Leiter reports:

Philosopher Daniel Weiskopf (George State) calls my attention to a quite startling ad for a job in English at Colorado State University, which requires that applicants have earned the PhD since 2010!  As the linked post notes, given the state of the humanities job market, everyone knows there are lots of very good candidates with PhDs from 2009, 2008 and, horrors, even 2007 who still haven’t found suitable appointments.  This ad promises to consign them to the discard pile without even looking at them.

There is another example here.  By the way, here is a Leiter post updating us on Grayling’s New College of the Humanities.


Ph D awarded, it says. Presumably this might lead to people passing their PhD examinations but deferring taking their degrees? (Unless that's not quite what is meant by "awarded"?)

Already happens.

And biglaw doesn't hire any but new graduates. How is Leiter not aware of that?!

Well, not as new associates. I mean, no lawyer who has been practicing for a few years is going to want to become a slave working 2500 hours a year on mind-numbing trivialities for the hope of a partnership in 10 years. But they do hire laterals.

Couldn't the same be happening here? Maybe they need to find someone with a low reservation wage or high tolerance for labor disutility (is that a thing?) and this is the easiest way.

"working 2500 hours a year": how do they get off with so little? That's only 50 weeks p.a. at 50 hours per week. I did far more than that when I was that age.

That's 2500 hours of billable hours. Actual time work spent working is often well north of 3000 hours.

Here is Dean Dad's take on it. He thinks postings like this will fun afoul of discrimination laws. I'm not so sure. But he also points out some of the incentives behind the issue:

Part of the unease around issues like these, I think, comes from two logics crashing into each other. The logic of individual rights, and merits, suggests that any “arbitrary” criteria be removed. Certainly, any attentive student of American history knows who those criteria tended to favor over the years.

But it’s also true that a department or program is a whole, rather than just the sum of its parts. And if the whole is imbalanced -- even if it’s nobody’s fault, and everybody is good at what they do -- then it’s weaker than it should be. If a literature department is chock-full of, say, Americanists, but lacks anyone specializing in England, then it’s imbalanced, even if every single Americanist is doing a damn good job. Specifying that the next hire specialize in British lit would strike most people as fair and reasonable, even if that meant that the underemployed Americanists still out there were out of luck.

Along those lines, I could see an argument for balancing a department that skipped a generation. That’s not a shot at the incumbents; it’s simply a recognition that homogeneity breeds blind spots. A hire from a different generation won’t have the same blind spots, so the department as a whole would be stronger.

Given how a single tenure-track position in English can generate 500+ applications, I think the incentive for something like what CSU is doing will grow, rather than shrink, especially given the signaling implications of spending many years on the job market.

But as Tyler's quote notes, this isn't about a "generation" - unless you define a generation to be less than five years in length.

Maybe I've been too long away from academia, but I am at a loss to understand why this is so outrageous. Surely "has had PhD for several years but is still interested in entry-level jobs" is a (possibly weak) signal of quality, just as "has (any) college degree (even one completely unrelated to the job)" is frequently used as a signal by private sector employers.

It's a special kind of indictment that you spend the best 4-x years of your life essentially volunteering for the degree only to be shucked out of hand on a zero second signal evaluation.

A person could have had a two-year post-doc to write a book in the field, or a young female grad might have taken two years off immediately on completion to have a baby and is ready now to renter the market? Yes it's a very weak signal of quality.

Maybe there are so many job seekers in humanities they are using this as an arbitrary rule to cut the applications to a manageable number?

I think it is to cut the number of applications, but why not use a better tool: 5 publications since the beginning of 2010 is journals with a certain ranking ... list the publications on the first page with the ranking of each journal .... or some such.

If it weren't rational, people wouldn't be doing it

[ /Pangloss ]

The irrationality is to see that and then go get the degree because the ad tells you that (1) there must be lots of people with degrees seeking work and (2) in fewer years than it took you to create your degree it evaporates in value. That is worse depreciation than a new car.

This seems a whole lot murkier to me than you make out.

The 2007, 2008, and 2009 vintages of the degree are not valuable, but as the ad says, the 2010, 2011, and 2012 vintages are. Presumably anyone starting their degree for the 2007-2009 vintages did so in advance of the great recession so they perhaps, based on hiring trends at the time they started, they weren't irrational at the time.

Similarly, assuming a candidate took four years to do a PhD, those candidates would have been deciding to enroll during the time when TARP was passed, which was among the scariest (in terms of the value of financial distress indicators). Yet those candidates would now be eligible for positions.

The problem seems to be that it is hard to predict demand five years out. Presumably if there were a futures market for such positions then people could make more rational decisions

Sounds about right.

Lots of fields do it. Mrs. NAME REDACTED's accounting firm won't hire anyone over a certain age (29) to an entry level position.

I know the big four will. They just won't expect them to stick very long at all.

I'm posting as a tenured faculty member at an elite institution who has been in academia since the late 1999s.

The issue here has to do with the state of the market, as the original post states: the market has been awful since (at a minimum) 2008. So there is a serious supply/demand issue, namely that there are many, many PhDs who have had to make do with multiple one years and adjuncting positions while hoping that a tenure track job opens up.

A generation or two ago, this was not the case. Even in the early-2000s, generally speaking, the best people got jobs within a year or two of graduating. At that time, you could use time since degree as a rough guide to quality.

That simply is not the case anymore. If you say that you are only considering people with PhDs since 2010, especially in a field as crowded as English, you will miss a lot of very good people.

This is not the same thing as limiting by departmental speciality (which is a necessity) and it is also not the same thing as not hiring advanced assistants, who might be eligible for early tenure (which is certainly defensible). It seems arbitrary and, frankly, self-defeating. Sure, it sucks to go through 500+ applications for a tenure track job, but when you are looking for someone who might be a colleague for life, I'd rather err on the side of being more inclusive rather than less.

There's no particular reason the hiring authorities should care if they "miss a lot of very good people", since they only need one very good person to fill the position. If you can still get 20 "very good" resumes out of, say, 100 submissions to choose from after limiting the field, going through another 400 resumes is just a waste of time.

Combining Gilgi and jseliger/Dean Dad: decades ago, stale degrees were a strong negative signal of quality. Now they are not, because the number of positions is so small relative to the number of top tier applicants. If older faculty admit this, it's a little bit of the way to admitting that they had a much easier time of it, and that if they had to compete against more recent grads most would never merit an interview.

I hear they are hiring based on futures contracts for graduation in 2020. Place your application now.

I am not surprised. When I sat on a hiring committee, we had two excellent candidates who had been on the market for a while and the attitude was, "Well, if they were that good, someone would have hired them already." I found that stunningly short-sighted, but there you go. A lot of committees like to feel they're getting in on the ground floor on a hot faculty candidate.

The real problem is that we're giving away far more PhD's than there are jobs for precisely to create this kind of buyer's market at the expense of people's dashed hopes. It's shameful.

ZMP workers. They should work as unpaid interns. Minimum wage is not low enough, and if it were below minimum wage, the market would clear.

We're talking about academia, not people who are doing obviously useful things

All fine and good except it offers nothing to the worker or the "employer" or the economy as a whole to have PhDs, or anyone, volunteer instead of finding gainful employment. Unless you are positing that these ZMPs will increase in value somehow with time?

"Well, if they were that good, someone would have hired them already"

Short-sighted indeed. What about the part where your profession granted them the PhD? What about the part where people toil for the degree and then are "heuristicked" out on zero basis?

Signaling 'bout now?

It coudn't possibly be a real $20 bill.

As far as shameful, this feels like a less shameful rung then college on the "maybe not everyone should continue to pursue formal education" ladder.

The idea that there are 'unattractive' supply/demand issues around PhDs plum job prospects is hardly new. Hell, look what MDs gotta go through by the time they're 30 in order to be in the, you know, business of saving lives.

Intense competition, long hours, years of exploitation, long odds- who is not aware of this landscape? Yet a lot of extremely smart people somehow continue to be unable to resist the Siren's song of the PhD.

Because it's there!

Or because the alternative isn't.

I think the main thing behind this and similar seemingly irrational screening process in the wider labor market is that the labor market has simply sucked for job seekers for some time, and openings will get more application than the people hiring can handle. You need something to cut down the number of applications. Now I'm not sure why your metric can't be "we will take 80% of all applications we receive and throw them in the trash" but it might run afoul of anti-discrimination laws.

Incidentally, once you receive a certain number of applications, "missing out on good people" isn't a problem. We are at the point in many fields where you can literally throw 80% of the applications, selected at random, in trash and there will be more than enough "good people" in the remaining pool.

On one commentator on the Dean Dad site, you also get situations where the people hiring know exactly who they want to hire, but have to post the position to the public because of anti-discrimination laws (which, contrary to general belief, actually attempt to impose meritocratic hiring and promotion processes as opposed to just imposing quotas). So you get job descriptions that are deliberately designed to exclude anyone who could potentially apply for that job except for that one person.

Government jobs are particularly prone to the "we want to give you this promotion, but we're required to post it publicly, so give us your resume and we'll write the job application so that only you fill it" syndrome. I've certainly seen it.

And yes, I agree, this is a result of there being so many people able to fill the job and graduates from a few years ago. Still seems like a stupid way to cull, though.

We did the opposite - 2 of our top 3 candidates for a tenure track search last year were people in the 3rd or 4th year of a tenure track job and both at institutions very unlike ours (and they were interested in Small Liberal Arts College positions). Both had doctorates awarded a couple of years before they landed THOSE jobs. Talk about people with vetting, experience, and research projects in progress! Looking at an ABD grad student against those candidates was not even a competition.

Sounds like Billy Beane.

I don't really see how this is much different from using race, sex, or other characteristics as a (weak?) signal of quality. It's not entirely arbitrary but it's pretty damn unfair and probably not necessary.

Luckily, from what I know this isn't that common yet as a method of culling. Far more typical is still the "taking people who have the right advisor to get them an in" or "culling on the basis of school attended," both of which are less controversial.

DId I miss it or has no one yet cited the Chronicle article covering this issue?

Also, what's up with Brian Leiter? A lot of the time he seems like a very sharp philosopher, but on any political topic he becomes such an insane, deranged hyper-Chomsky leftist that it's difficult to even understand where he's coming from.

"This content is available exclusively to Chronicle subscribers" And so they lose I guess.

Came up without issue for me.

Darn lack of an edit function! It was some weird combination of javascript, but now I can't get to it. :(

The future (with an ever diminishing need for labor) is now.

Obviously it's possible that our economy will find some need that all these people can fill, but I wouldn't bet on it.

So what are the poor pre-2010 PhD's going to do? Some might have to go to North Dakota and work as roustabouts in the oil fields for $2K/week, what a horror!
/sarcasm mode

Yeah that is a horror I don't know why you think you're being sarcastic. It would be a horror even if they paid $10,000 a week. To live out your life or any significant chunk of it in a place like North Dakota living amongst meathead oil workers would be misery to many people. I really can't stand you people who come around gloating about how "these fancy pants college types will just have to buck it up and move to a soulless wasteland" as if good pay somehow makes it all worth it.

To say nothing of the roustabouts themselves, who would be forced to put up with a smarmy know-it-all who, let's be honest, is less than useless in the oil fields anyway.

Kind of works out all the way around to leave the smart-ass in the big town, surrounded by his kind, railing against the manifest injustice of it all, smug sense of superiority crucially intact.

Wonder if a smug sense of superiority is a form of legal tender that can be used to pay living expenses and bills ....?

The Ph.D. glut is so great that committees can sort for any characteristic they wish: hair color, weight, or the precise shade and texture of Marxism they exude. Any hint of libertarian or conservative impulses? Clearly not "quality." One thing thus far unmentioned in the comments: it's highly likely that current graduates will be, on the whole, more physically attractive than their "stale" seniors. Not to mention more eager to please, and thus more ideologically malleable.

it’s highly likely that current graduates will be, on the whole, more physically attractive than their “stale” seniors.

haha yes. Where I work it seems that you can't get started in marketing or HR unless you look really good.

Yep, it's time a job advert specified a damsel with skin like a lightly bruised peach.

Sounds to me like the job is wired for someone's friend/spouse/lover... Whoever takes the job better feel comfortable wearing a scarlet letter, as everyone will know... What a crummy way to begin building a resume... a real career killer... Yikes!

Since the advertisement is from an American university, it is possible that the goal is to have people who are up-to-date, academically. Presumably a PhD obtained since 2010 will be more up-to-date than the ones obtained in , say, 2007. If a university in India releases such an advertisement, it possible that the university officials want to appoint favored and possibly mediocre candidates.

Plausible to the un-initiatied, but my guess would be something along the lines of pre-tenure professors that are young and without kids (and up-to-date!) have more energy to devote to slaving for tenure.

I can see being "up-to-date" as an advantage in the hard sciences, but it is an elitist conceit in humanities departments. "Up-to-date" there means having absorbed and assimilated the most recent "discovery" of a neglected sub-group in the history of interpretation, as in the first Google hit for "transgender perspectives in Jane Austin:" "Parenting the transgender teen: a Jane Austin perspective."

What if we weren't talking about a university but a movie...say not just a movie but a series of movies that will be produced over the next ten years, something like the Lord of the Rings movies or whatnot.

Would it really be shocking if the producer said one of the star roles should be filled by someone whose had a hit film but only very recently? In other words he wants a newcomer. Not a complete nobody, but also not someone with a track record. Just a new comer who has one or two good films behind her.

This may not be a guarantee of getting a good casting decision, but it also doesn't seem totally absurd either. In many ways teachers are entertainers, esp. at the college level where the students can be though of as an audience. While the dynamics may not be as explicit as the movie business, at some point a teacher whose class is only half filled with paying students, many who choose that class because scheduling conflicts and requirements forced them into it, has to be at a disadvantage to a teacher whose classes are always 'sold out'.

Gold Price Chart so beautiful that it will

make you want to lick the screen:
Max Goldberg, Founder.

There is no doubt in my mind that CSU has opened themselves to a whopper of an age discrimination lawsuit.

A state institution, right? Sovereign immunity?

At many tech companies, management has decreed that the only hires allowed are "university hires," within two years after graduation. This allows them to discriminate legally on the basis of age while hiring cheaper workers.

Has no one heard of "disparate impact"?

Doesn't that create a bit of a problem when the jobs also require 10 years experience in umpteen different IT tools? No wonder companies cannot find workers.

There are so many graduates in humanities, but when I need to fix my shoes, it's a problem!

The prime distinguishing characteristic of a modern economy is the number of qualified cobblers it produces. Yep.

Considering the nightmare stories I read of humanities academia (my theory is that it is way out on the opinion versus science axis) the "Department of Humanities" is as Orwellian a title as you are likely to find.

I don't see how this is particularly "shameful". The whole point is to filter the best people into the smaller number of positions at each higher level. But somehow PhD's don't think this applies to them; perhaps it is the attitude of entitlement that is shameful?

Lawyers and consultancies hire more associates than can make partner. The military commissions many more junior officers than can be promoted. Ballet schools take in more trainee dancers than will be promoted to the corps, much less to soloist. More kids make high school varsity than can play in college, much less make the pros. (Doctors may be something of an exception, because there are very strict controls on the supply side, limiting the number of residencies.)

Perhaps PhD's handle this more badly because it happens to them so late in life - it somehow never occurs to them that they will eventually be the ones filtered out.

They got into a very selective undergrad program (relatively few people do, but that's ok), they got into a very selective grad program (relatively few people do, but that's ok), they passed their quals and defended (relatively few people finish, but that's ok), and applied for a tenure track position. Relatively few people can get one and OMG that's not ok.

Even STEM PhD's don't always seem to work out the math. There are many times more new PhD's/year than there are TT positions available. The chances of getting one are low -- even the top few programs can fill the available positions a couple of times over.

A competent person goes into a PhD program with the clear-headed expectation that they will probably not get a TT position and that they will need to have a backup plan.

It would be better if programs and advisors made that more clear as well. But people entering PhD programs are not teenagers convinced they'll be an NBA star - they're adults who are (supposed to be) extremely skilled at research and analysis.

"Shameful" perhaps isn't the right word, but it's worth considering that almost all academic departments employ vast amounts of low cost grad student labor under the premise that the students are being trained for future employment. And here, with the other hand, they're significantly curtailing employment prospects in a way which has very little connection with true quality or the realities of the job market. Maybe not shameful so much as extremely coldhearted.

The other reality that you have to contend with is that the academic job market can be extremely inelastic and specialized. A three year window in a time which sees many official and unofficial hiring freezes could easily limit a candidate to a handful of potential jobs -- total, after a decade of postgraduate work.

It's one thing to be an elitist. It's quite another to be a stupid elitist. A three year hiring window is the latter.

There is a problem with these pyramid career schemes, which I see that a later commentator is also depending.

In the past, with a more robust labor market, people who had gotten kicked off the pyramid someplace in the middle could and would go off and do something else. I had high school teachers who had PhDs who presumably had gotten kicked off the pyramid at the hiring or tenure stage for university faculty. Not make it in Biglaw? Go and hang out your shingle somewhere and draw up wills and simple contracts. It was more possible to switch careers entirely.

Its now harder to get even these fallback jobs, so if someone tries to get into a pyramidal career track and fails, chances are they will be thrown into the pool of the lumpenproletariat that never got into the game in the first place, except with all the monetary and psychological costs of trying to climb the pyramid.

I don't know if there is a "solution" to this. Probably in the long run, if I am accurately describing the situation and it continues, the pyramid-style career tracks will be seem less attractive, their will be fewer recruits, and the problem will resolve naturally into either an increase chance of success of getting to the top of the pyramid, or lower costs for trying to scale it in the first place.

So, let's try not to justify fraud.

Seriously, you don't think we could come up with a better method than wasting the time of 85% of the people at taxpayer expense.

I could come up with something in 2 minutes.

I am surprised that everyone seems to assume that applicants with a PhD dating from 2008, 2007 or 1979 "haven't found employment until now". They may be in excellent employment, but simply wish to move to Colorado.

So much in academia is about 'potential' so it could make sense to want unproven candidates who can prove themselves under your tutelage. however for every plausible explanation (potential) there is a flip-side to the coin (cheap and manipulatable).

From another perspective, couldn't this be considered more humane? There are large numbers of PhD's hanging on for years as poorly paid, badly-treated adjuncts -- a two or three year time limit for either getting a TT position or getting out and doing something else with their lives would be an improvement. But from the perspective of the universities, this could be a negative development. After all, they depend on adjuncts chasing impossible dreams for their supply of cheap labor. Many adjuncts now believe that if they keep teaching, publishing, and networking they will make themselves more attractive candidates over time. Making it clear that the reverse is true -- that opportunities diminish to nil after a few years -- could cause that pool of cheap adjunct labor to dry up.

BTW, this also seems consistent with more universities imposing time limits on the PhD process itself (the belief being that taking too long to complete the PhD is also a signal of low quality).

WRT their horrid training and worse career matching, these are their best ideas? I don't doub ti.

This seems like it's no different than listing "5 years experience" as a requirement. There is still a pretty good chance that people with less than that will apply and have a legitimate shot at the position, but I'll have to wade through about 1/3 the number of applications as I otherwise would have. What this does is limit the applications from people without those requirements to those that think they have the skills to overcome not having "5 years experience."

Just my $.02 from private sector hiring.

If as Tyler says there are philosophy PhD graduates who are looking for employment for over 5 years, I wonder what happened to economic rationality. Surely students know that spending lots of money and time obtaining a PhD in philosophy will render them unemployable for ages, or fit for jobs which do not require anything more than high school education. In countries where university tuition is irrationally low or even zero, I can understand students unable to enroll in useful departments studying dead-end subjects just to say they are doing something rather than nothing . But I am told tuition is very high in American universities, even for a subject like philosophy. What type of students would study a subject with low employment opportunities? They must either by affluent enough not to require a job immediately, or too myopic to know what they are getting into, which violates economic rationality assumption

I wonder what this says about the education as signaling argument.

Andrew, I am totally agree with your thoughts. Keep doing these type of work.

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