Toward a More Efficient Labor Market

In Chapter 9 of The Big Questions, I lamented the great duplication of time and effort that occurs each spring when the top academic departments are all evaluating the same handful of job candidates, and I wondered why departments don’t free ride by simply announcing “We’ll take anyone with an offer from (say) Stanford”.

An anonymous math department chairman reports on his own strategy for cutting down on the workload. He believes that one of the most important determinants of a successful career is luck. So each year, he randomly rejects half the applicants without even reading their folders. That way, he eliminates the unlucky ones.

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16 Responses to “Toward a More Efficient Labor Market”


  1. 1 1 Matthew

    But wouldn’t that give applicants an incentive to figure out ways around the system that would allow them to submit more applications in order to be considered?

  2. 2 2 dave

    a math department chair that believes so strongly in luck that they allow it to guide their professional decisions? i guess that makes perfect sense.

  3. 3 3 Richard

    But what if the department chairman was himself unlucky? Then his own bad luck would result in him rejecting the lucky candidates…

  4. 4 4 Harold

    I detect a little self-justification here. But clearing out half could allow enough time to actually properly evaluate the rest.

  5. 5 5 thedifferentphil

    Cute, but if I were his dean, I would demote him, which is probably why he is anonymous. If you have any faith in your colleague’s ability to sort out and recruit a best fit for your department, then this strategy will reduce the expected value to the department from the hire. Why not spend an extra few minutes carefully narrowing the scope of the advertised position to cut back on the number of applicants in a way that will not just randomly drive half away?

  6. 6 6 Flop

    Sensible strategy if a person’s “draws” over his lifetime are positively correlated (that is, those who are generally lucky have a lower chance of being rejected by me). But does my random number generator that determines whom I reject “somehow” know which applicants “usually” get rejected? Does anyone really believe this? Methinks this mathematician is a jester.

  7. 7 7 Harold

    Perhaps the math department chair is so unlogical that he is actually rejecting the lucky ones, who otherwise may end up working for him.

  8. 8 8 Ken B

    SL has withheld a key piece of information: what school is this. Perhaps the lucky one are ones not hired? In that case other schools can easily free ride on this plan, by accepting only candidates he does not interview?

  9. 9 9 Dave

    Didn’t David Brent do that on the UK version of the office?

    Your friend is not very original, but I can’t fault him on his taste in TV shows

  10. 10 10 Michael Bishop

    People take pride in evaluating candidates with care. Candidates take pride in having been evaluated positively. That is why your proposed outsourcing doesn’t happen openly, behind the scenes, it probably does happen. That is, people probably rely on reputation rather than focusing purely on the quality of someone’s work.

  11. 11 11 Jonathan Kariv

    As a math grad student this makes me happier about the places that rejected me :-)

  12. 12 12 JLA

    Perhaps the reason top school’s don’t free ride on each other is because a candidate who may be a great fit at one school may be an awful fit at another school. So much depends on a candidate’s research and their future research agenda.

  13. 13 13 Bob

    Steve, my apologies for not having read The Big Questions yet, but surely such an announcement will generally be seen as an explicit admission that said department is no better (and likely a level beneath) Stanford etc. Which might not be too horrible in itself, for high enough values of Stanford, but…

    Harold, I appreciated both of your comments.

    Richard, the fellow must be lucky. After all, he has become chairman of his math department! Oh… wait…

  14. 14 14 Michael

    Have each candidate view and evaluate the records of the other candidates, ranking them in the order they would hire them if they were on the selection committee. Then select the Condorecet winner (if any). A qualified candidate can probably detect weaknesses in other candidates, and unqualified candidates will probably be rated lowly by others.

    There might be an argument that this is open to collusion between candidates, either to artificially raise one of their members to get the job (though this only benefits one of them), or to artificially bury more qualified candidates to punish the school if those from a particular group are not selected. However, if a group of people selected someone who was unqualified, they could be considered unqualified as well, harming their future job prospects and making contrarians seem more qualified (or at least more honest). And of course, the school doing the hiring could cross check both the rankings and the reasoning for such ranks in order to weed out the dishonest.

  15. 15 15 offshore

    Toward a More Efficient Labor Market at Steven Landsburg The Big Questions Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics Economics and Physics best post. I has been collection in my blog. 2010/08/08

  16. 16 16 dave schutz

    “Asked to promote an officer who had already shown talent, bravery and leadership, Napoleon, it is said, would always ask “Is he lucky?””

    So maybe the question about this math department chair should be: “Is he short?”

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