Not what you know, but if you "fit" with who you know

Robin Hanson (
Thu, 04 Mar 1999 15:21:21 -0800

I just completed a grueling academic job search, and will probably stay where I'm going (George Mason Univ econ) for quite some time. I learned something in the process: the biggest barrier to innovation in academia is "fit."

In academia most all jobs are publicly announced, and someone reads all the applications that come in. In economics it is all synchronized; job ads come out in October, applications are due about the end of November, and then each school interviews ~20-30 candidates for ~ 1/2 hour each at the annual ASSA conference. Each school then picks ~4-6 candidates to fly out for a day long visit. Then a lucky few get job offers.

Last time around, two years ago, my advisor insisted I send out no more than 70 applications. I had ~ 8 ASSA interviews, but no flyouts resulted. I did get some political science flyouts, at Northwestern, MIT, & U Rochester, but no offers there. Luckily I got this postdoc, because a theorist here believed my theorist advisor that I was sharp.

This time I got no political science flyouts, largely I think because one of my references was six weeks late with his letter. I hoped to do better due to my Berkeley affiliation & new health policy expertize. I sent out 200 applications and got ~23 ASSA interviews, many of them health related.

But the flyouts I got were not health related, and were due to people I had know for a long time. Hal Varian here at UC Berkeley and David Levy at GMU had long liked my idea futures concept. I had worked with Dave Porter at Caltech before he moved to U Arizona. Pat Parker at Naval Postgraduate School was told great things by my futurist friends. I got flyouts at UCB, GMU, UAriz, NPS.

At lots of places there were people who liked me and thought I was smart, interesting, and productive. But they had trouble seeing how I'd fit with the rest of their group, in terms of working on similar problems, and how my research fit into standard categories. At GMU, however, the influential and widely ranging Tyler Cowan saw my breadth as a strength. They are making GMU into, in part, a place for broader ranging economists who don't "fit" elsewhere.

One lesson is this: if you see an idea/approach you admire that academia seems to neglect, don't conclude this is because almost no academics think the idea interesting or promising. Maybe it is because this approach doesn't "fit" anywhere, even though lots of individuals grant its merits. Each journal thinks it should be published somewhere else, etc.

And if you have been doing such oddball research, perhaps your main hope is to develop personal relationships which convince specific academics of your ability, and then to hope that one of those people will be at a group adopting the contrarian strategy of collecting rejected oddballs.

Robin Hanson   
RWJF Health Policy Scholar             FAX: 510-643-8614 
140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 510-643-1884 after 8/99: Assist. Prof. Economics, George Mason Univ.