Does patience pay off on the job market? Here’s an article that won’t tell you the answer.

Last week, I was in conversations with two groups of people seeking or soon to seek academic jobs. Though located at two different institutions and coming from a wide range of disciplines, the groups shared a new concern added to the usual ones: the new Chronicle of Higher Education Article called “On the Academic Job Market, Does Patience Pay Off?” Many readers seem to share the alarm of (currently) the first comment under the piece: “This is extraordinary information… more evidence of how merciless the academic job market has become. Graduate students need to be aware of these numbers from the moment they start a program.”

Seeing the impact of the article on the job seekers, I read the piece, and I found a problem: it does not answer the question it asks. “Does Patience Pay Off?” is an answerable question, at least at the level of statistical generality, and we can make it more precise by rephrasing it: “If a candidate stays on the job market for multiple years, does the probability of securing a job in any given year go up or down over time?”

The piece in the Chronicle, however, answers another question: of the jobs secured in a given year, how many are given to people at each stage of their job search? The cited statistics reveal that, across many fields, about half of jobs go to applicants who are ABD or in their first year after completing the doctorate, and a strong majority of jobs to to candidates who are ABD or within four years of completion.

The shape of these numbers is entirely explicable by the nature of a competitive market: assuming a constant number of new applicants per year, a much lower number of new jobs per year, and an equal chance for every candidate to get a job, a mature market will award roughly half the jobs to applicants in their first two years on the market and, of course, many more to the group that also includes the next three classes of applicants.

That is, of course a lot of  jobs go to the classes first hitting the market: that’s where the largest numbers of applicants are. Those classes are bigger than the more seasoned ones because some of the latter applicants will have gotten jobs already, and some of them will have dropped out of the market entirely. You can see these effects play out in a simple spreadsheet model that I made. My applicant-bots have the same chance of getting a job every year they apply, and as their market matures, it produces data similar to the Chronicle’s.

So does patience pay off in the academic job market? I’d still love to know.