Episode 769: Speed Dating For Economists

May 5, 2017
Originally published on May 22, 2017 3:30 pm

About 1,800 economics graduate students converged on the chilly Chicago streets in early January. Some of them ran through those streets, trying to get to the next hotel on time.

They were trying to find a job.

At some point in time, the economics profession decided it was going to create a job market unlike any other. They were going to create a system that is the most efficient job market imaginable.

Every year, universities and companies that want to hire a professional economist converge on one city. They set up shop in hotel rooms. Every young economist who wants their first job shows up in the same city at the same time, ready for a make-or-break weekend of intense questioning.

Interviews are squeezed back-to-back, often conducted in hotel rooms. Sometimes, interviewees have to run to make their next appointment.

And that's just the start.

Today on the show, finding the perfect job takes a lot of time and a lot of money. And economists hate wasting both of those things. So they created their own hyper-efficient, optimized job market.

Music: "El Gringo,""Desperate Nights" & "Future Satisfaction." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

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Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

If you happened to be in downtown Chicago during the first week of January this year, you would have seen something incredibly strange - hundreds of young people, 20-somethings, dressed in new suits and stiff new shoes, a lot of them running.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: It's kind of amazing. They're sprinting down the sidewalks of the city back and forth across the Chicago River.

JULIAN SHU: All right, we're going to - we're going to cross the bridge on this side.

SMITH: These are graduate students in economics heading to their very first job interviews. The reason - the reason they're running is that the economics profession at some point decided that it was going to create a job market unlike any other.

MA: Every university or company that wants to hire a professional economist has come here to Chicago for the weekend. Every employer's set up in a different hotel room in hotels all across the city.

SMITH: And then every graduate student who wants a job has to show up, too. They try to interview for as many jobs as they can over the next three days. It's like speed dating for economists. And sometimes you've got to run to the next interview.

SHU: All right, so here we're, like, four minutes late. So I figure this'll get me an extra 30 seconds.

SMITH: I might take a taxi.

I am barely keeping up with this guy. He's Julian Shu. He's a hotshot economics grad student from one of the best schools in the country, University of Michigan. If he were in any other academic field, he would be wined and dined by employers right now, not running down the streets.

SHU: I'm at the right hotel. This is good.

MA: Julian's about to have the first real job interview of his life. He checks to make sure his suit looks good.

SMITH: Did you know how to tie a tie?

SHU: I - yeah, I've known how to tie a tie for a while. Is it not clear that I don't know how to tie a tie?

SMITH: No, it looks great.

SHU: (Laughter).

SMITH: You're a little on edge. You're a little sensitive.

SHU: Yeah. I mean, it's just my livelihood at stake.

SMITH: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

MA: And I'm Adrian Ma.

SMITH: Adrian is a producer at WNYC. He brought us this story. And the reason why we loved it is that finding the perfect job - we all know this - wastes a lot of time and a lot of money. And you know who hates wasting time and money? Economists.

MA: So they decided to show the rest of us how it should be done. They created a market, a market for themselves.

SMITH: Oh, not just any market, a hyper-efficient, multibidder, optimized sorting system effortly (ph) balancing the needs of management and labor, tested by game theorists, tweaked by a Nobel Prize winner himself. Today on the show we'll see how it works out for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: When economists decided to create a job market for themselves, they thought of everything. And they started with scale. The job market is planned for the exact same weekend as the American Economic Association conference, so they knew all the big players in economics would already be around. But doing a conference and a job market at the same time means that they need thousands and thousands of cheap hotel rooms.

MA: You know a place that's really cheap and has almost no tourists? Chicago in the first week of January.

SMITH: I woke up my first morning in Chicago and I heard this on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's 3 degrees windchill now, 17 below zero at O'Hare. We'll have your next news update...

SMITH: By the time I made it to the lobby, Julian Shu was already there early first day, perky.

SHU: I'll have to find a job.

SMITH: Julian stands out in a crowd of economists. He has a huge smile. He's outgoing. He makes eye contact when he talks to you. It is not a coincidence that he was actually the only graduate student that agreed to be followed around by us.

MA: He's 27. He's confident. But he also says he's having these anxiety dreams about the interviews that are coming.

SHU: In my nightmare, my interviewers ask me a question and I just have no response to it whatsoever.

SMITH: How long does the silence last?

SHU: In my dream, eternity.

SMITH: Julian does not have an eternity to waste. He has more than 20 interviews already scheduled for the next three days.

MA: He's applied to universities, private companies, private consulting firms.

SMITH: Uber, Amazon.

MA: Some big tech names.

SMITH: But Julian is really excited by the government interviews. He loves big datasets, people who have a lot of numbers. So he applied to work at, of course, the Census and the Treasury Department.

MA: And he's not the only one. There are about 1,800 other grad students just like Julian going for the same jobs.

SMITH: And pretty sweet jobs at that. Starting salary is usually above $100,000 a year.

SHU: Can we start moving?

SMITH: Let's go. Yeah.

SHU: Yeah. Yeah.

MA: First stop, Embassy Suites across the river.

SMITH: Are you wearing long underwear?

SHU: Of course I am. Are you?

SMITH: I am. It's terribly cold.

SHU: (Laughter).

MA: We jaywalk across a couple lanes of traffic, over the bridge, everything calm, on schedule.

SHU: The longest trek will be Embassy Suites to the Wyndham Grand. That one will take 15 minutes max, minimum of 13 minutes.

SMITH: Wait, you've, like, done this all on Google Maps so you can get between these places?

SHU: Oh, no, I walked it.

SMITH: Oh, you pre-walked?

SHU: I pre-walked it.

MA: We make it to the Embassy Suites on time.

SMITH: But we immediately hit something that Julian did not plan for. The lobby is mobbed with a bunch of other grad students all trying to make their 9 a.m. slots.

SHU: There's going to be a line for this elevator. Should we wait for the next one?

SMITH: Yeah.

Julian uses this moment to get into the zone. His first interview is with the University of Oklahoma. University of Oklahoma.

SHU: All right.

SMITH: So what is this here?

SHU: This is my crib sheet for University of Oklahoma so I kind of know who they are. Jaeho Kim is into metrics, so if he asks me a question I should give a pretty metricsy (ph) answer.

SMITH: Which means mathy (ph).

SHU: Mathy answer.

SMITH: You have notes here about - it says it's a small Ph.D. program.

SHU: Yeah, it's a small Ph.D. program. I can - they said they only have four students this year.

SMITH: Oh, elevator's open.

SHU: I've got to catch that. Bye.

SMITH: Good luck.

SHU: Thanks.

SMITH: It's a proud moment. Julian heads up to the hotel room alone. And there he will find faculty members of the economics department of the University of Oklahoma.

MA: We didn't tell Julian, but we met one of them last night.

GARY HOOVER: Hi, my name is Gary Hoover. I'm the chair of the economics department at the University of Oklahoma.

SMITH: So we can get an idea of what the interview will look like, he shows us around his hotel room. It's a hotel suite, actually. There is a couch so a job candidate won't have to sit on the bed. Although that does occasionally happen.

MA: He says pretty soon the room will start getting filled with coffee cups and snack wrappers. The interviewers basically don't leave the room for days. It's interview after interview after interview.

SMITH: Do they get to do anything else at the conference?

HOOVER: Sleep. And no.

MA: Hoover's looking for someone like Julian, somebody who can work with big data but also has the people skills to teach undergrads.

SMITH: But Hoover doesn't necessarily get his first pick of job candidates because this is a job market. As an employer, he does not have all the power because there's a bunch of other schools who are also trying to nab the best people. Now, Hoover figures that the University of Oklahoma may not be the most prestigious economics department in the nation. But, you know, here at the job market he's in the same kind of hotel room as Harvard is and MIT and Princeton.

HOOVER: And if I can ask an intelligent question and it shows you, wow, these guys are serious economists and they're serious scholars that you might have thought, well, you know, they're in a cow town. And we can impress, too.

MA: And Hoover says this is one of the best things about the econ job market. In the old days, the top students just automatically went to the top schools. But here in Chicago, it's cheap and easy for everyone to take a chance.

SMITH: Yeah, universities can gamble on an untraditional candidate they might not have looked at before. Students can check out a cow town that they might not have considered visiting.

HOOVER: This gets us into the conversation.

MA: In theory, that's what's going on inside the hotel room. Everyone is trying to impress each other.

SMITH: And when Julian gets out of the University of Oklahoma interview at 9:50 a.m., we want to ask him - how'd it go, your first big interview? But already his eyes have that sort of crazy look. He's got a 10 o'clock interview with the University of Pennsylvania at the Wyndham Hotel.

SHU: That'll take 13 minutes, so I'm already late.

SMITH: OK, time for the play by play. We leave the lobby and Julian starts to thread his way through the streets of Chicago. He's already looked at the route. He moves from a fast walk to a jog. We hit Michigan Avenue at full speed and then boom, don't walk sign. Did not plan for this. So - and then to make up time the jog starts to become a sprint.

MA: The dude is running full out.

SMITH: You go, leave me behind. I had to stop running. I had to stop running and Julian take off. Adrian's following him.

MA: I am barely hanging on. We get into the hotel, push through the revolving doors about five minutes late, and he shoots directly into the elevator.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Twenty-four.

SHU: Oh.

MA: Julian is going upstairs. I sit down. Catch my breath. Grab a coffee. And then, Robert, you finally walk in.

SMITH: I already have a job. I do not need to run through the streets of Chicago. Half an hour later, our heart rate has returned to normal. But when Julian comes back down, he seems more rattled than when he went in.

SHU: They cut me off short.

SMITH: What do you mean they cut you off?

SHU: So, like, you're supposed to have a 15-minute thing ready to go. I finished the overall summary. So there are like 13 minutes of details afterwards. And they're like, no, we don't want to hear that. Let's, like, ask more questions.

SMITH: But I have to say, the good thing about the schedule that I noticed is that there is no time to replay the bad moments. There is always another interview. In fact, there's one at 11 o'clock. It's at the Fairmont Hotel. Should be an easy walk.

SHU: Oh, Google Maps doesn't know where I am. So this is Stetson. Oh, I actually I'm not sure where I'm going.

SMITH: You know, it is amazing that this is designed as a perfect job market because, in the moment, it seems like so many things can go wrong. And, in fact, when we were hanging out at the conference because, like, come on, we're not going to follow Julian all day long, everyone there has been through this process at some point. And they all have these sort of horror stories about what can happen. We ran into a professor at Cornell. His name is John Cawley, and he told us about the time that the job market was in Philly.

JOHN CAWLEY: So Philadelphia, four or five years ago, got hit with a big snowstorm, and people just could not get in. And so, yeah, there's job candidates who just could not interview.

SMITH: And think of it from the perspective of the poor graduate students. I mean, they've spent - some of them - six years preparing for this one weekend, and then anything can happen.

CAWLEY: So we had one job candidate we interviewed, and she got laryngitis. And so she was able to get through our interview just barely. You could barely understand her. And she had to cancel a whole bunch of other interviews.

MA: By the way, Cawley says they interview her over Skype later, and they gave her a job.

SMITH: She got the job. But I'm telling you, you serve one tray of bad clams at the econometrics reception, and all of a sudden, you could lose the entire next generation of economists.

MA: (Laughter) Yeah. OK. But Julian wasn't going to a lot of these receptions. He says he was basically subsisting off bread and peanut butter. Spent the whole weekend interviewing and sleeping.

SMITH: And I have to say, like, we wanted to see what the actual interviews looked like. We called a lot of people trying to get into the room - behind the locked door - to see how it actually went down. But these people are not stupid. These are make-or-break career moments, and they didn't really want someone with a microphone inside.

MA: Except the University of Memphis.

SMITH: University of Memphis so cool.

MA: They said, sure (laughter). If Julian's cool with it, so are we.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hello.

SHU: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How are you doing?

SHU: Good.

SMITH: This is where the magic happens.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: What would you describe as the ideal sort of place, and maybe does Memphis fit that? Or how can you speak to that a little bit?

SHU: Sure. So I think there are multiple ways to answer that question. So I'll start with what do I want out of my Ph.D?

SMITH: For a hotel room someone has been living in for four days, this place seems pretty professional for an interview.

MA: Julian's sitting in a chair in front of four professors who are all lined up in front of him on a couch.

SHU: So overall I'm a labor economist, and I use a variety of different estimation and quantitative techniques to understand different sorts of aspects of economics of education.

SMITH: You know, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. The guy is smooth. He was great. He did a great job. He asked some good questions. He remembered everyone's name.

MA: Yeah. It was pretty flawless.

JAMIN SPEER: We wrap up there?

SHU: Yeah. I guess let's wrap it up. Thanks. All right, it was a pleasure to meet all of you. All right, I'm going...

SMITH: After Julian leaves, we stick around for just a few minutes. And one of the professors, Jamin Speer, he agreed. He said Julian was great, maybe even too great.

SPEER: There is an irony involved in a candidate doing really well in the interview who also has very good recommendations like Julian in that we're also evaluating whether we can get this person. And so we have had some candidates who we say, man, they were really good. And we're not sure we can get them now because they're really good.

And I'm not going to say Julian's in that category, but that is one thing that comes with somebody doing a really great interview. We might end up saying, well, I think they're going to go to a better school than us or a more prestigious school than us.

SMITH: Usually, a school will offer to fly three of the best candidates they interview to the campus to woo them in a second round of interviews. But the schools do not want to waste those offers on people who would never take a job there.

MA: It's like dating. If you're thinking about asking somebody out, part of that mental calculation is is this person going to say yes?

SMITH: Yeah, and maybe you don't ask out the hottest person in the bar because you assume that they are out of your league. Maybe nobody asked that person out, which is why we have so many lonely supermodels.

MA: And this is actually a real problem that happened in the econ job market not too long ago. Economists noticed that a lot of really great candidates like Julian weren't getting offers even though they aced their interviews.

SMITH: The only thing an economist loves more than a perfect market is finding the one flaw in an otherwise perfect market. So these are economists. This is the national economist convention. The best minds in economics were recruited to figure out what was going wrong. One of those minds? Alvin Roth. He won a Nobel Prize for his work on market design. He developed the way organ donors are matched with patients. This guy is a legend. He says the problem boiled down to this fundamental economic concept.

ALVIN ROTH: Decentralized markets where you have to evaluate people in a time consuming way suffer from congestion.

SMITH: Congestion. The economist job market made it so easy to apply for jobs that a lot of people were applying to places they had no interest in, they would never go to, like Julian. We told Roth that Julian applied to - get this - 250 jobs.

ROTH: OK, that's a big number. It's not unheard of, obviously. But lots of people apply to 100 jobs, so it's not an extraordinary number.

MA: With so many applicants clogging the market, how do you know which ones are ready to commit?

SMITH: Roth came up with an elegant solution. He didn't want to crack down and limit the number of applications. Instead, he came up with a plan to add a little bit of extra information into the system.

ROTH: The American Economic Association now runs a website through which before the interviews are formalized, candidates can send up to two signals of interest. And...

SMITH: It's like a wink.

ROTH: It's like a wink. And you can only send two winks.

SMITH: And they warn you, don't waste one of your winks on Harvard. Everyone wants to wink at Harvard. But think of an employer that holds a special place in your heart, a place you wouldn't mind going if you don't get into Harvard. Now, this sounds like a small tweak to the system, but it made all the difference. Now schools could look through the hundreds of applications and see if there was someone who really loved them.

MA: Just in case that doesn't work out, Roth also helped develop this kind of safety net for applicants who don't get any job offers. If by the spring they're still looking for a match, they can go online and see who's still hiring.

SMITH: And after these tweaks, the number of successful job matches went up. Now 97 percent of people who go through this speed-dating race find a job by the summer.

MA: We should say Julian did not wink at the University of Memphis.

SMITH: They probably got the message he wasn't really interested.

MA: You know who he did wink at? The U.S. Census Bureau.

SMITH: The man loves a good dataset. It is Sunday afternoon and Julian Shu is finally done. He collapses into a chair in the lobby.

SHU: Twenty-two interviews in three and a half days.

MA: The last interview was with Amazon. They're hiring a ton of economists these days. And Julian pulls up a huge bag of Amazon swag and dumps it on the table.

SMITH: He is exhausted. He's got a blister from his new shoes.

SHU: My foot hurts. I know you're a radio show, but - you can't see this, but basically I have a cut on my right...

SMITH: Yeah, we do not need to see that.

Twenty-two interviews. Twenty-two interviews. Julian has gone on more interviews in one weekend than I think I've gone on in my entire life.

MA: Yeah, and Julian himself is a little different. When we first met him at the beginning of the weekend he was, like, raring to go, confident. And he said his strategy was basically to get as many job offers as he could. Now he seems a little more philosophical.

SHU: Because sometimes it's just you figuring out that you don't want this job or this job doesn't want you because you're just not a good fit for each other. And I think managing that expectation is really important. After you walk out and both people go, oh, that was great, like, that's good. You leave the interview and everyone goes, oh, that was bad, that's also good because you've agreed that this was not something that you want to do.

SMITH: Everyone we talked to said, Julian, oh, he's going to be snatched up quickly. I honestly expected that by the time we had flown back to New York City Julian would be calling us about his job offers. But it did not go down that way. Something was about to throw the economics job market into turmoil. And it was much worse than a snowstorm or tray of bad clams. Coming up after this.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARNABY TAYLOR'S "EL GRINGO")

MA: We kept checking in with Julian to see how it was going. And pretty quickly, he got offers for second-round interviews.

SMITH: Few places even flew him out. University of Oklahoma brought him to campus so he could meet the faculty. Took him out to a nice Italian dinner.

MA: But then the market dried up. Fifteen days after we saw Julian in Chicago, the new president of the United States Donald Trump put a freeze on all federal hiring.

SMITH: And you may remember this, Julian had been counting on working in government. He interviewed in Chicago with the Treasury Department, the Federal Trade Commission. He sent his special secret love wink to the Census Bureau. And then they all said to him, hey, we just can't hire anyone right now.

SHU: And I thought, hum (ph), that's not well timed.

SMITH: By the end of February, he still didn't have a job offer.

SHU: And so I continued waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. And the back - in the back of my head, I'm still freaking out.

SMITH: Julian says he mostly stayed in his house in Ann Arbor reading "Game Of Thrones." Made it up to book four or five. He didn't want to go to the university and have to face everyone.

SHU: Around this time, other people had been getting job offers. And I just didn't really want to talk to anyone. And I think, they have a job. I don't have a job, all right.

SMITH: And so Julian, out of necessity, had to go back to the old-fashioned less efficient way of getting a job. He had to network. He'd been talking on and off with someone from the College Board. That's the company that runs the SATs.

MA: And the College Board wasn't in Chicago this year, but they did have an opening for an economist. And Julian worked hi connections.

SMITH: Letters of recommendation were sent. And in March, Julian got the phone call. He was offered a job as an economist in the Philadelphia office of the College Board.

SHU: So you missed me last night. So I was jumping around and sort of screaming. You know, I was like, ah (ph) I have a job offer, right? It's like this - this is like, I'm just really excited.

SMITH: I feel like we should've seen this coming, like, that this is one of those romantic comedies where the hero is doing all of this dating online. But then, of course, at the end, finds his soulmate, you know, at the supermarket or something.

MA: The nerdy friend?

SMITH: Yeah. It was the nerdy friend all along. It was the College Board.

MA: (Laughter) It's tempting to try and draw some lessons here, right? But Julian is an economist. He's into big data, and he'd be the first to say his experience is just one data point. He's got lots of friends and colleagues who got jobs through their three days in Chicago. For most people, it worked great.

SMITH: I feel like that should be the motto of economics, right? Hey, for most people, it works great. But I'm hoping this whole thing provides a good lesson. You know, maybe the last economics lesson for Julian to bring into his new career that, you know, even the most efficiently designed market has tiny cracks. It doesn't work for everyone. And you're not going to get a Nobel Prize for saying it, but sometimes you need a little luck, a little nudging to make a market work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUTURE STATISFACTION")

FREDERIC AUGER: (Singing) We'll never get away from this nice place. We'll keep on making jokes with our good friends. Don't ever think you're alone, you know it's not true. Never say you're a ghost 'cause your life is like gold. We like the same things...

SMITH: Good luck to all the brand-new economics Ph.D.s of 2017. We would love to hear from you. Hear what you think you about the show. I know, I know - more equations, more equations. You can write us, PLANET MONEY at npr.org or find us on Twitter. I am Radio Smith.

MA: And I'm @Adrianjayma. That's Adrian J-A-Y M-A.

SMITH: Today's show was produced by Nick Fountain. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt.

MA: Special thanks to Nathan Marwell (ph), Brian Asquith (ph), Claudia Goldin (ph) and John Siegfried (ph).

SMITH: And if you're looking for something else to listen to, may I recommend the Pop Culture Happy Hour. They have a new episode out about what they are looking forward to, and more importantly, what they are dreading from the suburb movie season. You can find that on npr.org/podcast or on the NPR One app. I'm Robert Smith.

MA: And I'm Adrian Ma. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUTURE SATISFACTION")

AUGER: (Singing) We're about to get to it. I like this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.