31 October 2011

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt

At the University of Waterloo, co-op interviews are some of the most stressful parts of student life. Despite the many benefits of the program, those in the throes of Jobmine can tell you a darker side of the story, fraught with danger and uncertainty. For some, the co-op process is like riding a unicycle on a dental floss tightrope over a wilderness of razor blades. Co-op can backfire.

One of the downsides of co-op is the constant packing up and moving to other cities. I do 4 months of school, then 4 months of work - back and forth until I graduate. It takes a toll. So I was really gunning for a job in the Waterloo area, so I wouldn’t have to move out of town again. But, not willing to put all my eggs in one basket, I applied to some jobs in other cities.

The interview process can be stressful enough, but the real mindgames happen during the ranking period. After each interview, employers rank the candidates from most to least favourable. But I’m not allowed to see my rankings until all of the interviews were over. This caused co-op to permeate my consciousness as I replayed each interview, fretting over the details of the conversation. Did I present myself professionally? Did my questions sound cheesy? I hope they didn’t notice me fidgeting with my cufflinks. Maybe the cufflinks were too much, should I have opted for a regular dress shirt? I hope my palms weren’t sweaty when I shook her hand.

After a month of waiting, the results are out. I’ve been offered a few jobs - good jobs - but none of them are in Waterloo. The rest of the job applications show a cryptic message: “Ranked”. One sterile word, and yet full of nuance. I wasn’t the top candidate, but I don’t know where in the ranking I place. It’s a vague message that says “You’re good, but not the best. You might be good enough, though, if the top-ranked person doesn’t want this job.”

From these tea leaves, it’s my turn to rank the jobs according to my preference. I can give a rank of 1 to one of my “Offers” and be guaranteed employment, or I can take a chance and go for a job that I was only “Ranked” for. One of my classmates was offered two jobs in Waterloo, one of which she would obviously have to decline. I was ranked for both of them.

With the top candidate out of the running, I strategized. I weighed my options. There were two jobs that I really wanted. I was offered Job A. It’s a good job, but out-of-town, so I’d have to move. Job B was the one recently declined by my classmate. Equally good, located in Waterloo, but I wasn’t completely sure that I’d be next in line.

If I ranked Job B above Job A, I might be able to stay in Waterloo. But then, I might not get any of the jobs and be unemployed for the winter term. It was a tricky situation. What would the other candidates be thinking? How would they rank their jobs? This was no longer a simple co-op application: it had become a study in psychology and game theory.

Desperate for more information, I emailed all the other candidates. This is a common tactic that has helped many co-op students navigate the shadowy ranking process in the past. I revealed my preference for Job B, and asked if anyone else had plans to rank it number 1. That way, we could get a better idea of what everyone else was doing.

I felt better. I also felt devious, like I was gaming the system. But then, it dawned on me that I was, unknowingly, manipulating my competitors. By announcing that I was going to rank Job B as my first choice, I influenced their decisions. I effectively said, “If you want this job, you’ll have to get through me first.”

This should have made me more confident, but it just made me all the more anxious. Now I was worrying about how the others would react to my email, on top of all my other calculations. No one responded to my email, so the risk of unemployment was still present if I went for Job B.

I chose certainty. And so the results came in, and I was matched with Job A.

Then came the unwelcome news: Job B was left unfilled. All the other applicants had come to the same conclusion as me: “I’d better not risk it if someone else ends up being ranked higher than me and I get left without a job.”

The secretive nature of the job-matching process makes it worse off for everybody. The applicants, in our fearful uncertainty, don’t know how we should do our rankings. Employers like Job B end up with positions unfilled. What a tragic irony, to be made pawns by an unfeeling computer algorithm.

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