Archive for the ‘academia’ Category
In a paper just published in Contemporary Economic Policy (ungated here), Anna Chorniy and I find that the answer is no- at least for one piece of the Affordable Care Act. The piece we study is the dependent coverage mandate, which since September 2010 has required family health insurance plans to cover young adults up to their 26th birthday, rather than just their 19th. The ability for young adults to go on their parents health insurance plans gave them a major option for insurance that wasn’t tied to their jobs. I expected this to reduce the “job lock” problem- people staying in a job because switching jobs would mean losing their current employer-based health insurance.
But this effect is just utterly absent from the data. I’ve never seen a result turn out so robustly insignificant in every single way we slice up the data or vary the analysis.
Perhaps the job lock problem is overblown in general, though many papers have found evidence of it; or perhaps 19-25 year olds were simply too young and healthy to really care. Certainly many journal referees thought the result was too obvious to be worth publishing (obvious after reading our paper, at least). Thanks to CEP editor Brad Humphreys for being willing to publish a “negative result”; the fact that so many editors and referees are unwilling to do so is a major source of publication bias and not-so-ethical behavior in response.
Negative results aside, I think we really do have an interesting point to make: that the effect of job lock should differ by age, going from non-existent for young adults to substantial for older adults. This is indeed obvious once we point it out. But it was ignored by a large previous literature on job lock, which has tended to lump all working-age adults together and pronounce what “the” job lock effect is (or to focus on a single age group without pointing out how their age makes them unusual). Always be on the lookout for how people respond differently to the same thing.
In his recent article “Why Academic Writing Stinks”, Steven Pinker highlights many examples of bad academic writing. He argues that academic writing is mostly bad because writing well is hard, writing well about academic subjects especially so.
Pinker mostly discounts the idea that bad writing is a deliberate choice by individual writers made in order to “dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.” Pinker admits that this happens occasionally, and is ironically especially common among professors of English.
While I think most of Pinker’s article is great, I want to push back against his complete dismissal of the idea that “that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness”. Pinker calls this a “myth”, but I have first-hand experience that it happens.
I have repeatedly been told by referees that my writing style is “too casual”. It’s not totally clear what they mean, but I (perhaps self-servingly) take them to be complaining about the very things that Pinker, and other well-regarded academic writers like Dierdre McCloskey, insist are part of good style: not using big words when small ones will do, avoiding jargon when possible, using the first person and active voice- “We run a fixed-effects regression”- instead of the third person and passive voice- “the approach of this paper is to run a regression, utilizing fixed effects.”
I try to explain my work in a way that will be relatively accessible to non-specialists; at the very least I would like economists outside of my field to be able to understand my papers. But referees often ask for such explanations to be cut. Contra Pinker, I think this is exactly meant to “prove my seriousness”- including too many explanations for people who aren’t in my sub-sub-field leads to referees saying that a paper “reads like a grad-student paper”.
Once a referee asked me to cut a paragraph explaining why I used a certain technique because “everyone knows about that”. Clearly not everyone does- at best every applied microeconomist does, though even this was doubtful since the first paper on it had been published only 8 years earlier. I think what they meant was that that anyone who would read this paper should already know about it. But that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy- if you make your papers unreadable to 99.99% of the world, not many people will read them.
So while I somewhat disagree with Pinker, I hope every academic will read his article. I don’t think this will help much. I agree with Pinker that academic writing in general is likely to stay bad- the cost of writing well is putting in hard work to do so, and the benefits to most academics of improving their writing is low. But if more people understood how bad standard academic writing is, they could at least refrain from spending time and effort pushing others to conform to academic writing norms.
PS- Did you know that Dierdre McCloskey’s Economical Writing is available online for free? Highly recommended to anyone who writes in a technical field, or anyone who could believe that a book with the title Economical Writing is actually pretty hilarious.
Depressed PhD students are in the news again with two articles in the Guardian.
Depression among PhD students is no big mystery; they spend their 20’s beating their head against tough problems for ramen wages with the threat of expulsion constantly hanging over them. What is more surprising is that the problem continues once grad school is over.
On the face of it, professors have the sort of jobs no one should complain about. We have no real bosses. We get paid to talk and write about what we are interested in. We are teachers who only have to be in a classroom for 2.5-10 hours a week, 30 weeks a year. We have good pay and, after tenure, unparalleled job security.
But while the job really is objectively great, and I am annoyed every time I hear academics complain about it, I do see why it can lead to depression.
First of all, independence is a double-edged sword. Many of us were drawn to academia by the idea that we would have no boss, could choose our own projects, and weren’t even required to work closely with any coworkers. But if one side of a coin is independence, the other is isolation. Academics can do all of their research behind a closed door in their office, or at home, without talking to anyone else. Even teaching can mean talking at students the whole time rather than talking with them.
But I think the biggest problem is that academia makes us compare ourselves to the very best people in our field, and leaves us little room for self-delusion about how we are doing in that competition.
In most jobs, you might not think of yourself as in competition against anyone at all. If you do compare your performance to others, it is probably to others at your own company. It is easy enough to convince yourself that you are the best in your organization, or at least that you are above average. Only a few jobs like sales will have publicly shared, objective measures that can prove to you that you are below average at your job.
The biggest part of the job for most academics is research, and the biggest measures of research are published articles and citations thereof. Research is a national, or even international, game. As a researcher trying to publish articles and get them cited, you are in direct competition with the best and brightest all over the world. It is not enough to be the best in your department, or even the best in your state. The top journals publish only a few hundred articles a year, in a profession with tens of thousands of people.
Most journals have a 80-95% rejection rate. We are regularly told that our work is not good enough- sometimes in excruciating detail, with several pages of referee reports explaining problems with your paper, and sometimes with no explanation at all. Even many of the best articles by the best academics get rejected. This constant negative reinforcement is wearing, and keeps our opinion of ourselves from getting too high. There is a lot of evidence that most people are overconfident about their abilities in general; but depressed people seem to be the one exception, the people who know exactly how good they are. It is not clear how much this is depression-inducing brain chemistry reducing overconfidence versus people with realistic self-assessment becoming more depressed, but the later could explain exactly why academics are depressed.
*This post is meant to organize my thoughts on the economics job market I just went through ahead of a presentation on the market I will give to younger Temple grad students, but it may be useful for others*
The Basic Story
I went on the economics job market this year, my 5th year at Temple. I expected the market to be difficult, since academic economics is fairly hierarchical, rankings-obsessed, and pedigree-driven, and Temple was dead last in one recent ranking of graduate programs (though for the record, I think the department would do better in updated rankings). I applied broadly to academic jobs in the US, sending out about 120 applications; I did not apply outside of the US or academia. I had 12 job interviews, 2 flyouts, and one job offer. I will start as an assistant professor of economics at Creighton University this fall. I am happy with this placement: Creighton is a good school, one which impressed me more every time I learned more about it or interacted more with the people there. The teaching load is a decent 3-2 (3 classes in the Fall, 2 in in the Spring), and the money is very good.
I credit my relative success primarily to three things: getting two papers published, picking a hot field (Health Economics), and being willing to search broadly. I hope you notice that the second two things take essentially no effort on your part, so I highly recommend them.
I’m going to try to describe what went right and wrong on the market. I think it is good to hear lots of people’s stories; even as someone who had read many guides to the job market and listened to many stories, I found plenty to be surprised about.
You can definitely get a tenure-track academic job with a low-ranked economics PhD (we do have it good compared to other fields). The only question is how good the job will be. I tried to go in with low expectations, telling myself I had to be satisfied with a job teaching a 4-4 at West Podunk State, since in the grand scheme of things any tenure-track job is a good one. John List is our hero from going from grad school at Wyoming to being a professor at Chicago, but even he had to work his way up from an initial placement at Central Florida. You have to be truly excellent and/or lucky to place at a school as good as the one you are graduating from, much less a better one.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply to the better schools; applying usually only costs you a few minutes, and you never know what might happen. I was pleasantly surprised when I got 5 interviews at research schools (schools where the econ department has a PhD program), and stunned that one of them was from an Ivy League school with a top-10 econ department.
But applying broadly cuts both ways. Think three times before deciding you are above a certain job and so shouldn’t apply. First, the job might be better than you think- a lot of details only become clear in the interview (eg, some schools had much higher or lower teaching loads than I expected). Second, you might not do as well as you think- try to imagine whether you would really turn this department down if the job market has run its course and they are your only offer. Finally, getting more interviews and flyouts means more practice for you- within limits, limits us low-ranked people are unlikely to exceed, more interviews are better.
Pick a Good Field
Health, environmental, and urban are hot right now; theory and economic history are not. There are a lot of openings in general applied/empirical micro (which includes health, labor, and many other subfields), but there are also a lot of candidates. I was surprised by the extent to which field mattered. More than half of my interviews, and all of the best ones, were for positions that were only hiring in health. I also do labor economics and applied econometrics, but had only one interview for a labor-only position and one for econometrics-only. I had an even lower success rate with the open field and applied micro positions- 4 interviews, even though these made up the vast majority of positions I applied for. It would have made sense to put more time into tailoring my applications to the health-only positions.
You may not believe it, but there are some advantages to coming out of Temple. We get the chance to teach our own classes early and often, which is not common at higher-ranked schools; this can give us a big advantage when applying to teaching schools. Even better, sometimes the very fact that Temple is low-ranked can help you. Interviewing is difficult and costly for the schools too; schools can only interview 20-30 candidates at AEA’s, and fly out 2-6 candidates to campus. Most places are not trying to pick the absolute best economist on the market to offer a job to, because they know that person will turn them down. They want to pick the best economist who has a good chance of actually going to their school, and staying there.
As Thomas Schelling pointed out, in bargaining weakness can be strength. In this case, the weakness of your school strengthens your ability to credibly say you will accept an offer if the school gives you one. I was shocked to find out that even we can end up being too good for our own good: I had a preliminary interview at the Southern Economic Association where the entire 40 minutes was them talking up the school and trying to figure out if I would actually be willing to come there; this no West Podunk State, but they were convinced that with my publications I would do better.
You Are A Human Being
We seem to forget this in grad school, stricken by the optimizer’s curse. The optimal behavior for succeeding in grad school, especially during coursework, is to become a boring math robot. But boring math robots are not who interviewers want to talk to and work with. During the job market, schools seem to select for confident but kind extroverts with good social skills. I sometimes struggled to be talkative, extroverted, and empathetic enough during flyouts. So try to regain your humanity as you near the job market.
You are more than your CV. I was surprised to see how important your overall life story can be on the market. When I told the interviewers at one school in a cold state that I grew up in Maine, they all paused to note this as a good thing- I could deal with the weather. I think Creighton was happy to hear that I had been willing to move to the midwest before, to go to college at the University of Tulsa. Several schools got to hear the story of how I met my wife in Nova Scotia. I hadn’t realized before having to explain it to interviewers that my life story was getting to be a complicated one, and that I have moved around an awful lot- Maine, Tulsa, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and West Florida, with a sprinkling of Nova Scotia and France. I think this helped with schools far from Philly (he’s been willing to move a lot before, so he should be willing to again) and hurt me with schools near Philly (one actually emailed me “there seems to be some confusion on our end as to which state you are currently living in”).
Jobs in Non-Economics Departments
Though I occasionally felt clueless about the market for jobs in economics departments, the markets in related fields were (and largely remain) a complete mystery to me.
Since my job market paper is about entrepreneurs, I thought I should apply for academic entrepreneurship positions. This field is young, so I don’t know if anyone understands it well yet. Most of the positions are in management departments.
As a health economist, I also applied to positions in schools of public health, usually in health policy & management departments. The market seems to run a bit later than economics. I’ve often heard that public health schools expect a larger quantity (and, according to economists, correspondingly lower quality) of publications, and this is clear in the job market- they ask applicants to send publications, rather than an unpublished job market paper. I encourage you to learn about the job market in other fields well ahead of time.
Putting tailoring at the end of the cover letter, rather than the beginning (or both). If something makes you a particularly good match or particularly interested in them, hit them over the head with it- they aren’t going to carefully read 300 cover letters.
Do as little other work as possible during the fall of the job market. Teach as little as you can afford to (luckily, a Kauffman dissertation fellowship together with my wife kept me from being starving and homeless while I did no teaching last fall). I ended up coauthoring a whole paper during the fall, which reduced the time I spent on applications; this probably wasn’t smart.
The whole process of the job market has a lot of weird elements. So much could depend on how tired someone on the search committee is when they get to your application, or when you walk in for your interview (once I got a big yawn from an interviewer right as they as their first question. I did not get the flyout). You will have to manage unexpected or misguided questions and comments. I got asked “illegal” questions (about marriage, kids, age) constantly; I laughed it off and answered them thinking it wouldn’t hurt me as a 20-something male with no kids. Even in hindsight I have little idea why some schools chose me for interviews and flyouts while others didn’t.
My attitude on the job market throughout grad school was that no one was going to hire me just because Temple University gave me a PhD and some Temple professors had nice things to say about me. My goal was to get as many indications as I could from outside of Temple that I would be a good person to hire. This meant going after nationally-competitive fellowships, presenting at conferences, and above all publishing my work in academic journals. On the market I was pleasantly surprised how many people did know Temple and my advisors, but this is not something you want to rely on at a low-ranked place, and I don’t think I would have got either of my flyouts or any of the research-school interviews if I hadn’t published anything.
The Best Guides
There were 3 guides I kept coming back to every time I got to a new stage of the market. “The Academic Job Search Handbook” is a good general guide to the market. John Cawley’s AEA-recommended guide is a good economics-specific take on the market. Scaling the Ivory Tower is a wonderful bigger-picture guide of how to succeed in academia, written for classical-liberal students but applicable to everyone. I think this guide in particular (and the advice of the Institute for Humane Studies in general) is a big part of why I finished relatively quickly (5 years, compared to a median of 5.5 for econ nationwide and probably 7 at Temple) and with two publications.
I wish you good luck when your turn on the market comes.
I’m not actually trying to kill my employment prospects by following up a post on politics with a post on academic politics, its just a side effect of expressing despair and a poor sense of humor (last post) along with mystification (this post).
I worked in a university research office for a few months doing intern-type things, and so have benefited from universities deciding to pay the salaries of the research administrators. But I still can’t figure out why they do. When I walked into the office at my current university and saw all the cubicles, all I could think was “we could hire one more professor for each 2 of these people we fire”. Here are my best guesses so far:
Legally required Bureaucracy:
Some of this is no mystery at all: federal laws require some oversight of research on animals and human subjects. This doesn’t explain why these committees tend to enforce the regulations more strictly than is required- wouldn’t you expect regulators to be very lenient if they were employees of the company then regulate?
Many funding agencies want the university to oversee the grant, so professors actually use it for what they said they would rather than just getting a new Lexus (or more likely, Prius). Like the federally-required bureaucracy, the intention is to be like chemotherapy: yes, it will kill some good projects, but we hope it will kill more bad ones.
The real mystery to me is why the university requires all professors to get permission from research administration when applying for grants. The last time I talked to someone in research administration, he went out of his way to tell me this would be required if I ever applied for a grant, but he never even attempted to explain why, instead only saying “its just one more hoop to jump through”. I have two theories about possible benefits:
The central administration of the university wants to know who is doing research and how much money they are getting. This requirement is a way for them to find out.
The research administration office has enough knowledge about the grant process that they can help professors improve their chances of winning; professors don’t realize this and so must be required to work with them. This makes sense only for large funders (that the office has experience with) and new professors (who lack their own experience applying). Which suggests the real reason is:
People want to get paid, and a make-work job is better than none, so they push to expand the work of their office. Bureaucracies tend to keep expanding: “the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy”. This is especially severe when the organization lacks outside competition forcing it to cut costs, and it is indeed very difficult to start a new university. However, this theory doesn’t explain why administrators have been so successful in expanding their jobs over the last 40 years while professors have not. This trend generally, along with its specific instantiation in research offices, continues to mystify me.
I taught Marx in my History of Thought class today and realized a few things.
One is that, about half the time I want to point a finger at Marx’s flaws, there are two fingers pointed back at the rest of economics.
For instance, Marx thought that wages would be pushed to subsistence. We could laugh at him for being wrong, but David Ricardo thought the same thing and never gets laughed at by economists. Marx thought huge firms would bump off all the little ones, but so did Schumpeter.
Marx’s writing was longer, more dense, and more mathematical that it needed to be to get the point across, and he did this partly in order to bolster his intellectual credentials so his policy and political ideas would be taken more seriously. Many modern economists do exactly the same thing.
I came up with two criticisms of Marx’s system that I think are valid, I am wondering if anyone else has read enough to know how (or if) he answered them. Most basically, he seems to be assuming that all industries exhibit increasing (or at least constant) returns to scale, which is blatantly false in the real world. Relatedly, he seems not to consider the specific inefficiencies that arise as firms get bigger: it is hard to get information about what is happening in every part of the firm and its market, and the incentives of workers and managers tend to get less and less aligned with that of the firm. This is a force pushing firms to get smaller even if the production process itself exhibits increasing returns.
This same criticism of Marx’s prediction that firms would keep growing also applies to governments trying to centrally plan: information and incentive problems will bedevil them.
On the other hand, we can partially rescue Marx in two ways on the firm size thing. One is that he got the direction of the future right even if he extrapolated too far: the next 50 years would see bigger firms and more monopolies. Also, imagine if he had been right about firm consolidation: if the efficient organization of the economy really were one huge firm, it is at least plausible that the government should heavily regulate or nationalize it.
I realized how Dilbert explains all of this. It is a classic example of how workers get alienated in big firms. But it also shows the bureaucratic forces and incentive and information problems that make big firms horribly inefficient and vulnerable to smaller competitors.
Finally, everyone should check out Joan Robinson’s hilariously condescending letter poking fun at Marxists (but not Marx) and explaining model-based thinking. Excerpt:
“When I say I understand Marx better than you, I don’t mean to say that I know the text better than you do. If you start throwing quotations at me you will have me baffled in no time. In fact, I refuse to play before you begin.
What I mean is that I have Marx in my bones and you have him in your mouth… suppose we each want to recall some tricky point in Capital, for instance the schema at the end of Volume II. What do you do? You take down the volume and look it up. What do I do? I take the back of an envelope and work it out.”
Imagine she is talking about grad school here:
“They had no time to think about the big question, or even to remember that there was a big question, because they had to keep their noses right down to the grindstone, working out the theory of the price of a cup of tea.”
They, like most people, are small-c Burkean conservatives about life in general. They have a strong status quo bias, but rather than admit this like Edmund Burke, they feel compelled to invent reasons why status quo things are good. Berkeley psychology prof Seth Roberts said “Most of my students, for better or worse, were very conformist. My conclusion…. is that the reasons we give for our beliefs have roughly zero correlation with the actual reasons and shouldn’t be taken seriously (e.g., argued with).” Robin Hanson said the same about George Mason students:
- Ask random colleges student random policy questions and they will feel compelled to come up with opinions.
- Ask them for reasons for those opinions and they’ll feel compelled to come up with such reasons.
- Such opinions strongly tend to support the status quo – mostly whatever is, is assumed good.