Your Best Shot at Staying in Academia: Tips from an Economist

2016-01-03 14.05.42I spent a good week in San Francisco earlier this year, travelling with my boyfriend who, with two colleagues, was to recruit some potential assistant professors for his department. My boyfriend is an economist. If you are not familiar with the academic job market in the economics field picture this: the job market is an actual physical market where demand and supply meet. In this case the venue was a suite in a swank hotel in the financial heart of San Francisco (picked by yours truly) where three young(ish) professors spent three long days interviewing job candidates. As was happening in hotels all across the city those particular days. Why San Francisco? Because one of the largest economics conferences was held concurrently, just a block down the road. So indeed people fly halfway round the world for a few sessions and a couple of interviews, and may be lucky enough to be selected for one or more ‘fly-outs’ to present a job market interview at interested universities.

The setting is bizarre (which I don’t necessarily object to), and it is also incredibly competitive (which is why the economics case is one to pay attention to, as I am seeing other disciplines moving in the same direction). In fact it is so competitive that I heard my boyfriend mutter something along the lines of: “I would not have stood a chance in the current job market. These CVs!” Back home he had more evaluating to do. This time for grants. Again, a similar sentiment: “I’m not so sure my chances would have been as great to get a VIDI grant if I had applied now, compared to ten years ago.” Ouch. The job market is changing. And however much we hate it (and I do believe most academics aren’t too keen on this development, collectively squeezed as they are) you have to somehow work taking into account the present conditions. That or leave, which is increasingly an option to take seriously, especially right after the PhD.

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I asked Bas (pictured on the right, waiting for well-deserved best-of-San-Francisco-ramen-noodles after a long day of interviews), as he now is part of the human machinery of academic hiring and judging what he would advise current PhDs and ECRs.

How to prepare if you want to stay in academia?

This is what I’ve distilled from our conversations on the topic:

1. Publications

No surprise here. Publications are a sine qua non. Make sure you have at least one single-authored paper in the mix, and go for quality over quantity. [AD: I remember a conversation with my late supervisor in Florence who was concerned by the CVs with lists and lists of multi-authored papers, often produced without much individual say. To him this heralded the end of the profession. Some of his colleagues rather disagreed, and urged their PhDs to collaborate and ‘pool resources’ so to speak, often including themselves in the mix, at times adding themselves as first author despite little intellectual investment in the work. Depends very much on the field…]

2. Push to the frontier

The PhD and ECR years are an investment to learn all there is to learn about your field, then push to the frontier of knowledge in your field. This is very much a marathon-like pursuit: training, training, training, putting the miles in, rather than having to do with genius or superior intellect. Many academics aren’t exquisitely bright. They do well because they chose their niche well and simply were consistent and kept at it. It doesn’t matter where you start exactly, just get going. Put yourself out there.

3. Beware of ‘lamp post academics’

Imagine I’ve dropped my wallet in a dark little alley at night. Now, where do academics tend to look for the wallet? Right, you’ve guessed it – on the main road where the lamp post is. At least there they can see what is going on! In other words: avoid doing data-driven research. It doesn’t answer any interesting questions. Sure, you may be able to get a publication out of it, and some people manage to build their entire careers on data-driven research, but it’s hardly satisfying and it doesn’t impress. Try to find the wallet in a place you may actually find it, even though it might take some stumbling around in the dark.

4. Develop your idea, make it researchable and convincing

If you’re trying to get a grant for a project there are three things you’ll need to demonstrate:
1. That you’re capable. That you can perform the research proposed.
2. That whatever you are proposing to do is important. You need an idea, and you need to show that that idea will contribute to one of the important debates in the field.
3. You need to convince the evaluation committee their money will be well spent.
Don’t underestimate the second and third part. They are what gives you a competitive edge. Many people are capable, only a sub-set have interesting ideas, and only a small sub-set manage to communicate successfully how exactly the project will be set up. Many academics are great at theorising, but get stuck in the clouds. Don’t be one of them. Tell us why your research is important, and be as specific as you can regarding the details of how research will be carried out, what exactly the grant money will achieve. Many researchers fail to do so. They overestimate the importance of skill and technique and method and get caught up in showing off how clever they are. The main idea and realisation of the project are the more important parts, and is what will make your proposal stand out.

5. Get to know your field

Go to seminars regularly, and contribute. Get to know people. Pay attention. To succeed in academia you need to get involved, to show up, to engage. How does the tribe work? What are the do’s? What are the don’ts? Read between the lines. What are the important debates? What triggers the main discussions? How do people ask questions and how are they answered? Observe and learn. Engaging is an investment in your human capital, and you cannot go without.

Academia is a verb

What I have learned from observing Bas carving out an academic career for himself over the past decade is that academia is very much about doing the work, about getting engaged, about putting yourself and your work out there. Academia is a network of people with ideas, and becoming part of this network is as important as the ideas themselves. Another thing I’ve noticed, and the reason I believe he is doing well is inner drive. Depending on workload and competitiveness in your field inner drive is what will allow and motivate you to continue on the academic trail. You need abundant inner resources to overcome the obstacles and hurdles that are par for the course. Without, academia can be a tough gig, and you may be better off somewhere else…

Which of the above advice speaks to you? Should you focus in on that next publication, rewrite that grant proposal, or spend some more time getting to know people in your field? The inner drive part is addressed in the HappyPhD course. It will give you tools to uncover it, and help you work with ‘effortless effort’. As always, if you like this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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