Career advice for young economists

I regularly get asked by young Australian academics nearing the end of their PhD about the tradeoffs inherent in different positions they can apply for: post-doc or tenure-track; academia or policy land; researcher or administrator; a school of economics or a research institute; GO8 or Bush; finishing quickly or going abroad. Since the trade-offs require judgments on the state of diverse institutions, an open discussion could be fruitful as different scholars have different information about these trade-offs.

Post-doc or tenure track?

I generally think it is much better for a really good young economist to take up a research-only post-doc position, even at a bad university or research institute, than a tenure-track teaching position at a better university. Post-docs get paid almost the same, have more opportunities and time to network and expand their research portfolio, and more generally get time to further develop mentally. Tenure-track lecturing means one is part of the prime production of universities, with the full weight of the university hierarchy on one to conform. This is bad for personal development and bad for research, so definitely an inferior option for good young academics confident that their research output will give them entry to other places in the future. Note that this holds only for really good academics. For academics who have reason to feel uncertain where they belong in the long run, there is something to be said for doing more teaching and growing roots in an environment they might remain in for a long time.

It is worth bearing in mind that what is true for Australian economics is not true of many other sciences or even true in other countries. In some other sciences, such as medicine, post-docs are at the bottom of the pile and have to do as they are told. In other countries, like many departments in the US, the post-doc route is much less attractive.

Academia or policy?

There was a time when it was possible to go both to and from academia and policy land, but nowadays that is increasingly difficult and you really only see it at the very top or the bottom. Academia is becoming so specialised because of the increased international competition for positions that maintaining ones place in academia requires full-time and long-run specialisation. Also, the jargon and social codes of academia and policy land diverge, so that it becomes hard for people in those two worlds to speak to each other, let alone go to and fro. From the point of view of the young academic, it means they must choose earlier than before. There is essentially no coming back.

As to which one you should choose, I tend to point to temperament more than ability as the most important factor. A life in policy land means abiding by hierarchy to a greater degree than one has to in academia, so policy land is not for those who can’t follow orders. Yet, life in academia and in economics is very uncertain, quite masculine, and brutally competitive, which is not everyone’s cup of tea either. Perhaps most important for many people is that one is closer to power in policy land, i.e. one experiences more of the hustle and bustle of the (inter)national political game.

What is important for some is the feeling that they make a difference and many believe they can make more of a difference in policy land. On this point, my general belief is that most academics mainly make a difference via their teaching with very few making a real difference besides this. But the few who do achieve this make an immense difference. Also, I would say, you don’t need to be that smart to make a huge difference in either academia or policy. For making a difference in either, determination and charm matter more than deep understanding.

Researcher or administrator?

It has become a fact of life in recent decades that the best-paid positions for academics in universities and tertiary-oriented organisations, like the ARC or DEST, are administrative jobs. VCs make millions but are usually not great academics, to put it mildly. Heads of departments, DVCs, Deans, etc., also earn well above the highest-paid academics. As a rule of thumb, I have observed that such academic-administrative jobs are much more concentrated amongst people of Australian birth than academic jobs. Hence, the career option of going full-time into administration would mainly seem open to Australian born with local networks. The usual route is to start out as a regular academic but to quickly invest in university networks with the existing hierarchy. The personal qualities that do well in this area include people skills, a degree of entrepreneurialism, mental toughness, and of course not rocking the boat.

School of economics or a research institute?

In the past, research institutes were clearly second-best to regular departments. In research institutes one had to do the bidding of those paying the bills and one was usually asked impossible things, like publish internationally with poor data on local issues.

Nowadays, research institutes have mushroomed and they come in varying levels of attractiveness to young researchers. Some function as a kind of flexible untenured civil service institution. Others are glorified bureaus of economic argumentation selling to all bidders in which case you really only need to look at the pay level to see how interesting the work is (the lower paid, the less interesting). Yet others are oriented around academic research, funded by this or that academic grant, and could be world-class in what they do. Others again basically exist to hide money from internal tax-collectors and people in them can do whatever they want.

Whilst a general rule is not available, what is still true is that funding of any research institute is less secure than that of departments who have teaching as their core business, which is a fairly safe income stream. Hence research institutes are invariably less attractive for people later in their careers who have reason to fear they might not find another job after their institute folds. They are more attractive to young academics.

GO8 or Bush?

There is no doubt that if the choice is between departments, one wants to be at the best department one can get into. Good indicators are the Repec rankings or equivalent status systems.

Something to watch out for, even amongst GO8 places, is how politically secure the department is. A fact of life in Australian universities is that every department is just one vengeful VC or Dean away of oblivion. This is not true in other Western countries, where Deans and VCs lack the power to seriously harm their own institution, but in Australia the hierarchy is so strong that whims by the powerful can be disastrous, even for perfectly healthy schools. This is worse in non-GO8 universities with less reputation to lose. And economists are more prone to cause the wrath of the hierarchy than others since we are as a discipline genuinely incapable of hiding our disdain for bad decisions and second-rate administrators.

Of the current GO8 schools of economics I would say that 1 of them is currently under attack by their university hierarchies and life is difficult there. Outside of the GO8 there is a perennial blooming and destruction of economic schools. Now and then the political winds are favourable and a good economic school is lovingly grown, whilst at other times unfavourable winds lead to a quick dispersion of the economists at such places (most recently at the University of Western Sydney). In the last 3 years alone I have seen 3 such dispersions in Australia in non-GO8 universities and a young academic dubbing where to go should carefully look at how the political winds are blowing.

The main questions (s)he should ask is whether the economics degree is safe (if not, avoid if possible: the presence of an economics degree is the major sign of the power of economists in a university), who determines promotions (if it is not the school, know that merit does not count at that university), who the Dean and the VC are (friends or foes) and how long their contracts are still for, and what the character of the current head of school is. Perhaps surprisingly, the academic standing of the economists at the school, or even the level of support from the business community for economists, is of minor consequence when pitted against the wrath of a VC.

Another perennial issue that arises is that particular departments have particular proclivities in terms of where they hire young academics. Some are entirely oriented towards the American market, wanting their young hires to have American networks and supervisors. Others are in principle open to all comers, but would still prefer new blood from abroad.

As a rule of thumb, those with Australian PhDs have a hard time getting GO8 jobs unless they are exceptional. This situation has aggravated over the last decade as the major American and European PhD farms have started churning out hundreds of newly minted PhDs each year. These foreign PhDs will often not have had much attention from their supervisor, but they will have done a lot of coursework and will have experienced a very competitive environment with smart peers, which makes them aware of what they are up against. Local graduates are a bit more sheltered, capable of believing they are great just because they have a first class honours.

Finishing quickly or going abroad?

Within economics, most academics judge someone’s productivity by looking at what they have achieved since their PhD. This means the number of years a PhD took is usually not carefully considered, nor is any career before the PhD. In turn, this also means that it is actually in a young academic’s favour to have the date of the PhD be as late as possible. Students often want to complete their PhD sooner in order to please  family, or to have it over with, but in terms of academic career, later is better.

Spending time abroad is unequivocally a good thing for an academic, usually under-appreciated by the students before they go. It broadens the mind and gives students a perspective that reading about other places cannot instil. Students invariably tend to over-estimate the difficulties with which they find new friends. Obviously, one should be at the the place one can manage to get into .

So, with this quick tour of the main choices and tradeoffs facing a young academic economics, all that remains to be said is ‘good luck’!

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