Some tips for real-world economists in the academic labour market in 2012

Once upon a time, academic job vacancies for economists focused on filling holes in teaching plans and a promotion was assured if one was prolific, had established a good external reputation and had done one’s bit in collegial terms. Nowadays, things work very differently and real-world economists need to know how to play the game (often against those trained extensively in game theory) in order to get a foot on the career ladder and step up it. In this post I reflect on how things have changed and how real-world economists can try to improve their competitive edge in the academic job market.

A telling sign of the times was the opening comment from the chair of the recruitment committee in the department in which I work, at the start of a meeting to shortlist applicants to be interviewed at the upcoming AEA meeting: ‘Remember, we’re trying to hire people better than ourselves.’ The subtext of this comment was that the goal is to improve the department’s ranking by hiring staff with a better capacity to publish in the top-tier journals; if they were in areas where there were teaching needs to be filled, that would be a bonus, but it wasn’t a prerequisite. This way of thinking is driven by the rise of research audits that rank economics departments with an emphasis on the ratings of the journals in which their members of staff publish. It can prove catastrophic for economists who take a serious interest in the real world.

Another telling sign of what real-world economists have to deal with is the fact that at the same meeting we had nearly 600 applications to deal with. While this is for a university ranked in the world top 100 and top three or four economics departments in Australia, the situation is likely to become increasingly common for those whose institutions use the online ‘Headhunter’ job application/candidate reviewing system that makes it easier to apply for all the entry-level jobs available on the system rather than to be selective. We increasingly have a global auction for assistant professors/lecturers, whereas in the past, at least for those of us outside of North America, the market was much more segmented and application piles much smaller. The result is that each institution ends up having to shortlist far more applicants than under traditional systems in which applications were more carefully targeted. (My own institution shortlisted 42 for interview at the AEA meeting, from whom perhaps a dozen might be selected for a ’fly-out’ to an on-campus presentation and interview.)

In this situation, information overload is a major factor and initial screening processes will rarely be conducted in depth if assessors each have several dozen (on in some cases, a hundred or more) applicants to assess in order to get three or four verdicts on each applicant. Worse still, applications are becoming increasingly hard to differentiate : virtually all are from mainstream economists whose ‘job market’ papers and other working papers all display mathematical and/or econometric expertise and highly supportive references that attempt to save the assessors the trouble of reading the papers by summarizing them. The only way recruitment committees can cope with the information overload is by focusing on familiar signals, such as what they know of the quality of the applicant’s institution, familiar referees, or where the applicant has published. Those who come from lower-tier institutions will attract little interest from higher-ranked institutions but the lower-tier institutions that will be more likely to be willing to hire them may not be particularly familiar with the institution where they are doing their PhD.

How, then, might you increase your chances if you are a real-world economist, especially if, as is likely, you aren’t at a top-tier institution with big-name referees? A certain amount of stealth may be required here, as even factors such as whether or not one’s papers seem to have been written using Latex send signals about the kind of economist you might be and hence what kind of things you may be able to publish, and where.

Be aware that if you have published in second- or third-tier journals this could count against you with higher-ranking institutions that are comparing you with those who have not published at all: such publications may be seen as a sign that you will never publish in higher-ranking journals. Particularly problematic will be publications in journals that are clearly non-mainstream as they send strong signals about being the wrong kind of economist. So, while publications can help increase your marketability in the right context, other things equal, it can also be dangerous to get into print too early, especially if this involves showing one’s ‘true colours’. The trouble is, you may need to appeal to non-real-world departments of economics in case you cannot win a position in a real-world department, so a CV that suits the latter but is not quite good enough can then mean disaster with the former. Until they have got a job, heterodox economists who have empirical work would probably be wise to try to package it without an emphasis on its heterodox nature and submit it to normal applied journals rather than those whose titles mark them out as heterodox. If the methodology is unusual, explain why it was adopted but in a positive way rather than defensively; find areas of overlap rather than difference where it will help you win referee support.

More important, perhaps, is to be aware of the importance of social networking in getting your academic career happening. Here, I’m not suggesting focusing on using Linked-In (though this may turn out to be important) but to recognize that you can give yourself an edge by setting out to build relationships with academics outside your current institution: send your work to those whose own work has influenced it, making clear the influence that they have had. You are likely to be surprised by the warmth of response, constructive comments and suggestions. Having a bit of email interaction behind you gives you a basis for approaching your heroes with more confidence at conferences. By developing these connections, all manner of opportunities may open up to show your capabilities or ‘get a leg up’ in the publication race, and in potentially influential referees whose names will stand out on Headhunter. Remember that, in evolutionary terms, the life of an academic is about passing on one’s intellectual contribution (more akin to memes than genes) and that the senior scholars therefore need to cultivate the next generation. While the very top-tier don’t have to worry about doing this and may be too busy to take under their wing those who approach them out of the blue, others will be flattered to be contacted in this way and will responded dutifully.

The challenges are rather different if you have been in the game some time and are trying to ensure your tenure or get promoted. The external contacts that you have built up may be willing to serve as referees but within the internal labour market there is no guarantee that they will actually be asked for their reports or that reports that are sought will carry the sort of weight that you might hope.

The problem is that if you have half a dozen real-world economists of note lined up to be referees, they will be expected all to offer glowing reports, so your employer may canvass opinion more widely. The probabilities are that if they do this, they will end up with preponderance of reports from mainstream referees who actually do not know your work very well, much as happens when research grant applications are refereed. But your application may not even get as far as being shortlisted because you have not been able to garner enough internal support. If you have a senior but lone real-world economist arguing that your work is outstanding and half a dozen mainstream economists damning your many contributions with faint praise (e.g. by saying that they are, at best, ‘solid’ because they are not in top-tier journals), the promotion committee may simply decline to shortlist your promotion application without seeking external references. If they have any notion of the politics of the situation, they will realize that taking up external references will merely reinforce the split of opinion rather than telling them how to resolve it.

If this is how things work as far as refereeing is concerned, then you will only find it worthwhile applying for promotion if you can (a) get support from senior mainstream colleagues, and/or (b) comprehensively demonstrate that you are already performing at well above the norm for the grade to which you are trying to achieve promotion. The challenge is to ensure that attempting the latter does not alienate the senior colleagues by demonstrating the limitations of their achievements.

For real-world economists, the advent of Google Scholar provides a great opportunity to establish the impact of one’s work. But it must be used carefully. Google Scholar picks up citations from a much wider range of sources than other citation systems. This makes it the best citation system for showing the impact of real-world economics: it is great at picking up citations in books, book chapters, lower-tier journals and published reports by government agencies and consultants. It thereby readily exposes the relative lack of impact of many papers that are published in high-ranking journals but only referred to by a very specialized audience in other journal articles. You will find it surprisingly easy to demonstrate how well you shape up compared with your mainstream colleagues by compiling statistics from Google Scholar. However, it is probably wise to compare yourself with the best performers amongst your higher-grade colleagues rather than brining out the limited citation achievements of the rest of them. You can also show how you compare with recently-promoted staff in rival institutions and how you are doing better than your colleagues of similar rank.

The latest iteration of Google Scholar also enables you to create your own citation profile and readily cranks out usable statistics for your portfolio of cited works (my own one can be viewed here as an example). As more scholars register to do this it will become much easier to make relevant comparisons rather than having to spend hours doing the work manually. However, a particularly important feature of the new version is that it gives a year-by-year profile of citations for one’s work, both in total and for individual publications. Copies of these charts could be included in a promotion application to demonstrate the rising trend of annual citation rate and also to demonstrate that early work, that are likely to have accrued higher citation counts, have not passed their ‘use-by dates’ and are continuing to make an impact. It is to be hoped that Google Scholar may sooner or later also produce results with self-citations removed; in the meantime, it is be wise to count these manually and include a note spelling out their incidence.

These days, success in winning competitively-awarded external research grants is a major way for real-world economists to win support from mainstream colleagues. To the extent that members of funding committees come from a wide range of disciplines rather than consisting only of economists, real-world economists may have a bigger chance of winning grants than they have of getting papers in high-theory journals. Papers based on findings from grant-funded projects may provide a means of getting acceptable-looking quantitative work done and hence, if they is packaged in a non-oppositional manner, if may be possible to get them accepted in high ranking generalist journals. The crucial issue here seems to be to do with timing. If you have success in winning a major research grant at a time when senior mainstream economists are not having such success, it may provoke jealous reactions when they come to evaluate your case for promotion. They will be more likely to say what a wonderful achievement it is if they have recently won their own major grants. It may also pay to delay applying for promotion until you are close to the completion of the grant-funded project (but before you have had to try to raise further grants) so that you can demonstrate your skilful use of the funds in terms of accepted publications (ideally, on a rising trend in journal status) and ‘engagement’ for the university by getting media coverage for your real-world findings.

To get support from senior non-real-world economist colleagues, and to win publications in more widely read journals, real-world economists would be wise to cease applying factional labels (e.g., feminist, institutional, Post Keynesian) to the work that they do and be advocates for their work in a way that is non-combative. We use these factional labels to find like minds and we are accustomed to fighting against the oppressive forces of mainstream economics. However, if we thereby confess to being aligned with eccentric minorities (about whom most mainstream economists know rather little), then we limit our acceptability. So, simply tell it like it is and if it departs from standard approaches explain the case for doing so with a positive spin that does not denigrate traditional, more restrictive work but at the same time shows the opportunities that open up by doing things a bit differently. Try reminding the readers and referees that contexts differ and show why your approach seems sensible for the context in question, without saying that you would never use traditional approaches in any context, even if that is actually the case.

If it still proves impossible to get work published in the high-prestige journals, then carefully make your case—not by emphasising that your work is in heterodox journals but with reference to the impact factors of the journals in which you have published, how these compare with selected journals of the kind your mainstream senior colleagues rate highly, and what the impact factor trends look like for the journals in which you are publishing. If your key works are your books, then explain how they constitute a major integrated body of work compared with what would have been achievable via separate articles and demonstrate this via their relative citation impact.

In short, a key thing to be doing to win promotion in face of potential hostility from non-real-world economists is to demonstrate that in terms of key performance indicators you are on an upward trend and that (despite not being mainstreams) your contribution to economics compares well against mainstream work on these indicators. It is easier than you think: the mainstream may largely ignore heterodox work, but its real-world nature means it gets picked up much more widely.

Finally, do not forget that, as you get further up the academic ladder, leadership is going to be valued more and more. The rising trend may show you are getting more influential and capable of making things happen, but consider what else you can say about your capabilities as a leader. This is where, having been an unswerving real-world economist you may have an advantage: you’ve been taking academic risks, leading by example and not being afraid of going against the grain. Portraying what we do in terms of leadership rather than slavishly following mainstream dogma carries a wholly different air than giving the impression of being embattled and increasingly pushed into a corner.

(Some of the points made here regarding promotion processes emerged in a very helpful conversation I had recently with the University of Queensland’s outgoing Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor, who was also the chair of the University’s Professorial Promotions Committee. However, the usual disclaimer applies. For further discussion on the issue of marketing non-mainstream economics, click here for a paper by Ti-Ching Peng and myself.)

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