Reflections – 30 thoughts on 30 years in academia

Next week, August, I celebrate? remember? reflect on? 30y in full-time academia, all that time (bar visiting stints in various places) spent in the Trinity Business School in Trinity College Dublin. I might do a reflection on how I see TBS, TCD and Irish academia (from my narrow lens) as having changed over time. but this here is a set of 30 thoughts, aphorisms, musings, fortune cookie sayings, whatever you wish, on academia, finance version. In no especial order….

  1. Follow your star. Nobody puts “fondly remembered by their h-index” in their obituary or “172 publications in ssci journals” on their gravestone. Once you have tenure or its equivalent, and/or are confident in your game, follow your research interests and the citations etc will follow. Do the work that interests you or that aids your junior colleagues and co-authors.
  2. Have a pipeline. Time lags in economics and finance are lengthy, the ex ante probability of acceptance is low, so to sustain a publication record you need a constant pipeline. Publishing a couple of midranking papers every year over a sustained period of time is hard, but if you can do it the rewards will flow. Publications follow a power law. Few people publish lots, most publish little.
  3. Admin sucks. But if you don’t do it, someone else will, and then you can’t complain. But you will anyhow. You can’t complain about the loss of academic led universities if you as an academic don’t step up to lead. Lots of academic administration (note – not to be confused with actual administration…) is done by those who want to do it. These people make me suspicious – Associate deans and the like should never be the people who want to be them.
  4. Network. Your greatest asset is your network of collaborators, beta readers, coauthors and critics. Build that from day one and nurture it. Invest in it if your dumbass school won’t. Even if your institution won’t pay the conference fee etc, and they totally should, go to the conference. Attend the socials, go for beers, hang out at coffees, contribute judiciously in seminars, network network network. 
  5. Teaching is an art and a science. You can work on the science part if your art is sub par and vice versa.  But remember – for better or worse despite what is said promotion and advancement rarely flows to those who are gifted or polished teachers.
  6. Students are not customers. They have some customer like aspects but its a ghastly metaphor which ill serves everybody.  Treat student feedback surveys with the same attitude you would a poorly designed survey of diners in a restaurant on how they enjoyed their meal which is administered halfway through the first course. Good teaching is a slow burn, so resist the huge pressures to ‘infotain’. Most student surveys are terribly badly designed and the data that comes from them not fit for any purpose.
  7. A comprehensive slide bank is a boon. Do it once per main teaching area (I have one for corporate, one for behavioural and one for econometrics), a giant one, which you can then draw from. Make it so that you can add new research findings easily – so each section or topic has a intro, a more advanced and an empirical set of slides. Now you can teach undergrad and graduate from the same package with some slight adaptations. Feel not a whit shy about adapting other good slide banks you come across or get. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
  8. Don’t go to the office every day. Presenteeism is as bad as absenteeism. Make the office the place to meet students, anchor yourself between meetings, store stuff, meet coffee mates, download data etc. It’s your public face, your agora, your institutional anchor. In all likelihood it will be hard to really carve out time to research and think in the office. If you can, good for you. I never could. 
  9. You are the asset. Buildings don’t really matter beyond a certain minimum spec to do the job. People matter. The assets of a university are its people – staff, faculty and students. Management should first and last prioritise the continued nurturing of their only long term asset – the people and culture they create. When you are a manager don’t forget this. 
  10. Be generous. Generosity in terms of authorship and acknowledgement gets repaid 10fold. Sure, there are always people who will take advantage. But, the more you collaborate the stronger your network. Did we mention network effects STRONG?
  11. The world matters. It’s easy to focus and sometimes reviewers and editors force us to focus on the big countries. Just because something has been researched in the US or Chinese context does not mean it transfers to your locale.
  12. It takes two. Treat your professional colleagues with the utmost respect as professionals in their field. You can’t do your job without them.
  13. Goodhart’s law rules. Rankings are a game nobody would start and everybody plays. You can explain ordinal vs cardinal numbers, compositional issues etc until the cows come home. All admin/government care about is “ what number” , “why are we not in the top X” etc. Rankings are fully Goodhart’d
  14. The Rule of Three. Serve on three committees with overlap – a discipline based one, a institutional based one and one more broadly community focused. Perhaps 2 at a time is good, three is a stretch. But each brings learning to the others. Do enough to contribute, to show yourself to the center, but not so much that you become sucked into being an administrator.
  15. Fake it till you have to do something else. If you make this your career you are going to have several distinct sometimes overlapping jobs: teacher, researcher sure. But also you are going to be a personnel manager, financial controller, arbitrator, judge, editor, publisher, fundraiser, chairperson….you will get little or no training for many of these. 
  16. Back up. Back up everything daily. Back up the backup weekly. Back those up monthly. Do these in seperate places. 
  17. Money shouldn’t count. Fundraising is never an output. It’s an input. Challenge the notion that it is an output. 
  18. STFU. Especially as a junior, say much less than you think in meetings and internal debates. Keep your counsel mostly private.
  19. Write it down. Keep lists of projects and their status. You don’t need a fancy app, a spreadsheet or a simple database will do. If a project has not moved for a year, convene all involved and kill or cure. You will start many more projects than you can finish. That’s fine. Each feeds into the other.
  20. CV’s are important. Keep your CV totally up to date. Every single thing you do – keynotes, invited talks, lecturing, every committee – note it. It is always easier to cut things out for a given situation than wrack your brains trying to think what did I do 10y ago.
  21. Be a mentor. Work with younger academics to help them develop their skills and learn from your mistakes. This will reward you in so many ways
  22. Dont be a creepazoid. Mostly for the guys…. Dont be a jerk or a creep to your female colleagues or worse yet, students. You will probably transgress somebody’s boundaries somewhere sometime. Be gracious and open for correction. Adjust guys/female as per sexual preference and orientation but keep it professional.
  23. Go west. Or east. Spend time abroad in other institutions if at all feasible. We all struggle with the same issues just different notes on the scale. 
  24. ABL. Always be learning. Try to learn new skills regularly. If you work with empirical studies keep abreast of not just new techniques but also new software, packages etc. But as an economist/finance academic you are NOT a computer scientist or programmer. Nor a mathematician. These are tools, to answer a question. If you dont need the latest R package then dont use it to try impress. Use the least complex tool to answer the question.
  25. Refresh your teaching. When teaching, while new preps are a buzzkill so also is being in a rut. Offer to do something new every now and again. As a more senior academic, offer to take the large intro class. Offer to run a more specialised module as a mid career academic, to challenge yourself. 
  26. Dont whine. Dont complain too much to non academics. You have a good job, pretty well paid, in out of the rain, dealing with people who keep you on your mental toes, pretty well paid with ample opportunities to shape your own work day/week/month. 
  27. Speak up. Be willing , as you get established, to step towards a role as a public academic. A large chunk of your salary comes from the taxpayer, so if you can explain or comment on something within your area of competence, do so, in print or broadcast. However, remember that it is very easy to get seduced by the media attention. As yourself are you being asked to comment because you really know something about this area or because you can give face validity “Now we speak to Professor X on this hot button issue” and a soundbite? 
  28. Work. Inspiration is fine and dandy but a solid work ethic, bounded by a coherent and distinct personal life, is a surefire longterm success. As Picasso noted “inspiration exists but it has to find us working”. Put in the hours. But do keep a solid work life balance.
  29. Get lucky. Luck matters much more than we want to admit. Finding the right mentor, serdenidity in a comment that sparks a new idea, running into someone at a conference and striking it off, chatting to someone who turns out to be in a position to aid research or teaching or student placement. Grab lucky breaks with both hands and mine it out. 
  30. Educate, dont train. Its not your job to train people to get jobs. It is to train them to think. Industry want oven ready graduates who are up to date with the latest industry tools and technology but are incredibly reluctant to put in the resources to universities which will allow graduates to move towards that while also being more generally educated. 

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