To get anywhere new, you need to step off the treadmill
Before tenure, most academics need to publish their work in peer-reviewed journals if they want to keep their jobs. After tenure, most can publish their work anywhere or nowhere and still keep their jobs. This is a dramatic change in incentives, and you’d think it would lead to dramatic changes in behavior, particularly in a field like economics that studies incentives. In some ways it does- most professors spend less time on research after tenure. But if they do keep doing research, it is generally the same kind they did before- it seems surprisingly rare for economists to change what kind of research they do in response to their changed incentives.
On Monday the President of Providence College told me I’ve been promoted to tenured Associate Professor. I spent much of the last 10 years focused on publishing the 26 academic articles that got me here. So now I’m wondering, what do I change when freed from constraints? I’m planning a pivot toward higher-risk, longer time-horizon, potentially higher-reward research:
Different venues– publish things where people will read them, not where its most prestigious. More white papers, working papers, open access. More blog posts and popular articles, more books– not everything needs to be a peer-reviewed academic paper.
Different topics and methods– focus on work that might have policy impact even if it doesn’t publish well. Do more replications, forecasting and related work that moves us toward being a real science that establishes real truths, even if it doesn’t publish well and might anger some people. Make a point of posting data and code publicly so that its easy for others to use.
New skills– develop generalist skills or a 2nd specialty, ideally in a young/developing field like metascience or superforecasting. Breakthroughs are more likely to come that way, especially for someone not at the top of their 1st field. Create slack so that when big opportunities or needs arise, I’m not “too busy” working on old articles to do anything about it (like I was with Covid in February 2020, Bitcoin mining in 2011, et c). Of course, many of the directions I’m considering (prediction markets, consulting, angel investing, hanging around the state house) might never be “research” even if they do pan out.
The GMU economists are good role models here, though they are such outliers now that people don’t realize they often started their careers focused on publishing journal articles (admittedly some weird ones). For instance, Bryan Caplan’s first book came out 4 years after he got tenure. I’d like to hear more examples of people whose research changed for the better after tenure if you have them. I’d also like to hear about the projects you wish someone not concerned about career risk would take on.
I’m happy to be an Associate Professor at Providence College. While I wouldn’t mind hitting some higher rungs of the academic career/prestige ladder (full professor, endowed chair, NBER invitations, et c), I don’t view these as incentives strong enough to distort my choices the way needing to get a job and get tenure did. Now the goal is simply to do the best work I’m capable of, as I see it. As you can tell I’m pulled in a lot of different directions about what this will look like, but I hope that within 5 years it will be clear I’m doing quality work beyond standard applied microeconomics I’ve been exclusively focused on till now. If not, you’ll have this post to hold over me.
“I consider the “wasting of tenure” to be one of the aesthetic crimes one can commit with a wealthy life, and yet I see it all the time” –Tyler Cowen
Congratulations, James! I have no doubt that you will not waste this opportunity.