The academic experiment


Jason Collins


February 4, 2022

This week I finally took the plunge and joined academia. It’s a possibility that has been lurking over me for close to ten years, although recently I had been of the view that the time had passed.

As I wound up my PhD in 2014, I nosed around the Australian academic job market. With twins on the way, I was somewhat reluctant to nose further afield, so only applied for two foreign opportunities that were a particularly good fit.

It is fair to say I didn’t generate much interest. Australian economics departments typically have a preference for new hires from name universities overseas. (I think a global perspective is an OK starting point but that they err in their balance and don’t capitalise on their potential information advantage.) The Australian PhD is absent the often hellish coursework indoctrination that occurs in most US PhD programs, so is seen as less rigorous. (Several Australian universities including my new home have moved to mimic the US structure over the last decade.) An Australian PhD also isn’t likely to generate connections with the cabal that monopolises the top journals.

My idiosyncratic PhD topic combining economics with evolutionary biology didn’t help. I thought it was a good PhD (albeit not the one I would write now). My reviewer feedback was strong and my university agreed. Alas…a dozen or so applications, one interview (thanks UQ!) and that was that. Funnily enough, my job market paper is the one chapter from my PhD that hasn’t been published. I think it’s the most interesting idea in the PhD, but maybe I picked the wrong one. I’d present the idea much differently now - rewrite coming up! - so maybe it will have second legs.

Rather than the academic path, I’ve since worked in a mix of behavioural and data science roles, and otherwise kept myself amused with this blog and other fora such as Behavioral Scientist.

But at the time I was moving on from my attempt to get a foothold in academia, this blog generated a random connection. After a post on a working paper, I received an email from an academic, Lionel Page, suggesting I present to his department at QUT. We ended up writing a follow-up paper together. Then when he started a new Graduate Certificate in Behavioural Economics at University of Technology Sydney, I agreed to teach a few units as a side-gig from my day job.

And there arises the opportunity. The Graduate Certificate is now part of a new broader Masters programme, but Lionel had decided to leave UTS. My teaching and experience made me a logical plug for the gap. Now I’m part of the Economics Discipline Group at the University of Technology Sydney with a mission to drive the Masters.

In my ‘sour grapes’ moments over the last few years, I had questioned whether I wanted to join academia. The blog receives several orders of magnitude more readers in the course of a year than my journal articles will ever get. Why would I want to join a game fighting to get material published in arcane places that nobody reads when I can play with ideas, write them up in a way that suits me, and publish them in a forum where there are actual readers? I could even work just a couple of days a week, earn more than an academic salary and use my remaining time as I please.

A few things tipped me.

First, the teaching interests me. In the same way that I understand something an order of magnitude more after I’ve blogged it, teaching has the same effect. And I like trying to get people across the line with new ideas.

The broader challenge of creating a great Masters program is also interesting. As regular readers of this blog would know, I’m critical of a lot of academic and applied behavioural science. How do we create a pipeline of graduates who know the science, can determine what’s bullshit, and who won’t just wave around the latest shiny thing? I deliberately shaped the units I have taught over the last couple of years to give the highs and the lows of behavioural economics. It’s now a case making sure the whole package works.

Finally, I do have the freedom to pick up interesting external projects. If I could be useful, let me know!

I’m not planning to play the academic publishing game to maximise impact points or whatever the benchmark is. I’m old and grumpy enough to be willing to travel my own path and that involves exploring interesting ideas in places where people will engage with them. That said, I do have some paper ideas that I think will be successful. There is a role for the sceptical behavioural economics aggregator and critic. I’ve got some thoughts to build on the ergodicity posts I’ve written. There are some lingering evolutionary ideas from my earlier research. And I want to get that damned job market paper published!

The other beneficiary of the academic gig will be this blog. You may have noticed that I have awoken from my pandemic-induced slumber of the last two years and been posting on a weekly basis since the beginning of the year. My plan is that will continue. The blog is a major way I develop my thoughts. I hope you also get something out of it.

Postscript: I’m halfway through David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. It’s excellent, almost on par with the fantastic The Sports Gene. A central thread is that you shouldn’t specialise too early. Have a long sampling period. Because of improved match and a bigger toolkit, those who specialise late are often the most successful.

The book is almost tailor made to equip me to justify my career path. I dropped out of army officer training (there’s a chapter about that very topic!) and out of university three times. I’ve been a lawyer, environmental campaigner, policy adviser in Treasury, environmental consultant, economic consultant, behavioural economist and data scientist. I have five degrees (from nine course starts…I don’t count one of the times as “dropping out”). And now I am on a new venture. Here’s hoping I’m a case study on the payoffs of a very long sampling period.