Chris Blattman

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Advice for new Assistant Professors

It’s a bit early for me to be giving advice (I’m only on the cusp of non-Assistant status), but I found myself asked for advice the other night by a table full of newly minted PhDs on to their first academic jobs. I also give advice, unasked, to my graduating students.

So, early or not, here’s what I passed on. Mainly of relevance, I suspect, to economists and political scientists.

  1. Learn to say no to new projects. Opportunities will start crossing your desk faster than you expect. It’s tempting to take the first ones, even though they’re likely the worst. There’s a big opportunity cost here: every project you take on now crowds out a potentially better one in a year or two.
  2. Have a higher bar for projects with big exit costs. It’s one thing to start a historical data collection project or a new theoretical model. You can always stick it in a file drawer if it goes poorly. But if you commit to a field experiment or a project with an eminent person, you are stuck with it to the bitter end. Make sure they are worth it.
  3. Book chapters and reviews are a waste of time. David Romer told us this in my first macroeconomics class, and I have come to agree. Few people read these, especially when they are buried in a $200 book no library buys. Unless you’re invited to do a Handbook chapter or an especially high profile book, it’s almost always better to put your article in a field journal. If it doesn’t merit publication in a decent field journal, probably it’s crowding out something more important to you and the world.
  4. Get your dissertation papers or book out. I see so many people too busy starting new projects to finish the old ones. This is the kiss of tenure death. Send menuscipts out soon after the job market, and make revisions your first priority when they come back.
  5. Seek out mentorship. Ask your dissertation committee and colleagues in your new department to read your abstracts and introduction, and strategize about framing, titles, and generally how to sell your work to a general audience. This is an art that takes years to learn, and personal advice can make a big difference in where you publish your early work.

A word of caution: almost all professional advice is either “here’s the mistakes I made” or “how to be more like me” in disguise. In this instance, it’s more of the former than latter.

For someone with real experience, you should read Greg Mankiw’s advice. I agree with all, except for “do not start a blog”, as “that will only establish your lack of seriousness as a scholar”. This may have been good advice in 2007 (when I defied the advice to start this website). Maybe it is good advice still and I don’t realize it yet. But here’s my estimate of the impacts so far:

  • Blogging has made me a better writer
  • It has meant I and my papers are much better known and cited by colleagues than otherwise
  • Opportunities cross my desk more often than otherwise
  • And, maybe most of all, I hold this blog almost directly responsible for several million dollars in research and program funding so far (paying for a lot of serious scholarly stuff). This number is exaggerated by the fact that I typically need to raise large sums for interventions as well as the research, but the basic point holds–for me blogging has (unexpectedly) paid back a hundredfold in scholarly work.

Yes there are costs and risks, but I think social media is too important for young academics to ignore. Accordingly:

  1. If you want to tweet or blog under your research name, be serious. Let your research interests influence your blogging. Become a professional resource for people in your subfield. Be constructive and thoughtful not critical, and never use social media to attack colleagues. This will be a public good that pays back privately.

Colleagues: please add your advice below.

82 Responses

  1. This is a great post. I have made it step 4. I went with bluehost, and a free theme and am now stuck and not sure where to turn. My blog is to share recipes with family and friends. I have a full-time job so don’t have time to spend hours on it. I work all day on a computer so hard to do it through the night too. This leaves the weekends and holidays. There are some features I would like and I don’t know if I can’t do them with the free theme or if I just can’t figure it out. I want a page that has the picture of the recipe and when you click on the picture it takes you to the post with that recipe. I am thinking about buying the foodie theme from studio press. Do you know if this is something they would be able to help me with if I purchased a theme from them? How is the support from Studio theme? Can you actually talk to someone on the phone or is it all on-line? Thank you. I love your site!

  2. Chris,

    Exceedingly sound advice, as you often provide (because you’re smart). I have to say, as I said on Twitter, this sounds R1- and Anglosaxon-academia-specific. That said, I agree that mentorship is needed, that you need to get your dissertation book and articles out (something I’m still doing and I’m way into the tenure-track line now!). Book chapters I’ve found are some of my best cited pieces, but that’s (a) because I post them in PDF version online and (b) they are as you said in volumes that carry a certain prestige (with great editors, etc.) But I’m 100% on your side on journal articles, which is what I’ve been focusing on for the past little while. But with journal peer-review times getting exceedingly long, it gets to the point where your chapter in an edited volume comes out almost at the same time as your journal article!

  3. Chris, I am sure this is all very soung strategic advice. But tell me: how do we reconcile being academics or intellectuals (not necessarily the same thing) with injunctions ‘not to be critical’? So basically the uncritical survive or progress? What does that tell us? Maybe you could post something on this, I would be interested in your thoughts. And yes, from where I sit the expectation that young academics be uncritical means that we have a lot more sheep than is desirable in a profession that is supposed to be all about critical thinking. In fact its downright dangerous.

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