Friday, June 7, 2013

Long Games and Short Games

A variety of twitter conversations and other threads have raised a basic question for academics today (and politicians all of the time): how to balance the imperatives of today with the long term incentives/interests.  The discussion about the NSF and its changes to deal with the Coburn amendment have complicated an already difficult balancing act for scholars

Does one apply for a grant, where the effort can be a huge time suck with small probability of success, but the gains in the long run can be quite significant?


Does one forgo the grant writing and instead focus on writing articles and chapters that may get published sooner rather than later?

Obviously, a key part of this calculation is the probability of success as neither grants nor pubs are certain things.  The NSF mess may improve the odds for some for those with more solid claims to work that relates to national security/economic interest and perhaps for anyone who applies as the number of applications may decline as people self-select out.  Same goes for pubs--is a summer spent on a pub a waste of time if the data is not new and cool?  Or a more modest experiment rather than what the grant would provide?  Or secondary research rather than intensive fieldwork?

The obvious answer would be: if you are tenured, focus on the long run.  If not, don't.  But yet that is too easy and could be too wrong.  Sure, tenure allows folks to focus on the long run, but there are plenty of institutional incentives to focus on the short term--yearly criteria for merit increases is the one that stands out.  Yep, one can have one great year when two books are published and a drought in between, and if your university has a merit system that focuses on yearly gains, you might be screwed by having a great year when merit money is low and blah years when merit money is flush.  In my case, I worked on a complicated team grant last fall that pushed aside most of my research for a while, which is problematic when my new new book is on Canada and Afghanistan and the relevance of that conflict for Canadians began diminishing in 2008 2011.  I now have to think about how to re-apply for this grant (didn't get it, didn't get much feedback) without distorting my research as much.  In the long run, this effort will eventually pay off, but it is killing my short term.  So, I may punt for a year until my schedule clears a bit.  Hmmm.

For junior faculty, the problem is obviously more acute, and it depends on a variety of factors.  Is grant success a key condition for tenure?  Some places have increased its relevance as university adminstrators look at grants as free money to help them solve their budget challenges or low rank (twas the latter that caused a heap of emphasis at TTU in the late 90s).  Is the grant necessary to complete the work that would produce a tenurable record?  Oy, I hope not, but I can see how that could be the case. 

Faculty face a similar problem if they are unhappy where they are at: do I go on the market this year, which is a time suck, getting in the way of pubs that might improve my chances of getting out of university x next year or do I publish this year, but perhaps lose a year of possibilities?  

Grad students face similar pressures--do I publish now, but delay finishing the dissertation as the promised funding starts to run out?  Or do I finish the dissertation as fast as possible so that I can get a job and then publish later?  I thought the latter strategy was the right answer in the early 1990s, but I was wrong.  And that strategy is mostly wrong-er today--pubs seem to be a requirement for much job placement success.  On the other hand, my last batch of students got good tenure track positions without finishing their dissertations and with only modest publications.  However, that is not a gamble I would advise anyone in the current market.

[Update: Oh, and I forgot to mention the life stuff: when to have a baby (h/t to for reminding of this)?  For females, in particular, this is a huge challenge. }

All this goes to show that what is true for politicians is true for academics: balancing the short run vs the long run is really hard.  Of course, Keynes was right: in the long run, we are all dead.

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