Sunday, September 17, 2006

Good Academic, Bad Human Being

Mike Moffatt considers the question:
"What real world experiences should I have to be a good academic economist?"
He answers:
I'd say none. Academia, by necessity, is about focusing your concentrations on very isolated and unique problems. I've noticed the people who succeed in graduate school tend to have fewer outside interests to distract them from their focus, not more.
A lot of economics professors I know would agree with this answer. Indeed, I have heard similar advice given many times. But I am inclined toward a different judgment.

It all comes down to the definition of "good academic economist." If your goal is to maximize the probability of winning a Nobel prize, or at least to climb up as high as you can on citation rankings, then this advice is correct. Real world experiences and outside interests are a distraction. Don't take time off from academic pursuits for a job in public policy. Don't ever work on Wall Street or do any consulting. Don't engage in the broader societal debate by writing op-eds or working on political campaigns. All of that takes time away from getting papers published in academic journals.

But don't stop there. If you have this objective, then it is best not to have hobbies, or read novels, or go to the movies. Don't spend time teaching well or mentoring students, except the very best students who can help you with your research. Don't get married or have friends, unless your spouse and friends are PhD economists and can coauthor papers with you. Whatever you do, don't have children--boy, are they a time sink! And if you make the mistake of having children, make sure you spend as little time with them as you can.

In other words, if you want to be the best academic you can be, get ready to be a miserable human being.

Alternatively, you might decide that, at the end of your life, Saint Peter will not judge you solely by checking the Social Science Citation Index. If so, maybe you should make life choices using a broader objective function--one that encourages you to sacrifice some degree of academic success narrowly construed for a more diverse, more satisfying, and more noble life.