A Young Planning Academic’s Guide to Professional Etiquette


Sandi Rosenbloom is right about a good many things, but the vital role of faculty mentoring has to be up there. When she was ACSP president I once nervously, stupidly, and drunkenly blurted out how, “while FWIG is a great idea, it’s a pity its mentoring activities don’t extend to junior faculty of, um, other genders too.” She firmly corrected me, since FWIG is open to any and all, then some weeks later asked/instructed that I chair the first ACSP junior faculty mentoring committee.

Advice for the young at heart
The committee organized a terrific, well attended panel at the next ACSP conference, where several wise mentors (Bob Beauregard, Susan Christopherson, Genie Birch, and Marty Wachs) offered thoughtful, nuanced advice to assistant professors. I’m pretty sure everyone in the room got tenure and lived happily ever after, thanks to me.

While I didn’t accomplish much else in that capacity (though better leadership on the committee since has), I thought about doing more. Among other things, I always meant to adapt to planning the 1992 Daniel Hamermesh essay, “The young economist’s guide to professional etiquette.” Didn’t. Now, through the magic of modern technology, that original article is available here.

It patiently and sensibly addresses a number of mundane but not always transparent protocols: How to deal with the publication and tenure processes, corresponding to editors and responding to referees, refereeing, positioning papers by journal, presenting work, and so on.

Another paper worth reading early in your career (or later, depending on how things are going) is the 1994 summary of a book of famous economists’ rejection experiences (in turn summarized here), the point being that even the best are misunderstood or, we can hope more often, improved by what can seem to be a callous, indifferent, inhumane process. (Paul Krugman’s initial trade theory work took so long to get by referees — 4 years — that there was a literature based on it by publication time.)*

Which in turn reminds me of the revealing talk by Lloyd Rodwin on receipt of the 1997 ACSP Distinguished Educator’s Award, of his one professional failure after another before happening onto planning by way of his fiance — and even then appearing to fail yet again, having received 2 extended critiques of his first published paper by no less than Catherine Bauer Wurster and Lewis Mumford. A mentor needed to point out that, rather, “young man, you have arrived.”

Which is to say that, a) success is rarely as smooth sailing as it seems to others, b) failure is spread around more evenly than we might realize, and c) while this is far clearer to the tenured than the untenured, we regularly forget to pass it along.

Since the Hamermesh piece was printed, many other guides to publishing and getting tenure appeared on the web. Search for “getting tenure” or “going on the market” in economics or sociology or other fields for useful examples. In planning, the best might be the rich collection of advice, observations, and other jewels in both the splendid 143 page FWIG “Yellow Book,” and the hundreds of short advisory essays in Martin Krieger’s blog, “This week’s finds in planning.” These should be required reading, from front to back, by PhD students, assistant professors, and perhaps the lot of us.

I agree with almost everything FWIG and Krieger advise. You are free to agree with much more or much less, the key being to apply or reject it flexibly, depending on your circumstances and intentions.

In addition to reading Hamermesh (but remembering to substitute “planner” for “economist”) and Krieger, keep in mind that while many economists are human beings with hopes, dreams, and disappointments just like the rest of us, some tests for survival and success are different. My real purpose with this post, besides lauding Rosenbloom, Hamermesh, Krieger, and all other beneficent mentors, past, present and future, is to highlight a couple of points worth repeating and others where our field is different enough to mention. Otherwise, I plan to leave the advising to other sites and get back to research promptly.

Generic advice worth repeating
1. Cultivate a fan base from the get-go. When your portfolio is sent out for tenure, or even mid-career, review, you do not want it assessed by complete strangers. Even worse, the strangers do not want to assess you, which indeed is the thrust of the problem. It is hard to read a substantial body of unfamiliar work quickly and fairly. It can be done, and many do, but it is not the ideal situation. That ideal is one where the reviewers know your work from having seen it presented, having served as discussant for it at a meeting, having reviewed it for journals, having received it unsolicited in the mail, or having overhead it mentioned at the water cooler.

Two things about this. You do not need to generate a buzz, which is hard to do on purpose anyway, but the work had better hold up to close scrutiny. There is no need to be famous by the time you come up for tenure, but at the high end of research universities they are looking for intellectual leadership. This sounds unrealistic and intimidating to many young scholars, which makes me wonder why they are in this business. (The good and bad news: You are only partially vetted at conferences and journals.) On the other hand, at schools where professional activity and teaching count more than research, signs of sustained productivity may be more important than leadership.

2. Productivity is not everything but its value can hardly be underestimated. It is hard to generalize about this. As an example, there are many successful scholars who produce work of uneven content. My guess is this is how they get to the really good stuff, sort of a shotgun approach. They are always generating ideas and analyses, some of which later turn out path breaking, others less so. Possibly, they are too close to tell the difference at the time. One must exercise quality control, as bad work can also sink you, but quantity may, for some, counterintuitively lead to more quality as well. Put another way, there is a lot to say for religiously, compulsively cranking stuff out.

Others work better by laboring over each individual article until award winning. In either case, it is extremely important to stick to your realistic schedule for getting papers out and into referees’ hands. It is surprising how much you can get done in a short amount of time, which you can do if you observe deadlines diligently. As Hamermesh writes, most negative tenure decisions are based on productivity problems.

(Which is another reason why so many are so reluctant to hire you before your dissertation is complete. It’s less that they care whether this specific project is over, than they want evidence you can deliver on schedule.)

But planning is different from economics + political science + sociology….
1. Most planning faculty come from high powered research institutions, where they are tough-love badgered by advisors and peers. Most then go on to work at much different research environments, where hardly anyone much cares whether they sink, swim or karaoke, and research activity may not be as well regarded. This requires a different kind of self-motivation. For example, even if no one in the vicinity mentions it, remind yourself of the importance of the search for truth or, if that proves too abstract, your value on the market.

2. Planning conferences are too kind. They are not the place to expect critical feedback, though that certainly can and does happen, always a nice surprise. They do provide a) useful deadlines and outlets, b) presentation practice, c) important networking opportunities, and d) places to generate ideas and stimulate thinking.

I recommend putting your own panels together and recruiting future external reviewers to participate and, especially, be discussant. Serving as discussant is also valuable and visible. This can be intimidating but it’s the life you’ve chosen.

For example, there are risks but these can be anticipated with some forethought. My latest pet peeve is the ACSP presentation of empirical work that does not yet have any results to report, not least because this seems to be increasingly common. As either discussant or audience member, this is a complete waste of my time. The nonpaper, or any paper not good enough to be read closely, should be withdrawn. There, I said it.

3. Planning journals are too kind. There may well be good reasons but there, I said that too. There are benefits, where you can, to setting the bar higher than your referees or editors might. The work will be evaluated again. (I am told that law faculty do not factor in journal quality during personnel reviews, which are all student-edited and refereed anyway. Too much variability. So they base their evaluation entirely on their own reading of each article in the file.)

4. Planning is a multidisciplinary field. This requires plenty of modifications to Hamermesh. Ours is a much smaller yet more diverse world, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages.

As just one example, in my experience planners often form opinions about job candidates based primarily on their job talk. My impression is that this is somewhat unusual among academic fields, and my explanation is that in any one instance most of the people in the room have no background in the literature under discussion. It really has two dimensions: One, if this is our area of expertise, we probably already the know the individual and have formed an opinion about their work, and possibly even their presentation skills. Two, if this is not our area of expertise, what alternative do we have but to focus on the talk?

This makes the job talk, or any presentation, proportionately more important than in other fields. Yet, as Krieger has said repeatedly, this advice does not appear to be heeded as often as needed. Hamermesh has good advice about this as well. I’ll self-quote my 2002 post to Planet, reacting to presentation tips from Krieger:

I wish to reinforce [Krieger's] “don’t be dependent on your slides/technology,” “manage your time,” and “make your message clear” guidelines with a short True Story. 

I saw a very senior professor about to give a talk to a large group last month, for which he had 15 minutes and perhaps 30 transparencies of statistics in his hands. He starting by putting the transparencies down, which promptly scattered across the floor. He picked them up in unknown order and calmly announced that his “talk would be brief … even briefer than planned.” (Laughter ensued.) Rather than waste time reordering the transparencies he unhurriedly explained the purpose and content of the project and its main results in general terms, took 10 seconds to find the key numbers page (which happened to have a yellow post-it note on it), presented two numbers and their meaning from that, and summarized just within his time limit.

Three points: He used his time for the message rather than fixing the media, he was comfortable enough with a complex project to walk the audience through the 2 or 3 main points without visual aids, and those points likely emerged more clearly than under the original plan. This would have worked less well for an hour talk, but for 15 minutes it seemed about right.

Put still another way, unless the idea is to show a bunch of pretty pictures — as it increasingly is in my case — novices especially might improve things markedly by reducing their slides to merely the bold purpose, the ingenious strategy, and a single page of the 3 amazing results. There isn’t time to communicate much more.

In closing, top 10 tips

From the just discovered Hamermesh 2006 memo, “Top 10 Tips for Junior Faculty on Jump-Starting Your Career:”

1. Send your thesis and post-thesis articles off to journals quickly. It takes on average more than 18 months from submission to final acceptance of an article (and at least another year until publication). If a paper is rejected on initial submission, add at least 6 to 9 months to the total. With a tenure decision during your 6th year, submissions after your third year is unlikely to be accepted by tenure time.

2. Work on several papers at once. If you are working on only one paper, you will have too few publications at tenure time; and you will either be “over-writing” that paper and/or have be spending lots of time avoiding doing research. But avoid the other extreme—spreading yourself over so many papers that you never finish anything.

3. Become an expert on 1-1/2 topics. Scattershot publications suggest you are a dilettante. Becoming known as an expert in one area, and highly knowledgeable in a second, shows you are a serious scholar and embeds you worldwide as somebody to be talked with about a particular issue.

4. Unless you are at a liberal arts college that stresses teaching, don’t over-prepare your classes. The marginal product of additional preparation time diminishes rapidly; and most schools do not take teaching into account unless you fall below some standard….

5. Attend seminars—and try to meet with the speakers. Aside from the direct intellectual benefit to you, your attendance signals your colleagues that you are interested in developing your skills.

6. Submit abstracts/papers to conferences and workshops. This way you get constructive comments and make yourself known. This latter is especially important, since the people you will meet are ideal candidates to write letters commenting on your work at tenure time.

7. Generally don’t hide your light under a bushel. This summarizes how you should behave at seminars, conferences, workshops and other venues. There are many junior economists in this world, and it is important to become known (but not for silly comments).

8. Avoid service on University-wide committees. Such service is not valued by the department members who will decide your tenure, and it takes time away from activities that they do value.

9. Do (some) service on Department committees. Such service is valued by department members (if for no other reason than that it saves them time); and it is also a good way to get to know your colleagues and for them to get to know you. Organizing seminars or helping in recruiting are particularly attractive types of service, since they enable you to meet interesting economists.

10. If you have a problem, talk to the department chairperson or a senior colleague in your specialty. Most senior people see themselves as mentors and are happy to discuss issues of research, teaching and service with you. Most department chairs wish to bend over backwards to give you a fair shot at attaining tenure. (p. 1-2)


Again, these are aimed squarely at economists, who nonetheless live in a not completely dissimilar world and are evaluated by the same campus-wide review committees. Regarding tip 1, young economists don’t write books and their journals take longer to make decisions. (The acceptance rate is also much lower.) That said, I’ll repeat that you have to start earlier and go faster than a 6 year clock implies. Imagine it is a 4 year clock that might be running a year or so fast. (By the way, you want this pipeline packed when you receive tenure, giving you momentum and material for your promotion to full — which can be as soon after as 5 or 6 years in some systems.)

I ignorantly did not follow tip 3 but agree with the sentiment. There is also the question of which topics to specialize in. This might be a good time to remind you young people out there that, if successful, you will spend the great bulk of your career as a tenured professor. You can’t then coast, if you want to continue to be useful to us, but you will have decades for adventurous, high risk research schemes. For the short period before, you must naturally work on things you care about deeply because that’s the point of the endeavor. On the other hand, chart a course and stick to it if you want to avoid difficulty at tenure review. I’m not saying you should confine yourself to high payoff, quick turn around projects. But when faced with choices about where to spend your time, payoff and turn around are useful metrics.

Tip 4 seems to apply less well to us, partly because of our focus on professional training and our material. (Still, he has a point, to which I’ll add that you should keep your number of course preparations to a minimum at this stage of your career, within reason. I taught a monstrously large number of different courses as an assistant professor, as requested by my chair. Yet I am told that at the discussion of my review he asked, “Why did he teach so many courses? That was a mistake.” Right. I did it for … unrequited love I suppose.)

Tip 7 repeats something emphasized earlier, and here again: It is imperative that you make yourself a known commodity by pitching your accomplishments and plans succinctly, clearly, diplomatically, attractively, and effectively to anyone who might possibly matter. Any discussion of your merits behind closed doors can be fair only to the extent you have gotten those merits across to supporters and the indifferent alike. To which I’ll remind you that most are indifferent. In this respect especially, the transition from graduate student to a world where nuturing is an afterthought, if any sort of thought at all, can be unkind.

Tip 9 understates the problem of excess service, partly because our departments are so much smaller, leaving the per capita service load proportionately greater. Plus, planners are applied problem-solvers by nature, so they have all kinds of fun getting their hands dirty with department activities, which then kills dead all sorts of time and creative energy toward an end that counts for peanuts at review time. Wait until tenure, except for tasks that are absolutely expected of you.

Such as playing with the neglected dog.


*Regarding the peer review process, I must also refer you to this week’s New Yorker article, coauthored by A Beautiful Mind‘s Sylvia Nasar, that suggests rather unusual editorial shenanigans surrounding mathematician Grigori Perelman. He was this week awarded the Fields Medal, the so-called Nobel equivalent for math. (BTW, UCLA’s Tau also got a Fields this week, our first. Just noticed he was a full professor by 24. Golly.)

Perelman self-published his work on the internet, so no problem with editors or referees there.** Rather, a certain Harvard professor is fairly transparently accused of manipulating journal protocols and accepted standards for calculating contributions, among other things, on behalf of former students and himself to steal part of Perelman’s thunder. Which Perelman doesn’t even seem to want, since he’s declined the Fields. Golly.

**If you credibly indicate you’ve solved one of the great math problems of all time, you don’t need no stinking journal. Indeed, the NSF has since spent several million dollars in funding, with several hundred book and journal pages to show for it, simply to examine Perelman’s 2002 claim, said only in so many words, that he’d effectively proven the Poincaré conjecture for 3 dimensions.

I suppose you could do the same in planning — self publish to great acclaim — except our famous unsolved problems have to do with the human condition, a notoriously tougher nut to crack than anything on a geometry exam.

Saturday, August 19th, 2006
randall Crane
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