My first AEA conference

Jan 13 JDN 2458497

The last couple of weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind for me. I submitted a grant proposal, I have another, much more complicated proposal due next week, I submitted a paper to a journal, and somewhere in there I went to the AEA conference for the first time.

Going to the conference made it quite clear that the race and gender disparities in economics are quite real: The vast majority of the attendees were middle-aged White males, all wearing one of either two outfits: Sportcoat and khakis, or suit and tie. (And almost all of the suits were grey or black and almost all of the shirts were white or pastel. Had you photographed in greyscale you’d only notice because the hotel carpets looked wrong.) In an upcoming post I’ll go into more detail about this problem, what seems to be causing it, and what might be done to fix it.

But for now I just want to talk about the conference itself, and moreover, the idea of having conferences—is this really the best way to organize ourselves as a profession?

One thing I really do like about the AEA conference is actually something that separates it from other professions: The job market for economics PhDs is a very formalized matching system designed to be efficient and minimize opportunities for bias. It should be a model for other job markets. All the interviews are conducted in rapid succession, at the conference itself, so that candidates can interview for positions all over the country or even abroad.

I wasn’t on the job market yet, but I will be in a few years. I wanted to see what it’s like before I have to run that gauntlet myself.

But then again, why did we need face-to-face interviews at all? What do they actually tell us?

It honestly seems like a face-to-face interview is optimized to maximize opportunities for discrimination. Do you know them personally? Nepotism opportunity. Are they male or female? Sexism opportunity. Are they in good health? Ableism opportunity. Do they seem gay, or mention a same-sex partner? Homophobia opportunity. Is their gender expression normative? Transphobia opportunity. How old are they? Ageism opportunity. Are they White? Racism opportunity. Do they have an accent? Nationalism opportunity. Do they wear fancy clothes? Classism opportunity. There are other forms of bias we don’t even have simple names for: Do they look pregnant? Do they wear a wedding band? Are they physically attractive? Are they tall?

You can construct your resume review system to not include any of this information, by excluding names, pictures, and personal information. But you literally can’t exclude all of this information from a face-to-face interview, and this is the only hiring mechanism that suffers from this fundamental flaw.

If it were really about proving your ability to do the job, they could send you a take-home exam (a lot of tech companies actually do this): Here’s a small sample project similar to what we want you to do, and a reasonable deadline in which to do it. Do it, and we’ll see if it’s good enough.

If they want to offer an opportunity for you to ask or answer specific questions, that could be done via text chat—which could be on the one hand end-to-end encrypted against eavesdropping and on the other hand leave a clear paper trail in case they try to ask you anything they shouldn’t. If they start asking about your sexual interests in the digital interview, you don’t just feel awkward and wonder if you should take the job: You have something to show in court.

Even if they’re interested in things like your social skills and presentation style, those aren’t measured well by interviews anyway. And they probably shouldn’t even be as relevant to hiring as they are.

With that in mind, maybe bringing all the PhD graduates in economics in the entire United States into one hotel for three days isn’t actually necessary. Maybe all these face-to-face interviews aren’t actually all that great, because their small potential benefits are outweighed by their enormous potential biases.

The rest of the conference is more like other academic conferences, which seems even less useful.

The conference format seems like a strange sort of formality, a ritual that we go through. It’s clearly not the optimal way to present ongoing research—though perhaps it’s better than publishing papers in journals, which is our current gold standard. A whole bunch of different people give you brief, superficial presentations of their research, which may be only tangentially related to anything you’re interested in, and you barely even have time to think about it before they go on to the next once. Also, seven of these sessions are going on simultaneously, so unless you have a Time Turner, you have to choose which one to go to. And they are often changed at the last minute, so you may not even end up going to the one you thought you were going to.

I was really struck by how little experimental work was presented. I was under the impression that experimental economics was catching on, but despite specifically trying to go to experiment-related sessions (excluding the 8:00 AM session for migraine reasons), I only counted a handful of experiments, most of them in the field rather than the lab. There was a huge amount of theory and applied econometrics. I guess this isn’t too surprising, as those are the two main kinds of research that only cost a researcher’s time. I guess in some sense this is good news for me: It means I don’t have as much competition as I thought.

Instead of gathering papers into sessions where five different people present vaguely-related papers in far too little time, we could use working papers, or better yet a more sophisticated online forum where research could be discussed in real-time before it even gets written into a paper. We could post results as soon as we get them, and instead of conducting one high-stakes anonymous peer review at the time of publication, conduct dozens of little low-stakes peer reviews as the research is ongoing. Discussants could be turned into collaborators.

The most valuable parts of conferences always seem to be the parts that aren’t official sessions: Luncheons, receptions, mixers. There you get to meet other people in the field. And this can be valuable, to be sure. But I fear that the individual gain is far larger than the social gain: Most of the real benefits of networking get dissipated by the competition to be better-connected than the other candidates. The kind of working relationships that seem to be genuinely valuable are the kind formed by working at the same school for several years, not the kind that can be forged by meeting once at a conference reception.

I guess every relationship has to start somewhere, and perhaps more collaborations have started that way than I realize. But it’s also worth asking: Should we really be putting so much weight on relationships? Is that the best way to organize an academic discipline?

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is an accurate adage in many professions, but it seems like research should be where we would want it least to apply. This is supposed to be about advancing human knowledge, not making friends—and certainly not maintaining the old boys’ club.

If you really want grad students to have better mental health, remove all the high-stakes checkpoints

Post 260: Oct 14 JDN 2458406

A study was recently published in Nature Biotechnology showing clear evidence of a mental health crisis among graduate students (no, I don’t know why they picked the biotechnology imprint—I guess it wasn’t good enough for Nature proper?). This is only the most recent of several studies showing exceptionally high rates of mental health issues among graduate students.

I’ve seen universities do a lot of public hand-wringing and lip service about this issue—but I haven’t seen any that were seriously willing to do what it takes to actually solve the problem.

I think this fact became clearest to me when I was required to fill out an official “Individual Development Plan” form as a prerequisite for my advancement to candidacy, which included one question about “What are you doing to support your own mental health and work/life balance?”

The irony here is absolutely excruciating, because advancement to candidacy has been overwhelmingly my leading source of mental health stress for at least the last six months. And it is only one of several different high-stakes checkpoints that grad students are expected to complete, always threatened with defunding or outright expulsion from the graduate program if the checkpoint is not met by a certain arbitrary deadline.

The first of these was the qualifying exams. Then comes advancement to candidacy. Then I have to complete and defend a second-year paper, then a third-year paper. Finally I have to complete and defend a dissertation, and then go onto the job market and go through a gauntlet of applications and interviews. I can’t think of any other time in my life when I was under this much academic and career pressure this consistently—even finishing high school and applying to college wasn’t like this.

If universities really wanted to improve my mental health, they would find a way to get rid of all that.

Granted, a single university does not have total control over all this: There are coordination problems between universities regarding qualifying exams, advancement, and dissertation requirements. One university that unilaterally tried to remove all these would rapidly lose prestige, as it would not be regarded as “rigorous” to reduce the pressure on your grad students. But that itself is precisely the problem—we have equated “rigor” with pressuring grad students until they are on the verge of emotional collapse. Universities don’t seem to know how to make graduate school difficult in the ways that would actually encourage excellence in research and teaching; they simply know how to make it difficult in ways that destroy their students psychologically.

The job market is even more complicated; in the current funding environment, it would be prohibitively expensive to open up enough faculty positions to actually accept even half of all graduating PhDs to tenure-track jobs. Probably the best answer here is to refocus graduate programs on supporting employment outside academia, recognizing both that PhD-level skills are valuable in many workplaces and that not every grad student really wants to become a professor.

But there are clearly ways that universities could mitigate these effects, and they don’t seem genuinely interested in doing so. They could remove the advancement exam, for example; you could simply advance to candidacy as a formality when your advisor decides you are ready, never needing to actually perform a high-stakes presentation before a committee—because what the hell does that accomplish anyway? Speaking of advisors, they could have a formalized matching process that starts with interviewing several different professors and being matched to the one that best fits your goals and interests, instead of expecting you to reach out on your own and hope for the best. They could have you write a dissertation, but not perform a “dissertation defense”—because, again, what can they possibly learn from forcing you to present in a high-stakes environment that they couldn’t have learned from reading your paper and talking with you about it over several months?

They could adjust or even remove funding deadlines—especially for international students. Here at UCI at least, once you are accepted to the program, you are ostensibly guaranteed funding for as long as you maintain reasonable academic progress—but then they define “reasonable progress” in such a way that you have to form an advancement committee, fill out forms, write a paper, and present before a committee all by a certain date or your funding is in jeopardy. Residents of California (which includes all US students who successfully established residency after a full year) are given more time if we need it—but international students aren’t. How is that fair?

The unwillingness of universities to take such actions clearly shows that their commitment to improving students’ mental health is paper-thin. They are only willing to help their students improve their work-life balance as long as it doesn’t require changing anything about the graduate program. They will provide us with counseling services and free yoga classes, but they won’t seriously reduce the pressure they put on us at every step of the way.
I understand that universities are concerned about protecting their prestige, but I ask them this: Does this really improve the quality of your research or teaching output? Do you actually graduate better students by selecting only the ones who can survive being emotionally crushed? Do all these arbitrary high-stakes performances actually result in greater advancement of human knowledge?

Or is it perhaps that you yourselves were put through such hazing rituals years ago, and now your cognitive dissonance won’t let you admit that it was all for naught? “This must be worth doing, or else they wouldn’t have put me through so much suffering!” Are you trying to transfer your own psychological pain onto your students, lest you be forced to face it yourself?