12 Dec 2008

Public or Academic Intellectual?

Two months ago, I mentioned the different career paths ahead of me. One path is well-known: The academic intellectual who "advances" knowledge by writing papers for academic journals and academic readers. The other path is not so clear: The public intellectual who spreads knowledge by writing op/ed pieces, blogging and giving talks to lay people.

Since most of you know me through this blog, you can see that I am pursuing the public path. One reason that I am doing so is that I have always wanted to make teaching an important part of my life, but teaching is neither valued nor rewarded in many academic positions, i.e., "where have you published?" is more important than "how well do you teach?" -- and even "what have you published?"
Aside: I have written an academic paper on publication (and how to fix the system) with a colleague. The more I have learned about "the business" and the weaknesses of the publish or perish regime, the more has my dislike and distrust of it (and its phony "metrics") grown. The paper has been rejected before (it's under review now), and those rejections -- and their reasoning -- have led me to conclude that the current system is doomed.

This comic points out how silly the current metrics are:
IMO, future academic publication will look like this:
  1. "Publish" the paper on a wiki.
  2. Readers comment, and author(s) discuss those comments and/or make changes to improve the paper. (The wiki will show revision history.)
  3. A given paper's ranking ("importance") will be a function of its views, downloads and citations.
This method will get information out as quickly as possible, allow feedback and discussion (with tracking of revisions) and facilitate the measurement of "success." It will also mean the end of academic journals. Academic reputations will then be measured at the individual level.
The trouble with the public intellectual path is that it's hard to find a way to get paid. (I am on a 2 year postdoc with considerable freedom right now.) Many academics go down the academic path because it's easy to understand: If you publish, you will get tenure. When you get tenure (after 7 years typically), you can use your lifetime job security to be a public intellectual, spend more time teaching, or publish even more -- a choice that tends to dominate. (If you don't get tenure, you go back on the job market...)

So one way ahead for me is to hold my nose and try to get tenure. But that requires that I write whatever is fashionable or cutting edge or statistically significant -- even if it takes forever (the lag from submission to publication in economics is easily a year or more...), has zero relevance to real people facing real problems (few academics work on policy and few real people can understand an academic paper), will not be read (there are over 700 economic journals, and I can name about 20), and will not be implemented (there's no point of paying attention to a paper once it's published).

As I said to my dad: "I need to send stuff to people who don't care about what I say so that I can get the freedom to teach people who do care." Not very romantic, eh?

This brings up the difference between a job and a calling, i.e.,
A job will never satisfy you all by itself, but it will afford you security and the chance to pursue an exciting and fulfilling life outside of your work. A calling is an activity you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it -- often to the detriment of your life outside of it.


So which is it: job or calling? You can answer the question directly, or allow time to answer it for you. Either way, I think you'd be happier if you stopped thinking of what the world had to offer you, and started thinking a bit more about what you had to offer the world. Real excitement isn't just in whatever you happen to be doing, but in what you bring to it.
So I want to be relevant and have impact, and this blogging thing seems to be moving in the right direction: aguanomics is ranked in the top 90 in economics blogs. My academic papers, in contrast, put me at about 8,300 among social scientists. By another measure, my papers have been downloaded over 1,000 times in 4 years, but my blog had nearly 7,000 unique visitors last month.

I won't bother to speculate why one thing works better than another, but I will say that I am facing more demand as a public intellectual than academic intellectual. Even more important, I am enjoying this role, this calling, far more than the alternative (writing academic papers, which is just as fun as sawing off my own leg with a pair of nail clippers...)

So where is all this going? I'm not sure, but I am going to keep thinking about what I am doing, the impact I am having, and what to do (and how to support myself while I am doing it) after my postdoc.

In early 2009, I will take a few road trips to teach aguanomics and learn from you and yours. Stay tuned.

Bottom Line: We all try to be relevant, and it's hard to find the best way to do that.


  1. Please let us know where you are going to be on the Aguanomics tour so maybe we can get you to visit one of our institutions.

    Who knows, maybe you might end up with groupies that follow you about on your travels from show to show. I know, leave the bottled water at home.


  2. David: Best of luck. Why don't you hold off with the searing crit of academics game until you have tenure? The lay into it.

  3. David, aren't there alternative academic tracks one might carve out, like angling for government/international development grants that get an academic applying knowledge in the field (and possibly data for papers)?

    Or, some universities/colleges that place more value on teaching than others?

    Or working with your skills (in government, or perhaps in private sector or utilities) and pursuing public intellectualism part-time... then, later, entering academia as someone with a bit of achievement?

    Good luck!

    Dan in Oregon

  4. David,

    I like this one Or, some universities/colleges that place more value on teaching than others?

    There are loads of places where you can teach and good teaching is rewarded, write interesting academic papers, write interesting policy papers and blog all you'd like. Those at PhD granting institutions will look down their noses at you but, for some reason, I don't think you'd worry about that.

  5. Wikis replacing the traditional publication process is a fantastic idea. I think its something that more and more academics of all fields are warming up if not unconsciously. Maybe you and your colleague should be revolutionaries (haha, with tenure to make you invincible) and start this for real.

  6. It seems like the million dollar question is where there is enough interest in water economics -- or natural resource economics in general -- to justify a publication or think tank hiring you on full time to do blogging, writing, research (on your terms), and outreach.

    You are very good at it, and I'd like to think there is a middle-of-the-road think tank in Washington that would want you to do it full time. (Ideally it would be Sacramento (or Atlanta), but that wouldn't be high profile enough to justify the cost.)

    Given the state of newspapers and magazines, I don't think they would be a viable sponsor. Even Levitt and Hooha at Freakonomics have kept their day jobs.

    Besides, er, quality research, it seems like the Washington think tanks thrive on controversy. Certainly there is a lot of controversy right now in market pricing of water.

  7. And how could I forget...

    To be a public intellectual, you must have written a couple books, so they can identify you as "Author of blah-blah-blah and other books on water economics."

    On the TeeVee, being the author of a book makes you an expert and is much more important than all the other credentials. It also gives you an excuse to go on Jon Stewart, Colbert, Leno, NPR, etc (or more accurately, an excuse for them to invite you.)

    So you better get cracking before your postdoc runs out. :-D

  8. As a current graduate student, I am in complete agreement with your (David's) opinion on the current academic career path, i.e. fashionable, late, irrelevant publications in academic journals.

    I also see the future as wiki-style publications. Why should your paper's fate depend on 3 reviewers rather than the whole world? As a statistician, it would be extremely helpful to have the paper, the data, and the code all available for anybody to use and provide feedback. Some individuals provide this on their websites and some journals are starting to do this, but a centralized location would be helpful.

    So how do we start this and who runs the wiki? Perhaps academic.gov?


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