Giving oneself tenure

Senior academics tell juniors that an assistant professor does not have to get tenure at his or her current university, but “in the profession”, i.e. at some university. To extend this reasoning, one does not have to get tenure at all, just guarantee one’s ability to pay one’s living costs with as low effort as possible. Government jobs are also secure – not quite tenure, but close.
Economically, tenure is guaranteed income for life (or until a mandatory retirement age) in exchange for teaching and administrative work. The income may vary somewhat, based on research and teaching success, but there is some lower bound on salary. Many nontenured academics are obsessed about getting tenure. The main reason is probably not the prestige of being called Professor, but the income security. People with families seem especially risk averse and motivated to secure their job.
Guaranteed income can be obtained by other means than tenure, e.g. by saving enough to live off the interest and dividends (becoming a rentier). Accumulating such savings is better than tenure, because there is no teaching and administration requirement. If one wishes, one can always teach for free. Similarly, research can be done in one’s free time. If expensive equipment is needed for the research, then one can pay a university or other institution for access to it. The payment may be in labour (becoming an unpaid research assistant). Becoming financially independent therefore means giving oneself more than tenure. Not many academics seem to have noticed this option, because they choose a wasteful consumerist lifestyle and do not plan their finances.
Given the scarcity of tenure-track jobs in many fields, choosing the highest-paying private-sector position (to accumulate savings), may be a quicker and more certain path to the economic equivalent of tenure than completing sequential postdocs. The option of an industry job seems risky to graduate students, because unlike in academia, one can get fired. However, the chance of layoffs should be compared to failing to get a second postdoc at an institution of the same or higher prestige. When one industry job ends, there are others. Like in academia, moving downward is easier than up.
To properly compare the prospects in academia and industry, one should look at the statistics, not listen to anecdotal tales of one’s acquaintances or the promises of recruiters. If one aspires to be a researcher, then one should base one’s life decisions on properly researched facts. It is surprising how many academics do not. The relevant statistics on the percentage of graduates or postdocs who get a tenure-track job or later tenure have been published for several fields (http://www.nature.com/ncb/journal/v12/n12/full/ncb1210-1123.html, http://www.education.uw.edu/cirge/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/so-you-want-to-become-a-professor.pdf, https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/jep.28.3.205). The earnings in both higher education and various industries are published as part of national labour force statistics. Objective information on job security (frequency of firing) is harder to get, but administrative data from the Nordic countries has it.
Of course, earnings are not the whole story. If one has to live in an expensive city to get a high salary, then the disposable income may be lower than with a smaller salary in a cheaper location. Non-monetary aspects of the job matter, such as hazardous or hostile work environment, the hours and flexibility. Junior academics normally work much longer than the 40 hours per week standard in most jobs, but the highest-paid private-sector positions may require even more time and effort than academia. The hours may be more flexible in academia, other than the teaching times. The work is probably of the same low danger level. There is no reason to suppose the friendliness of the colleagues to differ.
Besides higher salary, a benefit of industry jobs is that they can be started earlier in life, before the 6 years in graduate school and a few more in postdoc positions. Starting early helps with savings accumulation, due to compound interest. Some people have become financially independent in their early thirties this way (see mrmoneymustache.com).
If one likes all aspects of an academic job (teaching, research and service), then it is reasonable to choose an academic career. If some aspects are not inherently rewarding, then one should consider the alternative scenario in which the hours spent on those aspects are spent on paid employment instead. The rewarding parts of the job are done in one’s free time. Does this alternative scenario yield a higher salary? The non-monetary parts of this scenario seem comparable to academia.
Tenure is becoming more difficult to get, as evidenced by the lengthening PhD duration, the increasing average number of postdocs people do before getting tenure, and by the lengthening tenure clocks (9 years at Carnegie Mellon vs the standard 6). Senior academics (who have guarateed jobs) benefit from increased competition among junior academics, because then the juniors will do more work for the seniors for less money. So the senior academics have an incentive to lure young people into academia (to work in their labs as students and postdocs), even if this is not in the young people’s interest. The seniors do not fear competition from juniors, due to the aforementioned guaranteed jobs.
Graduate student and postdoc unions are lobbying universities and governments to give them more money. This has at best a limited impact, because in the end the jobs and salaries are determined by supply and demand. If the unions want to make current students and postdocs better off, then they should discourage new students from entering academia. If they want everyone to be better off, then they should encourage research-based decision-making by everyone. I do not mean presenting isolated facts that support their political agenda (like the unions do now), but promoting the use of the full set of labour force statistics available, asking people to think about their life goals and what jobs will help achieve those goals, and developing predictive models along the lines of “if you do a PhD in this field in this university, then your probable job and income at age 30, 40, etc is…”.

On the optimal burden of proof

All claims should be considered false until proven otherwise, because lies can be invented much faster than refuted. In other words, the maker of a claim has the burden of providing high-quality scientific proof, for example by referencing previous research on the subject. Strangely enough, some people seem to believe marketing, political spin and conspiracy theories even after such claims have been proven false. It remains to wish that everyone received the consequences of their choices (so that karma works).
Considering all claims false until proven otherwise runs into a logical problem: a claim and its opposite claim cannot be simultaneously false. The priority for falsity should be given to actively made claims, e.g. someone saying that a product or a policy works, or that there is a conspiracy behind an accident. Especially suspect are claims that benefit their maker if people believe them. A higher probability of falsity should also be attached to positive claims, e.g. that something has an effect in whatever direction (as opposed to no effect) or that an event is due to non-obvious causes, not chance. The lack of an effect should be the null hypothesis. Similarly, ignorance and carelessness, not malice, should be the default explanation for bad events.
Sometimes two opposing claims are actively made and belief in them benefits their makers, e.g. in politics or when competing products are marketed. This is the hardest case to find the truth in, but a partial and probabilistic solution is possible. Until rigorous proof is found, one should keep an open mind. Keeping an open mind creates a vulnerability to manipulation: after some claim is proven false, its proponents often try to defend it by asking its opponents to keep an open mind, i.e. ignore evidence. In such cases, the mind should be closed to the claim until its proponents provide enough counter-evidence for a neutral view to be reasonable again.
To find which opposing claim is true, the first test is logic. If a claim is logically inconsistent with itself, then it is false by syntactic reasoning alone. A broader test is whether the claim is consistent with other claims of the same person. For example, Vladimir Putin said that there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea, but a month later gave medals to some Russian soldiers, citing their successful operation in Crimea. At least one of the claims must be false, because either there were Russian soldiers in Crimea or not. The way people try to weasel out of such self-contradictions is to say that the two claims referred to different time periods, definitions or circumstances. In other words, change the interpretation of words. A difficulty for the truth-seeker is that sometimes such a change in interpretation is a legitimate clarification. Tongues do slip. Nonetheless, a contradiction is probabilistic evidence for lying.
The second test for falsity is objective evidence. If there is a streetfight and the two sides accuse each other of starting it, then sometimes a security camera video can refute one of the contradicting claims. What evidence is objective is, sadly, subject to interpretation. Videos can be photoshopped, though it is difficult and time-consuming. The objectivity of the evidence is strongly positively correlated with the scientific rigour of its collection process. „Hard” evidence is a signal of the truth, but a probabilistic signal. In this world, most signals are probabilistic.
The third test of falsity is the testimony of neutral observers, preferably several of them, because people misperceive and misremember even under the best intentions. The neutrality of observers is again up for debate and interpretation. In some cases, an observer is a statistics-gathering organisation. Just like objective evidence, testimony and statistics are probabilistic signals.
The fourth test of falsity is the testimony of interested parties, to which the above caveats apply even more strongly.
Integrating conflicting evidence should use Bayes’ rule, because it keeps probabilities consistent. Consistency helps glean information about one aspect of the question from data on other aspects. Background knowledge should be combined with the evidence, for example by ruling out physical impossibilities. If a camera shows a car disappearing behind a corner and immediately reappearing, moving in the opposite direction, then physics says that the original car couldn’t have changed direction so fast. The appearing car must be a different one. Knowledge of human interactions and psychology is part of the background information, e.g. if smaller, weaker and outnumbered people rarely attack the stronger and more numerous, then this provides probabilistic info about who started a fight. Legal theory incorporates background knowledge of human nature to get information about the crime – human nature suggests motives. Asking: „Who benefits?” has a long history in law.

Salami tactics in everyday life

Salami tactics mean doing something others dislike little by little to keep them from obstructing or retaliating. Each small step is too small to be worth retaliation, but together the steps add up to an action that, if taken all at once, would definitely be worth stopping or retaliating for.
I have neighbours who put their unwanted things (broken bicycles, toys, furniture) in my parking space, using salami tactics. They don’t put the objects right in the middle of the space all at once, but initially put them mostly outside my parking space, with a small part of the object sticking into the space. If I don’t do anything, then the neighbours shift the objects so that a somewhat larger fraction of them is in my space, or add more objects that slightly stick into the space. If I push some of their rubbish out of my space, then other things appear, sticking into a different part of the space. They have plausible deniability in case I confront them – the object was only slightly in my space, so placing it there can be excused as an accident. This dance has gone on over a year, with them pushing their stuff into my space when I’m not there and me pushing it out when they are not there. Their encroachment attempts have become somewhat humorous, and I am observing them as a social science field study. The same encroachment happens in the common hallway, which fire regulations require to be clear at all times, but where the neighbours store their unwanted furniture. The furniture starts out near their door and gradually moves further and spreads out.
People in another house in this suburb have gradually squatted on a piece of the public park. They planted a hedge around that piece, which adjoins their dwelling. Now it is somewhat difficult to get into that part of the park (one has to squeeze through the hedge), so other people have stopped going there. It is effectively a private garden. The hedge did not appear overnight – the planting happened at a rate of about one bush per month, so it wasn’t too obvious to people who regularly pass through the park. The squatters planted the bushes in daylight, so deniability would have been a bit stretched if someone had confronted them. To some extent, planting one bush at a time in a public park can still be claimed an idle hobby, with no intent to encroach. However, the hedge that now clearly encloses a plot next to their dwelling does look suspicious.
A related tactic does not slice the salami slowly over time, but slices it many times at once to different people. At work, there are people who, upon receiving a task from the boss, ask one colleague at their level to help with one part of the task, another colleague to help with another part, etc, until they have delegated the whole task piece by piece. Each piece comes with an excuse why the delegator cannot do it. Then when the colleagues ask for help in return, the delegator is absent, unavailable due to family responsibilities or has some other excuse.

“Relative to opportunity” evaluation and anti-discrimination laws

Most countries have some anti-discrimination laws, requiring employers to pay people with different productivities equally, or to give someone who took parental leave their job back after they return. One reason why unequally productive people are paid equally is evaluation “relative to opportunity”, i.e. the bar for a promotion or a raise is lower for someone from a historically disadvantaged group or who has family responsibilities. Suppose that there is a consensus in society for supporting certain groups. Why might the cost of this support be placed only on specific employers, namely those who employ the target group? Why doesn’t the support take the form of direct subsidies from the government to the target group, financed by taxing all employers equally?
An explanation from political economy is as follows. Clever people in society or government want to pay a larger subsidy to high-income members of the target group, perhaps because the clever people are themselves high-income and belong to the target group. However, the majority of voters would not like high-income people getting a bigger subsidy. So the clever people disguise the subsidy as something that looks equal, namely every member of the target group gets the same duration of parental leave, the same guarantee of their job back at the end of leave, the same privileges and special treatment for promotions and raises. The value of these guarantees and privileges is greater for higher-paying jobs. For example, a promotion from a high-paying job usually gives a bigger salary increase than from a low-paying job. A guarantee of getting a high-paying job back after parental leave is worth more than a guaranteed low-paid job. Thus the support provided to the high-income members of the target group is more valuable.
Further, productivity at a high-income job is typically more responsive to the employee’s human capital, and the skills deteriorate faster. A truck driver who has not driven for some years retains a greater fraction of driving ability than a surgeon retains from surgical technique after not operating for the same number of years. The productivity difference between an employee returning from parental leave and someone continuously employed is on average greater for higher-paying jobs. So the cost to an employer of keeping a job for a returning employee instead of hiring a new person is greater if the job is higher-paid. The subsidy to the high-income members of the target group thus costs more per person.
Income is positively correlated with intelligence, so the smart members of the target group are likely the wealthy members who benefit from this kind of unequal subsidy. They are likely to vote and campaign in favour of the unequal support, instead of an equal cash subsidy for everyone. The less smart members of the target group who lose from an unequal subsidy (compared to an equal one) are less likely to understand that they lose. This makes them abstain from opposing the unequal subsidy.
In effect, the smart members of the target group redistribute a baseline-equal subsidy from the less smart (and less wealthy) to themselves, at the social cost of losing some efficiency in the economy. Keeping a job for someone when a more productive potential hire is available means losing the difference in the productivities of the two people. Such efficiency losses are typical of re-distributive policies that are not cash transfers.
In principle, the cost of the current policies could still be equally distributed between employers by taxing them all and subsidising those who employ the target group. Or equivalently, taxing only those who don’t employ the target group. However, to equalise the cost to employers, the firms employing highly-paid members of the target group must be compensated more than the ones employing low-paid members. The differential compensation to firms would call attention to the unequal support that people with different incomes are receiving, thus weakening the disguise of the subsidy. The clever people want to avoid that, so do not campaign for equalising the costs of anti-discrimination laws across employers.

Vacation is a break from the routine

Marketing tries to create the perception that vacation consists of consuming goods and services. In my experience, some of the most interesting vacation activities are those that constitute work for some other people. In other words, production, not consumption, is restful. For example, I find fixing bicycles interesting, because the problems encountered are quite different from each other. If the fixes only consisted of patching flat tires, then that would get boring quickly. Similarly, if I had to fix bikes all day long, it would be onerous. But as an occasional break from my usual work (sitting behind a computer), bike repair is interesting and actually restful. Another example is planting trees and removing invasive plants from a woodland – this would get boring and tiring after half a day, but 2-3 hours every few months provides variety. Growing vegetables and fruit is a productive activity that many people do for fun in their garden. Cooking for others is also productive and often done for fun.
I would pay to operate a tractor, an excavator or a crane for a few hours, because I think it would be very interesting. Unfortunately, safety regulations probably forbid an amateur from operating heavy machinery. For the same reason, I cannot drive a truck or weld a ship for fun. Neither can I be an assistant at surgery, handing tools to surgeons, because the job requires training and probably some kind of licence. If it didn’t, I would be interested in observing a surgery first hand. Underground mining would also be interesting to try.
Some work is legal for (mostly) untrained people to undertake, but requires a long-term commitment, for example being a deckhand on a commercial fishing ship. After the first day, the work would get boring, so would not constitute vacation any more. The same may happen after a few days as a field research assistant of biologists, archaeologists or anthropologists in remote areas. The remote area may have its own discomforts and dangers, which are mostly not adrenaline-rich experiences that extreme sports fans would pay for. An example of a boring danger is catching a disease, getting heatstroke or frostbite.
A person who does the abovementioned activities for work would not find them restful. But quite possibly, such a person would find parts of my work fun and would be willing to do them briefly during vacation, for example drawing graphs on a computer or solving a math puzzle.
In summary, a vacation is a break from the routine. Because people’s routines differ, one person’s usual work is another’s interesting vacation activity.

Suit and posture

Suit manufacturers produce for the average body, so for those who are close to that average, off-the-shelf suits fit well. However, the asymmetrical, extremely thin or fat, or otherwise unusually-shaped people either need their suit tailored or must change their posture to compensate, for example bend to one side or pull their stomach in. A compensating posture is often difficult to sustain for more than a few minutes with muscle tension alone. Even a not particularly strenuous posture is forgotten and omitted while doing other activities. One time-honoured solution for keeping a posture is to use mechanical devices to assist – the corset is an old example. A more modern instance was used by Chinese soldiers marching on parade: they put needles in their collars with points toward their neck, as a reminder of the correct head posture.
Someone whose spine is too curved backward or whose shoulders are too far back can compensate by deliberately slouching his posture forward, and thus fit in an off-the-shelf suit. The slouch is not a strenuous posture, but tends to be forgotten. A device that enforces a slight forward bend in the spine is a string with one end tied to the neck and the other to the… down below.

Seminar food guidelines

The food should be easy to eat from a plastic plate in one’s lap, without paying attention to it. It should not require a knife, fork, spoon or chopsticks. Sandwiches fulfill these criteria. Sushi can also be eaten with one’s fingers. Sandwiches should not be so thick that they have to be disassembled to fit in the mouth. Sandwiches should not contain ingredients that are difficult to bite through, for example prosciutto, non-crispy bacon, meat with tendons in it.
The food should not drip or stain the hands, especially with a greasy or otherwise difficult-to-remove sauce. Wraps should not have the bottom cut off or contain a thin sauce that leaks through the bottom. Sandwiches should not have contents falling out – avoid a thick stack of many fillings between the breads. A single filling can be thicker, e.g. a chicken breast. Biting into the food should not cause the food to fall apart (rice paper rolls have this problem) or something to squirt out the other end (as happens with sandwiches with a lot of sauce or mayonnaise).
Avoid ingredients with a strong, specific taste that some people love and some hate. Examples are sauerkraut, pickles, olives, capers, kimchi, herring, anchovies, hot spices. The food should be like a politician – trying to please everyone, avoiding controversy. Spices and sauces can accompany the food separately, like wasabi and soy sauce with sushi – then everyone can add the amount they like.
The mechanics of eating the food is as important as the taste. The ease of eating of various forms of food can be tested in a seminar-like situation: eating sitting, with a small plastic plate in one’s lap, no table, only occasionally glancing at the food.

The obsolete PhD degree

Let’s distinguish the knowledge from the degree first. The average skill requirement of jobs (measured in years of education for example) is rising over time, so people need more knowledge before entering the labour market. What is obsolete is the packaging of that knowledge into degrees and perhaps its teaching in universities.
The PhD takes six years on average (http://gsa.yale.edu/sites/default/files/Improving%20Graduate%20Education%20at%20Yale%20University.pdf) and during that time the student is guided by one or at most a few advisors. Working on the same topic on years is often necessary to become an expert, so unavoidable. But being tied to the same advisor is a throwback to the medieval guild system where the apprentice and journeyman work years for the master. It means seeing only one viewpoint or set of techniques. Most importantly, the topic of the thesis is limited to what the advisor is competent in (sometimes a laissez-faire advisor allows a dissertation on an unfamiliar subject, which is even worse – incompetent advising follows). Taking courses from other faculty in the same department or university broadens the horizons a bit, but there may be an institutional culture that introduces biases, or expertise in some fields may simply be missing from the university. Attending conferences again broadens the mind, but conferences are few and far between. Suggestions that run counter to the advisor’s views may be interpreted as wrong by a novice graduate student.
Ideally, a trainee researcher would be advised by the whole world’s scientific community, mostly but not exclusively by people in the same discipline. Electronic communication makes this easy. Many different viewpoints would be explained to the graduate student, interpersonal issues would be easier to resolve by changing advisors (no lock-in to one person who determines one’s career prospects). People who just use students as free labour without providing much in return would suddenly become lonely. The problem is moral hazard – if no specific person has responsibility for a student, indefinite postponement of advising effort may occur. Credit for useful advice would be spread between many people, which dilutes incentives. In short, advising is a public good.
Still, public goods are sometimes provided, despite the difficulty of explaining this with a rational agent model. People write free software, answer questions from strangers in forums, upload advice and instructions on many topics. This suggests some volunteer advisors would step forward under a shared responsibility system. The advisor pool may become more ideologically biased than now, because people who want to spread propaganda on their strong views have a greater incentive to volunteer advice. They do this on the internet, after all. Similar incentives for shrill prophets operate in universities, but if each faculty member is required to advise some students or if there is a cap on how many disciples one can take, there is less scope for indoctrinating the masses. Such restrictions can be imposed online to some extent. There could be a reputation mechanism among the advisors, so the crackpots are labelled as such. The larger pool of opinions may balance the biases.
The economies of scale in advising one student are reduced with sharing. A single advisor per student means that during most of the PhD program, the advisor is already familiar with the student’s work and only needs to read the new part each week. With many advisors, each would need to devote time to the same material. Some sharing of responsibilities (one reads the introduction, another the conclusion) is possible, but the interdependence of the parts of the research does not permit full splitting.
Another medieval aspect of the PhD is paying for the received teaching in labour, not money. Graduate students may be free from tuition and may even get a scholarship, but in return have to work as teaching assistants or do the advisor’s research in their lab. Less ethical help also occurs, such as reviewing papers the advisor is officially the referee of. Inefficiencies of a barter economy are introduced. Instead of paying for the program with money earned in the job the student is the most productive or happy in, the student is forced to work as a teaching assistant and essentially pay the difference between a fair market wage and the teaching assistant wage to the university. Further, the teaching work is restricted to the university of the PhD program, even if other universities need teachers more and offer higher wages. This gives the university market power and allows it to depress grad student salaries.
A doctoral program may lose money directly, in the sense that teaching the grad students is more expensive (due to small classes, advanced material, so more professor time per student) than their TA work. The fact that universities still keep the PhD programs suggests the existence of indirect benefits. One is reputation – attracting paying undergraduate and Master’s students. In some countries, an institution is not allowed to call itself a university if it does not teach at the doctoral level. Altruism by the higher education sector is possible, even if John Quiggin’s quote “never stand between a Vice-Chancellor and a bucket of money” suggests otherwise.
One utopic proposal is an online system where graduate students and advisors sign up and can talk over video calls, send emails etc. It keeps a record who communicated with whom and how much. Later, data on the academic achievement and job market performance of students can be added, so advisors can be rewarded for their students’ success. There may also be some popularity index, meaning students rate their advisors and vice versa. But in the end, an advisor’s contribution should matter more than popularity, so the latter is optional. Advisors may look at and rate each other’s advising sessions to limit the spread of bad advice. Students can collaborate and may decide to meet in person.
For experimental science, lab space can be rented by student cooperatives. Instruction in the use of equipment can be given via video. Classroom space can also be rented directly by groups of students if needed. The students may pay advisors. Some people may only advise conditional on payment. Students may teach other students (including TA jobs), whether for money or pro bono. The system would cut out the middlemen – university administrators – making education cheaper for society. Of course, in the lab and classroom rental business, other middlemen would appear and take their share.

Assumptions in communication

All communication relies on assumptions, for example about the meanings of words. If someone says: „Pass the salt, please,” then without assumptions, endless clarifications would be needed about the meaning of „pass” and „salt”, about the language used and whether the request is a joke or carries some hidden meaning. If the requester clarifies: „I did not mean it as a joke, I really want you to give me the salt,” then clarifications about the clarification would result. Again, the clarification may be a joke (we shouldn’t assume it is not) or use words like „not” in an ironic way with meaning the opposite of the usual (we shouldn’t assume the usual meaning). There would be an endless cycle of clarifying the clarifications of… of clarifications.

Real vs movie fighting

It will surprise nobody that real fighting or full-contact competition differs from movie fighting. What is perhaps less obvious is that the incentives for the actions are completely opposite. The actions themselves are not completely opposite, because movie fighting is supposed to look somewhat like a real fight, which constrains the difference between them.
An obvious incentive difference is the desire to hurt an opponent in a real fight vs not hurt a fellow actor. A more subtle distinction is that in a real fight or competition, nobody wants the opponent to see a punch or kick coming. In a movie, the flashier and more visible the attack and defense, the better. So in a real fight or competition, the movements are quick, preferably without wind-up by other parts of the body, mostly in a direct line from one body to the other (although some curved punches and kicks are used). The movements may be masked by feints, but these are subtle, like eyes flicking right while punching with the left. In a movie, the kicks especially move in long visible arcs, with the body turning 360 degrees in some cases, and not too fast. Every move is designed to be seen by the audience, which implies seen by the opponent.
In a movie fight, the techniques should not repeat, otherwise the audience gets bored. In a real fight, the only reason not to use one’s best move exclusively is the need to surprise the opponent. Only a few of the most effective techniques are used. Another reason for this is that real fights end quickly (not counting the posturing and shouting), so there is not much time to showcase a variety of punches and kicks. A wider range of moves is used in competitions, but still not close to the range in movie fights.