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Austrians in Academia: A Battle Plan

  • Walter_block

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08/17/2005Walter Block

At the Mises University this year, I was again impressed at the depth of questions I received from students. They were seeking not only intellectual direction but also career advice. After all, the real world isn't only about ideas. It is also about finding your way in an often hostile professional environment.

Consider first the progress we've made. Twenty years ago, there were only a handful of Austrians teaching and precious few graduate students working within the tradition. Today, there are hundreds of faculty positions around the world, in all departments, held by Austrians.

That we can even talk about a viable professional career for Austrians represents enormous progress. Mises.org has a new tool that will permit us all to stay in great contact with each other: The Austrian Network. You need to sign up and become part of the community. You should also attend conferences such as the Austrian Scholars Conference to exchange ideas and make contacts.

Still, the ideological glass ceiling hasn't been fully smashed just yet. For an Austrian or libertarian, Misesian or Rothbardian, anarcho-capitalist or any combination thereof, there are no red carpets for you to walk on, and no one to throw rose petals at your feet. Prepare to face intense resistance at every step.

Remember that to be an Austrian is to have a vocation, which is a higher calling than merely adopting  a profession, as Joe Salerno has said. You must know what you are getting into and prepare to work to overcome the odds. You must have a strategy.

1. To graduate students

Your first goal, heck, your only goal, is to get that credential, the Ph.D. You are not in graduate school, necessarily, to learn anything important. You can do that on your own time if need be. You are there to learn what your professors teach, and then spit it back at them during exams (there are of course exceptions to this; see my advice to undergraduate students picking a grad school).

You are certainly not there to convert your professors to Austro libertarianism. Let them suffer in their ignorance. Some few of them might even be open to argument along these lines, but the overwhelming vast majority of them will be biased against your views. Persisting in arguing your points with them is a good way to fail out. Keep your head down; don't stick it up and make it into a target. Study hard. Be prepared, especially in economics, for there to be little economic content in your studies, and an awful lot of mathematics and statistics (again, there are exceptions).

When studying for comprehensive examinations, the most important documents are past exams given by your university. Get them, all of them, if at all possible. If not possible, then get past exams from universities similar to your own, and ask your advisers about any questions you can't answer. Try to form a study group of 4–6 fellow students, but do plenty of independent work on these exams.Second most important: read the the publications of your professors who will compose and grade these exams.

While it is nice to be able to pick up your degree along with a few refereed journal articles, the latter are not absolutely imperative. Do not be trying to publish in such places at the cost of passing exams.

Most Ph.D. candidates who do not get their degree fail at the point of dissertation writing. Do not think you can coast at this point in your career. If at all possible, do not take on a job, or any other tasks while writing, or trying to write, your dissertation. Student loans make far more sense than employment. Usually, they are interest free; they are a lot easier to pay off when you land that assistant professor job. If you must take on an assistance-ship or working fellowship, try to get one where you do research rather than teaching. The former is more important than the latter in academia.

Select a topic that you want to write on, or at least have some interest in. Otherwise, this will become more of a burden than it would otherwise have to be. And there are lots of topics that aren't necessarily "Austrian" or "libertarian" that you will find you have an interest in. Find a dissertation advisor who is also interested in the topic. Before seeking out a dissertation advisor, find out his record in getting students through this process. If you find someone who took 6-years to finish his dissertation, and since then has advised on dissertations that also take an inordinate amount of time...AVOID such people like the PLAGUE. (If the advisor is new to your school, seek out his record at previous schools.)

In many universities, you are offered a choice not only of your dissertation advisor, but also of each of the members of your dissertation committee. Be very, very careful as to whom you choose, in such cases. At Columbia, where I got my Ph.D. (1972) you could pick all five members of your committee. But three had to be from within the economics department, one had to be within Columbia University, but outside of the economics department, and the fifth had to be a total outsider to the University. For my fourth member, I chose a professor in the Columbia Business School. He mentioned to me that he knew of someone interested in my topic (rent control) and asked me if he should ask that man to join my committee. Like an idiot, I said yes, without even thinking about it.

As it happened, this guy was a member of the New York City rent control administration, and loved this program. Practically the entire two hour oral exam consisted of this person and I arguing with each other. The committee then took three hours to decide upon my fate. Happily, I passed. Had I not, it would have meant another two years of my life, writing an entirely different dissertation. I heard later that this man wanted to fail me, but was convinced by the argument of the others that “Sure, Block’s dissertation had all sorts of weaknesses, but we four have been through hundreds of such dissertation defenses, while this is your first one, and we say it passes.” Luckily, he was convinced by this, since the vote had to be unanimous.

I don’t say that the “fix” must be in before you enter that room where you defend your dissertation. (Ok, ok, maybe I am sort of saying that). But, to the best of your ability, choose dissertation committee members with whom you will not be at loggerheads; pick sympathetic ones. There are now hundreds of Austro libertarian professors from whom to choose if you need someone not associated with your University.

It will be nice if you get your degree with a few refereed journal publications already in hand. But this is a risky course of action. In the old days, dissertations were in effect books. Nowadays, they are a series of three or four semi related or even unrelated chapters, each of which is designed to one day become a stand alone journal article. If at all possible, try to write a dissertation of this type, as it will help you get material published in refereed journals.


2. Publishing.

You've heard of "publish or perish?" It is very true. The key to landing that first academic job, to getting tenure and promotion, is publishing. What kind of publishing?  Books do not count. At best, usually, the publication of a (non text) book will not be held against you in getting ahead in academia. Appearances even in very good free market periodicals such as Free Market, Freeman, or electronic journals will not count at all. Do not rely on them for landing that assistant professor job, or anything else in academia.

Virtually the only thing that counts is getting published in refereed journals. For some lower level departments, any journal that appears in Cabell's is fair game (the lower the acceptance rate the better).

It would be undoubtedly nice to publish in the American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy or Econometrica, but these journals are very competitive, and have a very, very low acceptance rate. Journals take, usually, at least six months before deciding whether to publish your article or not, sometimes as much as a year (sometimes, believe it or not, longer).

So don't waste your initial attempts on journals such as these unless you have reason to believe (your mentor's advice) you have a good shot there. Which journals should you aim at? Go to the web pages of the professors employed at schools at which you are aiming your job search, and see what journals they publish in. Submit articles there.

Aim at journals with the same prestige within the profession as they appear in. If it is a regional university, the faculty will be publishing at moderately respectable journals. Remember, an acceptance from a lower ranked (high acceptance rate journal) is vastly preferable to a rejection letter from one at the other end of the spectrum.

What should you write about? Look at the journals you are aiming at, and use their publications as a guide. If at all possible, in your article cite material from those journals, especially that written by the editors of these journals. Otherwise, my advice is to write about whatever is the most fun to write about. This career is supposed to be an enjoyable one. Try to have several projects going on at any one time. If you run into writers' block with one of them, switch to another.

Don't agonize over something that is not coming along well. Sometimes, it is helpful to distract yourself (music, sports, whatever turns you on) when writing and research have hit a stopping point.

Sometimes, I have found it advantageous to co-author articles I am having trouble completing. Specialization and division of labor operate in academic pursuits as they do in all others. I try to bend over backwards to give more credit in such joint endeavors than less. Your co-author need not contribute 50% to the combined product to merit a co-authorship. Less, 40%, and even 30% will do fine, I have found. Sometimes, even 20%.

Here is a word of advice on revise and resubmits. It is rare that an editor will accept an offered piece exactly as is. Usually, the best you can hope for is that he asks you to revise your paper on the basis of the referee reports, and does not promise to publish your revised paper (rarely, in the case of only minor revisions, will he promise to publish a revised paper). In these cases, of course, you can never violate your principles to get an acceptance. If you put something in your paper you know to be wrong, it will haunt you forever.

But, there is a gray area; in my view, a large gray area. Within this area, you should do everything you can to satisfy an editor and his referees.  You can add in a new footnote thanking them. You must write a detailed letter indicating what you have done with each and every one of their suggestions. You thank them at each point where you have revised you paper on the basis of what they say. Even where you reject their advice, you can directly quote them, and say something like, "According to an anonymous referee of this journal, 'yak, yak.' This is an important point. However, in my view, 'yak, yak.'"

The key here is to demonstrate that you have meticulously read their comments, and take them all into account, in some manner or other. I once had a revise and resubmit that required knowledge I was ignorant of, and unwilling to learn about. I grabbed up a coauthor. His contribution was pretty much limited to satisfying the editor/referee on this one point. He did way less than 20% of the work, whether measured in hours put in or words contributed. Yet, I was delighted with this arrangement; without him, that particular journal (a pretty good one in terms of mainstream prestige) would never have published the piece. Half an article in a prestigious journal is worth way more than a full one in a less prestigious journal.

What about rejections? Sadly, these are an everyday occurrence in academic publishing. Even people who later win the Nobel Prize in economics suffer rejection papers early in their careers. My motto when I receive a rejection letter is "Pearls before swine. The editor and the referees are obviously full of beans. It's full speed ahead, and damn the rejection letters."

If the critical remarks of the referees make any sense, quickly revise your paper in the light of them, and send out your paper to another journal. If not, send the paper out, immediately, to another journal. Don't let the grass grow under a rejected paper. The sooner you get it out, the sooner the editor will have had the paper for six months, the time I find it best to write a letter of inquiry as to the status of the paper in their refereeing system.

In economic journals, you can only send a paper to one journal at a time. In law reviews, this rule does not apply. You can send out a paper to a dozen, a hundred, or even several hundred law reviews simultaneously (do it electronically, it is lots cheaper). If you're not good with "whereas-es" get a sympathetic law school professor to be your co-author. I've been lucky in this regard in my career. Law review articles are not, strictly speaking, peer reviewed. The editors are almost always law school students, not professors. However, most economics departments will accept a law review article almost on a par with one in a (moderately prestigious) economics journal, particularly if one of your fields of specialization is law and economics.

Here's a trick I've learned over the years. When you send out an article to 300 law reviews, and get your first acceptance, do not immediately accept their offer of publication. Wait a week or two. Then, pick the most prestigious law review of all those who have accepted your paper. Another ploy: when you get your first acceptance, write to the few law reviews that you would really prefer to that one, and ask for an immediate answer (within 72 hours).

What about the other law reviews that have accepted your paper with whom you now cannot publish? Write them a note along the following lines: "I'm sorry, I cannot accept your offer to publish, as I have agreed to publish with another law review. However, since you liked my paper X, I am taking the liberty of sending you two of my other papers Y and Z. Please let me know if you find either of these suitable." Remember, if you followed my advice above, you've always got two or three other papers lying around.

What about "movement" journals for Austro libertarians such as Journal of Libertarian Studies, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Review of Austrian Economics, Independent Review, Cato Journal, the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Advances in Austrian Economics, etc? (I call them movement journals because none of them is biased against Austrian or libertarian themes; indeed, the very opposite is the case. The same, unforutnately, cannot be said for many journals).

If all of your publications are in these journals, e.g., you have none in any other refereed journal, the number of schools that will hire you will be limited. If you are aiming for a faculty position at an Ivy League school, you had better limit yourself to, say, 10% of your overall publications to journals such as these. The lower in (mainstream) prestige you go, the higher the proportion of such articles you can profitably have on your c.v.

Now that I have tenure, myself, I need not worry about such considerations, although there are still some slight pressures on me in this regard: if I want to be mobile, or get more of an annual salary raise, then I should look further afield for placement of my publications. As well, mainstream economists do not focus on these journals. If we want to have some impact on the profession at large, we should seek publication in "their" journals.

Speaking of this, the best luck I have had is with "Business Ethics" and "History of Economic Thought" type journals.

3. The Job Market.

I've been on both sides of this process. I've picked up a few things in the last few years on the hiring side. Forget about showing me your articles during an interview; that's what got you the campus visit in the first place, and is now all but irrelevant. I, and most people on the hiring side, just want to see what kind of colleague you'll be. Will you be fun to have around? Will you likely publish (so we can remain accredited)? Will we want to have lunch with you on a regular basis? Might you be a good co-author? Can I talk over a problem in economics with you that I'm having trouble with?

In order to do well regarding such considerations, my advice is to put your feet up on my desk (ok, not literally, but certainly figuratively). Relax. Enjoy the process. Can you talk econ speak in an informal way? Of course you can! You've done practically nothing else for the past 4–5 years while you were getting your Ph.D. Remember: at this point in your career, you are no longer a student. Now, you are a potential colleague.

Usually, on a campus visit, you will be asked to give a professional seminar. Discuss your dissertation. Remember, you probably know more about this narrow topic than anyone else in the world, with the possible exception of a dozen or so specialists, none of whom is likely to be in the room. If one of them is, defer, defer.

You will also be asked, typically, to give a classroom presentation to students. At my school at least, the kids vote on your presentation in competition with other job candidates. My colleagues and I take seriously what the students say. So, be entertaining! Tell a joke or two or three. Heck, one every ten minutes. Make them relevant if possible. The one about the economist and the can opener usually works. If you get blank stares, tell the kids that when a bear plays the violin, you don't enquire too closely as to how well he plays; just the fact that he plays at all is remarkable.

Similarly, with economists telling jokes. Make your presentations interesting. Involve the kids. If you are illustrating a demand curve, make it for beer. Ask two or three kids how much beer they drink per week at today's prices, and how much they would drink at different prices, and then add them up for a market demand curve. Kid around with them as you elicit information from them. Tease them. Better yet, tease yourself about these things. (You've got to go on the wagon…)

If you are illustrating elasticity, demonstrate to them that whether they favor the legalization of heroin depends, usually, on what they think the shape of the demand curve for this product looks like (high elasticity, they'll be against legalization; low, in favor). Tell another joke.

4. To Untenured Assistant Professors

Publish, publish, publish. And then publish some more. If you do intensive econometric empirical statistical work (this is not a contradiction for an Austrian, despite the views of some ignorant non-Austrian economists to the contrary) then write at least one article of this sort per year, plus maybe another philosophical one, too. If you do the latter, then, hopefully, at least 3–4 per year. The more the better. However, quality before quantity. Don't stint on the former for the sake of the latter.

Here's a list of don'ts. Don't publish heavily in non-refereed journals. Murray Rothbard always believed we had a duty to write for the common man, and I agree. But do only a few of these per year. Put most of your efforts into, you guessed it, refereed journal publications.

Do as little consulting as you can. There will be temptations here. There's big money to be earned. But, you don't get academic brownie points for this (well, maybe a very little bit, in some business schools). If you're desperate for money, and you must do consulting, then strive mightily to do that kind which, with a little extra work, you can turn into, you guessed it, refereed journal publications.

For example, try to stay away from applying present discounted values of interest rates to salaries foregone in disability lawsuits. At least as far as I'm concerned, it's really difficult to turn this work into pubs. However, anti trust cases might be more amenable to this goal.

Summer school teaching. Try to avoid this at (almost) all costs. I find that I do the lion's share of my writing over the summer. During the semester, I find I need momentum. If I teach on a M,W,F schedule, it takes me half of Thursday morning to figure out what I was doing on Tuesday afternoon on a paper I was working on then, and then, when I finally figure out what I'm writing about, I start to think of Friday classes.


And this is to say nothing of office hours where bright interested students lambaste me with questions, and stupid committee meetings. No, during the summer there is none of this. There are just seemingly endless days stretching ahead, where I can write and write and write. If you can't get an article or two done during an entire summer, you're just not really trying. Ok, ok, if you can get a teaching gig that lasts only for a week or two, ok. But most summer courses last for six weeks! Certainly, if you absolutely have to teach, then pile things up all in one summer teaching semester. Don't teach one course in each of two summer semesters. Teach them both all in one fell swoop, leaving the other for writing.

Unless you teach at a university that offers a Ph.D. degree about the best you can hope for in terms of teaching responsibilities is 3 and 3; that is, three courses in the fall and the same in the spring.  Each course would meet for three (50 minute) hours, so your course load would be 9 hours a week each semester. However, there are some schools that demand 3 and 4, or, even, horrors, 4 and 4. Avoid such places if at all possible! I don’t care how young and strong and committed you are to publishing; it is just well nigh impossible to get any writing done with such a heavy schedule. I’d pick a 3 and 3 school over one that demanded more even is the latter paid proportionately more. Invest a bit in yourself! Your time is precious.  Don’t spend all your energy on teaching. Reserve a bit for research and writing.

Another point, especially at the outset of a career. Take meticulous notes the first time you teach a course. Then, when you teach it a second time, you will be able to cut way down on the time it takes for preparation.

Assistant professors should try to gain wide support in their department and perhaps even in the college or across campus (but mostly within the department) and not to rely solely on patronage of one or a few senior people, who might leave campus before tenure time comes up.

It pays to keep track of departmental politics and perhaps even feign interest but, to avoid joining in religiously. Joining a warring faction, even if it seems currently on top, can be suicidal as the tides turn. Junior faculty are often subjected to pressure to join factions or to co-sign politically loaded letters. They ought to steadfastly refuse even if it is difficult and awkward. It is preferable to have people not like you too much, but perhaps hold out hope that you can still be recruited after tenure, than have a significant number of people intensely hate you for joining the "other" faction.

5. To my colleagues.


This advice-giving is a work in progress. I intend to leave it, permanently, on the Mises web, after revisions. Please send me criticisms, advice of your own, so that I can incorporate it, and this missive can be an improved vehicle for our younger colleagues. In fact, let's open a thread on the Austrian Forum  and see where it takes us.


Contact Walter Block

Walter Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at Loyola University, senior fellow of the Mises Institute, and regular columnist for LewRockwell.com.

Click here to see an extensive online compendium of Dr. Block's publications.

Click here for a complete list of Dr. Block's books.

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