Opportunity knocks

I’m very interested in ways of increasing leisure, so when I saw mention of The Four-Hour Workweek, I naturally rushed to check it out. It turns out to be about “Outsourcing your Life” by hiring a fleet of remote executive assistants from India, to handle your email, pay your bills, run interference between you and your wife (really! ) and generally to replicate the archetypal “office wife” secretary, right down to the 1950s gender stereotypes.

That wasn’t what I had in mind at all, but just after seeing the link, I got an email asking about a presentation I gave last year, and which I had totally forgotten. It only took me a few seconds to find it (one reason I don’t want a remote EA), and to recall that it’s an improved version of this old blog post which reads as if it was written just before I joined Crooked Timber. But I haven’t got around to turning into an article and probably never will. 

I’ve got more things like this than I can count, lying around on the hard drive (and now in the  cloud as well) but most of them will never be seen by anyone who didn’t come to the session where I gave the presentation. After reading the outsourcing stuff, it struck me that maybe there is someone on the Internet who could take these slides, chat to me a bit about them, add some ideas of their own, and turn them into jointly-authored articles.

I’ve never seen anyone else do this, but that doesn’t prove much. Academic prestige (Added note and employment) these days goes mostly to those who follow what ecologists call a K-strategy: a small number of high-quality offspring, where “high-quality” = “published in highly ranked journal”. And the narrower the specialisation, the better, so a good knowledge of the relevant literature, the tastes of editors of the key journals, and so on, comes with the territory. For K-strategy people, second-tier publications are worse than valueless, so the kind of thing I’m talking about would make no sense.

As ought to be pretty obvious by now, I’m an r-strategy follower. I produce lots of stuff on lots of topics, without polishing it too much. My idea is that it’s impossible to tell in advance what is going to produce valuable insights and what isn’t. the r-strategy works OK for me, but it does result in a lot of half-finished projects, that could maybe be turned into something worthwhile by the right co-author. Anyway, I’ve put the presentation that provoked all this here. The slides and the blogpost linked above should give you the general idea. If it sounds like something to work on, get in touch.

18 thoughts on “Opportunity knocks

  1. my old dad used to take me back of the old barn his grandpapy done built

    he’d push an old shotgun into my shoulder and he’d sort of hold up the barrel ’cause it was a might too heavy for me to hold up

    he’d make be point to the side of the barn and then he’d tell me “shoot”

    my oh my that old gun used to kick – first time i had bruises for a week

    the shot would form a spread right across the side of the barn

    he’d make me walk up with him and look at where the shot had scoured and punctured the old timbers

    he told me on every occasion the same thing

    “boy, most dumb as a plank o wood people will haul off and speak or write or do much the same as that shotgun blast

    hopin’ that in one of those pellets will hit something

    fact is that most of the time not only do they miss the barn altogether but none of them pellets means anything much at all

    if you want to make a point son make it sharp and clear and one single hole right through the heart of what you are shootin at

    save a lot of pointless waste of shotgun shells”


  2. Prof Q: I’ll ask the obvious question – what’s the etymology of K-strategy and r-strategy?

    Surely it’s horses for courses? K-strategy for esoteric/technical offerings and r-strategy for more accessible work written for a wider audience – I don’t see why one couldn’t do both – time permitting of course.

  3. The terms are derived from mathematical ecology, but I don’t know how.

    On your second point, you might think that, but in lots of areas of academia, you are punished for doing the second kind of work, even if you do as much or more of the first kind as your colleagues. The ERA exercise being run by the Australian Research Council works like this.

  4. I should say that I seem to be an exception to this rule, I’m not quite sure why. With some exceptions, my career has benefited from the fact that I’ve done lots of policy work that doesn’t produce high-grade publications, although I’ve been carefully to produce a fair few of the latter as well.

  5. “in lots of areas of academia, you are punished for doing the second kind” – depressing, but not surprising – several of my academic friends in anthropology/archaeology/rock art have commented on the savage, vitriolic competition in these fields – poorly funded professions of course with limited opportunities for well-paid tenures.

    And savage competition resulting in the discarding of objectivity – it’s a long-held view of mine that the determination to be objective (especially at the cost of one’s most precious beliefs) is directly proportional to intelligence, and too often I find academics failing this test.

    A PhD is no substitute for native intellect!

  6. r is the growth rate and K is the carrying capacity:

    dN/dt = rN(1-N/K)



    Does this suggest that in new open areas of academic enquiry the best strategy is to produce lots of short and simple papers and in crowded areas to spend more time on crafting “higher quality” ones?

    Definitely I see the trade off between quality and quantity in action for example in my School where perhaps most people are of a similar ability level but some focus on producing a few papers in good journals and others on generating lots of items that are not so highly ranked. Personally I don’t seem to be at either extreme though.

    ERA strongly discourages the r strategy while the UK REF doesn’t so much as each researcher only needs to submit 4 outputs from a 5 year period for the REF and the rest of their output can be ignored.

  7. E=mc^2

    Short statement,….huge impact.

    Surely it does not matter whether a paper is long or short, it is the content that counts.

  8. That is what I would have thought. But then when I thought about it some more The length of a paper may be more about enunciation and the reader. I never cease to be amazed at how little people take in from what they read in various forums. So is that about the abilities of the writer, the abilities of the reader, the interest of the reader, or the relevence to the situation. Of course it is all of those.

    I wonder how many papers it took to develop the neocon variation of applied economics?

  9. academic life is so much more competitive. in the 1960s and even 1970s, people got tenure without publishing much, as I understand it. do people get any points at all for teaching skills?

  10. I’m surprised you say that academics are pushed towards the K strategy. I’ve had friends (all at the very start of their careers) complain about being pushed towards MPUs or Minimal Publishable Units, that is breaking down one piece of work into as many small papers as possible to get their publication numbers up. By doing this they presumably reduced their chances of getting published in more prestigious journals, that would be more interested in something with multiple points of interest, but this is what their supervisors wanted them to do.

    I can see however, that as one climbs the academic tree there may be a shift from R to K strategies.

    I’m not sure I have the required background in economics (or indeed evolutionary biology) to be the assistant you need on this. However, if you think my experience as a science journalist makes me appropriate, and no one more suitable has offered, I’d be interested in giving it a try in a month or so when I should have more time.

  11. @Jim Rose

    do people get any points at all for teaching skills?

    Speaking as the partner of an academic, it’s worth pretty much zero in career terms. It doesn’t matter how popular your courses are, what student feedback is like, how fresh and contemporary your course materials are, how much care you take in assessment and reporting, how much work you do sitting on committees, doing course advising and administrative work for the school/faculty, none of it counts decisively in securing tenure. At best, it might help if you are up against someone else whose publishing profile is about the same as yours. But of course, if you do this other stuff, and have any kind of family life, your chances of publishing diminish sharply. Publish or perish is the slogan.

  12. Thanks Fran, the economics of why there is academic tenure is hard enough. The economics of reward and evaluation structures at universities is even more puzzling.

    Private universities in the US, which face hard budget constraints, use the same publish or perish approach as the public universities. It must therefore be something that students value when they make enrolment decisions.

  13. JR,

    I think that an expectation of the advancement of knowledge defines our culture, and life process. The complete antithesis of this can be framed in the name Taliban.

  14. @JR and Fran

    My experience as someone trying to get an academic position is that it’s a little more nuanced than that. Most faculties (in my field, anyhow) want to have a broad range of skills within their faculty. They want good teaching academics, but those academics need to take more than their fair share of the teaching and administrative load. If your teaching is not particularly good, you need to bring in research dollars consistently, and publication record is a means to an end in that regard. (There are some middle-managers that don’t get this and think everyone needs to do everything, but they are idiots, but don’t call them that or you’ll be in the position of someone trying to get an academic position, as opposed to someone who actually holds one.)

    When trying to get a position, or going from contract to tenure, it is research dollars, not necessarily publication record, that trumps all. What your publication record and teaching skills are worth is dependent on the skills of others within the faculty. If you’re a very good teaching scientist in a faculty of research scientists, your work will be in high demand, and vica versa.

    Private universities in the US is a pretty broad group to make an insightful comment on, but the rationale for high publication outputs (again dependent on the field) is really that they’re a predictor of future grant success, and grants=money. Well, that’s how I see it, anyway.

    Going back to the original post, good for you! Like many others, I tend to give talks at local (i.e national) conferences that are not complete, with the hope that if someone has a good idea on how to improve what I’m doing, or access to technology that can do things I can’t, they will collaborate with me. I’ve never considered using the internet to do the same thing, I wish you well.

  15. There are many private colleges in the US that are very teaching focused and don’t care too much about research. And I don’t see much difference in budget constraint between public and private universities. In fact the top private universities with large endowments have a softer budget constraint than most state universities at the same level. Also direct funding from US states to state research universities is only a fraction now of their costs. And even at good private research universities your teaching will matter, especially if you are not a research superstar. So the picture is quite complicated in reality.

    At my school in Australia we also care a lot about teaching quality. But it probably won’t get you promoted as the higher ranks here are dependent on research performance. A top teacher who doesn’t do much research won’t get beyond senior lecturer.

  16. This offer is really a novel form of crowd sourcing rather than outsourcing. Perhaps with suitable incetives later year undergraduate studemts may be attracted.

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