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Sushi and academia

“Shiro dreams of sushi” is a great documentary, about a perfectionist sushi chef in Tokyo who earned himself three Michelin stars. Really worth watching.

In that documentary, a food critic says that great chefs have the following five qualities

  1. They take their work very seriously and consistently perform at the highest level
  2. They aspire to improve their skills
  3. Cleanliness
  4. Impatience
  5. They want things their way

He also says that what makes a great chef is to bring all of these attributes together.

This reminds me of Gladwell, who describes in his book Outliers that lots and lots of experience are often needed to be really successful. There is a certain air of perfectionism in the background, too. And interestingly, many great chefs or artists have learned their trait from scratch, even though they do now things that are really out of the box. The same holds for painters, for instance, like van Gogh or Picasso.

All this makes me wonder to what extent there is a connection to academia. Successful academics are very devoted, take their work very seriously and work very hard. They keep on learning, and they stay curious. They strive for perfection, they are ambitious. And it takes a long time and a lot of training until they are at that point (I still think that it really helps to be a good classical economist to do great work in behavioral economics. And that macroeconomists can benefit from micro theory and empirical skills.). Like it does for great chefs. So far so good.

As for impatience and stubbornness I’m less sure.

There is some impatience involved, but then, what makes an academic do good work seems to be to play the long game, to make sure that contributions are as good as they get. Attention to detail is important, and so is it not to rush. Now, if one thinks of impatience as being eager to move on, that may be true, and it may be related to academics often saying that they want time to do their research.

Last, stubbornness. Yes, academics sometimes want things their way, but what seems to be important is to strike a balance between that and what is useful to society and what the community values.

In the end of the day, there seems to be a connection to being a great chef I believe, even when it comes to those last two qualities. Academics do science for others, and the same holds for preparing a great meal. And if impatience means that one is looking forward to reaching perfection to finish a project before serving it to others, then that could fit too.

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Looking back at two years in the University Council, and ahead

At Tilburg University, the role of the University Council is to represent the views of students and employees. I have now been serving for one two-year term and will serve for another one from September onwards.

This has not always been fun, believe me, but many people on campus don’t realize how much influence this council can have. And due to a teaching reduction that comes with the appointment I am able to stay a 100% scholar, even though I miss some of the teaching tasks, which is why I always viewed this engagement as temporary.

With our initiative TiU International, we have managed to bring a new perspective to the table, which inspired and resulted in a number of small steps that our university has taken—steps that go in the right direction if you ask us, and we feel broad support for this in the academic community.

For instance, our president and rector have said that they want to take the next step and produce most internal documents in English. One should not underestimate what this means: international employees (one in three academics is non-Dutch) will feel more at home, and slowly but surely we will thereby move towards also having a non-Dutch speaking dean, or non-Dutch speaking heads of departments (are there any at this point?). The underlying idea is that international employees and the diversity they add will help us make better decisions as an institution, at all levels, coming closer to achieving our goals. Why is that? They come from all over the world and have seen what works (and what doesn’t). Their experiences are therefore valuable also for us. And academia, to a large extent, is an international affair, and in the end of the day being internationally connected on all kinds of levels also benefits local, Dutch students and Dutch society.

Related to this, also a new language policy is in the making.

Besides, we have repeatedly argued that we have to change the real estate strategy, and that one-size-fits-all directives like the Tilburg Education Profile are misguided. If you ask me, then slowly but surely also these points are picked up. I find this already very motivating and rewarding.

So far for some examples of smaller steps.

But: we still have to think more about the big issues. To start with, what I’ve realized recently, more than anything else, is that there is actually no shared set of goals on campus (despite there being a strategy, formally). Different faculties have different goals.

And I think that this is actually fine, but needs to be acknowledged (in a revised strategy). So far, we have instead tried to unify, to come up with one strategy for the entire university (cf. the education profile). But we don’t need to have the same specific goals all across campus. Our faculties should strive for academic excellence, but importantly they should come up with their own interpretation of what that means. This includes excellent education.

At the same time, we need to define general principles that foster academic excellence. This could become an important part of our strategy in the end.

These should relate to what universities should be all about: creating and transferring knowledge.

For instance: promotions to full professor have to reflect academic performance, and not that somebody agreed to do an administrative task or has been around for long enough. Or brought in some money.

And there have to be no-go’s. People need to leave after their PhDs, and can only come back after having been offered tenure at an institution at least as good as ours. This is the international standard and ensures the young academics become independent of their former supervisors and also get a different perspective elsewhere. Long research visits can’t provide this.

And, in my view, professors are supposed to engage in both, research and teaching. Both inspire one another. But becoming professor should never be based only on performance in one of the two.

So far my thoughts in-between terms. I really hope we can get to discussing some of the big issues in the two years to come.

This, together with the smaller achievements, motivated me to run for a second time.

My first university council meeting

Today was the first meeting of the university council. As you may recall from my earlier post, my colleague Martin Salm and I have been elected into that council. Here is our introductory statement.


Introductory speech, held by Tobias Klein on October 3, 2014 in the University Council on behalf of TiU International

Thank you Mister Chairman,

Dear Rector Magnificus, dear President, dear Secretary General, dear other membes of this council, dear guests on the podium, dear Thijs,

TiU International is a new initiative. We founded TiU International because we realized that one group of employees was not sitting at the table when the formal discussions about the new strategy took place in this council: international employees.

We would like to convince you in the upcoming two years that they have a lot to offer. They have moved to the Netherlands because of Tilburg University’s reputation. Some of them have obtained their PhD’s at universities that are better than ours. And in general they have seen how universities are organized outside of Holland. This makes them, to some extent, more independent thinkers.

My colleague Martin Salm and I will do our best to represent these international employees and their ideas in this council.

For us, it is important that documents are available in English and also that discussions take place in English. Otherwise, the many people on campus who do not speak Dutch—employees and students—will keep feeling excluded. We would like to change that.

But our initiative is not primarily about language and we do not only want to represent international employees. Our initiative is about a mindset that we feel is not represented enough in the discussions. Our initiative is about our university becoming a truly international place and we want to represent Dutch employees with an international mindset just as well. This includes many members of the supporting staff who do a great job every single day.

There was an interesting workshop last week—the Rector and Tjits were there as well—and we agree with the main conclusion. Let me put it like this: Just as you can’t be half pregnant a university can’t be half international. We believe that Tilburg University is in many ways close to becoming such a truly international place, and we believe that this offers a wealth of opportunities. This will not only be to the benefit of the employees, but also to the benefit of our students.

We believe that Tilburg University should be ambitious. Being number one in Holland is a nice goal. But we should aim at being one of the best universities worldwide. And some of our departments are actually already among the leading ones in the world. We should learn from them how we can improve, focus more on what we are good at, and also focus on this when telling prospective students why they should come here so that they can make informed choices.

That is: We believe that true excellence in research and teaching is the way to go. The key players in each academic department should be editors of international journals, keynote speakers at international conferences, great teachers and truly respected senior academics.

We can only continue to be successful if we keep hiring outstanding academics on the international job market; and when those who go the extra mile keep getting rewarded.

We believe that good researchers are often also good teachers.

And we believe that it is the obligation and responsibility of the academics to foster our reputation, raise money, and put together attractive study programs. They need outstanding support for this. Therefore, well-functioning service departments with excellent staff are of vital importance.

This is the beginning of a new yearly cycle for the university council. I want to close by addressing our students: It is one of our key priorities to offer you the best possible education you can get in Holland. We believe in diversity. And we believe that everyone will benefit when also an international student will join us in this council in a year’s time. Please do your best to make this happen.

Thank you for your attention.

Brushing up the basics and online lectures in general

Yesterday, we had Mirko Draca over as a guest, also presenting in the economics seminar. Over dinner, he mentioned that there are two main lecture series that he would recommend when it comes to learning more about time series analysis and statistics in general. They are:

  1. Ben Lambert: A large series of undergrad and masters levels short videos, including time series: https://www.youtube.com/user/SpartacanUsuals/playlists
  2. Joseph Blitzstien:  His probability course at Harvard which starts at the basics and then gos onto a lot of useful distributions and stochastic processes: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwSkUXSbQkFmuYHLw0dsL3yDlAoOFrkDG

This reminded me of my wish to actually use online resources  more actively myself. And I would like to encourage especially Ph.D. students to actively look for interesting content on the web. It seems to me that such web lectures are tentatively underused and underappreciated, and that we usually don’t take the time to watch them as if they were real seminar talks or real lectures. However, that may be a mistake, and by making use of these resources ourselves, we may actually learn how to use the web more effectively when it comes to designing courses.

This is more broadly related to the challenges faced by universities, as described in a piece published by The Economist earlier this year.

But it concerns also conference visits. For example, most people don’t know that the plenary talks of many conferences are freely available on the internet. See here for some nice examples. All of them are highly recommended.

How international are Dutch universities?

Very.

It feels like there are not many other countries in which you can effectively communicate with staff and students in English (except for countries in which English is the official language of course, but definitely not in Germany for example). And generally, living in Holland as a non-Dutch is a delight, which adds to that feeling. One can see in so many places that Holland is an open economy that has a long tradition of opening up to foreigners.

Today, there was an article in the Volkskrant, one of the major Dutch broadsheet newspapers, in which an unpublished study by the association of Dutch universities was cited. According to the article, one third of the post-docs at Dutch universities has a foreign passport and 15 to 20 percent of the tenured faculty (associate and full professors) come from abroad. One has to keep in mind that this is across all universities. My feeling is that the top US schools are much more international, but when one takes the average across all universities in the US, then the number must be much lower (I’d be grateful if someone could point me to some numbers).

Nevertheless, it’s worth having a closer look. One challenge that the article did not talk about, and did not present any data on, is that people come to Holland because Holland is able to offer a competitive net wage in the first 8 years (because of the so-called 30 percent rule, which states that 30 percent of the gross income is not taxed). But Dutch universities are not prepared to top up the gross salary after those 8 years so that the net wage stays the same, and therefore many people actually leave. I know of at least two full professors who deliberately started to look for a new job about 1 or 2 years before their preferential tax treatment expired. They talked about it openly over lunch. I believe institutions still have to learn here, provided that they want to retain international faculty beyond the 8 year grace period.

This is one of the reasons why it is actually not the case that international faculty also climb up in the organization and become sufficiently involved in the decision making as heads of departments, members of the university board, or in the university council.

The university council is the highest committee in which employees and students have a say. The university board has to seek its approval for all major decisions. But in fact, the university council is one of the few places on campus where all documents are still in Dutch and where the rule is not followed that as soon as a non-Dutch speaker joins a discussion one would automatically switch to English. This is why in the spring we have founded a new initiative, TiU International. We have won 2 out of 9 seats in the council straight away. I will join as one of the two members. First, in the next days we will have to find out how we can overcome the reluctance of everybody to speak English.

Another reason why Dutch universities are less international than they could be is that institutions are sometimes not compatible with what is the international standard. For example, it is deeply rooted in the societal norms, and hence in all kinds of regulations and customs, that the top wage one can earn at a university should not be too high (there is a recent decision on the payment of top administrators). This kind of regulation is also the reason why banks now move whole departments out of Holland.

Besides, it always strikes me as somewhat odd that in Holland, Ph.D. students are also counted as scientific staff. By international standards, at least in economics (as I have described in an earlier post), they are still students who first take two years of courses and afterwards work on their dissertation. They then go on the international job market, join another university and only after that publish their work as a member of that new university. So, the name of a Dutch university will never appear on their best publications. This is perfectly fine, because they still contribute to the reputation of the university they got their Ph.D. from. For instance, the international academic community knows that Ralph Koijen who was first at the University of Chicago and is now at London Business School got his Ph.D. from Tilburg University. Just in the same way as firms would know that somebody got his Master’s degree from our university. The major challenge for us is that we have to pay our Ph.D. students as if they were regular employees. And there is no reason why we should. Instead, we could also pay them a scholarship (which saves us the high social security contributions). At the same time, it is of course true that they do some work that resembles work done by a regular employee. For instance, in my department, a Ph.D. student is supposed to spend 200 hours per year on teaching-related activities. For this time, they should indeed be paid as regular employees. But not for writing their thesis or attending courses. So also here, the institutions in Holland are lacking behind what is the international standard, at least the one at top US universities.

Overall, I believe Dutch universities are relatively international on the surface, but there is a long way to go until they are really international. 80 to 90 percent of the students at Dutch universities are still Dutch, which means that they are not yet successful in attracting international students. Moreover, institutions in Holland and also within our university are not yet prepared to support us in systematically retaining top international researchers and let them participate in the decision making. There is a chance that involving international staff in the decision making will help to overcome the former failure. We have started working on it here in Tilburg.

Starting to work on a Ph.D. thesis

I would also like to use this Blog to share some advice to Ph.D. students. Let’s start with advice for Ph.D. students who have just completed the first two years of courses (small aside: In some European countries, the first two years of a Ph.D. program are referred to as the “Research Master” or “MPhil” Phase and after that one starts in year one; in the U.S. and other countries, one would call this year three).

So, it’s August now and you are about to get started with the thesis phase. I would suggest that you first think about where you want to be by the end of the Ph.D. Of course, you want to have a degree, but you also want to have a job. And the idea of a Ph.D. program is to prepare you for a job as an academic. For that reason, I find it helpful to already now read Cawley’s guide on the academic job market, available at the AEA job market website. There, you will also find other interesting papers that look at this question from a different angle.

The most important thing to realize is that when you want to have a job on September 1, then you need a single-authored job market paper in November of the previous year.

Next, I suggest you do some more preparatory reading that is related to the actual activity of doing research. I personally liked the book “How to write a lot“, because it does not only help you to overcome the writer’s block, but also gives you advice on how to organize your day so that you are as productive as possible. I’ve also heard good things about the book “Writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day“.

It’s also time to acquire some software skills. I suggest to look into LyX for text processing, programs to organize your bibliography files (such as JabRef) and to have a look at R, as more and more people seem to use it, especially when they deal with big data sets. Moreover, get your IT environment in good shape. Buy a tablet, install all necessary apps on it (most importantly a PDF reader with annotation function, such as Goodreader). And come up with a good file structure on your hard disk so that you find things. I personally have everything in my Dropbox. This makes it easy to share folders and to synchronize files between your devices. And you automatically back up your files. You can also use any other such service, such as the SURFdrive here at Tilburg University.

Generally, get everything out of the way so that you can get started. All this can be done in one week. Or even less time.

Next, start thinking about research ideas. An idea is a question you would like to answer and that you think one can answer (it doesn’t matter if you don’t know how exactly). Most research ideas won’t work out, but some of them will. Compose a list of your 10 best ideas. Then, take the most promising one and ask yourself how the ideal data set would look like with which you could answer the question. Think about the ideal natural experiment you would like to exploit. And do a google (scholar) search on the topic. Don’t be disappointed if somebody else has already (tried to) answer the question. Instead, ask yourself whether you think it’s possible to give a much better answer.

Actually, you should actually start thinking about ideas already in the second year, before picking an adviser and starting the thesis phase. From then onward, think about new ideas all the time. Discuss them with your classmates and also with faculty. More junior faculty are usually very approachable, while the senior ones are more busy. But you should also talk to the more senior ones about your work. Try to make an appointment if necessary. This could be part of the process of looking for a good match for your adviser(s). Refine your list by getting rid of the less promising ideas and replacing them with more promising ones. This list will be helpful when somebody asks you the important question “What are you working on?”. And many people will ask that question.

Talking to others about will probably lead to a joint project at some point. Sometimes, it is very helpful to start a research project with a junior faculty member, preferably if he or she will likely be on your dissertation committee or your advisor. This will foster learning by doing, which will help you for your future projects. At the beginning you will think that you have a lot of stupid questions and make a lot of stupid mistakes. But you will learn that this is just part of the thought process that (sometimes) leads to insights that are all but stupid. And this is what counts.

But will all this, keep in mind that your most important goal is to have a single-authored job market paper at the end of your dissertation phase. Start talking to your advisor about this already after a few months.

Join a group such as the structural econometrics group in Tilburg. Here, ideas are discussed almost every week. Check the seminar schedules and make a plan which seminars to attend in the upcoming semester.

Start reading. In general. Make it a habit to browse through the recent issues of the top 5 journals. Learn how great work looks like. Learn how to get the main idea of a paper without spending days reading it.

Also read the original versions of the classic articles. For example, Arrow’s classic piece on health economics. Or McFadden’s classic articles on travel demand (he has a very nice website with lots of linked articles). This can be very inspiring because the original articles are often very clear and explicit, and in some sense easier to understand than more recent textbook treatments of the material. You can also browse through Train’s book, for an introduction on using simulation techniques to incorporate random-coefficients into your empirical model. Also find out about recent important developments, for example by reading Varian’s article on big data.

I assume that you already know which field you want to be working in, because you have made a conscious choice after having attended comprehensive field courses and you’re already paired up with an adviser. If you still have the feeling that you are not so sure what the current topics are that are being discussed in the field, then go back to the overview articles you have been referred to in the field courses. For empirical industrial organization, for instance, I would suggest you read the article by Ackerberg, Benkard, Berry and Pakes, among others of course.

This brings me back to Cawley’s article. Go talk to your supervisor about the plan for the next months, ask him which chapters or articles you should read, and start thinking about multiple projects at the same time. But only work on one or two in the beginning. Nevertheless, keep in mind that you should update the list with the 10 research ideas. One of them will be your job market paper, but it’ll be a while until you know which ones.

Let the journey begin!

Recommended reading

I bumped into a nice blog by Kevin Bryan, a PhD student at Kellogg/Northwestern when I looked at the website of my colleague Sebastian Ebert. Recommended to those who are interested in reading about academic research. What I like is that Bryan makes a selection and discusses the respective contributions, so it’s not like subscribing to yet another newsletter from journal XYZ. And of course things make even more sense when they are put into perspective.