Bryan Caplan  

How Lazy Is the Professoriat?

The Best and the Brightest... The Myth of the Macroeconomy...
In my view, low conscientiousness is a major cause of poverty.  Laziness and impulsiveness lead to low marginal productivity.  Sooner or later the market notices and gives you your just deserts.  A smug, self-satisfied view, I know, but I'm only a messenger.

Still, I have to wonder: What would the world say if someone shined a hidden camera in my office?  How hard do I really work? 

I could just compare myself to other professors.  But that begs the question.  When I look around academia, I see lazy people everywhere.  (My own impeccable department excepted, of course).  Many professors virtually retire the day they get tenure.  Plenty of others start even earlier.  It's fairly common for tenure-track professors to "work" seven years with zero discernible output.  By most measures, professors are extremely successful.  How do such success and such laziness coexist?

To resolve this paradox, you need to remember that laziness is a preference - and that behavior is the reaction of preference to environment.  Before you pronounce a professor "lazy," you should ask yourself, "How would most people act given his situation?" 

Imagine taking randomly selected people, putting them in an office, and saying, "In seven years, your peers will decide whether your research is important enough to merit a job for life.  See you in seven years."  That's only a slight caricature of what it's like to be a tenure-track professor.  You have to decide what's worth studying.  You have to figure out something original to say.  And you have to actually say it despite your peers' presumptions of apathy and negativity. 

I submit that, placed in this situation, the vast majority of people would accomplish nothing.  Indeed, I bet that many people would voluntarily resign because they wouldn't know what to do with themselves.  Even if, by normal standards, you have a very good work ethic, you still need someone to (a) tell you what to do, (b) clearly tell you how well you're doing, and (c) reward you before you forget why you deserve a reward.  Professors, in contrast, are supposed to toil day after day on a self-defined goal, bereft of clear-cut feedback, to impress habitually apathetic and negative peers seven years in the future.  Bizarre.

On a gut level, professors who don't publish appall me.  Untenured professors who don't publish actually baffle me.  How can they squander their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?  On reflection, though, the amazing thing about professors isn't that they accomplish so little.  The amazing thing about professors is that they accomplish anything at all.  They may look lazy to outside observers - and even to each other.  But considering their situation, professors are amazingly industrious.

COMMENTS (28 to date)
Noah Yetter writes:
On a gut level, professors who don't publish appall me.

You truly value the teaching role of professors so little? Reminds me of why I quit grad school.

Fabio Rojas writes:

Spot on, Bryan. More evidence that most people would flounder as a professor - only 50 % (less in some studies) of people entering graduate programs complete their degree. This in spite of the fact that PhD students are given stipends and relatively light course loads. Basically, most committees would grant a degree if a student just wrote a page a day for a year and handed it in. Yet, many can't do that.

Tom West writes:

You truly value the teaching role of professors so little?

Bryan might not, but one's research tends to decide the tenure decision in most universities. Teaching is an auxiliary task which has to get done (much like paperwork), but is not the primary focus.

But as a graduate student, surely you'd have known that.

Bob Murphy writes:

So Bryan's amended theory is:

(1) People who are poor deserve it, because lazy people are poor.

(2) Professors aren't poor, and they seem to be lazy.

(3) Professors' laziness is an illusion.

Fair enough, and very convenient, but why not apply the same approach to other deserving poor? E.g. "inner city teenagers seem like they have low productivity, but given that they grew up with cr*ppy schools they were forced to attend, the gangs around them telling them that getting As was 'acting white,' etc. etc., it's amazing they get jobs at all."

(I'm not being facetious. I'm pointing out that Bryan seems to stop short when he gets his peers off the judgmental hook.)

Adam Ozimek writes:

You're assessment why Professors are as they are looks the same as the conventional assessment of why the poor are as they are: on the surface level it looks like low conscientiousness, but in reality it is due to the environment and incentive structure, and most people in that circumstance would behave similarly. Is this true for professors more than for the poor?

wintercow20 writes:

"On a gut level, professors who don't publish appall me. Untenured professors who don't publish actually baffle me. How can they squander their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?"
I am one of those guys who appalls you! I write and speak popularly, which is probably my comparative advantage - simply not among the smartest folks in academia. However, I do spend all of my "research" time working through tons and tons of research and distilling it for my students. Haven't taught the same class twice, for example. And while I may be squandering a chance to publish, all of my "free" academic time is spent with undergraduates, trying to provide them with opportunities they otherwise would not have. I do not disagree with your assessment, but I would defend myself from lazy claims, even as I think others would like to trade places with me.

Steve Miller writes:

But Mike/wintercow, you published when you were tenure-track, didn't you? You left that role because you wanted to do more to popularize economic ideas. I think Bryan is talking about tenured and untenured TT academics.

Steve Miller writes:

I think Bryan's point is not that "See, professors really aren't lazy" so much as "success has less to do with working hard (which many people are capable of)than in other professions." Working hard as we traditionally imagine it is not sufficient, and may not even be necessary. Instead, what's necessary is a low time preference and the ability to work independently with very little immediate feedback or reward. Also necessary are publishable ideas and the ability to persuade skeptical editors/referees that they're worth publishing.

GU writes:
"Laziness and impulsiveness lead to low marginal productivity. Sooner or later the market notices and gives you your just deserts.

It's one thing to argue that we're better off when employers pay their employees according to their marginal productivity (as opposed to wages set by gov't diktat). But it's a logical leap to say that having a low marginal productivity and the resulting low wages is simply one's just deserts. But it doesn't matter, b/c Caplan never responds to comments (I enjoy and respect his writings quite a bit, but I find it annoying that he never responds, especially since he often draws high quality comments).

Robin Hanson writes:

If profs would be more productive with someone on their back, why don't more schools arise that offer such management? Wouldn't that allow such schools to create more profs with more publications using the same quality prof inputs?

Joe Blek writes:

Why "baffle"?
Say, I'm short-sighted.
Say, I got this TT job with 80K salary, just did teaching and enough research to get me 7 years of "free" time in my department, got denied tenure at review, then found a job than I'd have found without a PhD.
So, 5 years in grad school got me 7 years of "good" time.
Isn't this rational enough?

J Storrs Hall writes:

It seems to me, that somewhat to my surprise, you have made the error of ignoring the Hayekian insight. Research, like a market, is a discovery procedure. You have to try a lot of bad ideas to hit on a good one. You have to do a substantial amount of research, in some cases, to tell the one from the other.

It's my perception that professors who publish a lot tend to "force" ideas, that is, to cherry-pick data, adopt a lawyerly rather than scientific stance to analysis, and so forth, to push lots of ideas out the door. Would that such folks be more lazy.

That said, there are some tenured professors who are among the laziest folks I know...

English Professor writes:

The view from the humanities.

1) Incentives still matter: In academia publication is rewarded, which has led to an enormous quantity of publication, much of which is of dubious worth. In the humanities, quantity generally trumps quality. I have heard English professors say, "How can you make judgments of quality about your colleagues' work? The main point is that it was published." Those who publish also attain higher levels of prestige, which is an incentive of its own.

2) Tenure functions as a rent, allowing tenured professors to extract pay that is higher than what one would expect based on their achievement. Some professors, especially in the humanities, where the salaries are relatively small, take a portion of their compensation in leisure. They might in fact be able to get better raises if they published more, but publishing is hard work, and the rewards are not certain. Leisure is a reasonable response.

3) Teaching is a funny business. Class preparation (and grading papers) can expand to fill up all the time made available for it. Thus a tenured professor can keep himself busy without ever doing any research. And since teaching is supposedly the main activity of a professor (very few are hired simply to do research), he can do his leisurely preparation without feeling the least guilt.

Jack writes:

Prof. Caplan,

Your post is uncharacteristically scatter-shot. I'm not sure what you're getting at, but English Professor makes the best points, I think. Indeed, a professor's work life is one at which over 99% of people would fail. That said, not every professor wants to focus on research all their life. Many instead focus on teaching or (gasp!) admin. Others feel that given how hard they worked during tenure track, they have been under-paid, so they use more leisure to implicitly restore their hourly wage equivalent to what they think it should be. ("If Joe the Plumber makes $75 an hour, and I spent 6 years in graduate school eating Ramen noodles...").

Last, re: guidance, in most fields there are internal seminars, invited seminars, professional meetings, topic-specific work groups, etc. Not to mention the "guidance" one receives from referee reports.

Troy Camplin writes:

I do not have an academic position at all, and from the looks of things, nothing on the immediate horizon, and yet I write and publish. I read and write and publish because doing research and developing new ideas is what I love.

For those who don't do research: If that's not what you love, but rather love teaching, do please resign so I can take your position, and feel free to go teach at a community college or technical school.

Don't get me wrong: I love teaching. But I also love doing research.

Universities are for research and teaching; colleges are for teaching. If you're not doing research, please get the hell out of my job! I'm tired of being a misallocated human resource, and I'm tired of lazy professors displacing me.

anon writes:

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Eric Larson writes:

It's not your position. In fact its a misallocation for the positions themselves to exist. Suprisingly, nobody has pointed out that most research output is terrible. I don't care how voluminous it is.

There is a tiny sliver of academic research that the market would support. E.g. endowed chairs at MIT,Stanford and Berkeley. If you want to publish, publish. Today, it's hard enough to compete for eyeballs, let alone find someone to subsidize your research. Read the tea leaves: in ten years higher education will be a wasteland. Get a real job. Don't look back.

Eric Larson writes:

I misspoke. Re: English prof's 1st point.

Dan Weber writes:

A lot depends on the job. Give me a job for life grading papers and I would probably slack. Give me a job for life building rockets and I would probably blow something up every week, usually on purpose.

Nathan Smith writes:

I can see your point about being appalled by non-publishing professors, yet there must be something wrong with it, because-- think about it-- do we really want more academic articles in the world? I couldn't be bothered to read more than the AER, JPE, QJE, and a couple of others, at the very most. There isn't time. A lot of academic publications have very little value; they're just a credentialing system, at best, or even just rent-seeking.

Maybe it would be better to have a kind of specialized subject-area GRE for professors, so you can see how smart and cutting-edge they really are and weed out the mediocrities, without cluttering the world with lots of unread publications. Or another idea: require all universities that receive any public funding to videotape courses and post them online, and then have commissions who sift through these and evaluate teaching quality. That might take away the incentive for resume-padding publications and only really good stuff would get published.

Troy Camplin writes:

By definition a standardized test could not possibly tell you how cutting-edge, innovative, etc. you are. A test can only test what is known, not what is unknown.


I have a Ph.D. in the humanities. It's too late for me. There's nothing else I can do and, worse, there's nothing else anyone will hire me for. Trust me, I know. (And being a classical liberal humanities Ph.D. seems to prevent me from getting academic jobs, too.) There are no real jobs for me, or I would have one.

And I am well aware of the impending higher education bubble. Well aware. I have written on it.

Schepp writes:

As a non academic, The whole incentive thing seems to be a problem. As an undergrad student, I thought I paid my tuition and expected the University to provide services to educate me based on my payment. Publishing on cutting edge thinking does seem to correlate with good teaching to undergraduate students.

The rent seeking organization of the University Faculty do as many organization do, formalize a process then don't pay much attention to the details of efficacy of the process. One should be asking what is the value of the publication outside the tenure silo.

As a professional now outside of school, I find much value in reading blogs and academic papers referenced to from blogs, but that utilizes two filters of good academics who can communicate with the public and my own self selection of what I find to be important. Blog education is much better than my undergraduate school in terms of learning.

Eric Larson writes:

Now I understand your position better. Unfortunately,t he market for classical liberal scholarship is not robust. There are only a few sources of funding. I've attended seminars and found them to be not meritocratic. Credulity is given to those who adhere to core principles, not necessarily the best thinkers. I recognized this and have ran from the humanities, I commend you for wanting to do what you love. I know the obstacles are arbitrary, but they are binding.

ezra abrams writes:

"the worst system ever invented, except for all the others..."
Stipulating as to what you say,as a PhD who didn't want to be a professor, and who has spent his career in biotech, and who has relatives who are professors...
what you find when you leave the university and go into corp life is how psychologically coercive workign for a corporation is; if the CEO is , say, a right wing republican, then everyone who wants advancement will be one or quiet (of course, there are exceptions)
I think this is why professors score as more left on polls; it is not that professors are more left, but that corp employees are afraid to talk (or have convinced themselves that hey believe in rigth wing stuff)

so the value of tenure is that it is the only place people are free to say what they think; a tenuous freedom, more abstract then real, but valued nonetheless.
I think this is why the right hates tenure so much: it is one of the few areas in our society to escape the control by large corporations and their allies, whom I view as the people with 99% of the power in this country.
at least, thats my view; I know i'm way out on the liberal end of the spectrum and most people don't agree with me

Will writes:

Its a limited sample, but I've never met a tenure track physics professor who works less than 60 hours a week in a lab or at a computer. I know some tenured profs who have scaled back a bit, but none who don't publish at least a few papers a year.

The laziness you see in econ professors could reflect the much harsher job market for physicists as compared to economists. I went to a top 5 physics school with a middle-of-the-road econ department. I was surprised that 6 years after grad school, nearly the whole econ cohort works doing economics either in the university or private sector, and less than 1/3 of the physics cohort is still in ANY kind of science (mostly bio).

Troy Camplin writes:

Ezra, the situation is identical in universities, except the pressure is to conform to leftist politics. Perhaps it is less obvious if you're on the left, as you agree with the ideology and perhaps participated in applying some of the pressure (I'm not saying it was done knowingly -- it's subtle). And that's assuming you let them in the door. Political orientation won't show up on the C.V. of a physicist or molecular biologist, but it does show up in the social sciences and humanities.

The left won't let me in the university door, conservatives don't really support the humanities, for all their complaints about culture, and classical liberals focus mostly on economics and don't see the relevance of culture to their world view (never mind that it's the culture that has to change first if classical liberals are going to get what they want). It's really an absurd situation.

bgc writes:

BH Obama published nothing at Chicago University - but was offered tenure.

Was does that tell you:

1. about BHO?

2. about academia?

steve writes:

@ezra abrams

I am an engineer who has worked in consumer electronics for 25 years and my experience has not been exactly as you described. Specifically, two companies had "no politics in the office" as an unwritten rule. This was not because they were really apolitical (quite the contrary during the days of the HDTV standards development they all lobbied heavily for their version.) but rather it was simply to avoid strife at the office. Similiarly, talking religion or any other controversial subject in anything but hushed and secretive tones was fround upon.

The one exception was a small startup company that had a culture of free wheeling tolerance for just about anything. As a libertarian I found it quite refreshing to be able to say what I thought even though only rarely did anyone agree with me. Unfortrunately, this all changed. Two things happened the founder of the company got ousted and the company started getting DARPA contracts. At this time the standard republican positions where repeatedly voiced by both the management and employees with any voiced opposition simply worn into silence through force of numbers and angry repitition.

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