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Professor Myrna Wooders: Viewpoint

"If we made you an offer, would you accept?" One question that comes up when students and senior faculty are on the job market is "If we made you an offer, would you accept?" Maybe this analogy is out-of-date but this seems to me like A asking B" If I asked you to go to bed with me, would you?"

Suppose, in fact, that you would like to have a job offer from U of X. It may be that X is a very prestigious place with a distinguished faculty. Or X may be exactly where you want to live. Then maybe you could say "Yes." Or maybe there is no way you'd like position with U of X; you'd rather drive a taxi in New York. Then really it would be fair to say "No". That is honest and also protects your reputation.

But most of the time, it's probably the case that U of X has some desirable features and is a place that you would want to seriously consider. In fact, if you spent some time imagining all the good things about U of X, you could probably get quite excited about it. You could undergo all the costs of making this important decision and conclude that indeed, U of X was the place for you.You might get your heart set on it. And if you did, you could be very disappointed if ultimately there was no offer forthcoming.

When it comes to important life decisions, there are typically decision making costs. In my view, it should not be necessary to incur these costs until there is a decision to be made. And one may not want to set oneself up for disappointment. Electoral Boards here in the UK are probably comprised mostly or entirely of smart and sensitive people who would understand this. (But nothing on this page comes with a guarantee.)

Watching your instructor solve problems and thinking that you are learning how to solve problems is like watching an aerobics class and thinking that you are becoming fit. Watching helps to learn the "moves," mental and physical, but can not substitute for doing the workouts yourself.

(The picture is from DCAF; see It perplexes me, but several people have asked me for the source of this quotation -- click here to see the author.)

After reading the above, Luc Lauwers, from the Catholic University of Leuven, brought to my attention one of his favourite quotes, translated (roughly) from the Seneca:

"It is not that we do not try because something is difficult;
it is because we do not try that something is difficult

I agree. And disagree; some things are difficult. But I know that if I let myself think that I can't understand something in mathematics then, for sure, I will not be able to understand it.

When we were co-directing our PhD programme, Andrew Oswald, asked me to write up how I do research for our PhD student handbook. Finally, I did. Here it is. Some other articles about beginning research are "Starting research", by J. Creedy, The Australian Economic Review, March 2001, vol. 34, no. 1, pp.116-124 (9), available on the web from our library, and "My system of work (Not!)", by Avinash Dixit, The American Economist, 38 (1), Spring 1994, reprinted in Passion and Craft; How Economists Work, ed. Michale Sznenberg, Ann Arbor, MA: Michigan University Press, 1998.
Regarding citations, an eminent researcher, one of the most distinguished and respected members of our profession, once told me a rule of thumb. If a paper proves some result, say R, then it is not appropriate for subsequent researchers to describe their results as proving R. They might write, however, that they prove R with a difference -- in a different context, or with fewer or weaker assumptions, and so on. For example, R may be that tax competition leads to suboptimal provision of public goods. A subsequent researcher might obtain the result that tax competition leads to suboptimal provision of public goods even when different regions face different costs of production.

This rule of thumb can be a handy guide -- but no more than a guide. It is also one that might be forgotten in passionate and enthusiastic writing about research. (It is wonderful how people become excited about their research!) But it may be a good idea to keep this rule in mind when giving your paper a final check before circulating and publishing it..

"The usual disclaimer." In our profession, some authors typically write, after their acknowledgements, the `usual disclaimer,' that they are responsible for all errors in their paper. It seems to me that there are some circumstances where such a disclaimer may be required. For example, a PhD student, submitting a paper from his dissertation, might write that he benefited greatly from the guidance of his supervisor, who not only guided the student along each step of the way but also corrected a number of errors. This seems to me to be the sort of situation in which the student may then wish to expressly take responsibility for any shortcomings of the paper. But otherwise, claiming responsibility for the errors seems unnecessary -- the paper, and its errors, are due to the author(s).