Econ PhDs and the Agricultural and Applied Economics Job Market

A friend who is finishing his PhD in economics writes:

If you have time, would you mind sharing your thoughts on working in [an agricultural and applied economics] department as well as any tips you may have for customizing job applications for ag/resources places?

This is a good question, and I am grateful for the blog fodder. After sitting on two search committees in our department, I noticed that econ PhDs often didn’t do well in their interviews with us because they hadn’t taken the time to study the differences between economics departments and agricultural and applied economics departments.

As with many questions job-market related, John Cawley’s guide to the job market is the best overall resource and it should be the first place you look. But here are some thoughts of my own, idiosyncratic and in no particular order:

  • First and foremost, realize that agricultural and applied economics (AAE) departments operate on a model that is different than economics departments because of their institutional raison d’être. Loosely speaking, in the US, the existence of AAE departments is due to federal legislation that put in place a network of land-grant universities whose purpose is to generate research whose findings are publicly beneficial.
  • This means that most faculty in AAE departments receive part of their salary from the state’s agricultural experiment station, and so part of their research is expected to benefit the state they work in. This means you should have a rough idea of what part of your research should go in your proposal to the agricultural experiment station.
  • Most AAE departments focus on agriculture, food, development, environment, natural resources, and related themes. But some departments have additional fields that are part and parcel of their identity given the needs of their state. For instance, I was just giving a talk at Ohio State last week, and one of their fields is regional economics, which is an important component of their program.
  • Appointments in AAE departments are based on splits. My position, for instance, is 50% research and 50% teaching. What this means differs across departments, so that the same split might mean something somewhat different at, say, Texas A&M. But you should at least know that if a position is 50% research and 50% extension, you’re not going to do any teaching unless you volunteer for it. You should also know what an extension appointment entails. So a good question to ask your interviewers, if it is not obvious from the ad, is what the split is.
  • Salaries in AAE departments tend to be lower than in econ departments. This is related to two important things: (i) faculty in AAE departments teach less than faculty in economics departments and (ii) whereas grants are not a necessary condition for tenure or promotion in most econ departments (in an econ department, grants are at best seen as an input in the production of good research), grantsmanship is seen as a distinct criterion for tenure and promotion at most AAE departments (along with research, teaching, and service). This means that if you interview with AAE departments, you should have a good idea of where you will apply for funding, and that that idea needs to be realistic. It also means that AAE salaries are lower as a distinct incentive for you to get the type of grants that’ll allow you to supplement your nine-month salary with one or two months of summer support.
  • Understand that when it comes to research, quantity matters. That is, if you go up for tenure with three articles in Econometrica, you are likely to have a hard time getting through the college promotion and tenure committee at most land-grant institutions. Part of that is because we are for all intents and purposes social scientists in life science colleges, and life scientists tend to go up for tenure with many, many more articles than social scientists (to be fair, their articles tend to have several coauthors and to be much shorter than ours). The University of Guelph’s Alan Ker had a really good article about this in the CJAE this year. Whether that constrain is binding depends some on the ranking of the department you are interviewing with, on the relative size of the AAE department within the college, on how good the department head is at advocating for her faculty within the college, and on accidents of history. But I know of at least one department (not mine, thank goodness) where there is a bright-line requirement to get tenure (i.e., “You need to produce x articles per year on average if you want to get tenure”). In my highly subjective opinion, a good rule of thumb if you want to be on the safe side is that you should have 1.5 articles per year on the tenure track on average, though that is by no means a hard and fast rule, and I am pretty sure that you could get by with as little as one article per year on the tenure track on average if those articles are all of good quality. But you can substitute some quantity for quality.
  • On quality, no matter what the impact factors say, for many people in AAE departments, the AJAE is still the numéraire.
  • You should have an idea of how your research will complement that of your colleagues, and of which of your prospective colleagues you’d like to collaborate with.
  • Interdisciplinary research tends to be rewarded more in AAE departments than in econ departments. This is to foster collaboration across departments in agricultural colleges, because many of the problems dealt with in ag colleges tend to focus on how humans interact with their natural environment. So before interviewing with an AAE department, it helps to think carefully about what other departments you see yourself interacting with in terms of research (within the ag college, that is; don’t say “I plan on interacting with people in econ/business/public policy,” as it is implicitly assumed you will…) But this also means that if you get an article in Science/PNAS/Nature/PLoS One, it will not be discounted (at least not very much) when you go up for tenure or promotion.
  • Lastly, before interviewing with an AAE department, you should have an idea of what the agricultural sector looks like in its state. This matters a lot more at the flyout stage than it does at the interview stage, but I was once asked when I was first on the job market how my work could apply to the agricultural sector of the state of the AAE department I was interviewing with. I gave a terrible answer to that question and did not get a flyout.

I’m sure many of my AAE colleagues will have additional thoughts. If there are enough of them, I’ll have a follow-up post with those additional thoughts.

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