Sunk Costs and Academia

Buried in the sand
Image from http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2187039, by Nigel Brown under Creative Commons

I’m prone to “loss-aversion”, for example saying something like “I really don’t want to cook but we bought that chicken…” and my boyfriend always calls me on it, saying “don’t buy into the sunk costs fallacy”. In the end, we’ve just stopped buying groceries.

The sunk costs fallacy is the tendency to “throw good money after bad” or, in my case, the tendency to throw time after money (cooking food I wish I hadn’t bought) or other time (continuing to do something because I’ve started it). In many ways, the starting something meaning you see it through is a good thing. In others, it’s a little dumb. Thinking I need to spend more time on something because otherwise the earlier time was “wasted” is dumb. If I don’t value what I was spending time on enough to continue with it, that time is already wasted. All I’m doing, is wasting more time.

I got an email about my paper, from January, about extending it into a journal paper. Coincidentally, another paper was accepted but in a shortened version. Happily the bulk of what I cut from the second paper fit nicely into the theme of the first, and voila. I have the extra material I need. So I try and submit it.

And spend hours wrestling with their appallingly designed and out-of date website.

And then send several emails, and eventually someone discovers that, yes, the website has a bug. But he’ll take the paper via email and upload it.

But, some days later – once I’m out the country without my personal laptop – an email saying, you need a cover letter and title page. And I’m like, really? They asked me to extend it. Presumably they know what I’m writing about and who I am.

(Sometime during all of this, I realize that I really have no idea what is going on. This is presumably why it’s so handy to have a supervisor in grad school.)

Finally I track down the place that it tells you what you need in the cover letter. I have no idea of most of these things, and it looks like a complete pain to produce. So I email my co-supervisor, who I try not to ask stupid questions of, because, y’know, he just got me dumped on him like an unwanted puppy. But I have no idea what else to do and I suspect he will know. I expect he has jumped through these hoops before.

Over the course of this, I think, this is pretty symbolic of everything I hate about grad school and why I’ve come to think that the way we do it is broken. It’s all about sunk costs. Yes, in the form of thousands of dollars of international tuition. But also in terms of time.

I like research. I like figuring out what’s been done, prototyping things, and figuring out what the problem is, what a solution might look like, how that might help. It’s fun. And I would blog about what I was doing, as I went. That’s nice. I figured out a number of things last week, but won’t be sharing any of them – the difference between academia and industry. That said, the number of people who actually use the things I create now makes it easy to come to terms with that.

After, you write it up, because… you want other people to be able to build upon whatever insight you have. And this involves writing the same stuff, again and again, polishing it. And then submitting it, and either more rewriting because it’s been accepted and now has to be “camera ready”, or yet more rewriting because it got rejected and you’re taking the feedback to make it better and send it somewhere else. Three of my papers have got to the “camera ready” stage so far, and by the time they have been “camera ready” I’ve hated them.

I hear after that you can rewrite it all again as a “thesis”. That sounds like a barrel of laughs.

The sunk costs of the time spent doing something, make the conference paper worthwhile. The endless edits seem worth it, because after all – you did the work and it was accepted! Finally! And then the conference paper makes the journal paper worthwhile. And somehow that makes it worth spending hours fighting with the worst website I’ve seen since 2005. And those sunk costs make the endless emailing seem like something that “needs to be done” and now I consider writing (and rewriting) yet more nonsense and I’m forced to ask, is it really? What else could I have done in that time? When do I draw the line? Say, yeah, time wasted. I’ll just stick it up on my website and if anyone finds it useful, that’s dandy?

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