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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Utility Maximization
January 29, 2009 - 9:20pm

Several weeks ago, an article ran in Inside Higher Ed about the interest of many graduate students in jobs that don’t include a lot of pressure to publish. Instead many were interested in jobs that helped them to balance work and family life more effectively While I don’t want to resurrect the heated discussion that followed the article, I do want to take a minute to discuss how this decision would be viewed by economists.

Economists apply calculus, linear algebra and statistics to concepts loosely based on a philosophy called Utilitarianism, originated by the philosopher Jeremy Benthem (1748-1832). Using it, we assume (one of our favorite words) that people have a set of things that they care about, and that these things work together to give them “utility”, or satisfaction. Without consciously using calculus, we maximize the utility given to us by different options under the particular constraints we fact in life at that time in a maximization process that can be modeled using calculus. Thus, the choices we make in life are derived from our own personal preferences (our own “utility functions”) and the constraints within which we must make our choices.

These options and constraints might include the traditional kind, such as salary and prestige, or might include such issues as the amount of time one would need to commute or the availability of babysitting grandparents who live nearby. In my own life, when it came time to change jobs, I was fortunate to find a job when I needed one in the area where I lived, but it was in a department that is (slightly) different from the one in which I earned my Ph.D. The constraints I faced, which included my husband’s career ambitions and my own need to be near particular doctors, as well as my willingness to teach in a tangential department led me to make this choice I made (which is described in Mama, Ph.D.) Under different circumstances and with different options, I don’t know what I would have chosen to do. I do, as an economist, believe that I would have made the best choice possible for me, given all of my options, and given the constraints I faced at the time.

Or at least I would have tried my best, but would probably have made such a decision using imperfect information about the options open to me. After all, the article is really about the perceptions of graduate students about how family-friendly research universities are to parents. And one of the assumptions (there we go again!) economists make is that people have access to correct information when making decisions. This may or may not be true in all cases, as at least one person points out in response to this article. All we have is the opinions of over 8,000 graduate students from the University of California campuses (hardly a random sample, by the way) about the research mix they would like to see in a future position. These opinions may or many not be based on facts, but most likely are partially the result of general impressions. For example, I remember learning the true details about tenure processes at two different schools only by visiting the schools in person. In one of those schools, the process led me to decline an otherwise fine job offer.

When economists look at utility maximizing, they do so assuming that the individual cares only about their own utility, and not about the bigger world in general. I propose that research is often not undertaken for the rewards it brings, in terms of tenure or prestige, or money, for that matter. Rather, I propose that research is undertaken out of an innate curiosity about the world, and is its own reward. While this is not exactly what economists call “altruism” (as is used to explain things like philanthropy or volunteer labor), it is not exactly strictly self-interest, either. I propose, therefore, that perhaps the model of utility maximizing needs to be modified to account for the intrinsic motivation that leads one to pursue research. This difference may be the source of some of the discord that can be found in the comments to the original article.

Despite the ways in which the economic model of utility maximization does not precisely match the reality we all face, it allows us to make some good predictions about the ways people will act under different constraints, and the policy implications of these actions. As for Jeremy Benthem; what long-term career decision did he make? The last I heard, he was hanging out at the museum of the Univeristy College of London, where he sits on (but does not generally vote with) the Board of Trustees of that museum. Let’s just say that he has more job security than even most tenured full professors!


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