Positive-sum, zero-sum, and negative-sum advice

Henry’s reference to advice for graduate students reminded me of a discussion from a couple years ago.

Dan Goldstein broadcast some advice on interviewing for academic jobs in marketing. My question was, how much are these pieces of advice are zero-sum and how much of them would create overall improvements.

Just for analogy, if I give people advice about how to make cleaner powerpoint presentations, that’s positive-sum (better communication for all); if I tell people a secret way to put their proposals at the top of the pile for a granting agency, that’s zero-sum; if I give people the advice of not posting preliminary results so they don’t get scooped, that’s negative-sum.

Now let me play this game with Dan’s advice:

“Get yourself a room in the conference hotel, preferably on the floor where the express elevator meets the local elevator for the upper floors.”: Zero-sum. If you get a room at the conference hotel, somebody else will have to find a room elsewhere.

“Get your advisor / sponsor to write a cover letter encouraging people to meet with you at AMA.”: Zero-sum, I think.

“Repeat this process a bunch of times. It’s a good idea to hit a school with 2 packets, 3 if you suspect they’re a little disorganized.”: Negative-sum. I’m not saying this wouldn’t work—a couple of years ago, our department missed out on a top candidate because we literally lost his file. But it can’t be good to have duplicate letters flying around.

“Don’t sweat it.”: Positive-sum.

“Keep in mind that you will leave this process with 1 or 0 jobs. Therefore, when talking to a person, the most likely thing is that here or she will not be your colleague in the future. Therefore, think of each opportunity as a chance to make a friend.”: Positive-sum. Also a good point.

“Put the important stuff early in your CV so nobody can miss it.”: Positive-sum. It saves people time.

“Audition for the part, and make yourself stand out.”: Zero-sum. (Possibly negative-sum because of the time spent auditioning, possibly positive-sum because time spent auditioning could help with teaching.)

“One of the biggest risks facing you is that you will be forgotten. Make sure the interviewers know something unusual about you.”: Zero-sum. Or maybe positive-sum, I don’t know.

“Don’t gossip.”: Negative-sum. I say this because Dan illustrates with a story where the gossiper provided him with useful information! So the gossip was probably helpful.

Other thoughts on academic advice

All told, I think Dan’s advice is positive-sum. What made me think of all this is that sometimes I see advice for academic researchers that’s clearly negative-sum (or, at best, zero-sum), advice telling people not to do anything too original until they get tenure etc. (I got some of that advice from colleagues myself, back when I was an untenured professor.) Dan’s advice seems generally good to me (although, as noted above, I don’t think I can really judge that very well, it’s just my guess) but in general it seems worth thinking about whether advice that we’re giving is beneficial for outcomes or just positional.

6 Responses to Positive-sum, zero-sum, and negative-sum advice

  1. Dan March 19, 2010 at 5:41 pm #

    The “get a room” advice is positive sum as long as some of those rooms are normally occupied by people who aren’t being interviewed.

  2. Dubi March 19, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    Well, the job market IS a zero-sum game, so I guess inevitably, some of the advice is bound to be zero-sum. Just like giving advice on how to write a good paper is generally positive-sum, but if the grading is on a curve, it’s actually zero-sum.

  3. Andrew March 20, 2010 at 5:07 am #

    Dubi: Yes, but you’re slightly missing the point. Giving advice on how to write a good paper is zero-sum on the grade but probably positive-sum for society, because you’re creating better writers. If the advice is _purely_ positional and zero-sum, then what’s the point of giving it out to strangers at all?

  4. Barry March 20, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    ““One of the biggest risks facing you is that you will be forgotten. Make sure the interviewers know something unusual about you.”: Zero-sum. Or maybe positive-sum, I don’t know.”

    Possibly negative-sum, if everybody is trying to make some special impression. Ever walked down an aisle of a store where every product had eye-catching/hurting colors? It can make it hard to find what you want.

  5. John March 23, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    Even “zero-sum” advice may be worth giving out though, if it means that advice is more evenly known. (as disparities in the amount of zero-sum tricks people know reduces the chance that the best candidate for the job is hired)

  6. Dan Goldstein March 24, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    Hi! Dan here.

    You might be interested in my (now dated) response to Andrew’s “what’s the sum?” question:


    Also, people going on the Marketing market may like to have a pointer to the more-recent 2009 advice:


    Soon I’ll repost for 2010.