New research on the career paths of academic economists tells us pursuing careers in Australia something very important: consider starting your career elsewhere. Stanford's Paul Oyer has studied the career paths of economists conditioning on the status of their initial job placement. Now of course initial job is an indicator of quality but it also is driven by other factors; principally, the state of the academic labour market. When there is high demand for faculty, an individual will likely get a higher placed job as compared to situations were there is low demand. Come out in a boom year and you have a 40-60% greater chance of ending up in a Top 50 department later in your career or getting a Top 5 publication in your first decade.
There have been a few write-ups about this paper recently (see, for example, Joel Waldfogel in Slate; Greg Mankiw; and Mark Thoma). All have the advice work hard early or you're stuffed. That is nice but you could also have advised people to change their surname to an earlier name in the alphabet because we do not really know why the market for academics appears to be operating based on random factors and not more efficiently sorting.
Now the argument being made of course is that after the fact there is efficient sorting and that initial placement actually affects academic productivity. In that case there is a cautionary tale for those starting out. As I sit here well outside the top 50 (at 106 according to the measure Oyer used) I figure I might be able to offer a different perspective.
If I were to guess, the main distinguishing factor is the research environment. As you move from the Top 50, the time available for research diminishes greatly. Teaching loads are higher and in smaller departments so are administrative loads. In my initial job at the University of New South Wales (ranked 135) the teaching loads at the time (I was there from 1994 to 1996) were extreme. In the semester before I left I was teaching between 12 and 18 hours a week (mostly lectures) across 5 different subjects. I taught in 8 different courses ranging across macroeconomics, microeconomics from 1st year undergraduate to PhD. Not surprisingly, it was rather difficult to get things done. Hopefully, things have improved since then for junior faculty. (At the time, senior faculty had lower teaching loads).
The reasons why I moved to Melbourne should be obvious but it is a very different environment here. In both the Business School (where I am) and the Economics Department teaching loads for research active faculty are very low; especially compared with simlarly ranked institutions. And it wasn't until I came here that I was able to hit top tier journals. The experience of my colleague Catherine de Fontenay who made a similar move also attests to this.
So my advice to those starting out is to value your time appropriately and make sure you have guarantees regarding your teaching load. My strong guess is that is the critical variable driving Oyer's findings.
[PS. Oyer relies on the ranking provided by econphd.net for his study. It is based on the quality of publications of a department's top 15 authors. Econphd.net is a great resource for those choosing PhD programs and was established by University of Melbourne economics PhD student Christian Roessler. Someone to watch out for on the market soon.]
[PPS. You might wonder why I went to UNSW first. Well, I had a Fulbright Scholarship that required me to come back to Australia. I did and have been very happy overall with that (especially for my personal life!). Of course, Oyer's study suggests that you might think twice about taking one of these scholarships.]
[PPPS. All of this only enhances the rationale for free immigration amongst academics].