My Time At Columbia | b

My Time At Columbia

Nick Arnosti


For as long as I can remember asking the question of whether I was happy, the answer has been “yes”, except for the years I spent at Columbia. Seventh grade was rough, but 8th grade was fun, high school was a blast, college was super stimulating and active, grad school was superb, and I’ve enjoyed my time at the U of M.

I don’t think they’re bad, I do think they’re too busy to be intentional about good mentoring.

Is it possible that I have been successful at every stop, and finally encountered so many good researchers and teachers at Columbia that I stopped feeling successful, and therefore stopped feeling happy? Maybe a little bit. Certainly, it was hard to go from having an identity as a good teacher (based on assumptions from not-super-closely related experiences) to getting evaluations saying that I was, while not terrible, somewhat below average.

Is it possible that I felt insecure from the get-go, given the nature of my offer? I did, to some extent. I felt like I needed to prove to people that I was a hard worker, and very serious. When I was struggling with finishing papers, I didn’t want to expose that vulnerability for fear that it would make my position even more precarious. So I think there’s some legitimacy there. But also, I was still confident in myself. I felt like Columbia has misjudged me, and I belonged. I just needed to show them. And this made me less vulnerable (hindsight, mistake).

Overall, though, I think the most true is that I was unsuccessful because I was unhappy, not the other way around.

Conversations I had about teaching were almost always logistical – when will homework be due, what will be on the exam, etc – rather than intellectual. I did some teaching innovation, but pretty much alone. (I know that there are some people doing excellent work at developing curriculum, both for BA and more recently OM (since I left) – call out Guetta. I wish I could have been part of that.)

My production did pick up during the pandemic. I partly credit this to my amazing wife (at the time girlfriend) Amanda, who listened to me talk through my projects and helped me prioritize, rather than running around like a chicken with its head chopped off. Part of me wonders whether it would have been enough to get tenure. (I want to prove to them that I am good enough.) I would want to have these people as colleagues, if it actually felt like we were colleagues. Instead, it felt like we were barely more than strangers.

Realistically, probably still not enough for tenure. I had a pretty slow stretch to start. I also know I am good enough intellectually – very good at picking up new models, reasoning about them, coming up with insightful questions, conjectures, and proofs. Where I struggle most is motivation and time management (see other post).

Everyone else would talk about there not being enough time. I wouldn’t say anything, but that didn’t feel like my problem at all. If anything I had too much time. Too much unstructured time. Of course, often I would realize I had way more to do than time would allow. But in reality, the problem was that I wouldn’t do enough (or do it with enough purpose/focus) with the time I had. But it wasn’t the culture to say that.

When I visited and interviewed, they sold me on the fact that people came into the office most days. This was true. But unfortunately, it did not lead to meaningful interaction. Too bad as so many that I could have benefitted from interacting with (DRO and IEOR, as well as Tim Roughgarden).

I do think others managed it better than I did (i.e. Dan seemed more connected – postdocs, research collaborations. Also Santiago.).


People who left after I joined: Jacob, Alireza, Jose, Me, Fanyin (among juniors). Seniors: Garrett and Fangruo. That’s a lot for such a small group!

What I would do differently:

Be my own advocate. Yash was more proactive in asking for help as needed. In addition to the benefit in the moment, you are building a relationship that makes it easier to ask in the future (and makes them feel that they know and like you).

Ask to teach a PhD course earlier. I didn’t teach my first PhD course until my 3rd year. Only after that did I start working with PhD students. I would have enjoyed starting sooner.

Be more vulnerable. Share when things aren’t going well. In most cases, not weakness, but relationship building.

Try to get regularly scheduled lunch (I did at times, but then would stop – it felt like trying to burn wet wood. You can do it, but it takes constant ongoing effort.)

Take on a few more responsibilities (committee assignments, co-teaching courses, co-advising students or postdocs…) These might consume a fair amount of time, but they will be energizing (in my case), and help to build relationships. First year or so it’s hard to get a ton done anyway – lean into the non-research stuff!

Bad habits I have taken to the U: