This is My Work Now

I don’t usually write about personal things in more detail than “I’ve gotten a job in city X,” but I feel like I ought to explain, for the benefit of both people who follow me on Twitter (who have seen parts of the story) and people who do not (who have seen even less of it in comments).

The short version is that I left math academia. It was not voluntary; I came close to getting a tenure-track position twice but didn’t. While waiting to hear from one place, I moved to Paris, to do research, and have stayed and gotten an apartment even as I did not get the job. So my move here was still about production amenities rather than consumption amenities; I’m not especially attached to the city, possibly to the chagrin of Michael R. James in comments.

Right now I’m freelancing for various news sites and magazines writing about urbanism and public transit. I will put up an organized compendium of things I’ve published for pay, and I will definitely tweet every article as it goes up. I have a piece in Streetsblog about why Trump is likely to make the US’s infrastructure construction cost problem worse than it is, a piece in City Metric comparing the RER A or Crossrail with the RER C or Thameslink, and a piece in Voice of San Diego calling for medium-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Diego; seven more pieces will appear in various outlets any day now. This blog will stay, and I intend to use it even more, for the wonkier side of analyses that I am going to rely on in published pieces elsewhere. The style here is different; for one, here I write assuming readers have read most of my previous posts. Of the three published pieces, only City Metric is something I would have written here if I’d stayed in academia, and few of the other to-appear pieces or the pieces I’m pitching is in that category.

I’m still actively looking for work in transit planning, or in thinktanks that write relevant studies for this; if I get something permanent, I will let everyone here know.

The long version is that I started looking for tenure-track jobs three years ago, in my third year of postdoc, just like everyone else. I didn’t get anything, but I did get a second postdoc at KTH, a two-year position, hence the move to Sweden. I looked for jobs both years. The first year I didn’t get any interview. The second year I got interviewed at my alma mater, NUS, in February. Academic interviews involve campus visits and a battery of meetings: with professors in my field, with the chair, with the committee, with some assistant deans. I think I had good chemistry with the people in my field, but not with the committee, which consisted of applied mathematicians. The other pure math people they were interviewing took jobs elsewhere, and the department ended up making offers only in applied math.

I kept looking for academic lifelines. These are called visiting positions (or sometimes lecturer positions), are usually for a year, and come up when due to a sabbatical or an unexpected postdoc move a department needs more short-term faculty to teach. Less research-intensive universities hire adjuncts, more research-intensive ones hire visiting professors in situations like mine. I got close at one US university, where the chair told me that it would be unusual to sponsor me for a visa for a technically part-time lecturer position but they were checking whether it was possible; they hired someone else, and I still don’t know if I would’ve been hired if they could sponsor me. I got even closer at Basel, where it was a two-year postdoc, but there I was #3 on the list and #2 took the offer.

Convinced I was going to leave academia, in July and August I corresponded with some people I know on Twitter, and met some Boston-area transit activists, and applied for jobs at US thinktanks. In August and September I got interviewed at Frontier, an environmentalist thinktank that among other things discusses public transit; see for example this recent report. Frontier mainly interfaces with other thinktanks and advocacy organizations, which plays to my strength in that I write to other people who already care about public transit.

In the middle of the interview process, already after I explained that I was leaving academia, I got an unexpected invitation to a tenure-track interview at Calgary, to be conducted in late September. By then I was out of Sweden and renting a studio in the Riviera near where my parents lived at the time. The Calgary interview went very well, and I gave myself a 50-60% chance of getting an offer. The big thing I was worried about was that I knew they would also interview Khoa Nguyen, who was a postdoc at UBC with the same postdoc advisor I’d had and who had a better publication list than I did.

In October I moved to Paris. It was temporary; I got a studio for a month. My advisor was visiting IHES for the semester and I wanted to both collaborate and discuss with him whether I should apply for jobs again even if Calgary said no, which he said I should. I then saw that one of the postdocs at IHES was someone I had known before who I had already wanted to work on a project with; we started to prove the result and write the paper, with many obstacles on the way. Almost immediately, Frontier said no, saying I was too specialized to transportation whereas they wanted people who had experience with several issues. By November, it became clear Calgary was hiring Khoa, but I stayed since I heard positive things about academic jobs in this cycle, I stayed put and kept working on the paper. I was in Paris for the production amenities – namely, IHES (and other universities and institutes) putting researchers in the same place, where they could collaborate.

It took until the end of December for it to be clear all the leads on academic jobs were gone. At the same time, Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 opened, leading to a flurry of articles about the project, some specifically citing me on its very high construction costs. In about 48 hours, I gained about 150 Twitter followers. Then I tweeted that I was leaving academia and looking for work in transit planning or writing, and with all the leads and retweets gained another 300 followers. Other than the Streetsblog article, everything I have comes from leads I got immediately after I posted that, including pieces to appear in the American Interest, Railway Gazette, New York YIMBY, SPUR, and the Atlantic. A few more are actual jobs I’m applying for, but very little in the US can sponsor me for a visa; thinktanks are the big exception, since they count as nonprofit research organizations and are exempt from the H-1B visa cap.

I’m still looking for more leads – magazines that are interested in articles about public transit or urban policy, especially. Any editor who wants to talk to me about this should email me at alon_levy1@yahoo.com or just leave a comment here, and of course any commenter who has a lead should please let me know about it.

23 comments

  1. michael.r.james

    I moved to Paris, to do research, and have stayed and gotten an apartment …. I’m not especially attached to the city, possibly to the chagrin of Michael R. James in comments.

    Yes, guilty to that. But look, I have a theory about Paris. (Though this applies to foreigners who move to France, in fact probably only Anglophones, which I am not totally clear if you qualify?) It’s my theory that it takes 2 years. A part of the first year is all joy at being in Paris because for a lot of people they have spent years of dreaming about it (though not me; it was a huge surprise to end up in France). However by the end of the first year that has usually seriously faded after a confluence of all the usual: the hassle of finding accommodation; the seeming endless official process of getting “legal” and the sheer culture shock which is always a lot more than one expects (particularly for those who have studied everything French for years). Of course it is a version of Paris Syndrome for which the Japanese embassy in Paris has a special public hotline for the regular stream of their citizens who suffer it badly on their first visit. Like NYC, and probably many big cities, Paris is a tough town to outsiders (including provincial French though they have many advantages); not all cute, soft and cuddly as many apparently imagined. In Paris a lot of French have a quite hard-edge that even provincial French will complain about, even as they will mimic if they go to live in their capital. And a distinct froideur towards people they don’t know, almost everyone, perhaps especially some Franglaise-speaking hick (though actually I reckon they are pretty equal opportunity in giving out their attitude.) There are lots of books on this but perhaps the best I’ve read is Mission to Civilize by Mort Rosenblum (he was IHT editor for many years, while living on a peniche in the Seine).

    The second year turns into a bit of a horrorshow, because the fantasy has faded and now gets replaced with dislike and resentment at seemingly everything, in a vicious circle. Professional life almost always gets tougher in the second year because there is no longer the sympathy or novelty factor and you’ll be under the gun to prove your worth, possibly in competition with the locals. But as time goes on, naturally everything gets easier and you’ve become familiar with the city and how it operates, and how Parisians operate. Also during this later period if there are any visits elsewhere, or back home, then you discover that you too have changed and that Paris looks pretty damned good compared to … wherever. You’ve turned the corner and it only gets better from then on. Naturally all other usual factors remain, from personal to professional, as they would wherever you lived, but you no longer blame Paris for it all. And, like all Parisians, you’ll always have a love-hate relationship with them; again a common thing in such big world cities. But the city itself is indeed extremely lovable. Just perhaps not in the way one originally imagined.

    Incidentally those who return home for longish stretches, say for Xmas hols or summer, only make it worse for themselves. They are reducing the effectiveness of habituation.

    One consequence of this theory is that anyone who doesn’t live in Paris beyond this period (fully; discontiguous visits don’t qualify), is ruled incompetent to comment. Of course if they wimped out after the first year and limped home with their tail between their legs then they especially cannot be trusted and their opinion is totally misleading. Being more familiar with French and speaking the language passably is no protection; in fact it may well make the person more vulnerable (aka the Japanese susceptibility to Paris Syndrome) due to higher expectations. I’ve known Americans who had their education at a US French Lycee and it was no protection. The “proof” of the theory is in all the resident expats you’ll find (or those who like me lived there for a long time); some may say that this is mere ascertainment bias but you’ll find a lot of these same people, being internationalists, have lived elsewhere without the same response. (Yep, that’s me.) And of course confirmed by Hemingway:

    “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

    Anyway, I wish you well, career wise. We are at opposite ends of careers. Paris in the early 80s was my first post-doc and I retired recently. A bit earlier than expected, partly because funding in Australia is so miserly & conservative and partly because it has become so managerialist. I don’t know what advice I would give young people today because a fair bit of the fun and freedom has been sucked out of scientific careers, not to mention that the world has got so expensive yet scientists are relatively underpaid compared to their peers (lawyers, doctors, biz & finance types etc). It’s one thing when it is fun and exciting, but with today’s regimes and conditions of employment (this is why many such positions in the US are filled by immigrants while Americans pursue the money professions that happen to also be easier!) (Though note that I still claim Paris is a relatively affordable/livable city for ordinary people unlike IMO London or NYC, San Francisco, Boston or Vancouver and many others where we are usually obliged to work.)

    • Alon Levy

      See, I don’t find Paris especially rough. On the contrary. Something here reminds me of Upper Manhattan. When I first visited after moving to New York, in 2010, I needed to remind myself that no, this is not New York, and the people around who speak French are not tourists. I tend to think of big cities as very ordinary spaces. Saint-Michel is richer than Nation, and Nation is richer than Belleville, but these are all, to me, city neighborhoods. The same is true of Kitsilano, Roslagstull, and so on; there isn’t really a different feel at different densities or anything like that.

      I also have a strong suspicion that this is what most people who move to Paris experience, because of wage data. A region with production amenities, like a good harbor, better institutions, or just agglomeration, has higher wages and higher rents, since businesses are willing to pay higher costs to be there. A region with consumption amenities, like pleasant weather or better public health has lower wages and higher rents, since workers are willing to pay higher rents and take lower pay to be there. See for example this paper about US urban wage premium history, by Leah Platt Boustan, Devin Bunten, and Owen Hearey. Paris has high rents, and very high wages. It’s by far the richest place in France, and Ile-de-France is in turn one of the richest regions in the EU, in a near-tie for second place with Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Frankfurt (Munich is far and away #1).

      Rents here are pretty high. Probably lower than London, certainly lower than San Francisco, but higher than in Vancouver, by a lot. In Kits, I paid C$20 per square meter per month. Here, I pay €30 per square meter. In New York it’s hard to tell because the suburbs are richer than the city, but the closest thing to a comparable neighborhood, the Long Island City/Astoria area, is probably around the same as here, $30-something per square meter. In Boston it’s even harder to tell because the apartments are huge and there’s a sumptuary law among area geeks forbidding people who are unmarried to live without housemates. The rent near Porter and Davis seems to be around $30 per square meter.

      • Brendan Dawe

        As a former Kitsilano resident, it’s so weird to hear Kitsilano talked about as an urban neighborhood in the same breath as places in Paris.

        To add to your rental data, my home in rather lower rent Hastings-Sunrise is currently running C$22/m^2 a month, and I find it to be comparably cheap

      • michael.r.james

        It may be fair enough to compare costs per sqm, but I think it is more realistic to compare “acceptable” living spaces. Even with London and NYC, SF etc (I’ll take your word on Vancouver) having substantially higher rents per sqm than Paris, I think a difference is that Paris has always provisioned for smaller spaces, and this is why those spaces are more acceptable. I lived in a mere 18 sqm on Ile St Louis and the rent was a fraction of what I would have paid in SE England. And the studio was extremely well organized with its own nice bathroom, built-in large wardrobe/storage and tiny but equipped kitchen with its own external window and door (and I could fit a Miele washing machine especially narrow for the purpose; I seriously hate using Laundromats). It could fit a double bed of normal dimensions and it could be permanent (I also hate having to use a sofa-bed, ie. the need to transform it each and every day). I lived in studios that all were bigger in the UK but they where all dumps by comparison. Some of the places I saw in London were atrocious; in one friend’s place you could only get to one of the bedrooms via another bedroom (ie. en filade!).
        When you choose to live in a city like Paris then you choose to downsize, and live differently. (No car or no garaging at least unless you want to set out to make yourself poor.) That now applies to NYC and London but the conditions in which you live in those cities (well esp. London) are terrible in my experience (and what you read on the blogs).
        Perhaps too for many from the Anglophone world the car-free necessity in Paris is too much of a change for them. It helps enormously if you enjoy walking which I do. You know that Paris is really a giant TOD! You really can pretty much walk anywhere. The rest of the world is painfully slowly trying to re-create those kinds of neighbourhoods but the entire 90 sqkm of Paris is already there. Heck, if you live near Nation you could walk in on the Promenade Plantée!

        But I do need to qualify my comments since it is 20 years since I have lived in Paris. And it has got more expensive. OTOH a friend (an American as it happens) lives in a perfectly acceptable 2-bedder right in the Leftbank, and like me (a mere scientist without any other wealth) he could not possibly have anything like that in anything of equivalent “location” value in London or NYC.

        Finally, for one who writes on urbanism you seem curiously uninterested in, or detached from, these big cities. I’m from a relatively small city myself but love the big ones. However the only one I would consider amongst the usual suspects is Paris, and funny enough it is far more affordable than the rest (maybe Vancouver is different?). I did love my brief time in SF but from what I read now it has been ruined by Silicon Valley money and attitude. Further, you could live in the Paris banlieu and have much more space for the money and as long as you are on the RER (and such a situation is better than many London or NYC locations), or even on the Metro; eg. the new M4 extension into Montrouge which is an older Parisian neighbourhood with at least 2x or 3x area for your money (though the new M4 station is having its effect on property prices naturally). It’s kind of the equivalent of being forced out of Manhattan into Brooklyn and joining the tunnel-and-bridge brigade.

        • Alon Levy

          18 m^2 is too little! In Stockholm I had 30 on paper, but at head height it was more like 20. Microapartments in the 20-30 m^2 range are normal all over Northern Europe – I saw vast listings of them in Stockholm and in Basel. (Basel is if anything a hair cheaper than Stockholm even in nominal money, let alone after adjusting for how overvalued the Swiss franc is.) But here there are places down to 12 if you look hard enough. And yes, you can see across to the next apartment over depending on window placement.

          Of course there are cheaper places outside the city. But finding such a place was nontrivial for several reasons.

          1. It’d have to be on the RER, not just Metro. I was expecting to spend several months commuting down to IHES to write my paper.
          2. It’s hard to find listings in the right suburbs, like Massy. I saw a place in Alesia, but the apartment in Nation was much better.
          3. I don’t have a job in Paris. In Paris, renters have to show sufficient income because with strong anti-eviction laws, anyone is a squat risk. This restricted our option to brokers that are used to dealing with foreigners. My freelance income is theoretically enough for this apartment, but a) I got the apartment 6 weeks before I started regular gigs, and b) I’m still rent-burdened by any normal standards and no way does a broker think my freelance income is enough.

          • michael.r.james

            18 m^2 is too little! In Stockholm I had 30 on paper, but at head height it was more like 20. …. But here there are places down to 12 if you look hard enough. And yes, you can see across to the next apartment over depending on window placement.

            I should have qualified my discussion by saying that clearly it wasn’t a permanent situation, though just feasibly I could fantasize having it as a pied-a-terre (it was the absurdly wonderful Ile St Louis after all!) and having a bigger place elsewhere. Maybe even in the south of France.
            BTW, it wasn’t under the roof so it had full head height (in fact it had high ceilings) over the whole space.
            There are rooms for sale even smaller than 12 sqm but they won’t have a private bathroom. These are generally used by students, or sometimes are just an additional bedroom for an apartment elsewhere in the building.

            It’d have to be on the RER, not just Metro.

            No, really, the Metro is good enough not to worry about a change or two. M4 is 4 stops to Denfert-Rochereau where you can catch the RER-B to Massy-Palaiseau. This has to be better than coming from Nation?
            In fact, it is precisely 1.50 km between the Laplace stop on RER-B (in Arceuil next to Montrouge) and the Mairie-de-Montrouge station/terminus of M4, so choose something in the middle and you have the best of both worlds: being able to walk to the RER or Metro (750m is about 8 minutes walk for me). Actually that jolts my memories: though you don’t have your post-doc position which might make it a bit tricky but I stayed almost my first year at the Cité Universitaire which is in the 14th arrondissement opposite Parc Montsouris and of course right at the Cité Universitaire stop of RER-B.

            A friend of mine moved out of central Paris to Montrouge for precisely these reasons: ie. a bigger apartment for no more rent without losing easy access to Paris intra-muros. This is probably as good as living intra-muros as it gets when actually extra-muros especially because of M4 (another extension of M4 is planned). Though it has some manky modern (60s, 70s and later) stuff there are Haussmannian buildings there. And of course Montrouge was one of those villages hosting artists in the 19th century & earlier; it’s northern section, called Petite Montrouge (the area south of Alesia), was grabbed by Paris in its final enlargement. So it even has a cool pedigree.

            For points 2 & 3, yes, that’s a tough gig. To find places in Massy or in the banlieu I suspect it would be necessary to visit the local real estate agents. In any case I think you are better to live in Paris. Finding a place in all these big cities is always most people’s biggest negative, and is probably a big cultural shock for a North American. (If you are not a money-bags.) Less of a shock for a Brit or Australian because rents in these places is so stupid today. I think the law about the maximum rent as a proportion of income is a good one; it’s one of those things that keeps rents affordable.

            As it happens, here is an article on your general area that appeared in the lifestyle section of a newspaper just a few days back:

            http://www.afr.com/lifestyle/travel/world/paris-east-fights-back-with-village-tactic-20170128-gu0kpc#ixzz4Xn3kspCO
            Paris east fights back with village tactic
            Tony Davis, 31 Jan 2017.

            The east was never the fashionable part of the City of Light. Other Parisians showed little interest in visiting, while guidebooks steered tourists to the iconic monuments, grand boulevards and top-end hotels of the north, south and west.

          • Alon Levy

            Laplace isn’t served by the express trains that go to Bures-sur-Yvette. The off-peak RER Bs that go all the way to Saint-Remy express from city line to Bourg-la-Reine, and the peak ones serve some of the intermediate stations but not all and I never remember which.

            Nation was a wrong-way RER A -> B transfer at Les Halles, which wasn’t terrible. It didn’t involve a lot of walking between platforms, certainly nothing like the Metro -> RER transfers there. When I was staying in Belleville I’d sometimes walk to Gare du Nord to avoid the 11 -> B transfer.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon Levy 2017/02/05 – 06:38

            Laplace isn’t served by the express trains that go to Bures-sur-Yvette.

            Ah yes, a very Parisian-state-of-mind error on my part; ie. thinking all trains stop at all stations (as they do intra-muros).

            When I was staying in Belleville I’d sometimes walk to Gare du Nord to avoid the 11 -> B transfer.

            Good one …. but since that is about the same distance (1.6km) from Montrouge to Cité Universitaire (almost direct line, with a passerelle across the Peripherique to allow one to walk across the campus park to the RER station) you’d find it a breeze …

            OK, just messing around. I was wittering on about Montrouge for personal reasons; and mulling over it as a future option for my (fantasy) pied-a-terre in “Paris” (because what I really want is way too expensive!).

          • Alon Levy

            Ooh, speaking of, I should write something (maybe here, maybe on City Metric) about different ways of running express trains. There’s the Paris way, in which all RER trains make all stops in Paris proper, and there’s the Tokyo way, in which rapid lines like Chuo and Tokaido run limited-stop in both the suburbs and the city proper. At smaller scale, the IRT and BMT in New York are like Tokyo (the Lex express even skips 33rd Street) and the IND is like Paris (the A skips fewer than half the stops between 59th and Chambers). The complication, of course, is that because the RER only has two tracks, there are very few city stops that can be skipped at all; Cite Universitaire is the only one on the B, and there may be a few more on the C.

          • michael.r.james

            Alon Levy 2017/02/05 – 19:33

            Ooh, speaking of, I should write something (maybe here, maybe on City Metric) about different ways of running express trains. There’s the Paris way, in which all RER trains make all stops in Paris proper, and there’s the Tokyo way, in which rapid lines like Chuo and Tokaido run limited-stop in both the suburbs and the city proper.

            By all means, but try to compare like with like. I mean the RER-B has only 7 stops inside Paris and spans a mere approx. 8-9 km. Remember too that Paris has much higher density than Tokyo (hmm, though maybe it is commercial density that matters more? … at any rate another significant factor that would influence such designs and performance).
            On the B line the only stop that looks redundant to me is Port Royal: the Luxembourg southern street portal is a mere approx. 400m while it is about the same (possibly shorter) to Denfert-Rochereau. Given the huge length of the platforms they must be even closer at the track level? (A case for lengthening the “platforms” and linking Lux to Denfert with moving-walkways?) The Cité U stop presumably is getting more use today because of the tramway?
            Also with such intensive use of the RER it may cost a bit of train time but the alternative would be a much bigger press of pax boarding in fewer stations.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Life was different in 1900, when they were planning subway. The express trains stopped at 72nd and Broadway and Grand Central. The shuttle tracks are what used to be the local station on the only subway. 33rd got local service like the Els had. Sixth Avenue only had two tracks between 34th and West 4th until the 60s. . . things change. . .

  2. Xander

    I’ve heard that the Bay City Beacon, a new newspaper in San Francisco, is looking to pay for articles about urban policy (as it relates to SF). Maybe you could try contacting them?

  3. Stephen Stofka

    Good luck! Freelancing is hard. I should know.

    Try to get something in the field ASAP. Trying to live off your writing is very feast-or-famine and in my experience the famines last longer than the all-too-brief feasts..

  4. anony-moose

    I have enjoyed your writing for years now, and wish you the best of fortune as your career pivots in a different direction.

    LOL, maybe Amtrak or MTA would be willing to hire you as a consultant… 😉

    • Alon Levy

      That’s not 100% true – some of the positions at state-level agencies are open to foreigners (I know the MBTA employs some). But yes, I expect to have difficulties with getting a visa, unless it’s at a thinktank.

  5. dr2chase

    You probably know the territory better than I do, but I’d push back on “too specialized to transportation” if that’s possible. You clearly think numbers and know many of the numbers, and that approach works for more than just transportation. It doesn’t necessarily provide all the answers, but (for one good example) it can point problems, like why the F does it cost so much to build stuff here in the US?

    • michael.r.james

      I second dr2chase. In fact I was a bit shocked when I first read your (Alon’s) piece.
      I doubt you will have to move out of transportation. You are in one of the biggest cities in the developed world with one of the biggest (rail) transit systems in the world, and with even bigger plans for the near-term future. You’ve already written many pieces on it–I think the recent pieces on the tramways was particularly good. So I see potential within state players (RATP, SNCF etc) and private, like Alstom, one of the world’s biggest, if not biggest, rail-based transport companies with truly global reach. Alstom has its headquarters in Paris (well, St Ouen; Metro #13 and RER-C!). True, one always needs connections so that is the part you should work on. Direct approaches may not work (or may be impossible–running into brickwalls at lower administrative levels). Already living in Paris demonstrates seriousness of intent; though the paradox with French admin. is you’ll probably have to return to your home country to put in applications! Sometimes they may have to pretend you are not already in Paris!

  6. Pingback: I Almost Worked for Hyperloop One | Pedestrian Observations

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