Monday, June 23, 2014

93. There is no getting ahead.

Graduate school attracts highly ambitious people, despite the fact that academe is a terrible environment for highly ambitious people. How so? There are precious few moments of forward progress in an academic career. In academe, there is no getting ahead; there is only survival. If you survive your comprehensive exams, survive your dissertation, survive the job market, and survive the tenure track, then you can hope for exactly one promotion: from associate professor to full professor. That's it. The academic career ladder is very short. Unless you are among the tiny cadre of academic superstars (see Reason 67), there is very little hope of moving from one institution to another to improve your lot. If you earn tenure at an institution, you will likely never leave it. The "honor" of serving as department chair is a burden, not a privilege. For traditional academics, even moving "up" into administration has become difficult, as there is now a professional administrative class within higher education.

Of course, academe is supremely effective at frustrating your ambitions long before you find yourself (if you're very lucky) in a quasi-permanent academic job (see Reason 71). In a recent poignant essay describing his frustration with the process of trying to secure a tenure-track appointment, Patrick Iber remarked: "Of all the machines that humanity has created, few seem more precisely calibrated to the destruction of hope than the academic job market." At the time he wrote those words, Dr. Iber had a PhD from the University of Chicago, a book contract with Harvard University Press, and a visiting lectureship at UC Berkeley; he was in a far better position than most academic job candidates. That does not make his painful experience any less real. On the contrary, it highlights the profound professional disappointment experienced by highly accomplished people throughout academe. There are now nearly 3.5 million Americans with doctorates (see Reason 55) but only 1.3 million postsecondary teaching jobs (see Reason 29), and the oversupply of PhDs is becoming a crisis in the rest of the world as well. A Norwegian newspaper has called it the academic epidemic. Legions of graduate students spend years of their lives preparing to compete for jobs that are few in number and promise little opportunity for advancement. The academic world is one in which ambition is rewarded with disappointment millions of times over.


  1. The academic job-to-doctorate ratio is even worse than the numbers make it look, because the 3,484,000 doctorates counted by the Census don't include medical doctors or professional degrees. Those are just the Ph.D.'s and Ed.D.'s. At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics report of 1,267,700 postsecondary teachers includes all community college and vocational school instructors.

  2. Pleasantly surprised though I was to see a Norwegian paper referenced, I am not at all convinced that the 'PhD Oversupply' problem is of the same species or even genus in different parts of the globe. The numbers are different, the relative numbers differ, the current economic conditions differ, and cultural attitudes (even in Norway) are not the same; the results will perforce be different.

    The "academy epidemic" (academic = "akademisk," not "akademi") of the Morgenbladet article - and the related articles that Morgenbladet has also run (i.e. "Eit Land av Doktorar" and more to the point "De Har Ikke Den Praktiske Erfaringen Vi ønsker") appear to be more closely concerned with the practical requirements and related training for the needs of the economy. The 'country of doctors' meme is a manifestation of these concerns, where Norway produced more than 10,000 PhDs in 10 years, and is on track to having perhaps as many as 40,000 PhDs after another decade. In a nation of 5 million plus, this is 0.8% of the population. The concerns voiced seem to be less about the sheer numbers than the appropriateness of the education to broader social needs (e.g. experienced medical workers, laborers, and professionals) - at least in the publicly available portions of the articles.

    One is tempted to observe that the details may have changed, but some of the attitudes have not really changed since Ludvig Holberg's day. Book learning is suspect and to be ridiculed as impractical. More disturbing, the needs of the broader social construct are such that access to education levels should perhaps be controlled, so as to assure other labor force needs are met, perhaps even *regardless of ability or merit.* However, even an 'oversupply of PhDs' in Norway at 0.8% of the population is a "crisis" that the small, manageable, and (through careful use of natural resources and investment) wealthy nation can readily meet - it is not a large-scale centrally-planned disaster involving millions.

    The People's Republic of China (see the 'Chronicle of Higher Education' article linked in the blog post) faces a very different set of issues. Rapid expansion of the higher education sector has been partly to fuel rapid industrialization and to satisfy the more chauvinistic comrades regarding Chinese competitiveness. The cynical observer might note that said rapid education expansion also served as a pacifier to the increasingly dislocated lower and aspirational classes. As a consequence of this rapid expansion, quality issues have emerged, especially with regard to originality and significance of research. China's 'PhD overproduction' will result in education sector bubbles (demography here as in Norway plays a role, but China's population age structure is against it in this context) and will play out differently as millions of overeducated, unemployed, disconnected and impoverished Chinese youth will react differently than thousands of overeducated, unemployed comparatively wealthy Norwegians with working social networks.

    1. @Anonymous (June 23, 2014, 1406 hours):

      So much for CLASSLESS society.

    2. The space race will need all those PhDs

    3. Especially the ones majoring in postmodern literary theory.

  3. (continued) -
    The USA is different yet again. Here I believe the issue is less about the numbers of PhDs. Even using the Census count of approximately 3.5 million (which I believe is counter-indicated by the statistics in the CHE article of 1.35 million PhDs graduated between 1920-1999) this is on the order of the 'Norwegian emergency' of 0.8% of the population. This ignores a number of issues, not least of which is the fact that *not all PhDs are going to go into higher education* but will rather seek out other employment - sometimes in preference to what the ivory tower has to offer.

    In concluding, "There Is No Getting Ahead" concerns itself with issues that are considerably insubstantial. The relatively flat hierarchy of academia (discounting administration which brings its own issues) is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's almost hinted that this hierarchy needs to be expanded so as to allow the participants a greater feeling of accomplishment on their road to tenure. I cannot help but feel that given the title, the author might have had more impact considering the article published in the Wall Street Journal (Sat/Sun June 21-22 2014 p. A3) "When School Loans Hit Home" - specifically the impacts that high college and graduate school tuition rates and related loans are having on the nation's youth, and the likely effects on the nation's economy. When a veterinary graduate has $450,000 - that's not a typo - in student loans and intends to pay 10% of income (presently $6,500) over the next 25 years and "hopes to have the remainder forgiven" (by the taxpayers footing the extravagant bills for US education policy foolishness) not only is she not getting ahead, but we are all in deep sh*t.

  4. "The academic career ladder is very short."

    I had a discussion about this a few years ago with a full professor in an endowed chair at a flagship university in a beautiful city. Hearing about the let-downs of an academic career from him was eye-opening.

    Considering how life-crushing it must be to get denied tenure, it's noteworthy that "post-tenure depression" is apparently pretty common:

    1. I would love to hear more of what you discussed with this professor. Seeing my own advisor's life up-close (asst. prof, flagship, great city) was part of what dissuaded me from continuing grad school. He has a decent life but nothing special, and plenty of frustrations. Work/life balance kind of sucks. I'm hard pressed to say that his job, even if I could ever land it, would be worth the journey. And he's pretty much won the academic job lottery.

  5. After a very very loooong gap the 93rd reason has been published. How long do we wait for the balance seven reasons?

    1. I started a doctorate program one week after this blog started. I defended my dissertation and graduated before this blog hit #85.

      just saying

    2. Reason 94 - Working another part time job either frowned upon or punished with expulsion

    3. Reason 95 - Even if you do finish your Ph. D., nobody takes you seriously unless you're an academic. If you work in government or industry, your doctorate is seen as second-rate or even tainted. ("Not good enough to be a professor, eh?")

    4. But if you're a chemist, you're just happy to have a job.

  6. Having just completed a comprehensive exam this week, I feel this post is very timely. It seems to me that there is no getting ahead in academia precisely because every aspect of academic life is so subjective, or just plain arbitrary. On the other hand, consider most business people: they produce quantifiable products and get quantifiable results, making their success easier to measure, and making them more accustomed to a clear career trajectory.

    I had to smile at your assertion that the honor of serving as department chair is a burden, not a privilege. My department recently went through some administrative reshuffling, and when I last saw our new department chair - a man who had actually taught me during undergrad - I congratulated him on his new post. He smiled and mentioned that there had been no congratulations from his colleagues when his new position was announced, only thanks - presumably because they were relieved at having dodged the bullet themselves.

    I hope the updates on this blog become more regular, even though we are zeroing in on the last few reasons!

  7. "On the other hand, consider most business people: they produce quantifiable products and get quantifiable results, making their success easier to measure, and making them more accustomed to a clear career trajectory."

    In business you can be assured of the following:
    1) the metrics of production will change owing to:
    a) changes in technology
    b) changes in management
    c) changes in management philosophy
    d) political change
    e) changes in labor
    f) changes in facilities
    g) competence of assessor;
    2) the metrics of result assessment will change owing to:
    a) changes in assessment methodologies
    b) changes in management
    c) changes in management philosophy
    d) financial needs of the enterprise
    e) positioning of the enterprise relative to competing interests
    f) changes in assessment staff/consultants
    g) needs of the assessors
    h) needs of labor
    i) education of/loyalties of and competence of assessors
    3) the metrics of success will change owing to:
    a) market positioning of enterprise
    b) changes in the political environment
    c) changes in the tax regime
    d) needs of management
    e) needs of assessors/consultants
    f) changes in technology
    g) changes in management philosophy
    h) changes in the competitive environment
    i) actions of government
    j) needs of stockholders (if any)
    k) needs of lenders/investors
    l) changes in the financial environment
    m) changes in the legal environment
    n) changes in competition within the business

    Any career trajectory is subject hence to these things and other variables, including, disproportionately, some incredibly arbitrary ones (e.g. Did your ex-wife ever call your supervisor? Can you play golf? Did you go to State or some SLAC no-one has ever heard of or a community college? How old are you?)

    Hence one's career is largely dictated by the whim of fate.

    Even (perhaps especially) in business.

  8. It's Anonymous 9:55 AM again.

    You make some great points, Anon 11:14. It would be foolish to deny that a career in business is any less subject to the whims of fate than an academic career. Mr. X is just as likely to fail in the corporate world as he is in the academic one. But I think that were he to succeed in business - a tall order indeed, for any of the reasons you mentioned - one could quantify his output in a very concrete way. It is the lack of objective standards in academia that leads to stagnation for most academics. To put it more bluntly, the outside world does not see the value of the (generally) subjective work in academia, and this leads to a stalemate within the university.

    I wonder if our Blogger has any experience in the corporate world. After all, we are nearing the end of this list. Next up: 100 reasons not to start a career in business ;)

    1. But many academics want that stagnation, so long as they have their job-for-life tenure. Once they get that, they figure nothing can touch them and they are accountable to nobody.

    2. The best jobs are those that are accountable to no one.

    3. Unless you are privileged as heir of an industrial tycoon, you can not be one of those that are accountable to no one.

    4. The current POTUS and everything below are already accountable to nobody.

    5. Vote no incumbents, and maybe we'll see some prosecutions in 2017.

    6. Even Marie Antoinette was accountable to the mob.

  9. Research-oriented academia (more so in natural and social sciences) actually has very quantifiable metrics compared to say a typical job in the Federal Government or in many areas of business outside of sales - publications, citations, grant dollars. And in teaching we have student evaluations. Yes, all these things are imperfect measures of the quality of ideas and instruction, but it is easy to see which academic is contributing more and which one less.

    1. Yes, it is clear that whoever is getting $357,000 in NIH grants to research the impacts of cocaine on the sex lives of Japanese quail, is bringing more to the party.

    2. And whoever brings the most money into a department is the one who gets the highest pay raise.

    3. Either someone on this blog has a poor understanding of the caliber of academic research that attracts high-level funding, or they just have a lot of fun making up ridiculous research topics and attaching arbitrary costs to them. Perhaps they should try applying for NIH/NSF funding themselves, if for no other reason than to learn how insanely competitive the process can be....

      Easier still, they could read what kinds of research topics actually DO get funded....

    4. @ Anonymous 6/25/14 : Assuming your post was in reference to my post about cocaine and the sex lives of Japanese quail - this research has been funded by NIH for YEARS extending back well beyond the two years of grants that got my attention (Univ. of Kentucky, 2010, 2011 for a grand total of $356,933.14).

      Levens, N.; Akins C.K. "Chronic cocaine pretreatment facilitates Pavlovian sexual conditioning in male Japanese quail." Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav. 2004 Nov. 79(3):451-457.

      Akins C.K.; Geary, E.H. "Cocaine-Induced Behavioral Sensitization and Conditioning in Male Japanese Quail"
      Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav. 2008 Nov. 88(4): 432-437.

      There are abstracts in PubMed for the curious.

      It is also certainly true that less worthwhile research "attracts high-level funding."

      A study on "Impaired Metabolism and Performance in Crustaceans Exposed to Bacteria" netted $559,681. In a decade, "shrimp treadmill" research cost over $3 million.

      Some claim the amounts of recent financial imprudence at the NSF are in the *billions,* and not only involve projects of dubious merit (e.g. Facebook social behavior studies, impacts of certain computer games on adult participants), but also vacation sprees and such exotica as Antarctic Jell-O wrestling.

    5. A blog, '100 ways to bring more money in" to research funding" could be the order of the day ?

    6. As fascinated as I am by the myriad incredible ways that tax dollars and other research funding is spent, I don't actually want to encourage any more of that sort of behavior than we already have.

    7. Anon @ 9:03 2014-06-30:

      You would have loved the Golden Fleece Awards handed out by Senator William Proxmire about 40 years ago.

    8. @ 8:06

      6:46 here, standing corrected....

      Hopefully Japanese quail are an appropriate model organism for studying dopaminergic synapses in humans. Otherwise yes, that project will turn out to be quite an expensive shot in the dark.

    9. Thank you - it's very rare to get an acknowledgement like that.

      On "Hopefully Japanese quail are an appropriate model organism for studying dopaminergic synapses in humans," I confess I find this unlikely at best. And should it be valid, what does that say about humans?

    10. I submit the following sterling examples of research-oriented academia - all projects that received funding. Some material is quoted from the relevant papers. The commentary, however, is mine. References to "shits and giggles" pertain to another post's assertion that "science = useful, humanities = fun for shits and giggles," with which I believe there is ample room for disagreement.

      "Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh -- Calculations on Avian Defaecation", Polar Biology, 2003.
      “Whether the bird deliberately chooses the direction into which it decides to expel its faeces or whether this depends on the direction from which the wind blows at the time of evacuation are questions that need to be addressed on another expedition to Antarctica.” - Yeah, that's more important than promoting literacy, any day - and our government will fund this to find out which way the shit blows. Shits and giggles indeed.

      "Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers: Economic Evidence for Human Estrus?" Evolution and Human Behavior, 2007.
      The grant money was issued in $1 bills to the researchers and subsequently to the test subjects.

      "Effects of Backward Speech and Speaker Variability in Language Discrimination by Rats," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, vol. 31, no. 1, January 2005.
      Because we had to know whether rats really could understand Japanese spoken backwards. .えいい ? か すで いいろしもお もてっも
      However, indications are that back-masked Japanese heavy metal will not induce satanic rioting by rat hordes. Kind of pointless given that it was demonstrated in the Roger Corman flick "Rock and Roll High School" that exposure to the music of the Ramones caused lab rats to vanish in little puffs of smoke.

      "Effects of cocaine on honey bee dance behaviour"
      - Journal of Experimental Biology 2008.
      With added cocaine, honey bees are more likely to dance and dance with increased frenzy. Future studies may involve building little discotheques.

      "During 2012, the National Science Foundation gave researchers at Purdue University $350,000... part of that money to help fund a study that discovered that if golfers imagine that a hole is bigger it will help them with their putting." What are the other practical applications of this? The mind boggles.

      "Climate Change in the American Mind" Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication.
      Because money needs to be spent on basic scientific research outlining exactly why Americans are becoming increasingly leery of the climate change paradigm. Better propaganda is needed, and NSF dollars must be spent to develop it!

      S. M. McGinn, D. Turner, N. Tomkins, E. Charmley, G. Bishop-Hurley, D. Chen. Methane Emissions from Grazing Cattle Using Point-Source Dispersion. Journal of Environment Quality, 2011; 40 (1): 22
      "...technique centered on using open-path lasers to obtain a short-term measurement of methane release from an entire grazing herd..." Now THAT's fun for shits and giggles. Better than watching pot smoke in the laser show at a BOC concert in the 70s. Probably cost more though.

  10. @David Stern

    "it is easy to see which academic is contributing more and which one less." Yes, years or even decades later. Dennis Prasher was fired and he did work that led to a Nobel Prize. It eventually worked out for him and he works in the lab of a Nobel Prize winner, but for years he barely made a living at all and even worked at a car dealership.

  11. Many bureaucracies are like this. I noticed that while I was teaching at a tech college.

    I started there at a considerably higher salary than I had at my previous employer. During the first few years, my pay increased rapidly. However, eventually I reached a plateau because by virtue of experience, education, and seniority, I was earning the maximum amount.

    The only way I could get more money in that place was to move into administration, but I would likely have exchanged one set of miseries for another.

    Many of my colleagues found it hard to leave that place. They had a steady paycheque and some fairly generous benefits. Getting something comparable elsewhere would have been difficult. One of the problems, however, was that they became intellectually root-bound and a lot found themselves behind their peers in industry. Consequently, they tended to stay where they felt safe.

  12. Hey now…the full professor can always shoot for an endowed chair!

    (I do think this is a perfectly good Reason; I'm just being a smart-ass)

  13. Beautiful. Brilliant. Absolutely true. One would think every possible argument has been exhausted by now, but our faithful blogger keeps coming through! Graduate school existence resembles a blind chicken mindlessly pecking at each freshly laid seed, all leading...NOWHERE. Well, perhaps the SLAUGHTERHOUSE!

  14. Chairs do get paid a pretty good chunk more salary, like a 15-30% premium, usually.

    Some people are more well-suited to be chair than others. It depends how good at time management they are, how well they prioritize tasks, and particularly how to say "no" to b.s. I've seen some people breeze through their period as chair pretty easily, while others look like the job almost kills them.

    From what I've seen, once you've been a chair you can move into a dean position, usually at another (less prestigious) college, pretty easily.

    If you want to, that is. Higher ed administration, at least at community colleges, is pretty similar to the corporate world. At my college half the administrative building is made up of former corporate hacks already. I would not want be in that world, although it is where all the money resides.

    1. CCHistProf:

      No, some people are well-suited to being schmoozers and butt-kissers, essential talents in getting ahead.

      If factors such as managerial ability had anything to do with becoming a chair, many academic departments would have to close because the way of doing things would grind to a halt.

      In all my years in industry and in academe (both as a student and an instructor), most managers were talentless sychophantic lickspittles.

  15. An idea for reason 96 could be: You get lost in esoteric minutiae and forget how to simplify life.

  16. In 1972, I completed a Ph D in English from Tulane. It cost me four years of my life, start to finish, but no money at all, which was quite common at the time. After a series of adjunct and one year positions, I finally left academe to become a stockbroker for Smith Barney, in 1981.

    I cannot tell you how much more sane, rational, and compassionate the business world was compared to the academic. The key difference: the company invested money in you. Therefore it was in their best interest for you to succeed.

    The English departments where I worked invested no money at all in you. None. Therefore they had no investment in your career. None. They were incented to see you fail -- in all of the ways described by other responders.

    All this was a million years ago. From what I'm reading, things have only gotten worse since.

    1. The supervisor I had shortly after I started grad school 35 years ago was interested in only one thing: data which *he* could publish under his name.

      If one finished their degree while his grad student, it would have been accidental, unless he liked that person. Otherwise, he would have made sure it wouldn't happen again.

      My Ph. D. supervisor was deliberately negligent with my research for 2 reasons.

      One was that he wasn't interested in it, something which he openly admitted after I worked on it for 4 years. I was doing something completely different than what he was spending most of his time on. I'm sure he was hoping I'd either pack it in and leave or scrap my project and sign on with his pet project in order to finish my degree.

      The second was that there was evidence that he had a less-than-arm's-length relationship with his favourite grad student. For all I know, he was having an affair with her. Regardless, he was spending a lot of time supervising her research. On the other hand, he'd ignore me for weeks. I didn't mind that, considering how useless he turned out to be.

      I defended my thesis just days before it had to be submitted in order to be on the upcoming convocation list. My smegheaded supervisor came up with a number of petty, nit-picking corrections that absolutely had to be made. I'm sure he did it deliberately so that I'd miss that deadline and his favourite grad student would finish ahead of me. I stood my ground, he caved in, and I received my degree a few weeks later.

    2. "I cannot tell you how much more sane, rational, and compassionate the business world was compared to the academic. The key difference: the company invested money in you. Therefore it was in their best interest for you to succeed."

      Not any more. What world was this in?

    3. I was once a candidate in a top ranked university. My supervisor practically and administratively did nothing for me. Making appointments with her has never been good experiences, nor the actual meetings any better. I leave her room feeling more confused and worse off.

      I quit that institution after 2 years of my life and joined a much less prestigious university. My new supervisor was fairly junior in rank but I learnt tremendously from him. Though I was sometimes made to run around (theoretically), but glad to say after 3 years, I am finally seeing myself going for viva within the next one year.

    4. Anon @ 2014-07-01 1004 PM here.

      The fact that certain supervisors of grad students can get away with being negligent or exploiting them as cheap labour is one reason tenure should be abolished. Stunts like they pulled need to have consequences and tenure, unfortunately, gives them immunity.

      In industry, anyone who tries nonsense like that can get fired unless they either lead a charmed life or are well-connected.

      I agree with you Anon @ 2014-07-02 0707 AM. Most of my employers in industry saw me as cheap labour, an expense that had to be reduced, if not eliminated completely. They invested nothing in me, had little interest in my personal success, and discarded me as soon as my usefulness to them ended. Oh, and don't forget the kindergarten sandbox level of office politics.

      By the way, I worked in a variety of fields, including oil and gas, military design and testing, and high-tech. What I saw and experienced appear to be common everywhere.

      The first company I worked for after I finished my B. Sc. treated me as its own property, believing that I should have no other purpose in life than to be constantly on the job. Private time was viewed as theft. It wasn't much different than the environment portrayed in the early episodes of "Mad Men" and, yes, I met just about every character in that show while I worked for that outfit, including one or two Don Drapers and Pete Campbells.

  17. To the person who said: Not any more. I fear you are right.

    My 30-something son tells me he would bet that Smith Barney dropped its training program long before it was merged out of existence. I fear he, like you, is right.

    Nonetheless, I still feel that the whole Ph.D. industry--which produces a product for which there is almost no market--is less moral than the business world. At least there those who are used and discarded do not owe money for the privilege.

    1. Let's face it. Many university departments, particularly in engineering and physical sciences, are doing the research that corporations used to do. (Nice arrangement, eh? Get your products developed at taxpayer expense by a public institution and then charge that same taxpayer again when he or she buys it.)

      As a result, a lot of those departments have adopted the business way of doing things and that means exploiting the lower ranks and kicking out whoever doesn't "fit" or belong.

      Your comment about Ph. D.s being a products isn't that far off. During my convocation, the university president at the time addressed the audience as if he was speaking at the annual general meeting of a company's shareholders. All he needed to add to his speech was referring to the degrees as units of education or learning produced or shipped.

  18. I agree grad school attracts ambitious people, but I'd add that it doesn't retain them. There were some very bright people in my program, but all of them left academe either just before or after defending. They are now leading very successful careers, albeit none of them require the PhD or even have anything to do with their studies.

    Like reason #1 - the smart people are somewhere else.

    1. You might be right.

      While I was working on my Ph. D., my supervisor had two other grad students who were doing the same thing.

      One got a tenure-track position at a university elsewhere in the country after spending a few years in industry. I suspect one reason was that the latter was an environment that didn't suit her. Until she had that industrial job, she spent almost her entire adult life in university.

      The second was ex-military and bounced around from one job to another after he finished. The last I heard, he is working for a utility company in another part of the country.

      I quit my teaching position less than 2 years after I finished my Ph. D., heading out on my own and living off my investments. It's more than a decade since I did that. I work on my research part-time and manage my portfolio. I'm worth much more now than when I started, with the latter not even requiring a degree.

      Go figure.

    2. With all the teaching, paper writing, research, meetings, conferences etc., who has time to get ahead?

      I am transitioning out of my current doctoral program because I have found a passion that trumps my academic ambitions. With all of the above reasons (well-documented on this site), I had no time to get ahead in the skills I needed to succeed in my new field. I have learned more in the couple of months I have been out for the summer than I could ever learn in the classroom.

      Academics held me back.

      No more headaches from the academic rat race to the bottom!

    3. Yeah, some people say there is life after academe.

      I say life begins after academe.

    4. This site:

      has recently had some entries which made reference to this document:

      Change some details about the government and some geographic locations and it could well describe what happened in my country.

      After reading that, I'm amazed that I lasted as long as I did while teaching at a certain post-secondary institution. It makes me glad I'm no longer part of it. It's quite distressing to see what happened to what was an effective educational system a generation or two ago.

    5. I was fascinated by the site and the account of Australian "unis." However, it occurs to me that many of the complaints made by Professor Doom and the author of the study implicate and condemn the students generically, in ways that are disturbingly familiar (e.g. entitlement without capacity, station without understanding, and even the "everyone wins a prize" cliche). These do not apply to every graduate, but increasingly every graduate is treated as if these memes are applicable to them.

      In turn this feeds into questionable national policy narratives. In the US it is part and parcel of the arguments made by the lobbies for increased immigration; e.g. "our people are all incompetent and we need smarter people,"
      "our people are all lazy and we need harder workers," and as appeared in the Wall Street Journal just yesterday "our business can't find skilled employees"). I'm reasonably sure some of these same narratives are used to affect Australian immigration policy.

      I think it's past time an actual and honest analysis was made of these issues, and perhaps said analysis could address why, in such an environment of deteriorating intellects and skills, college- or university-educated people with high IQs and work experience cannot find employment beyond that which they create for themselves - even in areas where there are claimed shortages of skilled labor.

  19. I narrowly avoided going down the Ph.D. path in humanities. I absolutely loved my subject of choice and would gladly have spent the rest of my life studying it and even teaching freshmen if I thought I had any chance at all of making a living by doing it, even a very modest living. I didn't believe that chance realistically existed for me.

    Instead, I skipped to a different humanities subject in a Master's program because people with M.A. degrees in that field get better jobs and better-paying jobs in the corporate world (not academe) than people with B.A. degrees or graduate certificates. Do I love that subject? No. But I'm willing to teach a second choice subject in order to, you know, be able to live, rather than get a Ph.D. in my first choice and starve to death.

    As regards the main post about getting ahead in academe, I've seen both academe and the corporate world. Both of them try to eat their young in order to survive long enough to produce a retirement nest egg (either tenure or a vested and well-funded 401 plan with a golden parachute). No matter which world you enter, you're on someone else's menu. Whether it's "publish or perish" or "produce or perish," the odds are against you. What's important is knowing the real odds and the real obstacles, then choosing which arena to enter.

    So, thank you to this blog's owner for trying to identify some of those obstacles ... even if it *is* taking a damned long time. *grin*

    1. I've been in industry and thought that environment either insane or dull and boring. I've been in academe, both as a grad student and as an instructor, and found that to be equally as sordid in its own way.

      I quit my teaching position a dozen years ago because I knew that someone at my institution had it in for me. I left when I had enough money to head out on my own.

      Believe me, being independent is the way to go. Think of it:

      - no idiot bosses
      - no performance appraisals
      - no nasty and/or empty-headed colleagues
      - no backstabbing or games of oneupmanship
      - no "bonding" sessions
      - freedom
      - independence
      - you set your own hours
      - you work whenever you want on what you want

      I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

      Before you say: "Hold on there, mate. It's nice for *you* to say that. *You*'ve got money." You're right. I do. But I didn't come by it by being born with a silver spoon in my mouth nor did I change my name to Walter White and produce some blue crystalline material.

      I spent a lot of years working in crapholes, but I saved and invested my money, living well within my means. I also spent a lot of years out of work, living off dole cheques. Neither situation was particularly palatable.

      But I looked into the future and saw what could be in store for me, both good and bad, and made my plans accordingly. I didn't get everything that I wanted but I didn't do too badly.

    2. You're right. I ignored the third choice of working for yourself. I also ignored government work, which isn't quite the same as any of the others.

      Your last paragraph, though, applies to every arena. "But I looked into the future and saw what could be in store for me, both good and bad, and made my plans accordingly." That's what each of us needs to do, taking into account that the dream of academia is not enough, by itself, to warrant choosing that path. Glad things worked out for you.

    3. Anon @ 2014-07-15 5:23 PM here.

      I long wanted to get a proper academic position at a university because I had both education and experience in my discipline. Was anybody interested? Nope. Every university I applied to told me to get lost. The best I could do were interviews with 3 junior colleges and 2 tech schools similar to the dump I left. Not one of those made me an offer.

      So, being on my own was more or less the only option I had left.

      People often forget the saying: "Be careful what you wish for. You might get it." Considering what's going on in post-secondary education nowadays (e. g., the situation described in the book on Australian unis I mentioned in an earlier posting), I got the better deal.

      I often shudder to think what would have happened if I actually did get a faculty position. I probably would have exchanged one set of miseries for another.

  20. This is true in a sense that if you do win the academic job lottery and get a TT position, you're stuck there.

    There are some people, a minority to be sure, that have an upward trajectory and move from a tier 3 regional state university to a tier 2 branch to a tier 1 state or private university. I've known a few. You also see the superstars move on & up from time to time, people like Elizabeth Warren.

    For the 1 out of 3 of us that did get academic TT jobs, we'll probably never leave our current position, if nothing else because we're terrified of the insecurity. I could possibly make a lateral move to another community college, but moving up as a professor would be very hard. Generally speaking once you get too far into the comm. coll. full-time / tenure-track world, you're stuck. Moving up to the university level for me is probably 1 out of 10 proposition at best because my research production is so low now.

    My current position is almost 100% secure as long as I do my job functions, don't make enemies and the school doesn't go bankrupt, since I am the only person that teaches my subject at my school. To give that up in order to take a 33% chance of getting a position somewhere else isn't great. If I did quit, it would most likely mean quitting academia entirely. "Moving up" would mean becoming a dean after I do my stint as chair, the chances of that are probably more like 50-60% if I applied. Or I can take the 95% chance that my position will remain funded and stay in it.

    This "trapped" feeling is something that prospective students need to consider. Even after you escape adjunct purgatory, it's not all that much better.

    1. CCHistProf, "Moneybags" from 2014-07-16 @ 6:11 AM here.

      I don't remember things always being the way you describe, but, then again, my only experience with the academic system when I started grad studies was gained while working on my B. Sc. in the mid-1970s. (Seeing professors in action during the faculty meetings I attended as grad student rep certainly shattered many illusions for me.)

      I used to teach at a tech college and was there for over 10 years. Many "lifers" stayed for the same reason you mentioned. For them, the living was easy and good, but I'm sure a lot were afraid of returning to industry because they were likely out of touch with that happened there.

      My being there might be one reason I couldn't get a university position, as well as the fact that I spent several years in industry, the latter automatically disqualifying me because I wasn't "dedicated" to research. (Never mind that I spent several years in industrial R & D.) Maybe somebody also figured that if I was any good as a professor, I wouldn't have had to settle for that institution, though I only had a master's degree when I started there.

      Getting tenure, however, has its drawbacks. Someone I knew from when we were both working on our Ph. D.s is now a tenured prof at a university elsewhere in the country. But, by getting it, she's made commitment. She moved there with her husband and daughter in tow. Hubbie now has a job in the same city. The kid's in junior high.

      Going elsewhere would mean uprooting the lives of three people, something which would be difficult to accomplish. I changed jobs a lot of times during the 1980s thanks to the economic circumstances of that decade. That's one reason I built a small investment portfolio because that would have given me something to fall back on had I been out of work again. (Fortunately, now, I don't have to work for anyone else any more. I'm semi-retired in the sense that my income comes from my investments but I'm still working on my research.)

      Considering her domestic situation, she's pretty much stuck there. I remember a slogan from a long time ago: "Pick your rut carefully. You'll be stuck there for the next 50 years."

      My Ph. D. supervisor often whined and complained that he wasn't being paid very well, though he never specified what he used as a standard. I know that, compared with what I might have been earning in industry, my salary from the aforementioned tech college was nowhere near as high as it should have been.

      So what can a professor do? He or she could move into management, where, traditionally, the big money has always been. But that would mean giving up doing research as one will then become primarily with being a paper-shuffler. Any involvement in research will only be token and would likely be along the line of deciding departmental or faculty budgets.

      (To be continued....)

    2. (Conclusion.....)

      One could use one's research results and file patents on them. My former grad school colleague did that and she has several in her name. However, that's not a cornucopia, either. One can file patents for all sorts of things and one doesn't necessarily have to build a working model of the device or process described.

      Patents are, for the most part, useless unless someone turns them into commercial products and that isn't easy, either. One has to arrange for licensing and legal authority and, by doing so, one puts one's reputation on the line. If one wants to form a company based on that patent, one has to raise start-up capital, do title searches, and conduct market research. One could hope for a buyout eventually, but there's no guarantee that'll happen. Besides, I've heard that something like 2 out of 3 businesses go belly up within 5 years of opening their doors.

      Patent lawsuits can be disputed for years and are often costly. Look at what happened with certain firms in the computing industry in recent years. Even further back, the history of radio is one in which various inventors not only filched ideas from each other (often infringing on someone's patent), they sued each other left, right, and centre.

      Maybe if one wants to get cash readily and legally from one's labours, one should take up a trade. Not only does one produce something tangible, it's usually an easier way of making money.

    3. Something else occurred to me.

      People work for an employer and hope to get a pension from it when they retire. Educational institutions are no exception. An employee often is required to make contributions to its retirement plan because part of his or her salary is withheld. Such plans are often run by financial managers or institutions, and they're run in the best interests of the future retiree, right?

      Guess again. We've often seen in recent years about how badly managed some of these retirement funds have been. There have been cases where employers clawed back some of the money paid to its retirees because there weren't enough funds in the plan. Sometimes the pension pays less than the retirees expected. At my institution, many of the instructors who retired came back under contract because the pension they received wasn't enough.

      In addition, employees usually have no say in how or when their contributions are invested. I've never been a fan of that. Since I paid money into these plans in the past, I always wanted to know what was done with it but I wasn't allowed to know that.

      When I quit my teaching position a dozen years ago, I transferred the retirement plan from my former employer over to my broker. Unfortunately, the way it was set up, my money is locked in and I can only withdraw some once a year. In addition, there's a range of how much can be taken out. I wasn't particularly happy with that set-up.

      However, by transferring it to my broker, I took control of that plan. I made all the decisions on how the money was invested, which stock I bought, how much, and when to sell it. I, of course, sought the advice of my broker beforehand as he has information I don't readily have access to.

      On the whole, those retirement funds are worth more now than they would have been had I remained at that institution.

      Just to be clear, I have no formal background in finance or economics. What I know about investment came from personal experience plus I read a number of good books on the subject. But the result is that I can analyze an annual report and decide whether a particular stock might be worth buying. Mind you, I don't have a perfect record and I've ended up with a few clunkers, but I've made more money than I've lost by investing in good quality stock and being patient.

      But how many academics do that? Many can't be bothered, figuring that their employer will look after them. (Yeah, right.) Some believe that it's so complicated that they would rather let someone more qualified than they are make all the decisions.

      Trust me, it's not difficult to read an annual report and make a few calculations to determine if one needs to add a few barrels to the wardrobe if one buys a particular stock. It's not rocket science and a university degree isn't needed for it. I don't spend a lot of time on it, either. Once I've invested my money, there's not a whole lot I can do about the price anyway. I'll look at it once in a while during the day, but I'm not going to become instantly rich by constantly fretting over it.

      The gist of my comments is this: just because one has tenure now doesn't mean one will have a comfortable retirement. Relying on one's employer for that isn't a good idea.

    4. There's something to consider if one's research results in a patent.

      Conducting commercial R & D comes with risks. Before a product can be brought to market, it has to undergo testing to ensure that it's safe and reliable. Trials can take a long time to complete and, even when they are, there are no guarantees. We can think of numerous examples of lawsuits against pharmaceutical firms for side effects that either weren't found through those tests or, perhaps, were noticed but ignored. Similar cases have occurred with automotive firms, such as the current issue about faulty ignition switches or the infamous case of Ford Pinto fuel tanks exploding as a result of a collision.

      Obtaining liability insurance is next to impossible because risks are hard to assess, if at all. A former colleague of mine had his own consulting firm and he designed specialized equipment for clients. No company would insure him for just that reason, so he had to make sure that the clientele knew that when they signed the contracts. The issue of liability was one reason I never went into private practice.

      Universities like to portray their research staff as innovators and drivers of the economy. One never hears, though, about the possibility that these innovations might fail or fall short of expectations and that the windfalls they might provide might never materialize.

      Don't forget that in the California gold rush, many of the prospectors went broke. Levi Strauss, on the other hand, made money not in panning or digging for the stuff but by making and selling pants to the miners.

    5. Two reactions @ Anon 7/26/14, 5:16 and 7:26:

      "Maybe if one wants to get cash readily and legally from one's labours, one should take up a trade. Not only does one produce something tangible, it's usually an easier way of making money."

      First, it's not always true that one "produces something tangible" in a trade. Many trades are services (e.g. electrician, plumber, transportation professional).
      Second, it's not as if there aren't enough tradespeople. In fact, owing to US immigration structure, we are displacing a lot of people who used to work in certain trades (e.g. butcher, builders, electricians). Barring some radical changes to the permissiveness, numbers and enforcement of our immigration laws, this displacement is only going to accelerate.
      Third, that accelerated displacement is occurring in a nation of 320 million people, a historic number of which are out-of-work, a growing number of which are not finding work to begin with. It is not unreasonable to consider that these unemployed and underemployed people will help create the next bust in blue collar employment, as they increasingly turn away from diminishing white-collar employment to the trades and forms of self-employment that do not require large amounts of investment capital.


      "People work for an employer and hope to get a pension from it when they retire...Guess again. We've often seen in recent years about how badly managed some of these retirement funds have been. There have been cases where employers clawed back some of the money paid to its retirees because there weren't enough funds in the plan."

      I suspect most people working outside of government do not expect to have a pension anymore. Given the scale and pace that the bureaucrats have been arrogating goodies for themselves and their party faithful (let's be honest, this is almost entirely a Democrat phenomenon) either a much-needed reaction will occur soon or the US will become a two-tiered class society split along the lines of government and private sector employment.

      There is also the issue - unheard of until this administration - of government misappropriation of retirement benefits. First this showed up in the federal government stiffing General Motors stockholders and bondholders in 2009 - many of whom were GM retirees, some of whom were wiped out by the administration's actions. Then it showed up in the unbelievable mismanagement of VA funding over the past few years. The lesson here is the US is no more law-abiding than any other banana republic when it comes to property rights. The federal government can take anything you own as well as any kind of pension arrangement you may think you have ironed out. This will not change until the "progressives" have been rooted out from government offices.

    6. Actually, that sort of thing happened much earlier. I remember reading a news article about the old Massey Ferguson company in the early 1980s. It got itself into financial trouble by then and I recall that cutting pensions was one measure it took to try and stay solvent.

      The comment in your last paragraph about government handling of pensions was one reason I moved my pension contributions from the institution I taught at over to my broker. That pension plan was managed by some government agency. I wanted to have not just control over how my money was handled but to know where it was going.

  21. This illustrates how academe thinks about getting a student's chances of getting a faculty position:

    1. This article is already linked at the top of the "Further Reading" links on the right-hand side ("No, You Cannot Be a Professor" by Larry Cebula).

    2. One problem with the tenure-track system is its closed-shop mentality. Professors are first obsessed with getting on the gravy train and, once they're aboard, they make sure that the "wrong" sort don't ever join them. Just who doesn't qualify is often a matter of arbitrary personal judgement.

    3. Agreed inasmuch as there is a certain "type" that seems overly concerned with 'making sure that the "wrong" sort' are kept out. I've seen it happen more than once.

      However, that's not what Cebula was getting at in his article.

  22. This is such an interesting and insightful list - quite obviously well-researched and developed. If there had been such a list before I went to graduate school, I don't think I would have gone....

    Sara @ simpleNewz