The last couple of years have seen my friends begin to start their honest-to-goodness careers, as opposed to jobs that were by design short-term. I’d say that among people I would call friends, a good two dozen have gotten long-term/serious jobs in the last couple years. And here’s the thing: literally none of them got there jobs without some sort of “in”, a personal connection that got them the job.
It goes on a bit from there, and Peter and Matt add some good thoughts about why this might not be as bad a thing as it might initially seem. They’re all worth a look.
This sort of clicked together with some thoughts I’ve been kicking around for a few weeks now, since Dave’s post about Peter Rhode leaving academia (and, to a lesser extent, Sherril on the plight of the post-doc). Peter’s post contains the usual complaints about the academic system, but phrased them in a way that struck me as odd:
The academic system has some serious problems. Most notably in my opinion, there is very limited scope for promotion. For every permanent position there are countless postdocs competing for that position. It simply isn’t possible for all of us post-docs to progress right up through the ladder.
Put that way, as a question of “promotion,” I start to wonder how different academia really is from the “Real World”– that is, how many times does the average corporate drone really expect to be promoted in the course of a career? Obviously, there are vastly more office workers than office managers– how does that ratio compare to the ratio of assistant professors to post-docs?
This didn’t really resolve into a blog post, but the Matt/Peter/Freddie thing made me think of it again. Accusations of nepotism and cronyism as rampant in academia, too, with lots of bitter blog commenters saying that getting a job all comes down to who you know or where you did your Ph.D. And again, I started to wonder: Is academia really any different than any other competetive industry where there are more applicants than jobs?
The obvious difference, of course, at least compared to competitive jobs in finance and the like, is that the pay sucks. But then it hit me: Academia is Hollywood. Or, more precisely, academia is just like the entertainment industry in general– movies, music, and publishing.
(Just to be clear, I’m talking about the production side, here. I’m not comparing academics to rock stars, movie stars, or big-name authors, but to record-company staff, Hollywood production staff, and book editors.)
These are all, it seems to me, fields in which there are vastly more people interested in jobs than there are jobs for them, and also fields in which smart people are willing to sacrifice short-term financial gain just to get their foot in the door. People put up with a lot of crap in order to get a shot at a tenure-track faculty job, but is an editorial assistant in Manhattan really any better off than an adjunct professor?
The obvious difference would be that academia requires a lot more education in order to get to the position where you can put your foot in the door– grad school, post-doc, etc. You can be perfectly successful in the entertainment industry without a college degree. Hell, you don’t even need a high-school diploma in order to become an award-winning book editor. All you need is to be able to talk somebody into hiring you.
Looked at another way, though, all those grad student and post-doc years are probably just taking the place of years spent as a slushpile reader in a publishing office, or holding a clipboard and fetching coffee on movie sets, or… whatever the music-industry equivalent is. As bad as the plight of the post-doc may seem, they’re not really any worse off than the people reading slush in a publishing house or literary agency. They may be better off, even, because they don’t need to be in Manhattan.
Pretty much every unsavory element of academia maps directly onto some corresponding element of one of the entertainment industries– sucking up to big names, taking shit from prima donnas, doing difficult jobs just in hopes of making a connection that will pay off later on. It’s the same basic deal everywhere.
Sadly, the analogy breaks down before the level of the millionaire record execs or movie producers. It would be really nice if tenured academics got paid like high-level entertainment executives. Then again, tenure is some compensation– I’ll happily trade some cash up front for knowing that I’ll still have a job five years from now.
I realize this isn’t exactly any consolation to people toiling in adjunct jobs, or giving up on academia altogether. Which is why I still think we need to work on changing our standards of what counts as success for an academic science. After all, those who leave the academic science track have a lot more options than those who give up on the dream of becoming a major label record executive. As Dave notes in the post that started me on this whole line of thinking:
I guess I’m also very biased in this whole issue because I see a strong causal link between obtaining a high degree of education, represented here by a Ph.D. in physics, and future success. This was particularly drilled into me while I was an undergraduate a Caltech, in large part due to my exposure to donors to the institution. These were people who had achieved great things but who also saw great value not just in the research potential Caltech represented, but in the human capital of industrious, hard-work, creative students at the university. And many of them had their Ph.D.s in science fields but were most definitely not stuck in academia.
So there’s your rose-colored-glasses academic thought for the moment. Back to the book revisions.