Academia == Hollywood?

Matt Yglesias points to a Peter Suderman post talking about this post about finding jobs:

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.


  1. #1 Brian
    July 14, 2008

    I disagree. Pedigree certainly matters in both Academia and Hollywood, but the end point of academic jobs is totally different. You’re joining an academic community when you get a job at a university, and the people who hire you are essentially hiring a collaborator/friend/community member for, presumably, decades.

    So they hedge their bets, take the sure thing, etc. Besides, if you were going to be such a good researcher at X University, why weren’t you in a better program to begin with? Or, since there are many reasons for choosing a less-respected program, why don’t you know any of the other main researchers in your field, after 4-6 years of training/conferences?

    You can lament the cronyism in academia all you want, but at some point in your career you will probably have met (or more likely, have a paper reviewed by) other prominent researchers. If you haven’t done that by the time you’re applying for jobs, you have bigger problems than an analogy to Hollywood will fix!

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 14, 2008

    Academia and Hollywood, along with Book Publishing, Newspapers, Radio, Television, Video Games — are all a part of the Knowledge Industry, which has employed half of Americans since about 1960.

    There is a de facto 6-figure salary cap on all but a handful of celebrity professors, but there are plenty of University Presidents, Chancellors, Provosts, and the like who earn large multiple of the salary of professors in their institutions.

    There is more truth to this blog thread than many academics want to admit. Academics valorize “truth” and submit that Hollywood is mere fiction, mere escapism. But that is false on both counts.

    My wife and I grimly recall the time that she was actually made a job offer, and accepted, at JPL, which is administered by Caltech. They kept delaying her start date, and then stuck someone else — who didn’t even have a Ph.D. in Physics as my wife did, into the position.

    It isn’t what you know. It’s whom you know.

    Two more words: Casting Couch.

  3. #3 Jim Thomerson
    July 14, 2008

    I’ve been Emeritus for 10 years, so am not current. I served on a number of search committies for biolgy faculty at a young regional university. I haven’t seen the cronyism described above. I will admit that I had met the person who was chair when I was hired on a couple of occasions back in the graduate days. However, I found out later that no one really qualified had applied for the position so I was the best they could get. Such is life.

    Here is my search experience: first there is careful crafting of the position announcement to meet legal requirments and satisfy the faculty and administration. When applications come in the search committee sorts through and discards any which do not meet all the criteria of the position announcement. Then the search committee recommends the top applicants (as many as 10) to the faculty. The faculty discusses, and the top three are invited for interviews. The faculty then decides to make job offers, or not. Several times we had failed searches, we were unable to hire a satisfactory person. Depending on the position, we had from 3 to 300 applicants. We had one search were the only qualified applicant was a person already on staff on yearly contract. That person went on tenure track.

  4. #4 Johan Larson
    July 14, 2008

    You know, there’s no shortage of oversubscribed jobs, that people are willing to beat themselves bloody to get. Some of them pay well (doctor, lawyer), others poorly (artist, athlete) at least on average. This is not news.

    A more interesting question, I think, is where to go to avoid the hordes of strivers. Surely there are jobs that are respectable, decently paid, and not too hard to get into. What jobs come out on top when adjusted for entrance difficulty?

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    July 14, 2008

    Many years ago, I read a book something like “How to Become a Civil Engineer and Get Sued.” The author advocated the ‘get in the short line’ theory. He had gone to MIT with the intention of studying high energy physics. Went to register, and found the line stretching around the corner. Went for a walk and chanced by the civil engineering office. No one there but the Chair. Went in, chatted, and signed up. When he graduated there were no jobs in high energy physics and he had 20 job offers.

    So, how does one find the short line these days? The job market today is irrelevant unless you are looking now. The question is what will the job market be at X years in the future when you start looking.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 14, 2008

    Thomas M. Disch:

    I’ll tell you one of my favorite ideas that I haven’t found a taker for yet — maybe there’s a publisher out there who wants me to write it for them — a book specifically for young girls titled So You Want To Be The Pope. It would resemble a career guide, explaining that, well, yes, nowadays girls aren’t yet allowed to be the Pope, but so many other barriers have fallen: so here is your plan for how to set about becoming the first female Pope. A perfectly serious book on the subject, that would talk about the history of the papacy. . . [laughs]

    [Strange Hosrizons, Interview: Thomas M. Disch
    By David Horwich, 30 July 2001]

  7. #7 Janne
    July 15, 2008

    There is a major difference: if you don’t get promoted you can stay a corporate drone. If you don’t get your big break you can continue to sort slush piles (getting better and better at it).

    But in academia you really can’t. Post-docs are a limited-time only; once you go too many years, or hit the age limit (around 40 or so) you’re out. You can’t stay at any one level; you need to take that next career step or you’ll find yourself out on your behind.

  8. #8 Ray
    July 15, 2008

    Music-industry equivalents – roadies, merchandisers, guy who gets sent out to buy drugs for the band

    Respectable, decently paid, not difficult to get into – accountancy?

    And, no, I don’t think you really can remain a filmset or tour/studio runner in your forties.
    Entertainment industry /= corporate droning.

  9. #9 Matt
    July 15, 2008

    Johan Larson: A more interesting question, I think, is where to go to avoid the hordes of strivers. Surely there are jobs that are respectable, decently paid, and not too hard to get into. What jobs come out on top when adjusted for entrance difficulty?

    I think the answer to this is probably “skilled manual labor”. Being a plumber, electrician, HVAC repair man, or similar is neither glamorous nor going to make you rich. But you can clear $50,000 a year without tremendous difficulty and it’s not hard to get into. Be clever and enterprising and there’s plenty of room for advancement via expanding the company or carving out a particular specialized local niche.

  10. #10 Ian Durham
    July 15, 2008

    I agree with Jonathan. Academia shares more with Hollywood than it is willing to admit.

  11. #11 CCPhysicist
    July 15, 2008

    Those are among the reasons that an internship, paid or unpaid, is so important in fields like engineering. It is the perfect way to prove your worth to a company you would like to work for, and they get to see actual work samples without having to fire people who don’t cut it.

  12. #12 Max Kennerly
    July 15, 2008

    As I blogged (see the link above):

    Let me add what I think is the worst part about the academic job market: if you don’t succeed, there is virtually no way to transfer your skills directly.

    Take a lawyer. One path, the path strongly encouraged at prestigious law schools, involves working your way up the ranks of a large corporate firm, eventually becoming partner and making loads of money working for big businesses. Make one mistake, like bad grades one semester or a poor undergraduate record, and you will usually be barred from that path for ever.

    As a lawyer, though, you do not have to care about that. You can join in a small firm and make a good salary working decent galleries. You can go into business for yourself, and earn anywhere between little money and a boatload of money while working anywhere between a few hours a week and as if you were actually out on a boat in rough seas. There’s a lot of room for variety.

    In academia, however, there are no freelance biologists or independent physicists. Unlike someone in the media industry, you can’t even hope to have a breakthrough screenplay or acting performance. You are simply out of the loop.

    That’s not to say there aren’t other options for PhDs and the like. There are, but in entirely different fields; there are plenty of PhDs doing career work only vaguely related to their education, work definitely not related to academic pursuits.

    I won’t pretend to have the solution here but I do think the problem is far more pronounced than generally recognized. It’s not that the best and brightest end up choosing law and medicine instead — trust me, they don’t — it’s that many potential superstars in the field languish entirely, captive to their own passion about the subject while also unable to land an appropriate job.

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