Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Vocational Hazard?

Once again inspired by a Drezner post, I wanted to address the question of the academic career. As the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests, DANGER: HERE BE DRAGONS!! The next bubble may be in academia-we have outpriced out market with $50k tuition, parents with no home equity to borrow from, banks not willing to provide credit, private colleges are losing their endowments, and public schools are threatened by state budget crises (and provincial ones up in Canada). At Duck of Minvera, there has been a discussion of academia as a vocation. Given the panic voiced over the past year at Political Science Rumor blog and the potential academic crash, what should we tell our students?

I have been telling the aspiring law students to apply their economics--supply and demand--suggesting that we have enough lawyers and that they might want to consider another path. The student usually comes back with a justification for some unfilled niche (like international law, environmental law, etc.), and I write them a letter of recommendation anyway. Well, what about aspiring Political Scientists?

To be clear, this is a great job, but, kids, don't try it at home. Let me first enumerate some of the reasons why this is a great job, then why it should be avoided like the plague. And then the one key ingredient that is all the difference in the world.

What is great about prof-ing?
  1. Control over one's work. You research what you want (more or less); you teach what and how you want (given certain constraints). The relative balance of teaching and research is shaped by one's location and ambition. Some places value teaching more, and, if you are happy there, then that is where the focus is. If not happy (your ambition and your present circumstance are not a match), then a balancing act of one kind is required. And so on.
  2. You control your allocation of time. Yes, you may have more stuff to do than time to do it in, but when you do it and how you prioritize is up to you. Now, there may be consequences (remember Indiana Jones climbing out of his office window to brush off his students--but the guy got his research done!).
  3. No one really can control you after tenure. While this might be seen as a license to commit gross acts of shirking, it means that you have no boss. Indeed, even before tenure, you have no single boss but a department as a supervisor. Yes, this can be hazardous to one's mental health, but having a deranged boss in the private sector is underestimated by most academics.
  4. I am in Paris and soon will be in Berlin on someone else's dime. Doing important research, I think, but not 24 hours a day.

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! the Downsides:

  1. Location, location, location: It becomes very, very hard to get a job where one wants to live. If lucky or very, very competitive as a candidate, you might end up in a place that you end up loving. But lots of jobs are in locations that have some or many undesirable features. I spent six years in a town with a zero percent growth rate, despite the fact that all of the communities nearby (small farming towns) were de-populating and sending their people to the town.
  2. Job Security: Ha! Well, after tenure, things may be splendid, but fewer jobs are tenure-track, and getting that first job is becoming harder and harder, and this current economy will make it much more difficult. One ends up competing with folks who have been out for a few years but unhappy with their location, with folks who have been on a post-doc or three and have had time to develop a research record (but those who get post docs and don't publish are not so competitive). There is no guarantee that what you study will be hot or interesting by the time you finish grad school. Think of the Soviet scholars in 1990. Will counter-insurgency and miltias be has hot six years from now? Don't tell my grad students. You cannot game the system nor should you try, hoping that you can guess what is hot. The best you can hope for is having an inherently interesting idea and approach with a strong research design and some good pubs before going out on the market.
  3. Social diseases: Two come to mind here. First, if one is single in grad school, you are most likely to become attracted to another academic. BAD MOVE--finding one job is hard enough, finding two is very difficult. Some of my friends have managed it--by being extremely excellent. Second, social skills are not a requirement for an academic career and the job security of tenure means that what may have been kept under the covers can fully bloom in the hothouse atmosphere of tenrue (ooo). So, colleagues may end up sharing their dysfunctions. This can be managed, but only if other colleagues join you in marginalizing the evil, insane, crazy or stupid.
  4. Delayed gratification: five to seven years of poverty, followed by uncertainty, and potentially minimal raises before, during and after tenure.

So, why do it? If you have an intense curiosity, then it is an ideal job for engaging that thirst. that is perhaps my take on the Duck's vocation discussion. It is an occupation that requires some significant sacrifices, like others, of course. What makes it worth it is the ability to pursue one's curiosity as far as it will go. I went to grad school thinking I would research stuff like my current focus on multilateral military operations, but my curiosity for the intervening years was drawn (and will be drawn) towards the international relations of ethnic conflict.

If you are not deeply curious, find something else to do. Let me know if I am wrong--I am curious.

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