Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Why would you want to be an academic?

I was speaking to an aspiring academic (AAA) a couple days ago and he was explaining (part of) why he wanted to be an academic. AAA felt that academics do not work very hard and have flexible schedules and were willing to earn less than similarly talented individuals because they just don't value money so much. I responded that he seriously underestimates how hard academics work and he ignores the long, difficult road to tenure and the downsides of limited choice as to where one will live. Further, I argued, if the tradeoff was merely between riches and few hours + flexibility, there are much better choices. The classic example is prostitution and the sex trade, but I also suggested beer vending. WARNING- TANGENT In Chicago there are two baseball teams, so you can work some 150 games for half the year at about $250 a game (a conservative estimate) and collect unemployment for the other half year. I remember how Rachel's younger brother Joe mocked his older siblings in the summer of 2001 for earning less than he did. Rachel had just graduated U of C and was working for Chicago Partners, an economic consulting firm, and her older brother David had just graduated from Harvard and was (and still is) working for the [Government Agency]. Joe was spending his summer vacation vending at the ballpark. TANGENT OVER The academic tradeoff, I suggested, was more about valuing status more than most people do than it was about valuing money less than most people do. This is one reason, I think, that women in academia are disproportionately feminist. Why do the aspiring academics among y'all want academia ? Beware, the rest of us might try and keep you honest.

. I implied that feminist women are more concerned with status than non-feminist women. Seeing as how I say that only based on my own thought and experience and not systematic research of any sort, I feel I should limit that suggestion to Orthodox feminist women, a group I at least have a little more knowledge of.


Zev said...

Yeah, everyone is gonna have a helluva time trying to figure out who the dull AAA is. Just use my name.

Zev said...

Is it possible that with prestige come benefits? That is, society need to treat profs right, so they give them great benefits, security and pensions? OK, beer vendors get paid well, but they have no job security. What happens if Aramark buys out all the beer vendors. I would also suspect that prostitutes make less with age, and the pension, job security and benefits suck.

Academics get a break because we assume that they are *so* smart that they could be earning more in the corporate world. Like certain friends of mine who study the economics of marriage at the GSB. Econ of marriage is not that lucrative, but her job prospects are good, nonetheless, because she is very smart (and charming, wonderful, etc).

Lastly, maybe you are right. Ain hacha nami. I don't really care about money that much. I value leisure over money, like some
other not so charming people I know ;P

Yehuda said...

Did you mean Orthodox feminist acadmecis? Because I think that may be a frontier of its own.

Yehuda said...

Also, it may be (and I'm going out on a limb here) that some academics find their work interesting and valuable for, well, academic reasons.

jacob said...

Shmuli wrote:
I responded that he seriously underestimates how hard academics work and he ignores the long, difficult road to tenure and the downsides of limited choice as to where one will live. Further, I argued, if the tradeoff was merely between riches and few hours + flexibility, there are much better choices. The classic example is prostitution and the sex trade, but I also suggested beer vending.

You make two points: First, that being an academic IS difficult. Second, if the tradeoff were riches to hours, there are better choices. I will address both.

With the exception of having limited choices on where to live (even that is not so limited if you are willing to work at an insitution with a "not so good" reputation) being an academic is easy. It is true that the placement process is difficult but so is the job hunt in many other fields. The question is whether it is easy as compared to other professions. Further, you arent seriously going to argue that once you have "tenure" the job is hard. All that being said, I think the reason why people want to be academics is not that it is easy but that it APPEARS to be easy and certainly is easy to "get into." this is so for many reasons. It is easier to stay in school and avoid entering the workforce and the "real world." so rather than get a job, people stay in school (or in my case, go back to school) and live an easier life. Second, students see their proffessors teach the same course year after year and have their TAs do all the "work." They have summers off. (At the U. of C. dont proffessors get one quarter where they dont have teaching responsiblities?) All in all, the life certainly appears to be easier.

With regard to the trade-off, I am surprised that you dismiss the possiblity altogether simply by stating that if that were the case, there are better choices. There arent really better plausible choices. first, academia "maximizes" (in the mind of the academic) the combination of the riches and few hours. Your examples assume that the relationship between the two were linear but that is not the case. We know about the decreasing marginal value of a dollar. For most people, the same is true of free time.

Once Again, I post my comment half asleep and unedited. I apologize for disorganization.

miriam said...

as for orthodox feminist aspiring academics (OFAA)
1- they tend (as a class and within their individual psyches) to be disproportionally intellectual, for better or worse, which might make them lean toward careers in which they spend a lot of time doing intellectual things. as yehuda says, maybe people want to be academic because they like it?

2- they tend to come from traditional (non-kollel) orthodox homes, in which women are not expected to be serious breadwinners, and OFAAs may internalize this expectation, especially if it gives them more freedom, even if it poses problems of logical consistency...

3- they tend to be orthodox, and therefore intending at some point to devote considerale time to a family. academia may be demanding, but ultimately, if you need to pick up your kids from school at 2:57 pm every tuesday you are more likely to be able to do it as a professor than in a similarly intellectual, but corporate, job.

4- i think people in general underestimate the difficulties of academia, the demands of publishing, getting tenure, etc. so they may not "really be in it for the status" - they may just be confused (present company excluded, of course... ;) ). jacob is right - academia looks easy because when you're in college most everyone you see is someone who "made it" and lives the (relatively) high life, and leaving that comfort zone (youth development jargon and i have become friends) for the "outside world" is just plain scary.

the end. if that doesn't make sense chalk it up to my battling unruly children for 4 hours straight today.

Shmuli said...

Zev1 - I decided not to name you because I felt I would not characterize your views correctly. I don't think our brief conversation even allowed you to characterize your views correctly. I doubt the only reason you want to be an academic is because you're lazy

Zev2 - You are right that the risk adjusted material benefits of tenured academics generally outweighs those of prostitutes and beer vendors. But not all aspiring academics get tenured positions, so there is risk there. Moreover I believe there are other vocations (perhaps government work) where the the combination of hours, pay, and job security beats academia. I believe that status/prestige plays a large role in why many want academia.

I also think people too readily say that academics would earn much more in the private sector. The skill sets rewarded in academia may be somewhat different than those rewarded in the relevant alternative field. There are probably many academics that are materrially better off than they would have been if academia was not an option. Rachel, for example, concluded that her relative lack of social polish would harm her more in the private sector than in academia. She may discover that she was wrong, but that was/is her view.

Yehuda1 - Wouldn't you think that women more status oriented than average would be more likely to resent being barred from high status positions on account of their sex than women less status oriented than average? General US society does not ban women from high status positions so this reasoning is not so strong outside of Orthodoxy. I still think it is the case that status oriented people are more likely to resent perceived unjustified benefits for others than non status priented people.

Yehuda2 - I think you're right. For many, academia is the best vocation for pursuing "knowledge" that they are independently interested in.

Jacob - Of course, you are correct that tenure will encourage sloth in many. Academia, though, isn't the only vocation that has exceptional job security. Civil service is well known for just that. The question should be why so many work so hard after attaining tenure? I am suggesting that academia has a disprportionate amount of people who deeply care about prestige. If thirst for prestige was part of why they entered academia in the first place, it would likely still be a motivating force after tenure. This predicts, however, that academics who "lose" the prestige game by getting posts at low prestige institutions will fall more after tenure than others even after taking prior performance into account.

I think you are also correct to point out that people seek academia because school is already the world they know. I suppose you could try to test for such an effect by examining what percentage of academic children are academics compared to the children of other fields following their parents' footsteps. A problem with that, though, is that since academic children get doubly exposed to the academic life and have even less knowledge of an alternative than normals.

Miriam - My point was about feminist vs. non-feminist. Your #2 and #3 are about Orthodox vs. non-Orthodox. Are you predicting that Orthodox women would be disproportionately represented in Academia compared to otherwise similar groups? That would certainly be interesting.

Is your suggestion in #1 that feminist women are more intellectual than other women limited to Orthodox or something you think is generally true? "Intellectual" is a concept I have great difficulty understanding let alone measuring. I have my definition for "feminist" (strong identity with women as a group), but you may have another. Basically I can't really comment when I don't understand what you are saying.

Like you, I think Jacob's point about the ease of choosing the familiar is very good. I disagree, though, that aspiring academics are unusually ill-informed about the difficulty of their chosen career. First of all, their relative familiarity with the job should probably clue them in. You and Jacob would apparently predict fewer academic children, who would be better aware of the true difficulty, following in their parents' footsteps than the norm. Second, I would predict that in most vocations people would say the job was harder than they initially expected. You should have a bias towards people who mistake a vocation for being easier than it is.

Shmuli said...

That should be "strong identity with women as a victimized group" rather than "strong identity with women as a group."

miriam said...

i wrote a whole long respone that my computer ate, so you are all spared.

basically, i think yes, i might want to suggest that orthodox vs. non-orthodox does correlate with likelihood to want to be an academic, and i think this may even be born out by my own anecdotal observations.

as for intellectuals, i mean some amoprphous thing having to do with a penchant for "high culture," elitism, and thinking its important to read books. re: "feminist," i was just using self-identification, and really, its "intellectual" people, orthodox or not, who tend to self-identify as anything-ist.

Shmuli said...

Miriam - Of course, your anecdotal experience is likely to be biased because you are more likely to know any given Orthodox academic than a given non-Orthodox academic. There would be a way to test for this, I think, even with all the accompanying effects of Orthodoxy. If you are right that Orthodox women are more attracted to an academic career for lifestyle reasons, the ratio of Orthodox female academics to non-Orthodox Jewish female academics should rise as you move down the school prestige ladder.

"elitism"? Do you really maintain that assuming one or one's kind is better/smarter than others is a direct component of what makes a person more or less intellectual?

I too would guess that better-educated are more likely to self-identify as an "ist". This is one reason why sometimes self-identification may be less useful as a predictor of behavior or opinion than other markers. I would predict that feminist women are disproportionately represented in academia even if you control for your "intellectual" factor.