Can't Get Tenure? Then Get a Real Job

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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The last few days have seen the eruption, among academic bloggers, of a tense discussion over tenure. These discussions have been going on for a while, of course, as the situation for newly minted PhDs keeps getting more dire, and the reaction of people with tenure is to tut-tut about how awful it is and say that someone should do something.

The proximate cause of the most recent explosion is a letter that University of California at Riverside sent to applicants for tenure-track positions in the English department, informing them that five days hence, they would have the opportunity to interview at the annual meeting of the Modern Languages Association. Rebecca Schulman reasonably, if somewhat intemperately, pointed out that for people living on the paltry wages of a grad student, a last-minute plane ticket is a pretty expensive entry fee for a slim chance of a tenure-track job.

Karen at The Professor Is In blog followed up with a long, angry post about the blind eye that tenured faculty turn to the travails of adjuncts and grad students. The title, "How the Tenured are to the Job Market as White People are to Racism" drew more than a little anger, understandably. But her broader point is sound: academia is now one of the most exploitative labor markets in the world. It's not quite up there with Hollywood and Broadway in taking kids with a dream and encouraging them to waste the formative decade(s) of their work life chasing after a brass ring that they're vanishingly unlikely to get, then dumping them on the job market with fewer employment prospects than they had at 22. But it certainly seems to be trying to catch up.

As I've remarked before, it's not surprising that so many academics believe that the American workplace is a desperately oppressive and exploitative environment in which employers can endlessly abuse workers without fear of reprisal, or of losing the workers. That's a pretty accurate description of the job market for academic labor ... until you have tenure.

Here's The Professor is In on how that looks from the outside:

Instead, what I see the tenured doing -- not just Tenured Radical but most of the ones I know personally, hear of, or read about -- is ruefully shake their heads about adjuncts ("I know, isn't it just awful?") while they run off to the graduate admissions meetings where they continue to admit the same number of students, with the same crappy funding, into the same dissertation-obsessed programs of study, based on the same outdated, indefensible job market premises, delivering the same vague, non-committal job market assurances ("the good people always get jobs"), as in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. All. Completely. Unchanged.

She's hinting at the obvious solution: If we want the job market to get better for academics, then graduate programs have to admit fewer students. A lot fewer.

The "tournament model" of employment, in which a lucky few win the lottery while most people scrape by on very little, is a cruel and unattractive way to run a business. But it is cruelest in glamour industries such as the arts. Growing up on the Upper West Side, before it became the exclusive province of the wealthy, I inevitably met a lot of the people this model destroyed. The worst off were the folks who'd kept getting just a taste of success -- a minor part in a Broadway show, a critically acclaimed performance at a second-tier festival. Those folks kept waiting until their late 30s or early 40s for success and security that never arrived. By the time it was clear it never would, they were broke, and trying to start another career at a time when most people are heading into their peak earnings years. And the slow crushing of hope over a process of decades often did something tragic to their souls.

Professional sports also runs on the tournament model, but with one key difference: athletes find out pretty early that they're not going to make it -- early enough to still have a basically normal life doing something else. As the time it takes to get a PhD has stretched out, academia is looking less and less like athletics, and more and more like the theater. The students would be much better off if they were weeded out earlier, in the application process for PhD programs. A substantial fraction -- maybe the majority -- of PhD programs really shouldn't exist.

But of course, this is sayng that universities, and tenured professors, should do something that is radically against their own self-interest. That constant flow of grad students allows professors to teach interesting graduate seminars while pushing the grunt work of grading and tutoring and teaching intro classes to students and adjuncts. It provides a massive oversupply of adjunct professors who can be induced to teach the lower-level classes for very little, thus freeing up tenured professors for research.

It's hard to see any alternative to fix the problem, however. The fundamental issue in the academic job market is not that administrators are cheap and greedy, or that adjuncts lack a union. It's that there are many more people who want to be research professors than there are jobs for them. And since all those people have invested the better part of a decade in earning their job qualifications, they will hang around on the edges of academia rather than trying to start over. Such a gigantic glut of labor is bound to push down wages and working conditions.

Unfortunately, I'm essentially arguing that professors ought to, out of the goodness of their heart, get rid of their graduate programs and go back to teaching introductory classes to distracted freshman. Maybe they should do this. But they're not going to.

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