Chris Blattman

“How academia resembles a drug gang”

What you have is an increasing number of brilliant PhD graduates arriving every year into the market hoping to secure a permanent position as a professor and enjoying freedom and high salaries, a bit like the rank-and-file drug dealer hoping to become a drug lord.

To achieve that, they are ready to forgo the income and security that they could have in other areas of employment by accepting insecure working conditions in the hope of securing jobs that are not expanding at the same rate.

Because of the increasing inflow of potential outsiders ready to accept this kind of working conditions, this allows insiders to outsource a number of their tasks onto them, especially teaching, in a context where there are increasing pressures for research and publishing. The result is that the core is shrinking, the periphery is expanding, and the core is increasingly dependent on the periphery.

See full blog post by Alexandre Afonso.

A similar but less intelligent critique of the system in the New York Times last week.

Sounds to me like this is a market where students and science benefit, at the expense of PhD students. i.e. a well functioning market.

Easy for me to say, however, since (1) I’m in a field where my PhD offers outside jobs, and (2) I made it to the insider group (or, well, on the insider track, as I’m not tenured yet).

Even so, when I was a PhD student myself at Berkeley, and heard how just a third history PhDs get academic jobs (despite Berkeley arguably having the best program in the world), my first thought was not “this is unfair” but “what the hell are these PhD students doing?”

It’s a little hard to say the wool is pulled over their eyes when at the same time they are being trained to be critical and well-informed scientists of social systems. The Afonso post is not doing that (the NYT article is) and the former is worth reading.

3 Responses

  1. As an undergrad, I would like to chime in and back up the two previous commentators who question whether students benefit from the structure of the market. It is a consensus among undergrads at my school that classes not taught by “real professors” are to be avoided whenever possible. This is purely anecdotal, of course, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario when students benefit from less interaction with the highest-ranking academics at their institution.

  2. Chris: please elaborate on why you think the academic labor market is working for students (undergraduates, I assume) and science. I can’t see how you reached this conclusion from the facts you presented.

    (I don’t think the costs savings are being converted into lower tuition…)

    And then, you imply that aspiring social scientists, who are no fools, are joining this market voluntarily, so they are not being exploited. If so many interested parties (i.e. undegrads, science, and tenured professors) benefit from this system, and aspiring soc scientists are up for it, why did it take so long to get established, and what is preventing it from evolving towards a more extreme form of dualism even faster?

  3. If you think that the way the academic job market works is good for science, please see:

    Mangala Subramaniam, Robert Perrucci, and David Whitlock, “Intellectual Closure: A Theoretical Framework Linking Knowledge, Power, and the Corporate University,” Critical Sociology (December 2012), doi:10.1177/0896920512463412.

    If you think students benefit, see:

    Karen Thompson, “Contingent Faculty and Student Learning: Welcome to the Strativersity,” New Directions for Higher Education 2003, no. 123 (2003): 41–47, doi:10.1002/he.119.

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