Is an Academic Career Still Worth It?

Being a professor is still great, but the alternatives are getting better fast.

I’m glad I started a PhD in 2009; I wanted to learn more economics and the opportunity cost was low, with the worst job market in a generation. When I went on the job market in 2013, I still thought academia was such a clear favorite that I didn’t even apply to private-sector or government jobs. I wanted to teach, yes, but above all I wanted freedom- the freedom to choose my own research topics, to think deeply, to not have a boss, to not spend 40+ hours every week in an office.

It’s easy to find essays about how academic jobs are terrible, or at least much worse than they used to be. To me, being a tenure-track academic is still great work if you can get it, for all the reasons Bryan Caplan explains here. But I do think the quality of the job is standing still while the alternatives get better. The academic superiority that seemed obvious to me in 2009 and 2013 no longer seems obvious in 2021, due to three big changes:

Higher Demand: The demand for workers with quantitative and/or programming abilities has never been higher. My impression is that now anyone with the ability to do a PhD in a quantitative subject could be making six figures in tech, data science, or finance within a few years if they set their mind to it. Of course, this is simply a difference of degree; its always been the conventional wisdom that you could make more money outside of academia. The gap seems to be growing now, but to me the more important change is

Remote Work: Quality, high-paying remote jobs have gone from rare in 2019 to common today, which is a game-changer for many decisions, including academic vs non-academic. Perhaps the worst part of an academic career is that it forces everyone to move- getting a PhD usually requires moving, and getting your first academic job almost certainly does. This is a huge cost for those who value family and community, a cost many people are unwilling to pay. In 2014 my wife’s career had just brought us to New Orleans, but the closest tenure-track job offer I had was a thousand miles away at Creighton University in Omaha. I took the job and spent the next three years flying back and forth, partly because I wanted to be in academia, but partly because there were no good private sector or government options for an Econ PhD in New Orleans either at the time. Back then the private sector and government economist jobs were plentiful but generally meant moving to one of a few cities (DC, NYC, SF, Boston) and spending all day in an office, so I ignored them. Today I wouldn’t.

Campus vs The Internet: So the practical side of non-academic jobs is getting better, but what about the life of the mind? When I first went to college I loved taking classes in new subjects and going to the events and seminars that were always happening on campus, and part of the appeal of being a professor was to be able to keep doing that. In graduate school I liked attending the seminars where visiting speakers would present their latest research, and hoped to get a job at research-oriented university where I could keep doing that. But these benefits of being on campus don’t seem so important anymore. Partly its that I feel too busy to take advantage of them; most of the time there’s a speaker on campus talking about something cool like a new translation of the Odyssey, I’m either catching up on work or home with my kids. But mostly the internet means this sort of thing is available to everyone all the time. I may have missed Emily Wilson’s talk at my campus but I heard her on Conversations with Tyler. I’m not at an R1 school with scholars in my field presenting new research every month, but there are now more great research seminars online than I have time to watch. The Internet makes it increasingly easy for anyone with the motivation to participate in the life of the mind regardless of where they live or what their job is- certainly as consumers, and in a future post I’ll highlight the increasingly impressive scholarly production coming from non-academics.

Academia as tax shelter

A very brief story:

My advisor was Laurence Iannaccone, student of Gary Becker, seminal and in many ways founding contributor to the economic study of religion, now of Chapman University. His observation is a common one in academia, a point of pride for some even, though that varies greatly by discipline, as does their market options outside of the academy. And, yes, flexible work schedules, post-tenure job security, and sometimes picturesque campuses all should be counted towards the total compensation of those fortunate enough to secure a faculty appointment. But the power of the observation goes far beyond proper labor market accounting.

As I find so often to be the case, there is good sociology to be done, but the best first step in doing so is a little bit of economics. To wit:

The academy is, on average, considerably to the left of the population at large. Now this difference, mind you, is grossly exaggerated by your typical right-wing windbag who seems to think that universities begin and end in the English department, but the difference remains. So why would your typical economics, chemistry, or architecture professor tend to be left of the popular center? Well, if the median self-identified lefty got to choose the federal and state tax rates, what would they be? Ok, and how much of that will I have to pay out of my non-pecuniary income? Until they figure out how to tax the thrill of pursuing my own self-determined research agenda, not very much. Taxes are cheap when half of your compensation is non-pecuniary.

The academy is a club.

Scratch that.

The academy is a hierarchy of nested clubs. Which means that we often suffer from exclusionary FOMO akin to fourth tier English gentry trying to marry off five daughter in the early 19th century. Membership in those clubs– those famed research groups, donor-named centers, or even (god forbid) schools of thought — they become more than just sources of funding, workshop critique, and coauthor match-making sock hops. These clubs become the well springs from which ever increasing portions of our non-pecuniary income come from. They become our social networks, our friends, and even ,with a handful of co-authors you’ve gone into scientific battle alongside, a second family. The next time you see someone dig in their heels, seemingly denying the mounting evidence that they were on the wrong side of a scientific argument, don’t just blindly assume they are too stubborn and arrogant to acknowledge they might have been wrong. Consider how unfunded or, more importantly, how lonely they stand to be if they’re the first to give up the fight.

It’s why we covet tenure so much. Don’t get me wrong, everyone wants job security. But for most of us, the prospect of being laid off doesn’t necessarily include the possibility of being jettisoned from what you’ve slowly constructed as a separate parallel universe within which you have carefully curated the technical, educational, and social capital necessary to produce your career and life. If you get laid off from programming for Netflix, the next few weeks or months will be unpleasant, scary even. You may begin to doubt your ability or life choices. But that next job will come, and you will as often as not find yourself with a nearly identical life on the other side.

There are those in the academy though for whom this is all they’ve ever known. Bachelors, doctorate, tenure-track academic placement. Throw in a post-doc and that’s 20 years, and you’re entire adult life, in and around universities. Even if they’re from a field fortunate enough to have robust private sector options, how much will doubling your salary really soften the blow for such a person?

I say all of this now not as a critique of academia, or even to lead to prescriptions or advice. You want my advice? Fine, here: don’t go straight to grad school. Dip your toe in the real world, see how you like it. Come back in a few years with a little experience and distaste for office life. It’ll serve you well when your dissertation hits one of its many inevitable nadirs.

Rather, I invite you to consider this: what does the world start to look like when our utility comes less from the goods that we buy and the experiences we have, and more from the clubs we are members of? What does it look like when those clubs find newer and better ways to monitor our behavior and our expressed beliefs? What does it look like when the purging of membership rolls becomes a part of the culture of those clubs?