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.