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.

Remote Work vs Employer Power: Why I’m Not Sweating Tenure

When there’s only one employer in town who hires for jobs like yours, they have labor-market power, and can pay less and have worse working conditions than a competitive firm would. Economists call this “labor market monopsony” but I like the term “employer power”, which is simpler and makes sense when there are a few employers as well as when its literally just one. This keeps down the wages of machinists at the only factory in town, nurses at the only hospital in town, and professors at the only university in town.

Of course, workers in this situation could always move and get a better job elsewhere, and this does put some limits on employer power, but many workers have strong preferences to stay in their home, which means the balance of power is with the employers- or at least, it has been.

The growth of remote work means that workers can get jobs all over the world (or at least all over nearby time zones) without having to leave their town. Which means that monopsony is over, at least for jobs where remote work is possible.

I’m going up for tenure at my college soon, meaning that by next June they will tell me either that I have a job for life or that I’m fired. This “up or out” system naturally causes a lot of anxiety for professors. Partly this is because many professors’ identities are wrapped up in our jobs to an unnecessary and unhealthy extent, and so we take it as a judgement on our worth as human beings. But partly there was always the very practical problem that failing tenure almost certainly meant you would either need to move, accept a substantially worse job, or both.

The thinness of the academic labor market means that unless you live in a major city, its probably the case that no university nearby is hiring tenure-track academics in your subfield this year; and even if you are in a major city, there are probably only 2-3 searches in your field, and they will be so competitive that you almost certainly won’t get the job. To have a real chance at another good academic job, people need to apply nationwide (when I got my first job I sent out 120 applications all over the country to get 1 offer). Getting another job locally generally means taking a job with much worse pay, worse conditions, or both- like high school teacher, adjunct professor, or entry-level business analyst. Those in relatively practical fields like economics were able to get decent jobs outside of academia (PhD economists in private sector and government jobs typically earn better salaries than academics, at the cost of working more hours with less freedom), but such jobs were plentiful only in a few major cities (DC, SF, NYC, Boston), which usually still meant moving. Even in a mid-sized state capital like Providence, I don’t think I’d have an easy time finding something here- or I didn’t think so, until remote work became ubiquitous last year.

Now I won’t be losing any sleep over the possibility of losing my job next year. Partly I think my odds of getting tenure are good, but even a 1% chance of losing my job would have been worrisome in the pre-remote world. Now instead of worrying I just think about the huge range of opportunities in tech, finance, consulting, business, think tanks, and even government. Remote also addresses one big reason I ignored those jobs in the first place and only applied in academia- flexibility. I didn’t want to be stuck in an office 40+ hours/wk; I wanted to be able to pick my kids up from school. Now flexible hours and the ability to be evaluated on output rather than time spent at the office seem to be increasingly common.

To the extent that remote work puts a dent in employer power we would expect to see higher employment, higher wages, and fewer people feeling trapped in their jobs. We’ve seen all of these in 2021- quits in particular are at an all-time high, a good sign that workers don’t feel trapped- though much this could simply be due to the rapid economic recovery. The real test will come when we see how much this is sustained past the initial recovery, and whether it is mainly in remote-able jobs or is a broad improvement.