How Academia Sometimes Behaves Like a Drug Cartel

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Nov. 29 2013 11:15 AM

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How academia sometimes behaves like a drug cartel.

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad.
Sweet, sweet tenure.

Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

It's the season of preparation for big disciplinary meetings—and for the job interviews that take place there. So once again—amid continued tight job markets in many fields—scholars will be debating why there aren't enough good academic jobs for new Ph.D.s, and the determination of so many new Ph.D.s to find the elusive tenure-track openings. Why, many wonder, do people even pursue Ph.D.s in the hope of tenure-track careers that are so hard to launch?

A blog post last week offered an unexpected idea: New Ph.D.s are behaving like those who seek to join drug gangs.

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“If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and at such dreadful working conditions instead of seeking employment at McDonald's. Yet, gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members. The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business: low-level drug sellers forgo current income for (uncertain) future wealth. Rank-and-file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing,” wrote Alexandre Afonso, a lecturer in political economy at King's College London.

He cites the work of the economist Steven Levitt and the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh in understanding drug gangs. “With a constant supply of new low-level drug sellers entering the market and ready to be exploited, drug lords can become increasingly rich without needing to distribute their wealth towards the bottom,” he writes. “You have an expanding mass of rank-and-file ‘outsiders’ ready to forgo income for future wealth, and a small core of ‘insiders’ securing incomes largely at the expense of the mass. We can call it a winner-take-all market.”

Then he turns to academe and finds very similar conditions. “The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small (unless you mark student papers very harshly), one can observe similar dynamics,” he writes. “Academia is only a somewhat extreme example of this trend, but it affects labor markets virtually everywhere… Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent on the existence of a supply of ‘outsiders’ ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail.”

While exact structures of academic hiring vary from country to country, Afonso makes the case that this theory applies in Britain, Germany and the United States, among other countries.

“So what you have is an increasing number of brilliant Ph.D. 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,” he explains. “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. In many countries, universities rely to an increasing extent on an ‘industrial reserve army’ of academics working on casual contracts because of this system of incentives.”

The post is receiving generally favorable reactions elsewhere online (with some noting that the situation is different in science and technology disciplines). But many are both praising the post and feeling frustrated. Comments on Twitter include: “Depressing but accurate,” “sobering,” and “This made me LOL and then cry.”

Via email, Afonso told Inside Higher Ed that he was not trying to discourage everyone from pursuing Ph.D.s. Rather, he said, prospective graduate students need to go in with a full awareness of the job market, and with plans to get the right mentors to help them. “I would probably ask them what they want to do with it,” he said of those seeking the Ph.D. “If they want to stay in academia, they have to know that the competition for permanent positions has increased tremendously, and they have to know that a Ph.D. alone is no longer enough when they arrive on the job market.”

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