The life of the mind

By Megan McArdle

Arnold Kling writes:


My tip on becoming a successful academic is to be careful how you define success. Any tenured professor has a great life by most standards. However, the default sentiment in academia is bitter jealousy. The folks at lower-tier schools think they belong at top-20 schools, the folks at other top-20 schools think they belong at Harvard, and the folks at Harvard think that they deserve more recognition than the other folks at Harvard.

Once you get on the ego treadmill, not only do you become bitter, but you have to start viewing others not for their intrinsic qualities but for their usefulness as stepping stones. If you can stay off of the ego treadmill, then success becomes more a matter of being near friends and living in an area with the type of amenities you prefer.



In my experience, this is true; relative to other professions, professors don't seem to be having much fun. Everyone in any job has their list of jerks who don't deserve the success they've had, jobs they wish they'd gotten, and amenities they wish their job had. But for many academics, those lists seem to be the bitter cornerstone of their professional lives. I've never seen a group of people--including investment bankers--more obsessed with status.

I could be suffering from sample bias, or my own blinkered prejudices, but I'm hardly the only one to point this out, so let's assume that I'm on to something. What's the explanation? I can think of several:

1) The money is so low relative to the professions they might have gone into. Journalists also suffer from this bitterness. Interestingly, the more lucrative their current options are, the less bitter the professors seem to be--economists and engineers seem relatively cheerful compared to English and History professors.

2) It's so easy to tell exactly where you rank in the academic hierarchy. Well, I don't find it easy, but they all seem to. Unless you're very near the top, your ranking is reinforced every time you attend any sort of professional event. If you are near the top, you promptly switch to wondering why you're paid less than an entry level investment banking analyst.

3) It's so hard to switch jobs. Job mobility is so low that you can't salve your ego by telling yourself that your current job is merely a waystop en route to something better.

4) Academics have few alternative status hierarchies Getting tenure is an all consuming process that leaves very little time for developing other hobbies. And the job virtually definitionally does not attract the kind of people who will be happy putting their career on a back burner to family or lifestyle.

5) Academics have virtually no control over where they live They usually seem to go where the best job is, regardless of whether or not the local area suits them. In many cases, this further focuses them inward on academia, because there aren't all that many other people around who share their interests.

Those are just my guesses; academics among my readers are encouraged to offer more.

Update One commenter makes an important point: it's all terribly zero sum. Any article a colleague gets into a good journal is one less slot for your articles; any good tenure-track job secured by a friend is one less job you an apply to. All industries involve competition for market share, of course, but few have such a fixed supply of both jobs and customers.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2008/04/the-life-of-the-mind/3296/