Is Academia Like a Drug Gang?

In Freakonomics, Dubner and Levitt wrote about how working for a drug gang is like working for McDonald’s. On LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog, Alexandre Afonso writes about how the academic labor market also resembles a drug gang:

Academic systems rely 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….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. 

Afonso tracks employment trends in the academic labor market and explains the “insider-outsider” divide: like a drug gang, academia is a place where there are eager outsiders willing to forgo other employment opportunities to become an “insider” — a tenured professor. This creates a dual labor market:

On the one hand, there are relatively good conditions at the bottom at the PhD level, and opportunities have expanded recently because of massive investments in research programs and doctoral schools generating a mass of new very competitive PhDs. On the other hand, there are good jobs at the top, where full professors are comparatively well paid and have a great deal of autonomy. The problem is that there is nothing in the middle: for people who just received their PhD, there is just a big hole, in which they have to face a period of limbo in fixed-term contracts (wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter) or substitute professor (Vertretungsprofessur) for a number of years, after which they can hope to get their first permanent job in their mid-40s, while this could happen in their mid-30s in the 1970s.

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  1. Scott Harmon says:

    I did not read the referenced articles so this may be obvious, but how is academia different than other forms of pseudo-closed partnerships/clubs (i.e., not open to liquid, competitive markets)? Law firms and private equity firms are two that spring to mind, as are guilds like plumbers or electricians where labor laws inhibit competition.

    Also, what explains the apparent shift in academia towards, dare I say it, more inequality between the have’s and the have nots? Why is more power concentrating at the top?

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    • Voice of Reason says:

      I think that with jobs (lawyers, plumbers) the barrier to entry are presented right as you get into the line of work. But with professorships, they seem great at first, but afterall awhile, you see the glass ceiling. But then, if you break the glass ceiling, you’re golden. At law firms, getting through a good law school is hard, passing the bar is hard, and getting a great job is hard. But once you do that, you guarantee yourself handsome compensation the rest of your career (it just might not be very fulfilling work).

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    • Mike says:

      It’s much easier for a lawyer to start his own firm than for a Ph.D. holder to start his own university.

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      • Voice of Reason says:

        Right, but hanging your own shingle out of college doesn’t really lead to a desirable career, and it’s not something that a blue chip recruit would do. Ideally, they would work for a white shoe firm, or at least a competitive big city firm, get experience, and then if they figured that partnership wasn’t for them, they could hang their own shingle with years of experience and legitimacy under their belt.

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    • Emily says:

      The difference is that with a law degree or a high finance degree, you may not get into the inner-circle decision-making club for a long time, but you can have a full-time, secure job somewhere in pyramid. With higher education, 90% (statistic estimated for emphasis) of the work force are part time or contract based. Adjunct professors can teach for indefinitely without any hope of a pay raise and no security about whether they have a job the next semester, because they have to reapply every semester or year. No one gets “fired” from being an adjunct, they just don’t renew your contract and in many places, you may not know for sure whether your contract is renewed or not until mere days before the term starts.

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  2. bob says:

    Totally not backed by evidence, but my intuition tells me one of the institutions that has proven most resistant to the expanding middle class is academia and higher education. More students in schools doesn’t mean more opportunity. It just means more outsiders under crushing debt while the insiders get to live more comfortably than ever. We need higher education for the middle class, not for academics.

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  3. RCB says:

    Interesting post. My guess is that Alfonso, after reading PHD Comics (such as this one: sets sail to prove a few hypothesis.

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  4. James says:

    I think this depends on what area of academia you look at. In science & tech (and I would imagime other fields where the skills are marketable in the outside world), only a small fraction of PhD seekers are all that interested in teaching jobs. Most will find work, either in research or in industry.

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  5. caleb b says:

    Top tier academia is also incredibly inbred. Went to undergrad at Harvard, automatically qualifies you to teach at Yale. Undergrad at Yale, come on over to Harvard. There is a rotation of about 8 schools and you need to have started at one in order to be accepted to any of the others.

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    • Phil Persinger says:


      Sometimes I think that Freaknomics will, just for laughs, post an article like this because of its incredibly narrow scope. I wonder if Alfonso’s view of universities is colored by the way British schools are administered. Certainly here in the US the profs have diminishing influence on university policy; the number and levels of faculty/staff are largely determined by the central administration and not by the votes of the drug lords/professors in a particular department.

      Everyone should keep in mind the (supposed) Henry Kissinger quote:

      “The reason that university politics is so vicious is that the stakes are so small.”

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  6. Joe D says:

    My wife’s department (at a large public research university) would love to hire more. Repeated budget cuts have meant, not only fewer hires, but often failing to replace faculty lost to death or retirement. They’d love to tenure more of their younger faculty, but those promotions get shot down by the provost (top academic administrator, reporting directly to the president). The academics themselves are not acting as gatekeepers; money is the issue.

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  7. NZ says:

    The premise of the title seems plausible, but especially plausible is its implied corollary: that formal education (the product peddled by academia) is like street drugs:

    -A small portion of users enjoy street drugs enough to make using them worth the negative consequences. For the rest of the users, street drugs quickly become a chore that stands in their way more than it benefits them.

    -Street drugs have a strong and ever-changing (actually, fad-prone) mythology swirling around them, with much expensive reactionary legislation being created (especially by liberals) as a result. (In fact, no snarky analogy is necessary here: both the expansion of the industrial-academic complex and the initiation and expansion of the war on drugs were causes championed by the Progressives.)

    -Street drugs wreak their havoc regressively, with the most disadvantaged people being hurt the worst by them and the most advantaged people enduring few if any negative consequences–and even enjoying some positive consequences–from their use.

    -Some street drugs become popular when others are cracked down on or threatened to be cracked down on (“losing their accreditation,” if you will).

    -There is virtually no consumer protection for street drug users. If they don’t believe they got a worthwhile return on what they paid for, too bad. The sellers can make out like bandits, frequently selling over-hyped sugar pills with impunity.

    I could probably keep listing these all day, but I have to get back to work.

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  8. Phil Persinger says:

    The problem I see with Alfonso’s analogy is that your typical drug lord is not a user him/herself– bad for personal productivity and for survival in an organization using the Klingon promotion system. Your typical professor, on the other hand, mainlines Very Big Ideas and snorts polysyllabic words at staggering rates without worry of another’s bat leth.

    A more fruitful analogy might be the university with the large corporation. In this game, teaching (as opposed to research) faculty are relegated to the place of the corporation R&D department. Research faculty = production; athletics = marketing; alumni = stockholders. Etc., etc. und so weiter…

    Laugh at the university’s product if you will, but it’s no more risible than boxed mac-and-cheese, collateralized debt obligations or lava lamps….

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