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.