The Academic's Roadmap

Bob Wright

Dear Future Professor,

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently.

The key to your happiness and (relative) success is to understand that higher education is not a meritocracy. There is no social justice in the Ivory Tower. Your pay and status will be a function not of your research and teaching acumen but of your intellectual pedigree, the consonance of your views with those of the people evaluating you, and your ability to not rock the boat.

First, never, ever question your “betters,” which is anyone who went to a more highly ranked Ph.D. program than you did, teaches at a more prestigious university, or has won a teaching or research award, even if it was not clearly deserved. Remember, this is a world where a professor can hardly publish anything, plagiarize a nontrivial portion of that, and earn an order of magnitude more than you do. She will teach one course every other year to a few dozen of the world’s brightest students, while you will, if you are lucky, pull a 4-4, with three preps, and hundreds of students, half of whom do want to be there.

Second, do not profess an interest, much less a competency, in interdisciplinary research or teaching as all that does is mark you as “not one of us.” Being “one of us,” or in other words displaying a good “fit” with your prospective future department, is key to getting hired on the tenure track. Be prepared to lie and pucker until your pants are aflame, your lips are chapped, and your nose is a much darker shade of brown than usual.

Why is that the case, at least in any discipline where there is no good outside market for a Ph.D.’s services? I once received a rejection letter from Big State U. that began, paraphrasing here, “congratulations, your application was ranked in the top 5 percent of all submitted before the deadline. Unfortunately, over 1,000 scholars applied to the position before it closed.” A decade or so later, with ten new books on my curriculum vitae (CV), the same school dropped me in the first round. No, the applicant pool had not gotten that much better, the professor who put my application in the top 5 percent the first time had passed away. Apparently, I fit with him, but not with the rest of the department.

I was also stupid enough to marry and raise three children, plus put a stepdaughter through university while I was still so young that the orientation staff kept trying to get me out of the parent group and into the student one. To do this without a tenure-track job, I averaged 70 hours per week—and I have “the receipts” on this—doing whatever intellectual task anyone would hire me to do. My CV and wallet fattened but each publication marked me as “not one of us.” After a few years, I gave up on History and starting teaching Economics—having taken a total of one economics class, “Women and the Economy,” as an undergraduate and of course none in grad school—and doing whatever business and policy related research I could find, which was a lot.

While economics departments, even some pretty highly ranked ones, often must hire whomever can teach, none will ever tenure me, even though I published in the American Economic Review and some other top econ journals. They are more meritocratic out of necessity but yet cling to a caste system worthy of Animal Farm: some disciplines, Ph.D.-granting universities, and dissertation advisors are more equal than others. In other words, they have a tenure pool and a contract pond, and the contract pond is good for me, because I am the academic equivalent of Carl Spackler.

About a dozen books and a score articles in, and a lot of media play—the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Fox Business—due to my expertise in financial crises, I managed after the global financial crisis to land an endowed chair, with tenure. It was, however, at a small college with the usual financial difficulties located “in the middle of nowhere” as my wife liked to say. Even then, I was not “one of us” and was never put into a department. I strung together a schedule teaching honors and capstone courses and filling in history, economics, and even sports management courses.

When a new regime and Covid came in, I said peace out. I then spent three years, the first two glorious and the final notorious, at an economics research institute fighting lockdowns and mandates. When a new president came in, I suddenly no longer “fit” again and was happy to take a teaching job in Economics just to get free of the place.

I’m now 55 with 24 books, scores of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and all the usual academic accouterments on my 77-page CV, and yet no serious job prospects. But this doesn’t have to be you, if you understand the world you want to enter. Scholarship and teaching are intrinsically rewarding, which is good because no amount of publication or teaching success will guarantee you anything. Get a Ph.D. from the best department and advisor you can, in a field where you best fit intellectually, and keep your record clean and your nose brown.

Photo: Adobe Stock

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