‘Good Work If You Can Get It’

Author discusses his book on graduate school and academic careers.

May 1, 2020
 

Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia (Johns Hopkins University Press) is what its title promises: a guide to graduate school and launching an academic career. Not all of the advice (don't date fellow graduate students) will be welcome, but the underlying premise is that good jobs are rare today.

The author is Jason Brennan, the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics and Public Policy at Georgetown University. He answered questions about the book via email.

Q: You note the difficulties of getting a good job in academe. Why would someone want an academic job these days?

A: As the philosopher G. A. Cohen argued, the fact that the grapes are hard to reach doesn’t mean they are any less sweet. Being a professor -- even a full-time, long-term, but not tenure-track professor -- is a sweet gig, if you can get it. That’s one reason why there is such a high “supply” of would-be professors seeking jobs.

There’s tremendous variation in what professors do all day. Still, a good estimate (based on survey data) is that the average full-time professor spends roughly 50 percent of her time teaching, 40 percent of her time on administrative work and less than 10 percent of her time on research or scholarship. At many liberal arts colleges and community colleges, time spent on research is even less; at many research universities, the time spent on research is far higher and time spent teaching is far lower.

There’s also tremendous variation in the number of hours worked. Faculty at R-2 universities seem to have it the hardest (they teach very high loads, do lots of administrative and service work, and still have to publish), while faculty at other universities generally have lower hours. There’s tremendous variation in pay, with full professors at some colleges making $50,000 while assistant professors at others make $150,000.

Nevertheless, academic jobs offer lots of intrinsic and extrinsic benefits. The kinds of people who become professors are passionate about ideas, and being a professor means you get paid to play with ideas all day. Teaching is often invigorating. Serving as a mentor to students is rewarding. Many faculty believe they are serving various social justice causes. Others find their research intrinsically valuable; if it gets noticed and talked about, that’s an added perk. Faculty get to spend most of their day talking and writing about the issues they find most interesting with some of the smartest people in the world. On top of that, full-time academic jobs (if not adjuncting or temporary gigs) are relatively secure and stable and pay relatively well, compared to most jobs in the private or governmental sector. It’s good work, if you can get it.

Q: How did you find your fellow graduate students? Did they understand how to focus on making themselves employable?

A: In general, the survey evidence indicates that success on the academic market depends heavily on the reputation of one’s department, the reputation of one’s adviser, the quality of one’s writing samples and the impressiveness of one’s CV (especially in terms of publications). Grad students have significant control over those things.

Anecdotally, there seem to be two types of grad students. Some treat their Ph.D. as an extension of college. They want graduate school to be a time to stew and develop. Others treat it more like an M.B.A. -- or, to use another metaphor, they act like athletes training for the Olympics. The latter think strategically. They try to ascertain what their CVs must look like when they go on the market to have the best chance of getting a job. They engage in backward induction, trying to determine what they need to do year by year to make their CVs look the right way when they enter the market. These students appear to be the most successful in terms of getting a job. For that reason, I suspect they are in the long run less stressed and happier, though admittedly I don’t know of survey evidence verifying that.

As I make clear in the book, I am not endorsing the way academia is. Indeed, I wrote an entire other book (Cracks in the Ivory Tower) on the bad business ethics practices of higher ed. But the current book is about succeeding in academia as it is, rather than how it should be. So, I admit that having to act strategically can seem like a bummer. On the other hand, a Ph.D. program is largely an apprenticeship training you to become a professor. So, it makes sense to practice being a professor rather than to spend the time acting like a student. Professors produce original research, do their own teaching and are self-directed. Students do what professors tell them to do. If you were on a hiring committee, you’d want to hire someone who looks like a colleague rather than someone who looks like a student.

On this point, here’s my best advice to grad students about publishing (advice I got from economist Mike Munger): starting your second or third year of grad school, have three papers under review at all times, and continue to do so at least until you have tenure.

Q: Your advice on dating (not to date grad students) will strike some as unrealistic. Did you follow your advice?

A: Technically, I followed my advice. My last college girlfriend moved with me when I went to grad school. She did get a master’s degree while I got my Ph.D., but she always worked full-time in a “real job” and wasn’t trying to become a professor. So, she wasn’t the kind of grad student I had in mind. We’ve been together almost 20 years now and have two kids.

My goal in that section was simply to explain the two-body problem. You have a hard enough time getting a job, period, and the chances that you and your significant other will both get jobs in the same geographic area is even lower. Sometimes a university will hire both of you after they make an offer to one, but that is hard to manage even for senior faculty. So, while I am not recommending you break up with your grad-student significant other, I recommend expanding your dating pool beyond other grad students.

Statistically speaking, any random Ph.D. student has a low chance of getting any long-term job. The numbers work out as follows, roughly: for every 100 students in a field, 50 will actually get a Ph.D., 22 or so will eventually get a full-time/long-term faculty position of some sort, 12 to 13 (a subset of the last group) will eventually get a tenure-track job, and four or five (a subset of that last group) will eventually get a research-oriented job. These aren’t the overall odds, though. An economics student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who publishes a paper in American Economic Review might have close to a 100 percent chance of getting a research-oriented tenure-track job, while the typical student at the 125th-ranked English Ph.D. program might have close to a 0 percent chance of getting any full-time, long-term gig.

So, think of the two-body problem like this. No matter how strategic you are, or how great your CV is, getting a job depends in part upon chance. When you flip a coin, your chances of getting heads twice in a row are lower than your chances of getting heads once.

Q: You have published a great deal. Can you discuss your approach to productivity?

A: I want to preface my advice by saying that I have a plum job that makes research productivity easier. I teach only three courses a year. I don’t usually have many new preps. I have relatively low service work. If I worked at the typical full-time job, with a 3-3 load, five preps and lots of service, I would publish less.

That said, I still generally publish more than my colleagues with the same deal. And I published more in grad school than my fellow grad students. Much of this was due to organization and time management rather than talent. I was not the smartest person or the person with the most raw talent in my grad program.

In the book, I have an entire chapter on expanding research productivity. Here are some highlights, though the advice goes far beyond this:

  1. Prioritize writing. Figure out the time you are most productive and give yourself at least three hours a day to write. Try to write for 20 hours a week, every week. For me, this usually means I write for three hours in the morning before I do anything else. I leave class prep, emails and service work for when my brain is fried.
  2. Spend less time teaching. Most people overprepare for teaching -- they prep past the point of sharply diminishing returns. Ask colleagues for their lecture notes and slides or find them online (asking permission to reuse). In humanities or social science fields, you probably don’t need lecture notes beyond a few bullet point reminders, anyway. Have the students do class presentations and flip the classroom. (The ed psych lit finds [they] learn more from that than hearing you lecture, anyway.)
  3. Have multiple projects at all times at different stages. Work on one thing for a few days. Then let it rest and simmer in the back of your mind while you work on something else. When you return to the first project, you’ll have a fresh perspective and can see how to improve it.
  4. When you have a hammer, find multiple nails. Try to get multiple different papers out of the same body of research you have mastered, or try to find multiple theses you can test with the same data or research method.
  5. Look for holes in the literature: What are things people think are obvious that they never examined or tested? What is something your field takes for granted that another field challenges -- and what should you say about that? What can your field learn from cognate fields?
  6. Write first, read second. (I get this from Nobel Laureate Douglas North.) First write out a terrible paper with your big new ideas, then go and read the relevant literature, then revise your paper. You’re more likely to come up with something original and interesting -- or simply to write something, period -- than if you start by reading everything.

Q: You advise saying no to most service requests. Why?

A: For one, most service work is not worth doing, period, by anyone. Most committees accomplish little to nothing but consume lots of time.

Another reason is that for junior faculty, you probably will not be rewarded for service work. Your university should protect you and allow you to build your brand, to develop the portfolio by which they will judge you. If they don’t advocate for you, you have to advocate for yourself.

Third, you don’t owe your university your blood, sweat and tears. This is a job, and you are entitled to treat it as such. Find out how your university values service work and don’t do more than that if you don’t want to. For instance, at Georgetown’s business school, service for assistant professors is officially worth 10 percent of their merit reviews, though in reality (when it comes to promotion and tenure), it’s worth much less than that. For that reason, it’s reasonable for assistant professors to say they will spend no more than 10 percent of their time on service. If your university does not reward you for doing service -- or if they punish you -- then you don’t owe them that service. Of course, if you like it, that’s different.

I’d especially advise women and minorities to be cautious. Universities often want to demonstrate they are diverse, and so will invite minority faculty to do extra service on high-level committees, but then punish them down the road for publishing less than their colleagues who did less service.

Q: Any special advice for now, with the coronavirus?

A: The market will be terrible for the short term. However impressive your CV needed to be to get a job last year, it must be even better this coming year. If you are coming up on the market and don’t have papers under review right now, get them out.

I’m puzzled about how the virus will affect the market in, say, five years. On one hand, the longer the shutdowns persist, the more it will reduce the number of full-time and tenure-track jobs. Colleges will lose students, and so lose revenue, and so hire less.

On the other hand, there’s a kind of morbid positive benefit here, too. My biggest surprise when I started researching the job markets is, according to U.S. Department of Education data, that the number of full-time and tenure-track jobs in most fields, including and in fact especially in the humanities, has been growing steadily over the past 20 years. The reason the job market is so bad isn’t that the jobs have disappeared, but that collectively Ph.D. programs have pumped out new Ph.D.s at an even faster rate than the market grows. It looks as though many universities are or will be cutting the number of admitted Ph.D. students. This might mean that down the road, the demand for faculty will recover, but the number of students chasing those jobs might be lower.

Thus, this year might be an especially good year to go to grad school. But we don’t yet know which effect (the long-term reduction in jobs vs. the reduction in students) is stronger.

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