Have you ever noticed how the academic job market is structured like a drug gang?
This is the premise of a blog by Alexandre Afonso, lecturer in comparative politics at King’s College London, on the London School of Economics’ Impact of Social Sciences blog.
The best-selling economics book Freakonomics has a chapter called “Why drug dealers still live with their moms”, Dr Afonso explains, which concludes that the income distribution within gangs is “extremely skewed in favor of those at the top, while the rank-and-file street sellers earned even less than employees in legitimate low-skilled activities, let’s say at McDonald’s”.
“If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and [in] such dreadful working conditions,” he says.
The reason, of course, is “the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions”, the blog says. “Rank-and file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing.”
So how does this compare to academia? “The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang,” Dr Afonso continues, “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)”, there are similar dynamics at play, he says.
“Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent 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.” He describes the increasing number of PhD graduates as “a bit like the rank-and-file drug dealer hoping to become a drug lord”.
“Because of the increasing inflow of potential outsiders ready to accept [these] kinds of working conditions, this allows insiders to outsource a number of their tasks onto them, especially teaching, in a context where there are increasing pressures for research and publishing,” he concludes. “The result is that the core is shrinking, the periphery is expanding, and the core is increasingly dependent on the periphery.”
In a letter published beneath the blog, Francois van Schalkwyk, a researcher on the University of Cape Town’s OpenUCT programme, questions whether all PhD students were intent on university careers. “It would be useful to know what proportion of PhDs are employed in other sectors outside of academia,” he says.
The blog provoked a response on Twitter. Andrej Nosko (@andrejnosko), senior programme manager at the Think Tank Fund in Hungary, warns: “Thinking of doing PhD to improve your job prospects? Read this first and think again.”
John Bates (@MrJohnBates), senior lecturer in the School of Law at Northumbria University, takes a more light-hearted view, asking whether the academia/drug gang comparison stemmed from “the moreish nature of crystal REF?”, while Jim Fowler (@Jim_Fowler1) suggests that initiation to academic roles might soon include “a vicious beating from established members”.
Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to firstname.lastname@example.org