Swallowing the Academic "Red Pill"

By now you have likely read the lengthy attack on the value of acquiring a PhD and entering an academic career in The Economist's end of the year issue. As might be expected, this has generated much consternation within The Tower, and garnered some excellent responses from within my own discipline. What seems to be missing from the discussion is perspective from the so-called "cheap, highly motivated and disposable labour" i.e., graduate students. To that end, as someone who has recently tasted and—at least partially digested—the jagged red pill that is entering the academic rabbit hole, allow me a moment to reflect on the decision.

To be honest, it is very difficult to argue with the numbers put forward by The Economist. The years immediately following college graduation are that most crucial in shaping an individual's lifetime earning. The ancient tradition of apprenticeship used to train graduate students is deliberately slow, which forces people to forgo these crucial earning years in exchange for admittance into an extremely exclusive career path. To borrow Josh's sports metaphor, the 64,000 PhDs produced in the United States each year cited by The Economist is at least comparable to the tens of thousands of individuals drafted into the top professional sports teams in the U.S. each year. The pursuit of a dream often begins with a massive opportunity cost, and just like the individual deciding whether to follow a dream to play major league baseball faces extraordinarily low probability of reaching that dream, and forgoing considerable future earning (first contract season for Minor League players in $1,100/month), so too does the college senior filling out graduate school applications.

Part of the problem for academics is the mythology of their career is not celebrated to an even reasonably comparable degree as that of the professional athlete. On my first day of graduate school one of my professors said, "Congratulations on being accepted to the program. While most people will not understand it, you have one of the greatest jobs one the planet. People are going to pay you to think, and I think that is pretty cool."

I think it is pretty cool too, and while at face value that statement no better reflects the reality of graduate school anymore than Summer Catch reflects the realities of the Minor League baseball system, it is an important to remember what an academic career is really about: to be one of the world's best thinkers, period. The original article attacking academia never considers this point, and rather places doctoral research as any other kind of on-the-job training. The fact is, there are very few people who will successfully navigate their graduate program and be hired as a tenure-track faculty, and even fewer who will go on to be successful academics. It is an environment where a very specific set of goals blended with unique intellectual, interpersonal and labor skills are needed to flourish, not unlike many other highly specialized careers.

Fortunately, like other highly specialized careers, it easy to recognize whether your own goals and skills exists at some sufficient intersection with what the academy expects. Having sat at this desk for countless hours considering my own career path, here are a few questions I have found most valuable upon reflection:

  • Do you love school? - To be clear, this is not the same question as, "Do you love learning?" Learning, for the most part, is either accomplished as the result of a natural ability, or a force of will. Schools and universities, on the other hand, are the institutions established to train and judge your qualifications to become a member of academia. It is both highly flawed and extremely difficult to change. Success in graduate school is as much about appreciating the system as is it working in it.
  • Do you care about money? - Recall that the pursuit of a doctoral degree is a massive opportunity cost. Are you prepared to pay it? All things being equal, having a PhD will make you poorer in the long run, so if you care about money then do not waste your time. You make money by earning it, and the currency paid in graduate school is not money.
  • Is your life adherent to a timeline? - Do you have personal goals on a calendar? Something like, "I want to be married by 20XX, and have children Y years later." Despite the popular notion that an academic life comes with unmatched freedom, it is in fact a heavily structured system. The apprenticeship is about devotion to that system, which often means delaying many other life goals.
  • Do you want your work to end? - Professional scholarship is a completely immersive existence. Your work never ends, and at least ostensibly everything you do is about building your academic footprint. The specifics of this differ among disciplines, but the point is your work goes with you, everywhere. This is not the same as having a smart phone the "tethers" you to the office. Smart phones can be turned off, but the presence of the unending productive expectations of academia cannot.

While the comparisons to Major League Baseball and The Matrix are meant to be fun, they also highlight the true uniqueness of academia as an employment choice; one that is almost impossible to appreciate from the outside. The Economist provides a disservice by attempting to place it in the context of every other type of work as a means to diminish its value. For the dreamers, it can be the most challenging, rewarding, and satisfying experience imaginable, and there are no economic or social implications that could ever change that.