*Good Work if You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia*

That is the new Jason Brennan book, just out yesterday, here is a summary:

This candid, pull-no-punches book answers questions big and small, including

• Should I go to graduate school—and what will I do once I get there?
• How much does a PhD cost—and should I pay for one?
• What kinds of jobs are there after grad school, and who gets them?
• What happens to the people who never get full-time professorships?
• What does it take to be productive, to publish continually at a high level?
• What does it take to teach many classes at once?
• What does it take to succeed in graduate school?
• How does “publish or perish” work?
• How much do professors get paid?
• What do search committees look for, and what turns them off?
• How do I know which journals and book publishers matter?
• How do I balance work and life?

This realistic, data-driven look at university teaching and research will make your graduate and postgraduate experience a success.

Here is my blurb:

“In Good Work If You Can Get It, Jason Brennan tells it like it is. You will get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This is the one book to read about trying to become a professor.”

Self-recommended.  And here is Bryan Caplan’s excellent review.

Comments

Work-life balance is the greatest gift that nature has ever bestowed on Coastal areas where mountain sights are invaluable and brine--breeze is inelastic.

Every square mile on this earth has beautiful vistas and wonderful gifts, bestowed on us by God.

Although in Antarctica you really do need a good coat -

les jours froids viennent, y necisito un abrigo caliente

I can give more succinct advice. Do a Ph.D. In Accounting or Finance. The end.

or Software

Does it fink out the details the importance of the proper mentor - and the connections one can provide, both inside and outside of academia?

Arms race. Not all can win. Life wasn't meant to be easy.

The blurb does not say a word about patrons, already revealing that this is not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Or how playing the patronage game is one way to get ahead after entering academia. The ivory tower may be confining, but smart academics know how to go outside it.

My advice via my dad: "Use some one else's money."

Additional advice:

Practice zooming and multimedia skills.

Get a copyright on all your content, if you can, so when you are gone the University will not be able to replay your classes.

Find a wealthy person to fund the "Center" you created and use that to extort the University to grant you tenure, Have them look at the money you brought in, and then claim you are a free good with no risk to them. And, you can even bring in more money in the future. And, if you play your cards right, you won't have to do any original research. Sweet.

Also, to be a male professor, you need to be pretty androgynous. I'm not kidding. Kind of an effeminate temperament and even morphology. I think that's why professors tend to be hostile towards men, especially young red-blooded males. They are afraid of them and resent them. They want them subdued.

I can't tell about the book, but Caplan's review seems to ignore what life is like at a baccalaureate institution where the research expectations are minimal -- but the teaching expectations are large. 200 hours per year? Maybe if you never give any tests or assignments and never grade anything.

As long as you exceed a rather low bar (“genuine excellence in research, high competence in teaching”), you get tenure.

How is that a low bar?

Does the book cover what really matters in academic hiring decisions?

For example, a friend spent two years in the Peace Corps in Ghana and fell in love with the people and culture. Returned to the states and studied African languages in graduate school, then decided to apply to a PhD program focusing on West African post-colonial literature.
Hearing this her adviser discouraged her from this line of study. My friend said: Why? I speak three West African languages, and am familiar with the culture having spent two years there as a volunteer.

Adviser: "you aren't a black lesbian"

Does that comment tell you something about her Advisor?

Honesty and pessimism.

She should have also have checked on the number of openings in "West African post-colonial literature". Contrary to what you might read, niche specialties like that are only demanded at a handful of elite liberal arts institutions.

Caplan, the self-described pedant, raises a practical question about hiring professors: why not hire a lateral (one who is already a professor some place else with a proven track record). I started my legal career at a large firm where hiring laterals was considered a betrayal of the firm tradition. The tradition was to hire right out of law school and train the young lawyers to be the kind of lawyers who considered themselves to be superior to lawyers in other firms. And in many ways, they were superior. And the working environment was collegial: for those who made partner, it's as if they belonged to a fraternity. In this environment, seniority was the main criterion for compensation and authority, which served to reinforce the fraternity and loyalty to the firm. This wasn't unique to my firm, as most firms around the country had the same tradition. Then it changed, and changed practically overnight, as raiding other firms for laterals became something of a sport. And it was driven by economics: sure, the volume of work and revenues spiked in the 1980s, but so did the starting salaries for new lawyers recruited from the law schools. The competition for new lawyers was so great that the starting salaries often exceeded what firms were paying lawyers with two, three, or four years of experience, which, when revealed, incited a rebellion. And the new lawyers generated losses (the revenues they generated exceeded their cost, and by a lot). Thus began the practice of raiding other firms for laterals with a book of business that could be exploited by assigning the new lawyers to the book. Thus, the end of the collegial environment and the fraternity, replaced by a blood lust (eat what you kill replaced seniority as the main criterion for determining compensation and authority) that continues to dominate law practice today. One needs a computer to figure out on any given day which lawyer works at which firm.

I suppose an economist would argue that eat what you kill is more efficient than seniority, as is the practice of raiding other firms for laterals. I don't know the economics of colleges, but I understand that departments are anything but collegial. My impression is that the role of the celebrity professor has become very important, in attracting tuition-paying students, grants, and donations. Celebrity professors are much like the law firm lateral with a good book of business. So why do colleges and law firms continue to hire so many with newly-minted Ph.D.s and law degrees: they are the equivalent to the army infantry, on the front lines, doing the grunt work with little if any personal recognition but essential to sustain the mission.

This doesn't correspond at all at my vision has an experience. In my field,
hiring is highly meritocratic, connections and network play little role, we try to read and understand and assess personally the work of our best applicants. At the margin, meritocracy is replaced by consideration of race, gender, etc. thing as related in doctor Cornelius post above.
In the humanities, there is also a meritocratic core, but with the role of racial/sexual and also ideological considerations much more important.

"tells it like it is": avoid cliches like the plague, eh, Mr C?

Just great. Thanks a lot, Jason, for telling all my competitors how to do it better.

My take: payoff is very dependent on field, no field is an unambiguously good bet, many fields are an unambiguously bad bet.

Academia is much more of a rat race than is apparent from the outside, and don't assume that you know anything about the production side just because you enjoyed the *consumption* side.

I actually ended up with a good job as the result of my PhD, but it was *not* a sure thing, and I know many very good people who went into some generic field like consulting or data science where their numerical skills were in demand but the specific skills they trained for were not.

Teaching at the college level is a very precarious job with low pay and very little security. Going to grad school with the goal of teaching is a bad bet.

In academia, teaching and writing papers are the job. Ed was like an athlete training full time for a sport he hated. If Ed just wanted to think about philosophy, he could have done so in his spare time. He could have held a better paying, less risky, more enjoyable job.

Perhaps, but if I were Ed, I would still try to become a philosophy professor. I would grit my teeth, follow Jason’s advice, and struggle to publish my way to tenure. Why? Because once I had tenure, I could spend the rest of my life doing what I enjoy – “thinking about philosophy” – in exchange for an upper-middle class salary. After all, if Ed doesn’t even like teaching or writing about his favorite subject in the world, how much do you think he would enjoy being a lawyer or programmer?

This is bad advice from Caplan. Brennan's is better.

First, the "upper middle class salary" is not guaranteed. Salary for entry level professors in the humanities -- the job Ed would actually be applying for -- is more like middle class, or lower middle class. Philosophy is not economics -- the pay is lower, the non academic outlets are fewer, the number of openings is smaller.

Second, it is unwise to make a long term commitment to working in a field where you don't like the part that generates the money.

The point of doing something professionally is to make your life *better* than it would be if you had a job you felt ambivalent about and merely used your skills as a hobby. Caplan's approach has Ed financing his philosophical thoughts by accepting a lower standard of living. Or losing several years to grad school without getting a worthwhile job at all.

As a graduate student, you are training for the Olympics. You are trying to win a faculty job. You will be competing against three hundred to one thousand people who are the best in the world at what you study. Your least qualified competitors will be impressive people with decent credentials. Your best qualified competitors spend all five (or more) years of graduate school teaching innovative classes, publishing papers in top peer-reviewed journals, networking with people around the world, and amassing a resume on par with or better than the resume of most currently employed assistant professors. They spend their entire grad school career training to get the job you want. If you want a job, you must not only be better than they are, but look better on paper.

This is not horrible advice, but it is exhortatory where it should be cautionary.

The economic observation here is that there is a lack of demand for impressive people with decent credentials. The market does not clear -- the impressive people with decent credentials end up getting a job in something else, at the cost of devoting many years of their life to something that doesn't pay off.

You can gussy that up as elitism, but there's a disturbingly random element as well. My friends from grad school and postdocs who got academic jobs were not obviously more impressive than the ones who didn't.

When I was applying for jobs, there was a night and day difference between organizations that actually wanted people (and were therefore thrilled to interview "impressive people with decent credentials") and organizations that only wanted to hire if they found the perfect candidate. Your life will be infinitely better if you focus on the first kind of organization and ignore the second.

Comments for this post are closed