Monday, October 10, 2005

Academia, meritocracy, and some semi-lame analogies

(I should really be working, but it's late at night, I'm tired, and I've got a mental itch. So I'm going to scratch it, and then try to load my brain with some final tasks to work on when I finally fall sleep.)

Political scientist and blogger extraordinaire Daniel Drezner was just denied tenure at the University of Chicago, in spite of a C.V. that, from my viewpoint as a layperson elsewhere in academia, seems pretty impressive for a standard six-year tenure clock.

Of course, at truly top-tier institutions, a strong C.V. is no guarantor of tenure. (By top-tier, I mean, roughly, a top-ten ranked department in a dynamic field.) To an outsider, this may seem like evidence that academia is somehow unfair or corrupt. Indeed, several comments on Drezner's post construe his tenure denial as evidence for a sweeping indictment of academic hiring practices.

In my opinion, this reveals a basic misunderstanding of the top tier of U.S. academia. This isn't an ordinary career track, where "everybody who's adequate" has a good chance at a job. Rather, it's a high-powered, competitive, elite profession, with a surplus of talented people competing for a small, relatively fixed pool of highly desirable spots.

In fact, the profession it most closely resembles is major league sports. To be a major-league pitcher, you have to be more than a merely excellent baseball player. You have to be one of the best players in America. This means you possess a combination of talent, focus, drive, and personal resilience which enables you to consistently perform, day in and day out, through personal and professional crises, at a level that outclasses all but a couple hundred of your peers nationwide.

How hard is this? Well, everybody's known some run-of-the-mill smart people in their lives: that kid you knew in high school who got A's without trying, that co-worker who's always got something clever to say, that wonderfully articulate blogger whom you enjoy reading, etc. Drawing on this commonplace experience, people outside academia conclude that top-tier professors must be roughly like the smart, bookish people they've known, only more so. This is like thinking that Barry Bonds is like the star of your high school baseball team, only more so. The truth is that there's a quantum difference.

In all humility, I submit that unless one has spent a few years inside an academic research community --- not merely taking courses at a university, but actually observing professors conduct their long-term research programs --- one doesn't truly know what it takes to become a tenured professor at a top-tier department. You cannot know, any more than you can truly understand what it takes to hit a major league fastball until you've seen it up close, from the batter's box, as it whizzes by faster than you can blink, so fast that you can barely believe it was there at all. This sounds incredibly elitist, but it's true.

Of course, in addition to possessing talent and drive, the candidate must be lucky, in a number of ways. For one thing, there's the lottery of life itself. The filtering mechanisms of American society kick in early, and operate mercilessly through the first few decades of your life. If you don't demonstrate some promise in high school, it's unlikely that you'll go to a halfway-decent college. If you don't show exceptional promise at a halfway-decent-or-better college, you probably won't go to a good graduate school. If you don't go to a good grad school (and/or postdoc, depending on the field), and do impressive research there, you definitely won't get a top-tier professorship. These filters are brutally selective, although you will notice from my phrasing that the earlier stages are more forgiving than the later ones.

However, this is hardly an indictment of academia in particular. Somewhere in America, there's a teenager who's throwing a baseball at a cardboard rectangle, and who could be the next Roger Clemens, but who never will. He'll never have the opportunity: he won't get the right coaching, he won't get scouted, or he'll simply be passed over for somebody who develops earlier and hence looks more promising when the scouts visit. This doesn't mean that baseball is especially non-meritocratic. It just reflects the general truth that it's inherently hard and expensive for society to establish a perfect meritocracy, which would entail maximizing the personal development of every single individual. So, we make do with a "good enough" meritocracy. We give most people (at least, middle-class people) a decent but imperfect chance, and develop "enough" talented people to fill the available jobs.

In fact, I personally believe that academia's much closer to a meritocracy than most other institutions in America. Your parents' connections and your personal wealth make exactly zero difference in your grad school app, at your dissertation defense, or during tenure review. Can you say that of success in business, politics, art, or literature? In our society, only professional sports and the military strike me as contexts where objective achievement drives long-term professional advancement to a similar degree.

Now, this isn't to say that random politics and backbiting can't cause some significant fraction of hiring decisions to go awry. However, in aggregate and in the long run, those with truly impressive research ability --- those who produce influential refereed publications --- will find secure positions somewhere. Academic departments, like professional sports teams, have strong incentives to hire people who can produce.

So, returning to Drezner's case: the question's not whether he's a brilliant thinker or a solid researcher. The questions, for a place like U. of Chicago poli-sci, would be much starker --- I'd guess something like the following:

  • If you listed, in order, the world's five most important active researchers in his academic subspecialty, would Drezner be on the list? What number?
  • Is that academic subspecialty one of the most important in our field today, or at least important enough that we want to spend a twenty-year tenure slot on it?

Hard to say, and certainly not something laypeople can judge. U. of Chicago's department didn't think the answers justified tenure. However, if Drezner's work is substantial, then I'd bet he still has a good shot at a tenure-track offer somewhere respectable. If not a top-ten department, then perhaps a top-thirty department; or, at an absolute minimum, someplace he'd have the resources to do solid work.

The situation's roughly comparable to the Yankees' choosing not to renew the contract of some outfielder who's promising and productive, but not (yet) All-Star quality. Why would they do that? There are many possible reasons --- some having to do with the player, some having to do with the particular needs of the team --- but that player will probably get signed by someone else. And if he doesn't, then it's probably because the few available slots are all taken by other players who look more promising. Sorry, tough cookies, but you didn't make the cut. Most people don't. Life is harsh.

p.s. Further random observations that I couldn't integrate smoothly into the above post:

  • On a personal note, just so you know where I'm coming from, I am a Ph.D. candidate at an elite institution in my field, and I'm 100% sure that I am not going to become faculty at a major research university. I've discovered that I'm not cut out for that career. I'm not bitter about it, since my current ambitions lie in other directions. But I'm not going to dismiss academia's standards as bollocks, because I've seen up close what it takes, and it's frankly astonishing. The tenured professors in my department definitely possess qualities that I lack. Among the fellow students I've known, those who have garnered tenure-track positions at even top-thirty departments are also extraordinary people, and also have qualities that I lack. And, if I may permit myself a moment of ego, I think I'm not a dumb guy, at least when measured against the general population.
  • I'm not implying that elite academic success correlates with intelligence alone. Nor do I deny that plenty of people are as brilliant as the smartest professor, but won't or can't become academics. It takes a whole suite of qualities to be a successful researcher, and intelligence is only one of them. Then, too, choosing a career in academia requires a perverse and rare set of personal motivations. Furthermore, experts in any given field can obviously have huge blind spots about things outside their field (and even inside their field), so I'm also not implying that we should view elite professors as an infallible, sacred intellectual priesthood. What I'm saying is that dismissing academia's system for professional advancement as corrupt, anti-meritocratic, irrelevant, etc. simply doesn't pass muster.
  • Incidentally, all of the above explains why I have little patience for conservatives who cry "liberal bias" because they know of some allegedly brilliant people who didn't get tenure-track jobs at top universities. I've seen this sort of complaint pop up periodically on conservative blogs and such. Beyond the obvious fact that anecdotes don't demonstrate anything statistically meaningful, being merely brilliant by the standards of laypeople doesn't mean jack in academia. Even mediocre Ph.D. candidates are probably "brilliant" by that standard. The only relevant question is: are you brilliant by the cruelly exacting standards of your academic discipline? Is your publication record better than all but a handful of the other candidates in your field, nationwide, of the same year? If so, maybe you have cause to complain. Otherwise, once again, tough cookies.
  • The employment picture obviously gets radically different outside elite research institutions. I'd guess that in some fields, there's so much surplus talent that some terrific candidates still can't get elite jobs, and even [Random Obscure State University] will attract terrific people. In other fields, the surplus talent is smaller (or siphoned off by industry), and [ROSU] will get... well, the leftovers. In those cases, even candidates who don't possess all the marvelous qualities I describe can probably get a tenured job somewhere.

    To relate this slightly to the point above, my suspicion is that if conservative intellectuals really valued educational careers, then they'd likewise have no trouble getting some kind of tenured position somewhere. (Blog cognoscenti can probably think of, say, a prominent conservative blogger who fits this description.) But that's not what most conservative critics of academia are talking about. David Horowitz doesn't bother to profile the faculty at [ROSU]; he profiles the Ivies, for reasons too obvious to bother elaborating here.

  • If I had a deep-down blood-and-bones hatred of the English language, I might have contracted the phrase "blog cognoscenti" in the previous paragraph to... no, I just can't write it. Gaaagh.


  1. I should print this up and just hand it out to all those people who have ever told me "But you are so smart, why did you quit ABD?"

    Mostly though, I tell them that if you are even relatively lazy, you are dead.

    Good post.

  2. Nicely written: this would be excellent reading for a lot of people who have near zero understanding of advanced university education and the academic job market.

    If you'd like a little intel on what the non-academic job market is like, I'm a CS Ph.D. that has been out of the "academic" side of things since right after my post-doc.

    Summary: "industry" has its ups and downs (especially with the various economic forces playing Rollercoaster Tycoon) but it's definitely possible to do good work and have a real life out here. You should know, however, that once you've become tainted with "industry", it is hard to go the other direction (of course, the same can be said for the transition in the other direction).

    Here are some of the things that I've written that have some relevance to my own history: your mileage will vary.

    Ph.D. not bad! Ph.D. GOOD!

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  4. This will be a minor point, but a point worth making. Having what it takes (to succeed in a highly specialized academic discipline) and being intelligent (as a general, partially genetic factor(s)) are two very different things. A meritocracy, in practice, involves being rewarded for the former, not the latter, so the kid who made all A's in your high school (or, more likely, the bored-as-hell kid who made all B's and C's but could out-think the kid who made all A's without lifting his or her pinky) may not be rewarded, or may not want to be rewarded, for his or her brilliance. Thus, when you say that becoming a professor at a top-tier school is "hard," it is indeed semi-wrong to attribute overcoming that difficulty to a gift of intelligence, or even talent or luck. Research shows, of course - if you don't mind quoting books that most people hate with a misguided but probably commendable idealistic passion - that most of those who have what it takes are those who are intelligent, but there are more than enough highly intelligent, underemployed, underutilized, underfunded people out there to make a distinction.

  5. I think you underestimate the importance of your subpoints concerning realizing the correct mix and disposition of faculty. The question really amounts to whether the candidate gives good coverage to the specialities. His pub record isn't particularly sweeping; it's not unusual to generate 20 or more papers before PhD for productive sorts, with 5 good ones in there.

    The second factor is that the meritocratic claim neglects regional factors. I would never move to Boston or Chicago or New Jersey regardless of academic fashion, for instance, and that is not uncommon.

  6. Erdos:

    Typical publishing rates vary greatly in different fields. Maybe in your field, 20 papers before Ph.D. is common, but that's not the case in all fields (certainly not in CS). Unless you're a political scientist or are otherwise acquainted with the norms in that field, I doubt you're qualified to claim that Drezner's C.V. "isn't particularly sweeping". The fact that Drezner was hired at U. of Chicago suggests that he was one of the best candidates in his field that year, yet his C.V. lists zero refereed journal publications before 1996 (the year he finished his Ph.D.).

    Second, correct mix/disposition of faculty is important, but the weight of that factor also varies a great deal. The larger and better-funded the department, the more it can afford to hire/tenure the strongest candidates regardless of specialty, rather than looking for the perfect subdisciplinary coverage.

    Finally, I don't really see what your last paragraph has to do with meritocracy. In general, the most productive people get the best offers; it seems to me that's the essence of meritocracy. If some people then turn down the "best" offers, that doesn't say anything about whether the system's meritocratic or not.

  7. This is an excellent summary of how the process works, and more important: what it's like. I agree that you can't really understand it unless you have been in it or observed from a ring-side seat (graduate students have these seats, so do spouses).

    I have a Princeton PhD and I got tenure at UM Ann Arbor when the turn down rate in the humanities was somewhere around 75%. The dean (no longer dean now) said in a public setting that they often denied tenure to people who should have got it, but that it was better to miss a good person now and then than to risk somebody mediocre. Which fits into your sports analogy nicely.

    Seven years ago, after fifteen years at high-profile research universities and two at a no-research-all-teaching school, I left academia of my own accord. People told me I was nuts to give up tenure at UM. At the time I didn't have any perspective on the matter; I just wanted out of the crucible. Today I still think I did the right thing, but reading your post, I am more aware of what I gave up.