Explaining Academia: Egghead Economics

Another part of the answer to “why do profs believe their own bullshit?” has to do with how compensation works in the ivory tower.  Let’s talk $$$.

In my experience — so, yeah, this is anecdotal, but I have a lot of anecdotes — most professor types have no real world work experience.  Zero, zilch, zip, nada.  For the ones who didn’t go straight from high school to college to grad school to academia, the only brief stop on the tour was a resume-padding year or two at a nonprofit, or the Peace Corps, or Teach for America, or some such nonsense.

In other words: For these people, money has only ever come from one of two places

  1. Daddy; or
  2. The Government.

Is it any wonder why they have a hard time distinguishing between the two?  Having no experience with capitalism, it’s no surprise they don’t know the first thing about it.

monopoly guyNor can they get any experience with it in their “jobs,” even if they wanted to, because academic “work” by its nature lacks metrics.  Everyone who has ever sat through a corporate quality-control spiel (or followed a pro sports draft) hates the word “measurables,” but it’s a damn handy concept.  They’re an objective standard that’s used to determine compensation.  Academics don’t have those.

How could they?  Most jobs have actual outputs — mechanics have “cars fixed;” doctors have “patients cured;” even phone jockeys have “customers serviced.”  If it helps, think of professors like middle managers in a call center.  The phone monkeys* have to answer X number of calls a day, or per hour, or whatever, and that’s how you can tell how well they’re doing.  But how do you measure the managers?

Profs, of course, do have one “measurable” — papers published — and tenure committees rely on it almost exclusively.  But how much work goes into one of those things, and what’s the ratio between work hours and cash money?  For real-world jobs, the calculation is pretty easy — each phone call taken in X time is worth $5; each fan belt changed in X time is worth $15; a cured cold is worth $50; etc.  Obviously I’m oversimplifying the compensation process quite a bit, but we all understand that there’s at least some math in play, and that the ratios are at least kinda reasonable — even the best customer service guy in the history of the world isn’t going to get paid $500,000 a year to do it, and even the world’s worst (competent) doc isn’t going to work for $7.50 an hour.**

In other words, working joes understand that a direct, at-least-theoretically measurable relationship exists between “time spent using one’s job skills” and “the size of one’s paycheck.”  Academics don’t.

sQzKNnLet’s look at it from the back end. (I know, I know, I really should stop that).  Instead of trying to figure out how much work goes into getting a paper published, let’s start at the beginning, and measure, if we can, all the work that goes into getting into position to publish in the first place.  Let’s look at the becoming-a-professor process, and see if we can’t put a dollar figure on that.

First you have to go to graduate school, in which you have three interrelated objectives

  1. Finish your coursework
  2. Pass your comprehensive exams
  3. Write your thesis

Coursework, at least, has a number attached to it.  Most Humanities PhDs end up taking somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-100 credit hours’ worth of courses, split up between core courses in a specific field, ancillary requirements like foreign languages, and “thesis hours” for writing (these count as credit hours even though you don’t actually attend class in most cases).  An “hour” is exactly that – one credit hour equals one hour of your butt in a classroom chair.

In other words, getting your PhD requires about as much classroom time as a tough work week out in the real world, but spread out over five or six years.  Are you starting to see the problem?

It’s not all butt-in-seat, of course.  But that’s where things start getting really fuzzy.  A typical humanities course is a 3-hour seminar which meets once a week.  The typical workload — “homework,” if you will — is reading a book each week, plus writing a 2-3 page response paper on that book (in theory, you spend the three seminar hours talking about issues raised by the book, and all the books tie together in a comprehensive overview of the subject).  There’s also the “seminar paper,” anywhere from 15-50 pages of original work on the class’s topic.

Go ahead and monetize that for me.  How fast do you read?  How well do you write?

Comprehensive exams and theses/dissertations have no hours attached.  They can’t.  A comp exam, in theory, tests the depth and breadth of your knowledge of a subject area, and that’s what those “response papers” are for (if you do it right, they’re all the study notes you need).  Similarly, “seminar papers” should feed into your thesis, which does require a lot of additional research and writing in most cases.

All in all, it is — or, at least, can be — a lot of work.  Problem is, it isn’t compensated work.  All that is preliminary to getting hired, at which point you now have two completely contradictory objectives:

  1. Teach class; and
  2. Perform — and publish!– original research.

Your paycheck bears no relationship to either of these.  Good teachers — as measured by student evals and the occasional classroom visit — don’t get salary bumps.  You won’t get tenure if you don’t publish, but you don’t get comped for your research and writing time in any routinely-measurable way.***  How could you?  Most research, lab sciences most definitely included, is a dead end.  You could luck into the exact thing you need your first day, or spend months wading through stuff and never find it at all (this is why R&D budgets are such massive sunk costs, and why so many tech companies have effectively outsourced all their R&D to the universities).  The only thing that matters is that you publish.

Everybody with me?  Input bears no quantifiable relationship to output.  Indeed, the only professorial activity that might kinda sorta have a mathematically identifiable relationship with your bank account is grading papers, and — here’s the kicker — you did the exact same thing to pay the bills back in grad school, for about 10x less pay.

Such cute little proletarians

What a deal, right?

The point, again, is that you have no idea what your labor is actually worth.  Neither quantity nor quality of man-hours worked has any easily identifiable relationship with your paycheck.  Nor does the quality of the product determine compensation, because how could it?  Free markets are great, but how much are Friedrich Hayek’s ideas worth?  What’s a fair market rate for three hours of, say, Tom Sowell’s cogitations?  Even published papers, the sine qua non of academia, don’t operate according to market principles — you don’t get paid to publish articles, and nobody gets rich writing academic books.  There’s no market, in other words, and so nobody ever has to say “no, no, my thoughts are far too valuable to sell to your journal at that price; double your offer or I’m going to the next publisher.”

And yet.. professors do get paid.  Handsomely.  And they’re lavishly compensated in other ways, too, as our friends at Harvard have so thoughtfully illustrated for us.  And that’s why Sowell’s definition of an “intellectual” (which is a pretty good tl;dr summary of this post, incidentally) is “one whose ‘work’ begins and ends with ideas.”

So let’s bring it all together.  You’re actually paid pretty well, but you have no idea that you’re actually paid pretty well, because “pay” isn’t really a thing in your world.  Money has always kinda just, you know, appeared, in the form of Daddy’s allowance, or student loans, or research grants, or your university paycheck, which you get for…. doing… .stuff.  Sort of.  You’ve never had the experience of asking for a raise, or negotiating a contract, or selling a product in an open market (indeed, there’s such a glut of PhDs relative to jobs available that turning down a job offer is almost unheard of; you take what the college offers and thank your lucky stars you got it).

Come at it from that perspective, and so many ivory tower attitudes start to make sense.  Why shouldn’t the minimum wage be $25 per hour?  Why shouldn’t there be a “maximum wage,” and why shouldn’t we just confiscate the “excess” money from “the rich”?  Why shouldn’t “health care” be “free”?  And why do our taxes keep going up, the more we vote on lavish government spending?

 

 

*No offense to phone monkeys.  I’ve been one.

**Obviously my comments apply to the liberal arts only.  Lab science professors tend to be leftists, too, but I have no idea why.  They work in very different conditions, and their work is testable, replicable, and often results in patents, some of which are quite lucrative indeed.  I have no idea how they get infected with the Social Justice Virus.

***Typically, you have to apply for “research grants,” usually from the Feds (further reinforcing the Government = Daddy equation).  The problems outlined in the rest of that paragraph still apply — you might get a grant for $5000, find exactly what you need on the first day, and bank the rest.  Or you might blow the whole wad and find nothing.  Grant size has no relationship, in other words, to even the amount of work you do, much less its quality.

 

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5 thoughts on “Explaining Academia: Egghead Economics

  1. sum sum guy

    Our “Egghead in Chief” is supposed to have said these very words…”I believe my own bullshit”.

    1. severian Post author

      Indeed he did! And he’s a perfect example. Pharaoh Choomenkamen’s “origin story” is murkier than half the Marvel Universe’s, but he is not known to ever have held a real job. He was a college student, and then a law student, and then a “community organizer,” and then a politician. (Even the one real “scholarly” book he was commissioned to write became…. an autobiography (and even that was probably ghostwritten by convicted terrorist Bill Ayers)). Nor has his wife held a real job — as evidenced by the fact that her very-well-compensated job in a Chicago hospital was never filled once she moved on to greener pastures.

      They’ve literally done nothing their entire lives. They’re the Platonic ideal of Affirmative Action. Is it any wonder they believe their own bullshit? Is it any wonder he’s a socialist to the core? His entire career can be summed up as: “Show up. Be black. Receive fellatio and a huge paycheck.”

      1. Gary

        Nor has his wife held a real job–evidenced by the fact that her very-well-compensated job in a Chicago hospital was never filled once she moved on to greener pastures.

        This is a major reason I find her so offensive. Ms Obama harbors a huge grudge against a country that is so discriminatory and cruel that it a) accepted her to Princeton, b) gave her a do-nothing job for (if memory serves) about $120K, which was bumped-up to over $300K when her husband became senator, c) made her First Lady of the land and d) continually heaps tons of praise on her simply for existing.

        I find her astronomical level of entitlement and ingratitude truly revolting.

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