There’s a long tradition in the academic blogosphere (and the offlinesphere too, I presume) of complaining that academia is a pyramid scheme. In a strict sense, I guess you could liken academia to a pyramid scheme, inasmuch as there are fewer open positions at each ascending level, and supply generally exceeds demand. But as The Prodigal Academic points out in a post today, this phenomenon is hardly exclusive to academia:
I guess I don’t really see much difference between academic job hunting, and job hunting in general. Starting out with undergrad admissions, there are many more qualified people for desirable positions than available slots. Who gets those slots is a matter of hard work (to get qualified) and luck (to be one of the qualified people who is “chosen”). So how is the TT any different from grad school admissions (in ANY prestige program), law firm partnership, company CEO, professional artist/athlete/performer, attending physician, investment banking, etc? The pool of qualified applicants is many times larger than the number of slots, and there are desirable perks to success (money/prestige/fame/security/intellectual freedom) making the supply of those willing to try for the goal pretty much infinite.
Maybe I have rose colored glasses on because I have always been lucky enough to find a position in research, but there are no guarantees in life. When I was interviewing in industry, I saw many really interesting jobs available to science PhD holders that were not in research. If I hadn’t gone to National Lab, I would have been happy to take on one of those instead. Sure, my life would be different, but it wouldn’t make my PhD a waste of time or a failed opportunity.
For the most part, I agree with this sentiment. I love doing research, and can’t imagine ever voluntarily leaving academia. But If I do end up having to leave–meaning, if I can’t find a faculty position when I go on the job market in the next year or two–I don’t think it’ll be the end of the world. I see job ads in industry all the time that looks really interesting, and on some level, I think I’d find almost any job that involves creative analysis of very large datasets (which there are plenty of these days!) pretty gratifying. And no matter what happens, I don’t think I’d ever view the time I’ve spent on my PhD and postdoc training as a waste of time, for the simple reason that I’ve really enjoyed most of it (there are, of course, the nasty bits, like writing the Nth chapter of a dissertation–but those are transient, fortunately). So in that sense, I think all the talk about academia being a pyramid scheme is kind of silly.
That said, there is one sticking point to the standard pyramid scheme argument I do agree with, which is that, when you’re starting out as a graduate student, no one really goes out of their way to tell you what the odds of getting a tenure-track faculty position actually are (and they’re not good). The problem being that most of the professors that prospective graduate students have interacted with, either as undergraduates, or in the context of applying to grad school, are precisely those lucky souls who’ve managed to secure faculty positions. So the difficulty of obtaining the same type of position isn’t always very salient to them.
I’m not saying faculty members lie outright to prospective graduate students, of course; I don’t doubt that if you asked most faculty point blank “what proportion of students in your department have managed to find tenure-track positions,” they’d give you an honest answer. But when you’re 22 or 23 years old (and yes, I recognize some graduate students are much older, but this is the mode) and you’re thinking of a career in research, it doesn’t always occur to you to ask that question. And naturally, departments that are trying to recruit your services are unlikely to begin their pitch by saying, “in the past 10 years, only about 12% of our graduates have gone on to tenure-track faculty positions”. So in that sense, I don’t think new graduate students are always aware of just how difficult it is to obtain an independent research position, statistically speaking. That’s not a problem for the (many) graduate students who don’t really have any intention of going into academia anyway, but I do think a large part of the disillusionment graduate students often experience is about the realization that you can bust your ass for five or six years working sixty hours a week, and still have no guarantee of finding a research job when you’re done. And that could be avoided to some extent by making a concerted effort to inform students up front of the odds they face if they’re planning on going down that path. So long as that information is made readily available, I don’t really see a problem.
Having said that, I’m now going to blatantly contradict myself (so what if I do? I am large! I contain multitudes!). You could, I think, reasonably argue that this type of deception isn’t really a problem, and that it’s actually necessary. For one thing, the white lies cut both ways. It isn’t just faculty who conveniently forget to mention that relatively few students will successfully obtain tenure-track positions; many graduate students nod and smile when asked if they’re planning a career in research, despite having no intention of continuing down that path past the PhD. I’ve occasionally heard faculty members complain that they need to do a better job filtering out those applicants who really truly are interested in a career in research, because they’re losing a lot of students to industry at the tail end. But I think this kind of magical mind-reading filter is a pipe dream, for precisely the reasons outlined above: if faculty aren’t willing to begin their recruitment speeches by saying “most of you probably won’t get research positions even if you want them,” they shouldn’t really complain when most students don’t come right out and say “actually, I just want a PhD because I think it’ll be something interesting to do for a few years and then I’ll be able to find a decent job with better hours later”.
The reality is that the whole enterprise may actually require subtle misdirection about people’s intentions. If every student applying to grad school knew exactly what the odds of getting a research position were, I imagine many fewer people who were serious about research would bother applying; you’d then get predominantly people who don’t really want to do research anyway. And if you could magically weed out the students who don’t want to do research, then (a) there probably wouldn’t be enough highly qualified students left to keep research programs afloat, and/or (b) there would be even more candidates applying for research positions, making things even harder for those students who do want careers in research. There’s probably no magical allocation of resources that optimizes everyone’s needs simultaneously; it could be that we’re more or less at a stable equilibrium point built on little white lies.
tl;dr : I don’t think academia is really a pyramid scheme; more like a giant cesspool of little white lies and subtle misinformation that indirectly serves most people’s interests. So, basically, it’s kind of like most other domains of life that involve interactions between many groups of people.