Original post:Why Is The Academic Job Market So Weird?

Table Of Contents

1. Comments With More Information On Academic Hiring
2. Comments About How Things Got This Way
3. Comparisons To The Programmer Job Market
4. Comparisons To Other Job Markets
5. Proposed Solutions
6. Comments With Practical Advice For New PhDs

1. Comments With More Information On Academic Hiring

Several people pointed out that I described Devereaux’s graph wrong - for example, hammerspacetime:

Assuming the chart label is right, that’s not acceptance rate of people being hired, that’s the number of people being hired at each rank . . .the fact that the “Within Previous Year” bar is so high does not indicate that the acceptance rate for recent PhDs is higher. It just indicates that more of them were hired, which is not surprising considering it’s by far the most common time to go on the job market.

I’m sorry; I’d assumed the original post was giving useful information; as hammerspacetime points out, this is meaningless. See the rest of HST’s comment on academic CS here.

Other things I learned from these comments:

  • Colleges really are looking for “superstars”. The reason they don’t want mid-career academics who have proven themselves to be pretty good is that they’ve merely proven themselves to be pretty good. Most of a young person’s value comes from their 1% chance of superstardom; them ending out merely pretty good is just the consolation prize.

  • Adjuncts rarely “graduate” to tenure-track partly because they have a heavy teaching load, and doing good research is a more-than-full-time job which they don’t get time for.

  • Adjuncts rarely get hired by their own institution partly because of a principled comment to avoid “incest” and partly because adjuncthood is so low-status that the most likely progression is “adjunct at great college gets hired for tenure-track at much worse college”.

Many people made each of these points, and I’m only highlighting the first one I saw saying a specific thing, sorry. Here are the full comments. Warning: there are a lot in this section:

Diddly (blog) writes:

I’m an academic and I can point out a few factual clarifications:

1. There’s R1 (e.g., Ivy+, Stanford, MIT, …) and not-R1 (typically liberal arts) institutions. Tenure-track professors at R1 institutions are hired to do research and the teaching is incidental. It’s flipped at not-R1 institutions. I believe tenure-track professors teaching at R1 institutions is mostly a historical accident that got cemented into every part of the tenure/promotion/grant process so it’s basically impossible to change at this point.

2. There’s also STEM/not-STEM. As a concrete example, the top-4 CS programs don’t hire adjuncts in the way you think about them (e.g., Andrew Ng is adjunct at Stanford but this is just to keep him affiliated with the University). This dynamic is very different in non-STEM.

3. In STEM, the University puts in substantial resources to grow tenure-track faculty (startup packages go from $500k and way up).

4. Poaching does happen a decent amount. You just don’t really hear about it much because tenured professors have it very nice and there’s no need to complain about the processing.


There seem to be two obvious reasons why:

1. lots of people go on the tenure-track job market the year they get their PhD, so you get a big burst. Then are people who delay this for a year or two or three — it’s a pain to put together a TT application, but postdocs and one-off teaching jobs are often offered with just a cover letter. So you have two distributions; a delta function at “same year”, and then an exponential decay over the subsequent years — this is marking the time at which the applicant finally makes a first TT application.

Notice that this explains away the apparent “bias against experience”, simply by virtue of the fact that people choose to go on the market at different points.

2. People who are out of the market longer are seen to have a hidden variable (not being as good) that is serving as a signal.

For TT people, in general, they do not move from university to university very much; the standard thing is get a good job when you start, and then negotiate when you are up for tenure by getting outside offers. It’s rare to go on the market, and generally indicates someone who is at a low-ranked institution who wants to move up; those applications are less likely to be successful, since being at the low-ranked institution is itself a signal.

More generally, people would rather take someone who looks like Harvard would hire, than someone who (even if they look like someone Harvard would hire) definitely Harvard didn’t actually in the end hire.

As to the question why do people hire from outside when they do take people with experience: my guess is that academia is ridiculous and snobby, and it’s very hard to get someone to see an adjunct as a TT. They’re excluded (for example) from certain meetings and decision-making, and have less ability to negotiate for what they need, and people use that as a signal of actual quality. But it’s much easier to say ha, Berlin totally doesn’t realize that their guy is super good, we can get him, let’s do it.

An inside hire does occasionally happen (my institution is smart, and does this — it’s a great way to test the waters with someone), but it’s also quite clearly flagged as the plan ahead of time (we think this person is good, hire them as a VAP, but there’s a job coming soon…)


There’s another, more mechanistic explanation for why adjuncts who transition to tenure track faculty do so outside of their own university.

If you were to rank the university positions by prestige you might get a ranking which looks like

1) First Tier Tenure Track

2) Second Tier Tenure Track

3) First Tier Adjunct

4) Second Tier Adjunct

Adjuncts who get promoted one level up either get more prestigious adjunct positions or get tenure track at a lower ranked university. Getting tenure from the place you are adjuncting at is harder because it requires getting promoted two rungs up the ladder.


I’m a department chair at a state university (with unionized faculty), and have experience with both tenure-line and adjunct hiring.

When we hire a new adjunct, the pool is generally limited to people who are already in the area and open to more employment. Usually, in an adjunct’s first semester, we can only offer them part time work. This is partly because the collective bargaining agreement requires that we offer classes to any qualified current adjuncts before hiring someone new. For example, if someone retires, gets sick, or goes on sabbatical, I have to offer their courses to any qualified current part-timers who would like to increase their teaching load. There might be a course or two left over for a new adjunct to start part-time. It’s essentially impossible to offer a full-time position for a new adjunct.

In this situation, we can’t cast a wide net for candidates. We aren’t offering a level of compensation or security worth relocating for, and in many cases the need arises last-minute. So, we hire the most qualified person we can find locally, among people with the right credentials who neither got a tenure-track nor took a full-time job in industry. It’s often difficult to find anyone.

For a tenure-track hire, by contrast, we get a large number of applications from across the country and internationally. If one of our current adjuncts is in the pool, they will get the same consideration as everyone else. But the odds that they will happen to be the best fit out of that large pool are very low.

Scott Aaronson (blog) writes:

As someone who’s spent ages 15-41 in academia: you’re very far from wrong, but it’s also not as drastic as someone reading this might fear. Academia isn’t sharply divided between “Einsteins” who teach only occasional upper-level seminars, and poorly-paid adjuncts who teach huge numbers of intro classes. There’s also a large “middle class,” e.g. all the non-Einstein tenure-track faculty, which both does research AND interacts regularly with undergrads, sometimes even at the same time (at least in CS, lots of undergrads get involved in research). Maybe that just helps confuse prospective students all the more! :-)

(Also, agree with the other commenters that postdocs are now a huge part of the story.)

Incentives Matter (blog) writes:

On the point of not hiring from your own institution I have seen one senior professor in economics claim they would do this specifically for purposes of diversity in intellectual thought. They argued that on principle their doctoral students should get experience somewhere else and that they should try and get people from elsewhere so that the intellectual climate didn’t get stale. No idea if this if this value system is strong enough to override more base incentives, seems unlikely to me, but could be part of an explanation.


Assoc. Professor at major R1 “brand name” university here (~12 years experience). This is mostly right. A few things:

1. STEM is very different from non-STEM. Title is the same but there is little actual overlap in what the job is like day-to-day. I am in STEM and run a lab with 20 graduate students and post-docs. This just doesn’t happen on the “other side of campus”.

2. Superstar effect is a big explainer. People want Steph Curry, and are willing to fight over potential candidates that have that potential. Experience does not turn [insert middling player] into Steph Curry.

3. You shouldn’t think of it like you are locking someone in to a career path at the first blush. They have gone through (often) 10-12 years of college/grad school/post-doc by the time they even try for TT. Like it or not, potential is seen as at least somewhat baked in by the time they finish their PhD or post-doc. Remember, they are often nearing 30 years old at that point. In other industries this would be like a promotion of your leading 30 year olds into a management or leadership track.

4. Teaching is a small part of my job. Not going to give an effort/time percentage, but in practice it is low. This is why there are effectively “two markets” for TT and adjunct.

5. Adjuncts are treated horribly. Thankfully we have very few here (remember, “name brand” university). It just kind of sucks, and is very similar to “winner take all” dynamics happening more broadly in the economy.

Darji Grinbergwrites:

Adjuncts surprisingly shooting up several years into their career is a rare thing, not least because their teaching schedule (6+ courses a year not unusual) leaves them little time for serious research. (Of course, in lab-heavy fields, they face even stronger headwinds.) I think that’s the main source of the vicious cycle you’re talking about. Journal editors, AFAIK, don’t usually gatekeep much; a non-famous tenured professor and an adjunct with an .edu address have about the same chances of getting their paper in all else being equal. (Really big names sometimes get the “even if it is unreadable, there must be wisdom in it” treatment.)

DW (blog) writes:

Sports team analogy is probably even more apt here than Scott realizes, especially salary capped and contractually strict ones like the NBA. Just like in academia, in the NBA a rookie who has the chance to develop into the superstar is far more valuable than an established veteran who has proven themselves to be a reliable above-average player. This is true even if, on average, the rookies do not become above-average players. This is reflected on the trade market, where the #5 pick in the draft (which becomes a first-year player in the league once drafted) is valued more highly in a vacuum than solid rotation veterans, even if “solid rotation veteran” is actually probably the EV of what you get from the #5 pick.

There are additional wrinkles and dimensions to this, as rookies are also on a more affordable rookie scale contract, NBA players are locked up into defined contract lengths than is difficult for the player to exit early for other teams, etc. The limited free agency explains superstar inertia in professional sports - there are typically only a few defined windows in a player’s career where they truly are pure free agents. But “superstar inertia” I don’t think is very difficult to explain for most tenure-track academics. Unless you are in the true 1% of academia there’s a lot of disruption to uprooting your life and your intellectual networks to go somewhere use and the upside needs to be very high to entice you to do so. Given the natural geographic distribution of academic employers it’s not even like other working professionals job-hopping to go to the competitor firm down the street. And it seems to me that you do see the true top 1% of tenure track academia, celebrity public intellectuals etc., move around, though perhaps my perception is shaded by the fact that these moves are naturally going to be more newsworthy than random tenure track faculty moves.

And Steven Halesagrees:

So much hiring into the entry-level tenure track is based on buzz, and any university with pretensions is hoping they will lock in (even for a few years) the next superstar. They would rather take a chance on that than hire a solid performer 5 years out who would do a fine job but probably not become a household name. Some of this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; someone who starts their career teaching four courses a semester at a second-rate place with little or no support is trapped. Publishing your way out of that (no grant writers helping you, poor lab facilities, few good students or research-active colleagues, paltry travel funds) is like climbing Everest.

This sort of makes sense, but I’m confused by the “superstar” claim. Bret Devereaux is, in his own way, a superstar and a household name. He’s probably one of a tiny handful of academic historians I (and many other people) have heard of. This obviously is not the kind of superstardom colleges want; they seem to be going for papers in top journals only.

But why? Name recognition among other classical historians isn’t that useful; probably every academic classical historian knows every other academic classical historian, it can’t be a big job market. But if they’re going for name recognition among ordinary people, why not privilege the historians who have name recognition among ordinary people?

This is the same question I ask about George Mason. Many people have remarked on how impressive it is that they have Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, Robin Hanson, Garett Jones, etc, despite not being the sort of Ivy League school where you would expect famous people to congregate. The answer has to be that the department is selecting for Devereaux-like people with popular fame rather than academic fame. What tradeoffs are they making here, and have they paid off?

2. Comments About How Things Got This Way


“Supply + demand” and “weird path dependence due to historical circumstances.”

Maybe the most interesting book on the topic is Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (my comments are at https://jakeseliger.com/2010/01/21/problems-in-the-academy-louis-menands-the-marketplace-of-ideas-reform-and-resistance-in-the-american-university-2/). Basically, the academic job market worked reasonably well for would-be professors up until around 1975, when the number of undergrads fell (baby boomers worked their way through the system) but the number of PhD-granting institutions and programs continued to hum along. Since then, in most but not all fields, the number of PhDs has way outstripped the number of slots. When supply exceeds demand, strange things happen.

Tenure is the “weird path dependence due to historical circumstances” thing. Probably no one would set up the system the way it is today if one were starting from scratch. Tenure worked somewhat okay when lifespans were shorter and mandatory retirement hadn’t been struck down the Supreme Court (one old article: https://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/15/us/new-law-against-age-bias-on-campus-clogs-academic-pipeline-critics-say.html).

Schools, like many employers, will change when they’re forced to change (https://jakeseliger.com/2016/02/25/universities-treat-adjuncts-like-they-do-because-they-can/), but they tend to have a surfeit of applicants relative to jobs in most fields that aren’t things like computer science and electrical engineering.

The most interesting question is why people keep starting PhD programs that are designed to produce all-but-dissertation “students” who can teach classes for very little money, and adjuncts. Granted, I was one of them, at one point.

Maybe academia is the brainiac’s version of gambling in Vegas: likely to lead to losses, but fun in the moment.

And Okulpewrites:

Some of what’s going on is historical, going back to about 1950, when the Feds started throwing money at universities to do research. The NSF was founded c. 1952 b/c everyone realized that science had won WW II thus needed serious funding. The question was HOW, and we got a bastard version of the German system and our old tradition of colleges being for educating elite youth. Remember that many of the important scientists of WW II were German. There, all universities were research universities–there was no UG education as such–and their goal was to produce research and prepare scholars/scientists. They were supported by the German state, and departments were given budgets they could spend as they chose (and there was, basically, just 1 fully tenured “Ordinary Professor” per department, and he ran it, often like a fief. That was what US scientists envisioned after the war–fund the best scientists directly to produce the best science. But this met howls of protest from most US colleges & universities who feared all the money would go to the usual suspects, Harvard, Yale, Illinois (go Illini!), etc. And it was unAmerican. States urged the money go to states for allocation to their schools. The scientists howled – nobodies at places like the Southern University of North Dakota at Hoople would get, and waste, scientific research dollars. Bad Science would be done!! The compromise is what we have today is the result, anyone, even a nobody at SND@H, could submit a grant, and if it was, in fact Best Science, it would be funded. So, virtually every school in the US tries to be a research oriented school, not just for the prestige, but because of the sweet overhead money that comes in, helping fund student-attracting facilities like salt water pools and paying big money to sports coaches.

The adjunct vs. research professor divide reflects the old teaching-college vs. research institution divide in the US. If you read what the poor adjuncts write, they generally thought of themselves as teachers expanding and informing the minds of their students and did not want to be researchers. They suffer for pursuing their dream. Between that and high course loads, they don’t do research and so can’t transition to the main tenure track. They’d like to be paid well and have job security to do what they love, teach.

Top stars get hired (note rise in numbers for older faculty) when a university wants to set up a new field of study or some “center.” Then they go for an established name who will attract bright and ambitious folks quickly.

I’m an odd duck in this case. I wanted to be an UG teacher back in 1974 (my mentor said, “I suspected that of you.”), before the Federal money started streaming to my field, psychology. But there were no good jobs available then, so I took one at a comprehensive university that then got ambitious and shot up to R1 status remarkably quickly. So I had to get with the program and do research, and did get tenure, though I could not today, as I never got grants.

3. Comparisons To The Programmer Job Market

Several people pointed out a vaguely similar inefficiency in tech. There are two tiers: junior programmer (just starting, ~$75K compensation) and senior programmer (2-4+ years, ~$150K compensation). Companies rarely promote their own juniors to seniors; if you’ve been working 2-4 years and want a senior position, your best chance is to go interview at a new company. Why? People mostly speculated that the junior/senior distinction is reality-based; it takes 2-4 years to learn to do the most important tasks. The failure to hire insiders might be because workers aren’t on board with this distinction and would expect a more linear raise schedule. Why not make everything explicit, so nobody is surprised by the raise schedule? Commenters suggested companies try to obscure all of this, in the hopes that ignorant employees keep working for them forever at low pay. I still find some of this mysterious, but here are the comments:

Matt Swrites:

A similar phenomenon happens in the non-FAANG computer programming world. Junior devs get hired at something like $60-$80k, then within about two years are worth double that. But the company that hired them will never promote that dev to a $140k salary because it would upset the apple cart of all the devs making $120k wondering why they don’t get a 100% raise in two years, or anything close.

So the junior dev has to go elsewhere for that first big pay bump. Meanwhile the company hires an ex-junior dev to replace them, and happily pays them $140k. But no one leap-frogged anyone or got an out of place raise, so the apple cart remains placid.

I was confused by this - why are they giving some people a big raise after a few years, but not others?

Richard Gadsden (blog) explains:

Junior devs get 60-80, non-junior devs get 120-160.

After 2 years a junior becomes a non-junior. Someone hired as a non-junior doesn’t get a big pay bump after 2 years because they’re already on the non-junior payscale.

The problem is that because they don’t have proper explicit ranks and job titles, they can’t make it clear that they have just promoted someone from junior to non-junior and as a result people complain “why does he get 100% pay raise and I don’t, even though I’m as good/better programmer than him?” and the answer “because he’s just been promoted to the same grade as you and he’s still being paid less than you are” doesn’t work if you don’t have a coherent grade structure.

I was still confused - why don’t they just have explicit job titles?

Here’s Villam’s (blog) theory:

Information asymmetry benefits the employers. The employer knows know much all his employees are paid, and two employers can agree to mutually share their information over a glass of wine.

On the other hand, many employees have no idea how much their colleagues make, what would it take for them to make more in given company, and how much other companies pay for the same job. (Even if you try to figure out on internet how much someone in your position would be paid in a different company, different companies use the same words for quite different positions.) If they just have a vague idea that working harder will be rewarded in future in some unspecified way… that seems quite convenient for the employers. It is difficult to negotiate when you don’t have the data.

(There is a similar mechanism in other markets, too. For example, similar food is packaged in different sizes and shapes, to make it more difficult to compare the costs. This benefits the producers, and confuses the consumers.)

Related: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_discrimination -- as an employer, in a hypothetical ideal case, you want to pay each of your employees the minimum salary that will make them do the adequate job and not quit, not a cent more. If one guy is willing to work for N, and another is willing to do the same job for N/2, and both options are okay for you, you want to pay the former N and pay the latter N/2. A transparent salary structure would make the former guy quit (if less than N) or the latter ask for a raise (if N or more).

And AshLaelwrites:

I don’t know anything about coding, but this phenomenon exists in other sectors too - a bit of job swapping is often very helpful for getting promotions and salary increases in short time frames.

E.g. my wife is an accountant and managed to climb the ladder from part-time admin to CFO over the course the course of 3 years. Some of that was her being very good at her work, some of it was fortunate circumstances (i.e. a tight labour market), but some of it was shrewdness - she changed employers twice in that period (and almost did a third time, but got offered a big promotion to stay), when she sensed that her market value had grown substantially above what her current job was paying.

I think it’s an entirely non rational psychological effect, the “prophet is not honoured in his home town” phenomenon. You hired this person as X, it’s only been a year, you keep mentally categorising them as X. You don’t recognise the way that their capabilities have grown, and you kind of assume you don’t need to compete for the person you already have.


If someone’s salary rises x2 after two years, the people there for four years will wonder why their trajectory appears to be “flattening out”.

This has to introduce all sorts of inefficiencies into the market; when there are inefficiencies, there is usually someone benefitting. (“Where there’s muck, there’s brass”) I wonder who it is?

(Presumably, it’s the companies who have figured out a way to promote from within without this problem — e.g., by creating a confusing diversity of roles, hiding salary information in some fashion through benefits, or by having such a large company that people don’t notice because the person is transferred to another unit.)


This may depend on country and maybe I don’t understand it, but this is my best guess:

There is an important difference between junior and senior programmers. The former can work on school-sized projects alone (100 - 10K lines of code written over a few days or weeks); the latter can work on industry-sized projects in a team (10K - 1M lines of code written over a few months or years). The difference is that the structure of the larger program doesn’t fit in your working memory, so you either follow some system or the project collapses under its own weight: you don’t remember what you put where and how you were supposed to use it; or you change your mind later, but you can’t change the code accordingly because it is too large and everything is connected to everything. Plus there is the entire art of working in a team: communicating clearly, writing documentation, using source control, not writing idiosyncratic code that others wouldn’t understand, following the group standards. People usually learn this in 1-3 years of working in a team. You want to have your juniors supervised by a senior, otherwise they will quickly write a code so complicated that they can’t maintain or extend it anymore.

In my experience, the salaries for programmers are rather flat, except for two quite different numbers for juniors and seniors (almost 1:2). So you probably get a huge salary boost when you change your job for the first or the second time, i.e. the first time you interview as a senior programmer; and from then on it is a relatively slow crawl.

You salary greatly depends on: the country you live in, the city you live in, the company you work at, your negotiation skills. Your salary does not depend on: your programming skills (except insofar they may be insufficient to get the job). Or rather, the relation between your programming skills and salary is like: if you get 3x more productive, you could get a 20% salary raise; if you get 10x more productive, you could get a 50% raise, if you are lucky.

(And I am not saying this from a position “I am oh so great but underpaid”. It’s the opposite: I am quite mediocre; and I know people who are 10x as productive as me, and they get paid about as much as I do. That gives me a sad perspective on how much the market would reward me for further improving my skills. The skills that the market actually rewards are: networking, joining the latest bubble such as cryptocurrencies or machine learning, starting your own company.)

Okay, but why is this so? Just guessing:

  • The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Suppose you have Einstein-level programmers, but your sales department sucks. They develop a product that would replace Excel+Google+ChatGPT, but you fail to sell it. Obviously, you do not have funds to pay them the astronomical salaries they would hypothetically deserve. The better your programmers are, the more likely the actual bottleneck is something else; having better programmers does not improve the situation much.

In case of corruption, the bottleneck is how much money your government contacts can let you steal. For example, you get a €100M grant from EU to develop a project for government. The actual costs of development are €1M, you make a huge donation to the political party that gave you the contract, and put the rest in your pocket. As long as you make the product on time and it works, it’s not like you could make more money by making it faster or better.

Or if you make a product for internal use in a corporation: If it is not sold outside the company, then the IT department is treated as a “cost center”. Again, if the product is made on time and works reasonably well, there is no benefit in making it better (the managers who decide your budget are usually not the ones who actually use the program anyway).

  • Programming is a teamwork, it is difficult to evaluate individual contributions. Especially if the people doing the evaluation are not programmers themselves. Various interventions of management can slow down the team productivity. (In one company, my productivity skyrocketed when the company forgot to assign me a manager for one month. I completed a project they expected would take three months. They gave me a bonus, and quickly fixed the mistake by assigning me a manager. My productivity returned to normal. A similar thing happened in different companies, too.)

  • Many programmers are on the autistic spectrum. I suspect that many companies are trying to hit the jackpot by hiring a future genius who doesn’t understand the value of money and/or sucks at negotiation, hoping that he will remain working at the same company for the same salary maybe adjusted for inflation (i.e. way below the market rate for his new skills). I knew a few people who were in my opinion leaving a lot of money on the table.

  • The biggest employers probably have a cartel agreement on maximum salaries, which may be technically illegal, but you’d have to prove it first.

4. Comparisons To Other Job Markets

The most common comments here were about how the phenomenon of “newbies who might be superstars are more desirable than veterans who have proven themselves ‘merely’ pretty good” gets replicated across many different fields. For example . . .


For what it’s worth, my personal mental impression is that this IS happening in other jobs. At least, the ones that also confer a lot of white collar status.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard people say a similar thing about lawyers (many more law firms hiring people as paralegals who they would have hired as lawyers; far fewer people being offered partner than in the past).

I don’t know how it is in medicine, but it certainly seems like, whenever I have a medical complaint, I can take my pick of a 100 RNs or PAs, but man, finding an actual MD with an opening anytime soon seems REALLY tough.

Here’s an interesting aside - writers and bit part actors are currently complaining as much about the job market as anyone. Supposedly, mega-star salary stays the same, but the people on the lower rungs - who in past times would have had a stable mid-paying tv writer job, or consistent living as a recurring guest star on a smaller sitcom - claim it’s becoming financially untenable to exist in these smaller jobs in huge industries.

Two immediate thoughts here: white collar jobs have prestige that people might be more willing to compete for.

In my experience, applicants to this jobs also are more likely to have wealthier parents who can help pay their way if they end up as adjuncts. Part of me wonders if plumbing would be able to get away with milking the “apprenticeship” period way more if they could get away with it. If the apprentices were more likely to be able to pay their own way for the first couple years, would salaries show the same pattern?


I don’t have data on this, but there’s a similar phenomenon in the publishing world. A debut author with a book that sounds exciting and topical will have a decent shot at a six-figure book deal, and those books frequently go to auction. But once you’re published, if you’re among the majority of authors whose books don’t turn into juggernauts, your advances drop dramatically, with some previously well-paid authors grateful to get $20k or $30k for a new project.

This is a “shiny new thing” phenomenon - an exciting new author has enormous potential… until their book hits shelves and they don’t hit bestseller lists. My initial guess is that hiring committees are susceptible to the appeal of the “shiny new thing” and get so excited by the boundless potential of all the newly-minted PhDs that the adjuncts who’ve been slogging for years now just don’t stand a chance.

After a couple of disappointing books, an author will often change genre or age category, choose a pen name to publish under, and go to a new publisher to leave behind the stink of their sales record. This can be a way to reboot their career, re-invigorate the marketing department (who will have given up on them at their previous publisher), and try to capture some of that “shiny new thing” energy again. It’s interesting you mentioned that successful teaching- or adjunct-track professors will go somewhere else for a tenure-track position when they make a breakthrough, and feels related to this.

A little concerning that an industry like publishing that acquires talent almost entirely on vibes and sparkle appears to have similar patterns to academia!

AndPaddyMeld (blog):

This is interesting to me because this is often how the nursing profession works also. When I was hired as a new grad RN, I made approx $30/hour (iirc). After I put in 2 years at this hospital, a former classmate was hired onto our team after working for two years elsewhere (an equivalent hospital in terms of prestige etc). She got hired on at $38/hr while I was making $31/hr. And this is a common scenario in nursing, in my experience. You have to leave your first job and get hired in somewhere else in order to get the pay bump that the market clearly deems warranted. But to get that same pay bump after years at the same hospital? Impossible. To be fair, this was mostly preCOVID/intraCOVID days. Ive heard from colleagues that this is possibly changing and hospitals are more aggressively raising nurses salary to improve retention (as thousands of RNs left their jobs during COVID for more lucrative work as travel nurses). And yes during COVID, I once worked alongside a former coworker who had quit and then been rehired as a travel nurse into the exact same position at more than double her previous pay. I left to go back to school shortly thereafter and that was one of the reasons.

G Retrieverwrites:

I think academia and performing arts have a lot more in common than you’d think. A record label and an academic department both want to sign someone that will HIT. But you have no actual idea what prospects will do it. For recording artists, you can give a thousand advances and if even one hits it will pay for the rest. But you can’t do that for academic departments. So you make choices based on what you can actually observe (a degree from a top 10 program) and hope that will give you a better chance at a hit.

Why do departments only hire people with no experience? The same reason that there are no 35-year-old breakout pop stars. Labels and departments buy based on POTENTIAL. Someone with experience has no upside.

5. Proposed Solutions

John of Orange (blog) writes:

One of the things I have long espoused, in the sense of thinking it but literally never telling anyone, is that the United States Congress should establish a system of National Teaching Universities that do exclusively undergrad and non-degree training. Recruit early- and mid-career academics with modest conventional prospects by using “Moneyball”-style strategies on the assumption potentially great teachers are being underutilized. Recruit outright non-academics, such as senior enlisted military personnel, who have an extremely deep reservoir of meta-knowledge about how to train people that is underutilized in the white-collar world for the crasset possible class reasons. Completely exclude research from the main career path and consider imposing outright guild-like rules preventing your hires from even publishing research while they’re employed with you, and perhaps for six months afterwards. Require everyone to go through extensive, demanding paid training from which many drop out, and make sure all the training materials and training apparatus is built from private-sector and military people uncontaminated by the schoolmarm-industrial complex and its fraudulent “education research.”

Basically, the bargain here is just that if surplus academics are willing to compromise SOME of their self-regarding and comically left-wing “ideals,” move to some underserved working-class community, and actually make themselves useful, while abstaining from the corrupt academic system somewhat in potentially controversial ways, right-wing taxpayers should and reasonably will open their wallets and hand out genuinely life-changing compensation. It would require legal cover because the academic bums have written their special privileges into the legal system itself in deep ways, but that’s why you have a legislature. You can literally just change the law to fix things. Conservatives control the Supreme Court and it would be pretty perverse and surprising if they actually sabotaged a program like this by enforcing special rights for academic dweebs who want nonsense guild rules enforced as a matter of first-rank constitutional principle.

Strip this of the political points and it kind of reminds me of narrow banking - what if you try to have an institution that just does the thing its customers think it’s doing? Instead of using them as cover as it sets out to do other, more transformative things which presumably benefit wider society but sometimes come back to bite it?

Several people disagree, and say these institutions exist (community colleges, technical colleges, etc), but upper-class people don’t go there because they’re not prestigious enough. What would it take to have something like this which was also prestigious? Or is that undesirable, because it would rob us of the research positive externality.

6. Comments With Practical Advice For New PhDs


I see early career adjuncts get taken advantage of to an extreme extent, and it bothers me.

The best advice (not that you asked): try to lock down a TT position (or a position that is explicitly a try-out for a TT position) as soon as possible. The longer you stay in a weird interstitial space, the greater the prejudice is. It really sucks.

It also helps immensely to have an advocate — someone very senior, who is hooked into gossip in your field and who can suggest you put in an application here or there based on what they know about the search going on.

But academia is so broken that in most cases my advice would be: do it if it’s fun, if you don’t need to be saving lots of money, and if you like the lifestyle. But if it’s not fun, if you need money, if you don’t like the college prof lifestyle… run, quickly. Life goes by fast.

Jorg (blog) writes:

In all honesty, don’t go further into the sunk cost fallacy. I don’t really care what your master’s degree is in, you probably have acquired the skills for pretty good (and likely quite fulfilling, jobs outside of Academia. Probably 75% of the people I was in grad school with who got PhDs ended up outside Academia and loved it. One of my best friends couldn’t land a TT job in Con Law despite good pubs and being highly recommended by one of the top profs in con law at the time. She ended up selling $1M+ real estate and making a ton. She always says she enjoyed her PhD years, but it was a huge waste of time.

Probably 90% of all those who got MA or MS that I studied with ended up in good jobs outside Academia. Don’t lock yourself into your discipline just because it’s a familiar place to be. One of my closest friends in grad school had languages as his tool, and learned, seriously, about 7 SE Asian languages. He now does a lot of court translation, loves it, and has learned a few more “just for fun.”

Above all, don’t sell yourself short. Have someone who knows you well help you list ALL your tools and skills. Then look to see where they can be applied outside your area

I have one former student who claims he got his job because he told his boss he understood stats well enough to tell good stuff from bad. He said when he saw ‘bad’ stats or research design or whatever, he’d just tell his boss, “If I turned that in to Dr X (me), the nicest thing he would do is give me an F, throw the work at me, and tell me to do it over.” He became the go-to guy for stats in his job. He doesn’t DO stats, he just knows them well enough to tell good from bad.

I’ll bet you’ve picked up a tool/skill or two that is marketable, useful, and that you enjoy using. Like writing. Do you know how many actual good writers there are out there? Hell, people who get paid big bucks for writing aren’t always good writers.

Look around. Find something else for a while. You can go back to grad study later. (FWIW, I returned to grad school when I was 41 and totally changed my career path. I spent 10 years getting a PhD and didn’t land a full-time teaching job until I was 52. I then taught for the next 25 years and loved every minute.)

Finally. Finally. If you just MUST get a PhD, find out what classes need to be taught that everyone hates and no one wants to do but need to be taught, and become an expert in at least one of them. That will get you a job when little else can. (In my dept it was Public Budgeting. It ALWAYS took at least 2 searches to land a new budget prof.)

One theme across all of these was that it’s not really worth doing anything other than research; most colleges hire entirely based on publication record. After a commenter suggested that maybe becoming a science popularizer would look good on your resume, Simon wrote:

Sorry, but this is very bad advice.

After 12 years of being on hiring committees (etc) in a range of fields, I can say that we basically don’t google applicants. We don’t have the time, first of all, and it’s not really relevant to the job.

There are lots of unfair aspects of academia (snobbery about PhD institution is probably #1), and lots of things that can hurt, but there is really only one positive thing you can do to help: publish lots of important and interesting research.

(A related strategy is “publish lots of research”… this doesn’t really work, however; the effort required to publish five extra silly/trivial papers is not worth the payoff.)

Also, many many many people, both tenured professors and people who had dropped out of the academic track, commented to say that going into academia was a bad idea and that people who were considering it should think very carefully and probably change their mind. If you’re thinking about this, consider reading the entire comment section (or CTRL+F-ing “sunk cost”)!1.