How Lazy Is the Professoriat?
By Bryan Caplan
In my view, low conscientiousness is a major cause of poverty. Laziness and impulsiveness lead to low marginal productivity. Sooner or later the market notices and gives you your just deserts. A smug, self-satisfied view, I know, but I’m only a messenger.
Still, I have to wonder: What would the world say if someone shined a hidden camera in my office? How hard do I really work?
I could just compare myself to other professors. But that begs the question. When I look around academia, I see lazy people everywhere. (My own impeccable department excepted, of course). Many professors virtually retire the day they get tenure. Plenty of others start even earlier. It’s fairly common for tenure-track professors to “work” seven years with zero discernible output. By most measures, professors are extremely successful. How do such success and such laziness coexist?
To resolve this paradox, you need to remember that laziness is a preference – and that behavior is the reaction of preference to environment. Before you pronounce a professor “lazy,” you should ask yourself, “How would most people act given his situation?”
Imagine taking randomly selected people, putting them in an office, and saying, “In seven years, your peers will decide whether your research is important enough to merit a job for life. See you in seven years.” That’s only a slight caricature of what it’s like to be a tenure-track professor. You have to decide what’s worth studying. You have to figure out something original to say. And you have to actually say it despite your peers’ presumptions of apathy and negativity.
I submit that, placed in this situation, the vast majority of people would accomplish nothing. Indeed, I bet that many people would voluntarily resign because they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. Even if, by normal standards, you have a very good work ethic, you still need someone to (a) tell you what to do, (b) clearly tell you how well you’re doing, and (c) reward you before you forget why you deserve a reward. Professors, in contrast, are supposed to toil day after day on a self-defined goal, bereft of clear-cut feedback, to impress habitually apathetic and negative peers seven years in the future. Bizarre.
On a gut level, professors who don’t publish appall me. Untenured professors who don’t publish actually baffle me. How can they squander their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? On reflection, though, the amazing thing about professors isn’t that they accomplish so little. The amazing thing about professors is that they accomplish anything at all. They may look lazy to outside observers – and even to each other. But considering their situation, professors are amazingly industrious.