Jason Brennan's Good Work If You Can Keep It
By Bryan Caplan
On Friday, I received Jason Brennan’s new Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia. It’s fantastic! I already have my dream job for life, and I still couldn’t put it down. Brennan calmly and crisply cuts through piles of misconceptions, lame rationalizations, and mountains of Social Desirability Bias to tell would-be professors the cold, hard truth about their would-be occupation.
Good Work could just as easily be called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Becoming a Professor… But Were Afraid to Ask.. He describes the main types of academic jobs, including the multitudinous low-status positions that excellent students rarely encounter first hand… but often end up occupying after grad school. He teaches backwards induction: figure out where you want to end up, then line your ducks up in reverse order to reach your goal. He urges would-be professors to start publishing ASAP:
As a graduate student, you are training for the Olympics. You are trying to win a faculty job. You will be competing against three hundred to one thousand people who are the best in the world at what you study. Your least qualified competitors will be impressive people with decent credentials. Your best qualified competitors spend all five (or more) years of graduate school teaching innovative classes, publishing papers in top peer-reviewed journals, networking with people around the world, and amassing a resume on par with or better than the resume of most currently employed assistant professors. They spend their entire grad school career training to get the job you want. If you want a job, you must not only be better than they are, but look better on paper.
Don’t like it? Then maybe academia’s not for you:
Remember, I’m not endorsing the way things are. Maybe’s it’s regrettable that students have to professionalize so much and so soon. Maybe this reflects the perverse influence of neoliberalism or an unjustifiable arms race over scarce resources. Maybe not. Regardless, this book is about succeeding in academia as it is, not about how to succeed in academia as it should be.
Tyler Cowen calls Good Work “The one book to read about trying to become a professor.” I enthusiastically agree. But being a pedant myself, I have a handful of quibbles.
1. Jason gives pitch-perfect advice for getting a tenure-track job. But he barely mentions how low the bar is for receiving tenure at most places. Schools routinely tenure faculty they would never consider hiring. While most top-40 departments jealously protect their reputations, nepotism rapidly takes over in lower-ranked programs. At most schools, you’ll get tenure as long as you publish your dissertation, make a few friends in the department, and avoid making any enemies. True, you won’t rise using this strategy, but even a low-level tenured academic job is so wonderful compared to a real job that maxing-out at 35 isn’t so bad.
2. Jason approvingly quotes Mike Munger’s slogan that “Tenure is not a reward; tenure is a hire“:
Remember, if the university wants an associate professor, it doesn’t need to hire an assistant professor, give him six years, and then promote him. It could instead hire an already tenured associate professor directly from another university. So, when your college or university decides to tenure you, what they are really deciding is this: Suppose we wanted to hire an associate professor in this field with whatever salary budget we have. Could we reasonably expect to get someone better than you, the assistant professor currently applying for tenure? If the answer is yes, then you probably won’t get tenure.
Perhaps this is true at Georgetown (Jason’s home) or Duke (Mike’s home), but at most institutions of higher learning this is utterly wrong. When I served on GMU’s oversight committee for tenure and promotion, I discovered that most departments will unanimously vote to tenure almost anyone. As long as you exceed a rather low bar (“genuine excellence in research, high competence in teaching”), you get tenure. In “book disciplines,” merely publishing your dissertation with Some University Press suffices. In the rest, you squeak by as long as you publish three articles from your dissertation plus four more. When I queried, “Couldn’t this department get someone much better for the salary of the person we’re reviewing?,” everyone else on the committee thought I was crazy: “That’s not relevant!”
This isn’t because GMU is unusually forgiving. The rest of the committee quickly convinced me that comparably-ranked schools have similarly shoddy standards – and most schools have ever lower standards. Remember: Schools are dysfunctional non-profits, and the median tenure voter in most departments doesn’t think like an economist. Not even close. Indeed, even most economists don’t think like economists when they vote for tenure. The insider-outsider model reigns supreme.
3. Related: Jason neglects the importance of making friends within your department. If your tenure case is marginal, likability goes a long way at most schools. So win friends and influence people, people!
4. Jason delivers great time-management advice – and he’s well-aware that most faculty manage their time poorly. But he doesn’t announce the shocking implication: Once you get tenure, you really can enjoy an upper-middle class salary for the rest of your life in exchange for about 200 hours of work per year. Once you get tenure, you can safely stop doing research. You can phone in your teaching. You can deliver such poor “service” that no one wants you on a committee. You won’t get large raises (though you’ll still probably get a “base raise”), but otherwise you are safe. While few tenured professors strictly hew to this approach, a majority approximate it, cramming their spare hours full of busywork that the rest of the world barely notices. Others spend most of their time on consulting or effectively take a second job; they receive an upper-middle class base salary in exchange for 200 hours of annual work, then use the free time to earn “real money.” Probably not at Georgetown or Duke, but as Jason keeps telling us, only a tiny fraction of professors ever profess at such schools.
5. Jason begins chapter one with an amusing vignette about a grad student he calls “Ed”:
Ed says, “I hate teaching. I hate writing papers. I just want to spend my time thinking about philosophy.”
I laughed. He didn’t like that. Turns out he wasn’t kidding.
In academia, teaching and writing papers are the job. Ed was like an athlete training full time for a sport he hated. If Ed just wanted to think about philosophy, he could have done so in his spare time. He could have held a better paying, less risky, more enjoyable job.
Perhaps, but if I were Ed, I would still try to become a philosophy professor. I would grit my teeth, follow Jason’s advice, and struggle to publish my way to tenure. Why? Because once I had tenure, I could spend the rest of my life doing what I enjoy – “thinking about philosophy” – in exchange for an upper-middle class salary. After all, if Ed doesn’t even like teaching or writing about his favorite subject in the world, how much do you think he would enjoy being a lawyer or programmer?
In short, while academia showers rewards on professors who publish, it creates a vast number of near-sinecures for people who simply want to consume ideas. Such people must pose as stalwart researchers for years until they get tenure. But what better option do they have?
Both of my elder sons want to be professors. I’ve been preaching the Gospel of Jason to them for many years. But I’m still going to insist they read Good Work If You Can Get It cover-to-cover. Few advice books come closer to presenting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And like all of Jason’s books, it put many smiles on my face. If you want to game this corrupt academic system, don’t just read this book. Become it.