April 15, 2008

The Dead Sea Effect In Academia

And I am ashamed.

Bruce Webster writes about information technology, and describes what he calls the Dead Sea Effect.  (The post is well worth reading.)  The Dead Sea is land locked; water comes in by the Jordan River, but no water leaves except by evaporation. In IT, new hires come in, but who leaves?

...what happens is that the more talented and effective IT engineers are the ones most likely to leave -- to evaporate, if you will. They are the ones least likely to put up with the frequent stupidities and workplace problems that plague large organizations; they are also the ones most likely to have other opportunities that they can readily move to.

What tends to remain behind is the 'residue' -- the least talented and effective IT engineers. They tend to be grateful they have a job... They tend to entrench themselves, becoming maintenance experts on critical systems...
Sadly, this is even more true about academia.  "Grateful to have a job" is translated to valuing the university appointment even more than money.  You can't really tell someone at a party you make $50k more than other people in your field, but you can tell them you work at Yale. And here's the thing: the fact that you work at a university is actually trivial.  It actually has no value at all except to you, as a means of reinforcing (or creating) identity.  Your family would actually be better off with the extra $50k

"...entrench themsleves, becoming maintenance experts..." is translated to a focus not on output, but on process.  The death of a university can be reasonably measured by the increasing ratio of assistant and associate professors on committees to number of post docs.  I wonder if you can't remove the denominator and still have a reliable gauge.

But the more important result is that academia produces mediocrity.  I know people will disagree, but they're wrong.  Mediocrity in education is a given; teaching assistants teaching classes; multiple choice exams; grades in general-- they're not there to promote excellence.

And what are those too-busy-to-teach professors doing?  Mediocre research.  I've said enough about the pointlessness of yet another clinical trial.  But even basic science research suffers.  It's not that the ideas or goals are mediocre-- it's the approach.  Plodding, unfocused-- the mind is on the grant, not the result.  "What experiments will the reviewers want me to perform?"  The contest between those in academia and those who leave would have well been settled by Celera vs. Human Genome Project, had not President Clinton changed the game.

Henry Kissinger said: university politics is vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.  Actually, a number of people said it.  Because it's true.

Academia is a trap. It pays you with secure insecurity.   You settle in and think, I am never going to leave this.  It confuses you, it changes reality.  I make only 20% of my income from my university job, yet whenever anyone asks me what I do for a living, I tell them I work at university.  Worse-- I actually believe it, it's part of my identity, even though it is factually incorrect.  Your focus is not on why you are there, but on how to stay there, or even to advance, in that irrelevant hierarchy.

Academia is like being in an abusive marriage.  You know you should go, you get nothing from being there except misery and pain, but leaving is nearly impossible, so much has to go into the decision to leave, so you stay, try to make it work.  Maybe it'll get better, it's really not any different anywhere else, maybe it's not him, it's you, if you lost twenty pounds or got a second grant maybe then they'd like you...

Jesus, I'm in an abusive relationship with my job.

I think it may be time for me to go.

Academics are not bad people, obviously, and they have their role in the Matrix.  But the real talent, the ones who produce, they all graduated and left-- or never graduated at all.


Kinda funny that there is a... (Below threshold)

April 15, 2008 11:37 PM | Posted by mb: | Reply

Kinda funny that there is a big ad for the University of Phoenix in the middle of this page... ;-)

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Don't be ashamed. Just beca... (Below threshold)

April 16, 2008 2:35 AM | Posted by Demodenise: | Reply

Don't be ashamed. Just because we're against drinking the Kool-Aid doesn't mean we don't take sips from time to time.

Outside of a system, it is easy to maintain a perspective without a value judgment attached: i.e., I decided to go back to school because I wanted to be a therapist, and in order to be a therapist I have to fulfill the requirements of the academic/professional system (i.e., shell out a big ass chunk of money to get a piece of paper that qualifies me to take a test to get another piece of paper that says I'm licensed.)

Now that I'm here, however, I get tangled up in what academia is versus what I think it should be.

I know it sounds like a silly question--and I'm sure to get strung up for asking it--but really? Was academia ever *supposed* to be about excellence? We assume that at some point it was, because that's what we've all been trained to say the manifest function of the academic system is. But what if *that's* the false assumption that's driving the disenchantment? Can we be disappointed in a system that fails to meet a purpose that it was never truly intended to meet?

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There is a fellow who was a... (Below threshold)

April 16, 2008 9:44 AM | Posted by AK: | Reply

There is a fellow who was a tenured law professor at a university in our area.

He actually left that position to become a US magistrate. I saw him in action when I was in his courtroom after getting arrested at a peace demonstration at the local Federal building. Judge X treated everyone with respect, and clearly loved to teach. He behaved as though each traffic citation was the single most interesting case he had ever dealt with. And this judge/former professor refused to accept any plea until he was satisfied that the person was at ease and understood all the options.

Much later, through a friend, I met another law professor and this man said that Judge X was highly unusual. As Professor X put it, 'It is very pleasant and cushy to be a law professor and it is almost unheard of for one to leave and take on the workload and comparatively low pay of being a low ranking judge in the Federal pecking order. Law faculties are full of old guys who just dont leave."

In other words, the Dead Sea Effect.

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Only have academic interest... (Below threshold)

April 20, 2008 7:53 AM | Posted by Diane Abus: | Reply

Only have academic interests.this is so interesting.these musings.I feel you are all kindreds.

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I was in an abusive marraig... (Below threshold)

April 25, 2008 1:21 PM | Posted by Nivek: | Reply

I was in an abusive marraige which led inexorably to the destruction of my academic career. Ultimately, despite having grants and postdocs etc., I was unable to function. Ironic perhaps, but when the abusive marraige ended, the abusive career ended shortly thereafter. Am I happier now? Yes, but now I have to grapple daily with the ethical shortcomings of employment in the pharmaceutical sector. Just last week, I was let go from a job as a Medical Director at an agency after stating that having no dissent permitted at an advisory board on a pre-registration drug was unethical. Ironic perhaps once again ... I think I'll start working on a novel ... or a maybe a screenplay...

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Sore loser! Academia is the... (Below threshold)

July 5, 2008 2:03 PM | Posted by FRED LAPIDES: | Reply

Sore loser! Academia is the worst place to work except for most of the other places...3 things I loved about academia: June, July, August.
I taught at a college for some 28 years and I loved it. i loved the kids. I loved the subject. sure, bad shit, like other places. But for me it was great and made my life beautiful. So there. Now go forth and show us how grand it is to avoid college. In passing, did you spend 4 years at a college and, if so, why, since it is so bad?

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I wonder if the "Dead Sea E... (Below threshold)

July 25, 2008 3:08 AM | Posted by Charlotte: | Reply

I wonder if the "Dead Sea Effect" is more accurately applied to certain companies and institutions than to certain careers?

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The Dead Sea Effect is one ... (Below threshold)

December 25, 2008 11:14 PM | Posted by Ironman: | Reply

The Dead Sea Effect is one of the large reasons I left the military. As much as I enjoyed the experience, the sad facts of the matter are that the best and brightest will always have better opportunities in the civilian world. Rarely I would run across a Captain or Worrant Officer who was one of the rare geniuses who'd stayed on, despite the friction. I always appreciated those people, and to this day wish there were more Heinleinian Supermen willing to heft a firearm.

But the majority of the senior positions were earned, not by merit, but by time served. Stick around long enough, and even the most incompetent of individuals will have enough connections to get things done.

Near the end, the majority of my political support group left - some quit, others went overseas, and others transferred units - what that meant in the end was that I was without allies or leverage, and one particular Sergeant (who 'bragged' that he hadn't finished high school) had it out for me.

I left, and am making more money than I ever have before in my life, at a job that treats me okay. I'm not yet ready to write an instruction manual on how to avoid the Dead Sea Effect in organizations (though I have my opinions), but if you were to take a stab at it I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Something to consider - General Rick Hillier (of the Canadian Military) quit a couple months after I did, with no reason given, and little media coverage. I never met the man, but from the research I did he seemed to be one of the exceptions - one of the true quality individuals that stuck with it, despite all odds. I suspect that he may have quit for the same reasons as I.

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No one likes to lose his yo... (Below threshold)

September 12, 2012 9:57 PM | Posted by HGH review: | Reply

No one likes to lose his youth. One reason for it is that many health problems come with growing age. Although, different factors contribute to cause aging in different people, but the result is same for everyone. So, everyone likes to stay young and healthy ever.

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No one likes to lose his yo... (Below threshold)

September 12, 2012 9:58 PM | Posted by HGH review: | Reply

No one likes to lose his youth. One reason for it is that many health problems come with growing age. Although, different factors contribute to cause aging in different people, but the result is same for everyone. So, everyone likes to stay young and healthy ever.

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