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.