Vernor Vinge
History of Economic Thought

The Community College Dean Tries to Stop the Cycle of Abuse

The Community College Dean writes lasciate ogni speranza:

Confessions of a Community College Dean: Ask the Administrator: Stopping the Cycle of Abuse: At the risk of alienating my entire readership and everybody with whom I work, I’d strongly advise against targeting a career as a college history professor.... The job market for history professors is dreadful, and has been for a generation. In fact, you can strike the word ‘history’ from that sentence and replace it with any liberal-arts discipline without invalidating the meaning. It’s absurdly difficult to find full-time work on which you could make an adult wage.... The length of training for college professors is dysfunctional, archaic, and abusive. Ph.D.’s in liberal arts disciplines usually take about 7 years... [during which] you will live on a pauper’s income... that’s 7 fewer years during which you were building up equity in a house, stashing away money for retirement, and generally enjoying life. (The cost of income foregone is what economists call ‘opportunity costs.’ Most academics try very hard to repress this knowledge, since it’s profoundly depressing.)... A more life-friendly option that would still allow you to teach in a college would be to get the high school teaching gig, use tuition remission to get a Master’s degree in history while you’re working there, and then sign on as an adjunct....

I know that one of the first commandments of academia is Thou Shalt Reproduce Thy Own, but I can’t in good conscience.... I don’t know what I would have done differently. Had I not moved to the state in which I went to grad school, I wouldn’t have met The Wife, and my life would be unimaginably different. My career path has been idiosyncratic enough that to generalize from it would be silly, so I won’t. But I certainly don’t recommend this to anyone who could imagine himself happy any other way. The chain of abuse has to stop.

Economics is very different. First of all, Economics Departments appear to have made a conscious collective decision (I still can't figure out how) to downsize their graduate programs in the 1970s--to accept smaller numbers of teaching assistants and larger class sizes in order not to be churning out Ph.D.s for which academic jobs would be absent. Then the explosion of business schools created a large additional demand for economists. Then the expansion of world finance created a host of other jobs--in the Federal Reserve, at the IMF, in private-sector banks--that economists could fill. Plus there's the fact that deans appeal to all kinds of social-solidarity and other motives to discourage professors in other disciplines from bargaining hard for higher salaries and fishing for outside offers. In Economics, by contrast, responsiveness to market forces is a moral imperative.

I remember noticing back in 1980 that the economists applying for assistant professorships in Social Studies were 26 and had written drafts of two articles, while the historians were 35 and had published two books...