Megan McArdle lists several possible reasons why academics are unhappy relative to members of other professions. Some of her reasons capture real downsides of academic life. But is the premise true? Are academics indeed unusually dissatisfied with their jobs? I think not.
Back in December, I wrote a series of posts challenging this premise in the specific case of law professors. The available evidence suggests that law professors are much happier with their jobs, on average, than other elite law school graduates - including those who went into "public service" and other jobs commonly associated with lifestyle benefits.
A particularly telling point is that, in most academic fields, there are far more applicants for jobs than available job openings. Indeed, the ratio of highly qualified applicants to available jobs is more lopsided in academia than any other industry I know of other than entertainment, art, and professional sports. That suggests that being a professor isn't a less satisfying life than most of the available alternatives. Perhaps the applicants are deluded, and don't realize that they would be happier working in industry or government. Maybe. But people who are already academics rarely leave academia for other careers - even those in fields like business, medicine, law, and economics who could easily obtain far more lucrative employment in the commercial sector.
As I noted above, some of the issues Megan notes are real causes of dissatisfaction among academics. For example, it is true that professors are highly status-conscious, that they make less money than they could in other fields, and that they often don't get to live in the cities they prefer. But offsetting these problems are major advantages such as 1) the opportunity to work on issues that interest you, as opposed to those that interest customers or the boss, 2) the ability to set your own schedule to a far greater extent than is possible in nearly any other professional job, and 3) the chance to influence public debate. Academics tend to be the kinds of people who care greatly about 1 and 2, and many care a lot about 3 as well. Indeed, the very fact that so many people compete for academic jobs despite the fact that they know they could make much more money elsewhere suggests that there are important benefits associated with those jobs. Those who don't find the tradeoff worth it are unlikely to enter academia in the first place or to stay very long if they do.
Not everyone would be happy as an academic. Indeed, the vast majority of people would probably hate it. But most academics and seekers of academic jobs would probably be a lot more unhappy in any other line of work.
UPDATE: I initially failed to link to Megan's post. This has now been corrected.
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