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Are Academics Unhappy about their Jobs?

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.

OrinKerr:
Law professors as a group are over-the-top joyful about their jobs. But how many academic disciplines get all the benefits of legal academia, which would include twice the pay (or more), no need to hustle for grants, no undergrads, low teaching loads, and easy tenure standards?
4.23.2008 2:52am
Cornellian (mail):
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.

I always get a laugh from those "could easily obtain far more lucrative employment in the commercial sector" comments.

I think law professors vastly overestimate their employability in the private sector. It's a totally different skill set.
4.23.2008 2:57am
Ilya Somin:
I think law professors vastly overestimate their employability in the private sector. It's a totally different skill set.

Almost every law professor I know of had offers from major big city law firms that they turned down.
4.23.2008 3:25am
Ilya Somin:
how many academic disciplines get all the benefits of legal academia, which would include twice the pay (or more), no need to hustle for grants, no undergrads, low teaching loads, and easy tenure standards?

Not many. But even in the other disciplines, there is still a vast oversupply of applicants relative to jobs - despite the fact that most of the applicants could make more money elsewhere. And there are still very few professors who voluntarily leave for nonacademic employment.
4.23.2008 3:27am
OrinKerr:
Almost every law professor I know of had offers from major big city law firms that they turned down.

You mean as first-year associates, years ago? Or more recently, as lateral partners or counsels? The former, yes, but it's hard to imagine the latter for most law profs. If your typical tenured prof needed to get a law firm job, it would be a pretty strange fit (unless the prof has specific subject matter expertise in a field with a specific practice).
4.23.2008 3:29am
OrinKerr:
But even in the other disciplines, there is still a vast oversupply of applicants relative to jobs - despite the fact that most of the applicants could make more money elsewhere. And there are still very few professors who voluntarily leave for nonacademic employment.

Yes, but part of the former point is the myopia of college students who don't know what the options are. If you're an english major, you might not know the thousands of jobs out there but you'll certainly know all about being an english prof. And if you self-selected to spend a decade of your life trying to get a teaching job and you succeed, you're probably not the type to give up and leave given the paucity of alternative jobs that would actually use the degree.
4.23.2008 3:34am
Vinnie (mail):
What other industry lets you refer to your customers as victims. In public. In front of them.

I love teaching!
4.23.2008 3:35am
Ilya Somin:
Yes, but part of the former point is the myopia of college students who don't know what the options are. If you're an english major, you might not know the thousands of jobs out there but you'll certainly know all about being an english prof. And if you self-selected to spend a decade of your life trying to get a teaching job and you succeed, you're probably not the type to give up and leave given the paucity of alternative jobs that would actually use the degree.

Academia is hardly some kind of default choice for college students. They all know about many other options, even if they don't know about all of them. I agree, of course, that those who self-select into academia are unlikely to leave it. But that is precisely because they would be less happy elsewhere. That is true, by the way, even in fields like engineering, law, and economics where there are plenty of jobs where they could use the degree.
4.23.2008 3:43am
Ilya Somin:
Almost every law professor I know of had offers from major big city law firms that they turned down.

You mean as first-year associates, years ago? Or more recently, as lateral partners or counsels? The former, yes, but it's hard to imagine the latter for most law profs.


Definitely the former. But the latter is not as uncommon as you think. A lawprof who seeks out law firm offers 3-4 years into an academic career could very likely get some. It might be harder if you've been in academia for many years. But 3 or 4 is surely enough time to realize taht you're unhappy with academic life and want to switch.
4.23.2008 3:45am
OrinKerr:
Academia is hardly some kind of default choice for college students.

I sure remember a lot of college classmates going to grad school because they didn't know what else to do.
4.23.2008 3:49am
OrinKerr:
Definitely the former. But the latter is not as uncommon as you think. A lawprof who seeks out law firm offers 3-4 years into an academic career could very likely get some. It might be harder if you've been in academia for many years. But 3 or 4 is surely enough time to realize taht you're unhappy with academic life and want to switch.

I thought we were discussing the extent to which law professors are employable in the private sector. Given that, the relevant question would seem to be whether a typical law professor who has been teaching for (say) 20 years is in fact easily employable. I think the answer varies on the prof, but it seems right to me that it would be quite hard for many profs.
4.23.2008 3:53am
wb (mail):
Although I do not have quantitative data, my general impression is that in the physical sciences the large over supply of applicants for academic jobs are at the entry level. Not surprising in that the mentors of the graduate students and post-docs are academics. Students do notice the large amount of freedom that even junior faculty have in their professional life. However, even post-docs become educated about the continually decaying infra-structure for university experimentalists and the incredible squeeze in available grant money.

Opportunity to have significant research resources available is a very big attractor for young scientists to leave the university environment, for "quasi-academic" research jobs and those with significantly greater potential for management advancement and increased pay.

My bottom line is to agree with Oren's original observation.
4.23.2008 4:02am
Fearless:

But that is precisely because they would be less happy elsewhere.


This is entirely speculative. You do not know you would be less happy elsewhere unless you actually experience elsewhere. People often have irrational fears of change.
4.23.2008 4:05am
Ilya Somin:
I thought we were discussing the extent to which law professors are employable in the private sector. Given that, the relevant question would seem to be whether a typical law professor who has been teaching for (say) 20 years is in fact easily employable. I think the answer varies on the prof, but it seems right to me that it would be quite hard for many profs.

I think the key point is whether the typical law professor could have gone into the private sector by the time he realizes that he is unhappy in academia and would be happier elsewhere (assuming that is indeed his situation). I agree it would be hard to leave after 20 years (or even 10). But it would not take so long to make the realization I had in mind. Indeed, I think even entry-level professors have a fairly good idea of the tradeoffs involved in the academic-nonacademic choice.
4.23.2008 4:16am
hmph (mail):
Couldn't a law professor earn a lot of extra income from practicing law or consulting / running a business on the side? Quite a few profs are of counsel at top firms. Others are business owners (like the SSRN/bepress guys). Doesn't seem like their institutions mind.
4.23.2008 6:07am
tvk:
Orin, I think one indication of whether law professors would have success in the private sector is whether they have any consulting offers. Obviously the cream of the crop (the Tribes of this world) have no difficulty. And those in the right fields (IP, antitrust, securities, and other business litigation) are probably swimming in offers. Now, your con law scholar at a third-tier school probably doesn't have much in the way of corporate opportunity; but someone who elects to teach and write about a non-lucrative field is probably the exact type of person who is far happier in academia than in corporate practice.
4.23.2008 6:36am
b.:
in this thread: Ilya sets 'em up; Orin knocks 'em down.
4.23.2008 6:42am
Lonetown (mail):
Most academics are liberals.
Most liberals are unhappy about everything.

Voila!
4.23.2008 6:53am
corneille1640 (mail):
Dear Lonetown:

Your syllogism is a bit fallacious. The unstated conclusion seems to be that, ergo, most academics are unhappy. But logically, it's logically possible (at least given your premises) that the academics who are liberals happen to be those liberals who are not "unhappy about everything."
4.23.2008 9:21am
corneille1640 (mail):
Dear Cornellian:

I haven't the slightest idea about the employment prospects of law professors outside the academy. However, I frequently hear from a few my professors--history professors--that they could easily make more money outside academe than they do now. I'm skeptical about such claims myself.
4.23.2008 9:23am
nonao (mail):
There might be a lot of demand going in but a lot of dissatisfaction further out. The fact that the "losers" from the status/tenure game, who end up in jobs that they don't like, in schools they don't want to be in, don't fully realize their plight till they've been around for 10 years are also the ones who have the most difficulty finding alternative lucrative employment would surely contribute to the bitterness. Wouldn't it?

The same is true for profs in low-demand fields, who might have been postdocs for a couple of years, did the pretenure merry go around, and then landed a post at a place they thought of as a first job -- only to find out it was their last over a decade later.

This combination of high expectations, high sunk costs, and low probability of winning big is what makes for unhappy people. In this regard, academia is just like acting or singing, where hordes enter with high expectations, only to find out years later that they're barely getting by with a few small gigs a year and few marketable skills outside.
4.23.2008 9:32am
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
Ilya, the lopsidedness you advance as evidence that academics are happy is exactly what I'd point out as a reason we're unhappy. I'm sick to death of running through the application cycle every year, white-knuckling my way through to May, unsure if this will be the year I fail to get a job and my career comes to a screeching halt.

Sure, I enjoy the job itself, but I'm running myself ragged trying to hold onto the job in the first place.
4.23.2008 10:07am
bearing (mail) (www):
I suspect the field of law might be an outlier among academic disciplines, and it may not be advisable to extrapolate from law to other disciplines.

I also suspect that situations are very different for engineering/applied science professors vs. professors of the humanities.
4.23.2008 10:25am
p. rich (mail) (www):
Not everyone would be happy as an academic. Indeed, the vast majority of people would probably hate it.

That's a dramatic supposition which, if accurate, must say something significant (and inherently negative) about the basic nature academia. Or about how academics see themselves in relation to the rest of the world. Or both. Can you spell c-h-a-s-m?
4.23.2008 10:39am
Rickm:
bearing-

If you're saying that one cannot take the happiness of law professors as indicative of the happiness of academia as a whole, I'd say your methodology is right. However, the data shows that academics, as a whole, are very satisfied with their jobs.

From the chronicle of higher education: "A new national survey by TIAA-CREF found that 53 percent of faculty members are "very satisfied" with their jobs and another 43 percent are "somewhat satisfied." Only 2 percent were "not at all satisfied." By comparison, a recent national survey of Americans in all fields found that only 42 percent reported being "very satisfied," with another 38 percent "somewhat satisfied.""

McArdle exhibited her characteristic disdain for people who's careers aren't motivated by profit and provided fodder to her anti-academic commenters. I'm glad to see a conservative academic outlet like Volokh correct the record.
4.23.2008 10:44am
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Anybody who's been teaching law for 20 years has a rolodex full of former students who are now hiring partners or highly placed government officials. The typical lawprof has an advanced degree from one or more ivy league schools, usually yale or harvard. These guys aren't on the breadlines. Happiness, of course, is a whole nother matter. We had one lawprof who shot himself. I'd guess he was unhappy. Lawprofs tend to be driven achievers, who might find that being at the top of the heap isn't the reward they thought it would be. See also al the whining from judges about how they are underpaid, although they as a group are in the top 1% in world income and have lots of non-monetary perks.
4.23.2008 10:44am
free market fan (mail):
how many academic disciplines get all the benefits of legal academia, which would include twice the pay (or more), no need to hustle for grants, no undergrads, low teaching loads, and easy tenure standards?

Thank god for the law school accreditation standards! (Shhh. Don't tell the libertarians about how the accreditation really works; they'd be in open revolt.)
4.23.2008 10:44am
JosephSlater (mail):
I generally agree with what Orin K. has posted here. Being a law prof is a great job, and I think most holders of the job understand that.

Also, one very attractive aspect of all types of academia is tenure: a strong form of "just cause" protection. With the exception of union members and public employees covered by effective civil service laws, most folks in the U.S. don't have that sort of protection. But most workers like to have it.
4.23.2008 11:10am
Houston Lawyer:
I would think that law professors would be extremely happy knowing that they are not required to carry a blackberry and a cell phone just so they can be at the beck and call of some client with an arbitrary deadline.
4.23.2008 11:13am
ithaqua (mail):
p. rich:

Not everyone would be happy as a farmer. Indeed, I think the vast majority of people would probably hate it. (Monotonous and literally backbreaking labor, at the mercy of the weather, etc.) Does that say something significant and negative about agriculture? :)
4.23.2008 11:17am
Iolo:
Yes, but part of the former point is the myopia of college students who don't know what the options are. If you're an english major, you might not know the thousands of jobs out there but you'll certainly know all about being an english prof.

Strongly concur!

Academia is hardly some kind of default choice for college students. They all know about many other options, even if they don't know about all of them.

They are "aware" in an abstract sense that other options exist, but they don't know what these people really do all day in the same sense that they know what academics do (because they see them doing it).

I frequently hear from a few my professors--history professors--that they could easily make more money outside academe than they do now. I'm skeptical about such claims myself.

What would they be doing? I doubt they'd be making boucoup bucks reading and writing history, which is presumably what they love. I have a history PhD and am making good money not in academia, but I'm not being paid to write history (least of all "whatever history interests me" as academics get to do).
4.23.2008 11:32am
Samir Chopra (mail) (www):
Tenure, flexible schedules, the chance to work on subject-matter that interests me; these are all very significant pluses for the academic life. On the downside: college administration, committee work, looking at a class of blank-faced undergraduates, grading poorly-written papers (someone once compared grading papers to reading a 120 page novel, badly written, where every six pages are repeated 20 times). In the end, really, it comes down to those three crucial elements that make the academic life worthwhile: June, July and August.
4.23.2008 1:11pm
SeaLawyer:

I always get a laugh from those "could easily obtain far more lucrative employment in the commercial sector" comments.


Even if a law prof is able to get a much higher paying position in the private sector, you still have to factor in the hours. Prof's work an easy academic year, when look at hours/days of work vs. someone in the private sector professors make a lot of money.
4.23.2008 1:19pm
The General:
who wouldn't enjoy a job where it's near impossible to get fired regardless of how inefficient and irrelevant your work is?
4.23.2008 4:50pm
ejo:
I recall the professoriate doing a lot of poaching with attractive students. You get to set your own hours, pretty much, and not really kill yourself teaching. it's not a bad gig, much like being a federal judge-lot's more applicants, no matter what the gripes on salary, than positions. you can even say you are a libertarian while collecting a nice state paycheck.
4.23.2008 5:29pm
bearing (mail) (www):
Re: job satisfaction surveys: Are surveys accurate measures of actual happiness? I've always wondered that. Would something more objective, like measures of clinical depression among various fields, paint the same picture?
4.23.2008 7:01pm
SIG357:
I notice you don't mention the iron-clad job security as one of the benefits of the job. Nobody in the world has better job security than a tenured professor in an American university.
4.23.2008 7:04pm
EIDE_Interface (mail):

SIG357:
I notice you don't mention the iron-clad job security as one of the benefits of the job. Nobody in the world has better job security than a tenured professor in an American university.
4.23.2008 6:04pm



When Great Depression 2.0, no one will be safe.
4.23.2008 8:24pm
p. rich (mail) (www):
ithaqua: No, but it does say something about people who are comfortable making broad sweeping statements after demonstrating a lack of basic reading comprehension skills. Do you work in academia? What part of "dramatic supposition which, if accurate" is causing you difficulty?

BTW, your ignorance of modern farming methods and projected personal preference is glaringly evident. I presume you have substantiating data? [end sarcasm]
4.24.2008 10:16am