Chapter 4 -- Career Strategies | Pierre van den Berghe

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Having spent considerable time, effort, and money on the acquisition of a Ph.D., the young academic now faces the problem of maximizing returns, material and others, on his investment. He is now assured a genteel existence with a comfortable income, abundant leisure, and relative freedom from the insecurities of unemployment, illness, and old age. But, depending on how he plays his cards, he may sink into the oblivion and obscurity of a third-rate college as a mere teacher of undergraduates, or he may rise to the lofty eminence of the professional elite, enjoy the luxuries of life, become a member of the international jet set, and hover around the corridors of power.

We shall confine ourselves here to careers within academia proper---on the staffs of universities and colleges---omitting para-academic employment in foundations, public and private research corporations, and the like. Within academia, three main paths are open which we may provisionally call administration, research, and teaching. These three labels are somewhat misleading because they suggest mutually exclusive activities, and because they imply that one who chooses the "teaching" path spends most of his time in the classroom. Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to the "teachers" as the "mainstream." Let us turn to this category first, as it includes at least eighty percent of all academics.

The mainstream consists of those people who hold a regular, graded appointment in a teaching department of a university or college---i.e., the instructors, lecturers, assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors of zoology, romance languages, psychology, and so on. While such appointments almost invariably involve some teaching, professors are also expected to do research and to serve on committees and other administrative bodies. In fact, the more successful professors do very little teaching, but nevertheless, their posts are defined as teaching ones; the backbone of the university's structure is organized around teaching departments.

A mainstream post offers more security of tenure than the other two categories, and the status that attaches to it is unambiguous. Your rank and university place you on a specific rung of the double prestige ladder of academia. Time spent in the junior ranks of lecturer or assistant professor puts you in line for tenure and promotion even if your publication record is mediocre. The detailed tactics of mainstream career advancement deserve a chapter to themselves, but before we turn to them in Chapter Five, let us briefly examine the other two career paths.

The neophyte might think that a research post is the golden road to academic fame, and hence will frequently let himself be lured by a seemingly attractive job in a research organization associated with a university. Frequently these jobs are doubly alluring because they involve no teaching at all, and because the salaries are substantially above that which a beginner could earn in an assistant professorship. The young Ph.D., who by now has thoroughly internalized the norm that teaching is to be avoided and that research is all that counts, jumps at such opportunities to put his dreams into practice. Little does he appreciate the shortcomings of his career choice.

First, the salary differential is more apparent than real. Mainstream jobs are usually for nine months and can easily be supplemented by summer teaching or research. Research posts, on the other hand are usually for eleven or twelve months. In most cases, the misleading differential disappears if one computes the monthly figure by dividing teaching salaries into nine rather than twelve.

Second, research jobs are frequently supported by some research grant which runs for a limited number of years, often no more than five years. Thus, they lack permanence and security.

Third, the research conducted in those institutes is frequently designed and even partially executed by others, so the individual loses much independence of action. The research director may be able to determine research policy, but he is typically so busy running his institute that he has no time to do much actual research himself and is in fact an administrator of research funds and personnel. His subordinates are interdependent parts of a team, not autonomous intellectuals free to pursue their own fancies.

Fourth, it follows from the above that the individual also loses his freedom to publish what and when he wants. Since the research is typically communal, so is most published work, and, much as in the proverbial ship convoy, the speed of the team is determined by its slowest member. This means that material for publication is often delayed (if it ever comes out at all), and at early career stages this can be quite crippling.

Fifth, research jobs do not have any well-defined status in the academic hierarchy. They do not clearly convey to a prospective employer reading a candidate's vita where the candidate ought to fit in the mainstream ranking system. This in turn means that if a person seeks to enter the mainstream from a research post, his placement will be almost solely determined by his publications. It also means that he will frequently have to take a salary cut.

Finally, a research position frequently isolates you from most colleagues in your discipline, and hence puts you outside the hottest circuits of influence in the job market.

And so it follows that research jobs are often more limiting than teaching jobs in terms of what research you can do, that they tend to delay rather than hasten publication, and that, being ephemeral, they force most people back into the mainstream at a later stage. In the vast majority of cases, the point of entry into that mainstream is lower than if the person had started a few years earlier as an assistant professor. Only a highly prolific printed output can ward off that fate, and the publication outlook as we have seen is frequently worse than in a teaching post. The few exceptions to the rule are people with the push and ability to succeed in spite of their mistakes. Regular academic departments at major universities are the safest havens and offer the best prospects of advancement in academia.

There remains to consider the path of college or university administration. Until well into the 20th century, American colleges and universities had a fairly simple table of organization. They had a president and board of trustees, half a dozen deans with their secretaries, and a chairman for each department. Frequently the most senior member of the department was the permanent chairman of it. Deanships were offered to professors who had outlived their usefulness as productive scholars but who were still a few years short of retirement age, and had shown a flair for not antagonizing their colleagues and not rocking the boat. And presidents achieved their position by dressing in respectable Ivy League suits, by making tolerable after-dinner speeches at alumni functions, by expressing conservative political views to their boards of trustees and liberal ones to their faculty, and by being able to make the wealthy disgorge part of their ill-acquired gains for the construction of buildings named after them.

These idyllic days are over. Academic administration has become a specialty in its own right: college bureaucracies assume more and more imposing proportions; and the links between academic bureaucrats and their teaching colleagues become increasingly tenuous. Today we have vice-presidents, provosts, associate deans, assistant deans, administrative assistants, executive secretaries, assistant chairmen, deputy provosts, and so on, not to mention armies of typists caressing the keys of their electric machines, miniskirted filing clerks brushing their slender hips along rows of metal cabinets, and receptionists whispering seductively over the telephone.

Department chairmen are hybrids between teaching staff and administrators. Traditionally, their position was fairly permanent and wielded more authority than is the case now. The more mediocre a college, the more the old pattern of autocratic and permanent chairmen persists, and the more a department headship is still regarded as a desirable job. Professionally weak departments make for strong chairmen, and vice versa. At first-rate universities, however, chairmen have lost virtually all power, and the material rewards are not commensurate with the load of trivial, uninteresting tasks that go with the job. Like other administrators, chairmen are on year-round jobs, and, apart from one or two extra months' salary and bigger offices, get no advantages over other senior colleagues. The main function of a modern chairman is to serve as an intermediary and a negotiator between his staff and the dean. Most of all, he must fight for promotions and salary raises, for a bigger budget, and for new appointments. While the old-style department head was a kind of foreman over his colleagues, the new-style chairman is more like a shop steward.

At major institutions, chairmanships are so unattractive that they are regarded as a chore which full professors are morally obliged to assume in rotation for a period of two to five years on the average. Sometimes they even have to be filled by associate professors for lack of full professors willing to assume the self-defeating task of keeping their colleagues happy and of getting A promoted without antagonizing B. To make the job less onerous, executive secretaries and assistant chairmen take care of the more routine tasks, and the important decisions are taken in most cases by formal committees or by an informal oligarchy of full professors, rather than by the chairman himself.

Thus the chairman's main job is to be a perpetual mendicant to the dean on behalf of his department, and to sign a voluminous correspondence. The chairman has the worse of both worlds: he assumes administrative responsibilities without effective power, and loses the leisure and independence of the ordinary professor.

If one wants to become an administrator, then one might as well make a clean break with the mainstream and become a dean. Deans used to be promoted (some might say "demoted") from the ranks of full professors, especially those who had proven themselves in departmental chairmanships. A deanship was a decorous solution to intellectual senescence, a process which in the physical sciences and mathematics begins in one's thirties, and in the humanities and social sciences not all that much later.

Today, the trend is increasingly for the administrative path to bifurcate from the mainstream earlier, and for the two to become more and more tenuously related. The way to a deanship is more and more through an assistant and associate deanship, rather than through a professorship and departmental headship. The fiction that administrators remain academics is still preserved, and most senior administrators retain a nominal affiliation with a teaching department, but a young man can now opt quite early for a distinctly administrative career and work his way up the hierarchy from assistant dean to president.

What, then, are the advantages, if any, of an administrative career? The first one is that intellectual mediocrity is less likely to show up in an administrative job than in a teaching one. Academic administration is probably more cumbersome, dilatory, and inefficient than other bureaucracies, and administrators can easily avoid the charge of incompetence by blaming the system. Indeed much of this inefficiency is due to the facts that the lines of authority are not clear, that professors do not let themselves be pushed around and will sabotage by passive resistance any reform of which they do not approve, and that much of the decision-making is diffused through a slow-moving committee structure.

An administrative career will also appeal to persons who enjoy "working with" (i.e., manipulating) people. Deanships vary greatly in prestige and power depending on the status of those who are manipulated. Thus, deans of students, deans of admissions, and deans of graduate schools have relatively low prestige because they push around mere students. Conversely, the dean of arts and sciences, as the key pusher of the largest bulk of the faculty at a university, is usually top dog among deans, and often the second most powerful person after the president. However, his actual power over staff is severely curtailed by the effective use of resignation threats. Professors have little need for collective bargaining because their individual bargaining is so effective.

Generally, deans and other high-ranking administrators do not enjoy either the power or the prestige commensurate to their official rank in the university hierarchy. The internationally known professor is the prima donna of the university, not the dean who in most cases is a purely local figure. The person who is intrinsically interested in power and administration will thus probably do better if he joins government, a large business corporation, or a foundation. As bureaucracies go, academic ones are fairly low­ powered.

The material rewards of university administration are probably the most tangible ones. The one thing that college bureaucrats can do quite well is to maneuver themselves into salaries that their generally modest intellectual endowment could not earn them in mainstream jobs. They are also remarkably successful in arrogating to themselves such fringe benefits as plentiful office space and reserved parking spots. The Nobel Prize winner in physics may have to spend fifteen minutes every morning hunting for a place to leave his VW, but the associate dean of men will have his reserved parking on the doorstep of his office. All these material advantages, however, are purchased at the cost of considerable loss in leisure compared to the mainstream academic who works some eight months a year.

In conclusion, the academic administrator is neither fish nor fowl. The person with a bureaucratic vocation can do better outside universities and colleges, and the person with an academic vocation can do better in the mainstream if he is any good. Only at mediocre universities (characterized by weak faculties and tyrannical administrations) is it really worthwhile to become a campus bureaucrat. But then who wants to be at a mediocre university?

A few words remain to be said about two types of academics: the "locals" and the "cosmopolites."[8] We have seen that academics belong to two communities of scholars---the geographically dispersed members of their discipline, and the localized members of their university or college. Those to whom the first group is most important are the cosmopolites, while the locals focus their life and aspirations on their campus. Some professors are active both in their home campus and in their professional association, but most of them can be fairly readily classified as belonging to one of the two categories. Locals have deeper roots in the campus and town; they serve on a lot of university committees; they belong to the Faculty Club; they give free talks to church and business groups; they join various voluntary associations in town; they do not !ravel much; they receive few outside offers and therefore show great loyalty to their institution and change jobs infrequently; they publish little; they get involved in university and municipal or state politics; and a few of the more successful ones finish their careers as deans or provosts. To a layman, locals may look like the big wheels at their universities, and indeed much of the local decision-making is in their hands because the cosmopolites could not care less who becomes head librarian or whether the Faculty Club should organize bridge tournaments. But locals, by definition, are not big-league academics. [Author's Note 8: The terms were first used by Alvin W. Gouldner, one of those rare, civilized sociologists who know how to write.]

Cosmopolites, on the other hand, travel a lot to conferences and professional meetings; avoid time-consuming committee assignments and other chores at their university; publish as much and teach as little as they can; strike few local roots and are prepared to pull them up on a fortnight's notice; and play politics in their professional association where, if successful, they may end up elected president. Cosmopolites tend to be contemptuous of locals, and the locals envious of cosmopolites. The successful cosmopolite gets plenty of job offers, and consequently can extract more from his home university than can locals through long years of devoted service.

It might be supposed that only people of exceptional ability become successful cosmopolites, but this is far from true. While getting known through one's published work certainly is a way of reaching the top of one's profession and of acquiring an international reputation, these aims can also be achieved by studiously attending conventions, cultivating the influentials, editing and reviewing the works of others, infiltrating the key committees of one's association, canvassing for elective office, agitating for popular causes, and otherwise enhancing one's visibility and audibility wherever colleagues meet. It is doubtful that successful cosmopolites are of much greater intellectual caliber than successful locals. Cosmopolites simply have a different life style and enjoy higher prestige. The more able academics are generally attracted by the cosmopolitan style, but they are not necessarily successful in association politics. Conversely, mediocrity gives one no assurance of success as a local, and some prominent locals are very able chaps who might have made good as cosmopolites.

The great superiority of the cosmopolites over the locals is that the former nearly always win hands down over the latter in competing for the rewards of a given university. The great irony of academia is that faithful locals are scarcely ever rewarded for their hard work; they do not have the option of leaving their university, and hence they are taken for granted and are passed over in promotion and salary raises. The cosmopolite, by threatening to leave and thus expressing his lack of loyalty to his university, can in fact get much more out of it than the local. Whether he stays or leaves, the cosmopolite ends up ahead, simply because he has options. By contrast, the local's only chance of success is an appointment to a high administrative post. To the naïve dismay of locals, cosmopolites almost always beat them on their own home grounds.

It follows from the above, then, that the sensible academic will want to enter the mainstream through an appointment in a teaching department, and that he will follow a cosmopolitan strategy of career advancement. Let us now see in greater detail how he must play that game.

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