Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Winnowing, or, who promised you tenure? 

I tend to stay out of the "tenure-bad, adjunct-bad, grad school-mean" debates, but blogchild John Bruce is posting now on whether Ph.D. programs are like an MLM. Daniel Drezner is in the "toughen up, buttercup" camp, which is in part what I think too. But let me elaborate (of course! why else would you blog? --ed.)

I get confused when John continues to say "the numbers don't work", because the numbers never work if you assume all that apply, or all those admitted to grad school, are assured jobs. It's the Hoop Dreams story applied to lit majors. While certainly the pay for economics profs seldom even reaches the minimum salaries in professional sports, tenure provides a security that few can appreciate. Those inclined to lives of quiet reflection, unhurried and unfettered by the requirement to constantly sell something or produce something, compete in a tournament to receive the prize. Some will make it, many others do not. Think of baseball. Last year 1,480 players were drafted, approximately 50 per team. How many will get a taste of the bigs? Maybe three percent of them?

This tournament is obvious in sports, but there are other examples, like gaining partnerships in accountancies or law firms. My wife is a wonderful pianist, but I know a couple who are better -- and none of them is earning any real income from performance.

The question, I think, is whether tenure is a winner-take-all market. If so, you could get into the argument of whether we spend too much time and resources trying to get tenure? But that's a very different problem than a multi-level marketing scheme; the tournament can be quite honest and upfront and still inefficient.