Down the up staircase: longevity and academics

Forty years. That’s at least how long an academic career can last, if you start at 30 and retire at 70. There is no mandatory retirement age (at least in the UK and US) and, unlike most people, tenured academics rarely lose their jobs. For older academics (say over 50) increased longevity can be accompanied by the right to work as long as one wants.

The usual career pattern – always sideways or up, rarely down – means that academics spend 20 years at near-maximum salary and with a tight grip on institutional power and hiring practices. This isn’t actually bad for productivity since studies convincingly show that aging doesn’t affect productivity. And the ability to work into old age is attractive to researchers whose salaries often lag the business sector.

But academic aging-in-place is a serious problem for young people trying to get a job at a university or research lab. With no (or very low) growth, a research university with 1000 faculty can only hire 25 people a year across all departments. For the next couple of decades, limits on hiring are actually much tighter because well over half of tenured faculty are over 50. But young people are a key source of fresh ideas, innovation and energy and are sorely needed by the research enterprise.

These challenges have been exacerbated because PhD enrolments and graduations are common metrics of faculty success, and the best faculty often produce one or more newly graduated PhDs a year. Of necessity, many of these PhDs find jobs outside research universities or institutions, and – happily – are now being sought by a rapidly-growing tech business sector. But there remains a serious over-supply of highly talented and capable PhDs who are raring to get – and who deserve – research jobs. In partial response to the shortage of jobs, long (5+ year) postdocs have become common, but they just extend the waiting time without changing the odds of eventual success.

Here I propose a new plan: restructure academic career trajectories to retain established and tried talent while opening up new room for young people. My proposal is that careers should be sort of parabolic. An academic would start a career as an assistant professor and work her way up to tenure and a full professorship – this is standard. But now the maximum time spent at top rank would be limited to a maximum of say 20 years. And after the first 10 years at top rank, there would be reviews to determine if a further 5 year term at that rank is warranted. After 20 years (or sooner, if review warrants) a full professor would move down in rank and salary to associate professor for 5-10 years; after that, the option would be to stay on but as an assistant professor for 5-10 years. We could argue over the durations, but these changes would keep older faculty active and engaged while paid enough to maintain a reasonable living standard along with medical care and savings programs (essential in the US work force).

Most important, my proposal would significantly ease budgets that are currently constrained by a top-rank-heavy faculty. The money saved would open up jobs for young people, and make it possible to attract, employ and motivate fresh talent we badly need. The short-run effect – measured in new jobs – could be substantial.

I am not suggesting that we do away with tenure – this plan won’t affect job security (tenured people can be fired but not easily). What would change is the age-pattern of earnings and of power and influence that go with rank. This plan won’t change the age structure of research universities. What would change is the age-structure of ranks within academia.

The change I propose would quickly open up budgets and jobs. These effects would be magnified in the first decade or so because current faculties are so top-heavy. But in the longer term, we need more. For one thing, the durations and transitions in my plan could be indexed to increasing longevity. But more fundamentally, enrolments of new PhD students will need to be matched, at least roughly, to the long-term growth of the economy’s knowledge sector.

Shripad Tuljapurkar

4 thoughts on “Down the up staircase: longevity and academics

  1. Tulja, Your plan would free up budget for salaries, but what about lab space and startup? I think universities are nearly as constrained by lab space in finding room for new hires in the sciences as they are for salary funds. And new science faculty cost more than their salaries would indicate because they receive big startup packages.
    Since, as you say, the problem is really the overgrowth in Ph.D enrollments compared to need for new Ph.D’s, maybe the parabolic slide downward after reaching full professor rank should be a restriction on the number of new Ph.D. students faculty are allowed to take on. That would give the junior faculty plenty of opportunities to make their careers, while restricting the overall supply.

  2. I couldn’t agree more about the problem – in fact, in a current grant proposal, my “training/mentoring” section states explicitly that the oversupply of Ph.Ds is a problem and that I refuse to train too many Ph.Ds just to boost my CV.

    While I certainly think your plan is better than nothing, I have a couple reservations. First, it assumes a steady state of Ph.D supply. There is a substantial chance that offering more academic posts would simply encourage more students to pursue Ph.Ds, especially since all these new faculty would now be itching to pad their CVs with Ph.D students. It’s kind of like grant success rates: 15-20% is about a long-term stable success rate. If the rate is much lower, people stop applying, and if it’s much higher, more start applying, unless there are other constraints involved.

    Second, lower salaries at the end of careers would encourage more older faculty to take early retirement. In many cases this would be good, but in many others we want to keep some of the grand old sages producing as long as possible. If it’s money to pay salaries we lack, why not just lower everyone’s salary? From a supply and demand perspective, this makes sense. As a starting professor, I received a higher salary than my father when he retired about 10 years ago. I could live on less, and I would gladly do so to have a career doing what I love.

    I agree that we should have more researcher positions than we do currently, since the current number of positions is largely an artifact of an era when data was much less available and there was less to be researched. However, I think the crux of the solution to the Ph.D problem is to have stricter admissions criteria and to train fewer Ph.D students. We should not judge researcher CVs based on the number of students trained, but on the quality – there should be a disincentive to take mediocre students. Further, the number of government-financed Ph.D fellowships should be strictly controlled to correspond to market forces. For example, I should not be able to use grant funds to pay for Ph.D stipends – all Ph.D stipends should be obtained through (Canadian) federal or provincial scholarships.

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