Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Should academia be like Logan's Run? All out at 40?

A quick post, as I am still on the road.

One of my favourite movies of all time is Logan's Run (partly because of the wonderful Jenny Agutter, who was also in another fav of mine, An American Werewolf in London). The premise of the movie is that in a futuristic society, to maintain populations, children are manufactured to order and when you get to thirty years of age, you go to carousel where you float up in to the air and explode.

 Should academia be like this? Not killing everyone at 30, but how about requiring everyone to leave at 40?

Now, before you start screaming about "academic freedom" and "tenure", hear me out. I quite like the idea. Let's start with what (I think) we can all agree on.

Basically, there are not enough academic jobs, and academic pipe leaks at all stages, with talented people having to leave due to the lack of positions at the next level.

Additionally, prising academics out of their jobs is notoriously hard, with many working until they drop. This is not helped by the push on retirement ages to older and older ages (by the time I retire, in Australia the retirement age will be 70, meaning I have quarter of a century until I can "retire" - although the meaning of that is complex). And, at some point, productivity declines as we get older. Now, my paper output is much larger than when I wore a younger man's clothes, but it is because I have a group of students and postdocs. My personal research time is squeezed by all of the "non-research" academic roles, including teaching and administration etc.

I think many would agree that they would like to be a postdoc for life if they could.

Now for another truth. Academics are expensive. Cards on the table, I am a Level-E professor and my salary is public information and is currently $177,887. The salary budget is a major part of a university's cost, and it is not getting easier as academics are getting more career driven and are climbing the academic scale a lot faster. Universities would save a lot of money if I was replaced with a junior academic, with a lecturer earning almost $95,000.

So, what's my proposal. We'll many sports stars retire quite young, when their bodies are worn, and they can no longer compete with younger incoming stars. This doesn't mean that these people sit around watching afternoon TV, but find new careers. Why don't academics do the same?

My proposal:

  • At 40, academics are given the option of retiring from academia. As we are unlikely to have the funds that sports stars into retirement, the academics are offered a lump sum (3-5 years of pay?) to smooth the transition into another career. This would be cheaper than paying you for the next 30 years.
  • Universities can fill your position with a junior academic with a job until they reach 40.
  • If you decide to stay with the university, your admin and teaching loads increase to ensure the junior academics get lots of research done (but they will still have a teaching and admin role at the university).
  • The "retiring" academics can still hold adjunct positions with the university, accessing resources, supervising students (with the junior staff) and effectively becoming hobby researchers. They could potentially be still be listed on grants and access some funds to attend conferences etc. Companies could view academic commitments as a social contribution and could offer some time (10% of the working week) to these duties.
As a lot of my personal research is done out of hours, I would probably get more done. 

Of course, there is the "fear" that you won't get a job at 40, but academics are supposed to be talented, smart people who know how to learn. I am not too stupid to say that academics can magically transform into leading hedge fund managers or brain surgeons, but I doubt we'd end up on the street begging for food. Many people make career stages at many stages of their life; academics are no different.

But what if we get less pay? Well, the payout will help smooth this (and will clear many a mortgage), and we didn't get into this game to get rich now did we?

And in reality, stepping aside doesn't mean that you are exiting the game, you will still contribute and be engaged. But the fact that junior academics will get longer in the game will be better for science and human knowledge. Isn't that a good thing?


  1. The sports comparison is not that good since those who do retire are those at the top of the heap who can afford it.

    Otherwise, your proposal is not completely absurd. However, I see two small problems. First, it would have to be implemented by all institutions all over the world, otherwise the best people would go to the ones which offer permanent jobs. Second, many will want to stay on in an adjunct capacity, but only those independently wealthy enough will be able to do so, introducing more inequality into a world where only qualifications should matter.

    The biggest disadvantage, though, is that research goals will become even more short-term. Even now, tenured staff are forced to sell their long-term projects as a string of individual grants. Some things take time.

    1. Sports stars not at the top of their game also retire early and have even more of a need to find a career.

      1) Universities around the world already have different rules - we don't have tenure in Australia. Yes, it would be difficult to make everyone agree, but it doesn't mean we don't have to think about it.

      2) I was not suggesting that you "retire" and sit on your bum, but get another career - could be research in industry, in a bank etc. Academics always moan about the fact that they could earn more in industry - so why not put it into practice. Just because you move from academia does not mean you have to become a pauper. Also, the pay out will help smooth this out. There are jobs out there - I am confident I could find work *somewhere*.

      3) I am not suggesting that you leave research, just that it is not your main activity. You can keep researching as much as you like (probably have more time than being a full time academic),work with who you like, go to conferences etc. I would have more personal research time if I could do this.

    2. 0: Maybe a few, but my guess is that in most cases a sportsman earns enough to really retire, has had another job all along, or is independently wealthy.

      1: Yes, there are different rules now, but permanent vs non-permanent is such a huge difference that it might thwart your plan.

      2: I haven't heard many moan that they could earn more in industry; those who want to earn more can leave academia (of course, some can't get a job elsewhere, but it would be silly for them to moan). Yes, one can earn more outside of academia, but that is not the reason most leave. If they leave for financial reasons at all, it is usually down to job security or, at most, the need to earn 30 per cent more for a few months, not 300 per cent more forever. Also keep in mind that industry is obsessed with youth: 40 is way to old to get one's first job. Yes, you could drive a taxi. (Taxi boss: Your qualifications? Job applicant: Masters degree in physics. Taxi boss: Sorry, all my drivers have doctorates.)

      3: I think you are severely mis-judging this here, speaking as someone who has a full-time job in industry (which is just working hours, nothing extra). Apart from the fact that arXiv, some conferences etc make it difficult for folks without an institutional affiliation (a former one, as in my case, is not enough), there is no way I have more time than if I had an academic job. Think about it: For that to be the case, you would have to spend more than 100% of your time on non-research stuff. Though it might feel like that at some times, that cannot be the case. If you really believe this, put your money where your mouth is: Get a job in industry (where you can earn more than your academic salary) and have more time for research. If this were really possible, why doesn't everyone do it?

      There are better solutions for the problems you mention:

      Too few permanent jobs? For the same money, have more permanent jobs and fewer temporary jobs. This also has the side effect that people will get a permanent job earlier, so one can choose from the best, not the best of those who have managed to survive for years without a permanent job.

      Salaries too high? As you say, compared to industry they are low, but even so, if people get permanent jobs earlier on, they won't need a high salary later, since it won't be necessary to go into debt in order to survive. Most people's salary doesn't rise faster than inflation, so why should it in academia?

  2. "One of my favourite movies of all time is Logan's Run (partly because of the wonderful Jenny Agutter, who was also in another fav of mine, An American Werewolf in London)."

    But mainly because of Farrah Fawcett's nude scene, right?

    1. Was she? I don't remember. Agutter was (in the ice cave), but don't remember Fawcett.