One of the more interesting questions in evaluation an individual’s academic performance is the “one hit wonder” issue. An academic, like any other producer of ideas, might have a single great achievement and produce little else in their career. And I don’t mean a big hit followed by a more modest stream of works. I mean, a big it in grad school or shortly thereafter, with very little else after that.
Outside of academia, one hit wonders present no problems to people who hand out rewards. Music fans just buy what they like, coaches cut athletes from the roster. In academia, this is trickier. First, it is often hard to tell if someone is a one hit wonder or not. Second, some types of research are just slow. We don’t want to punish a ethnographer, just because their CV doesn’t look like a demographer’s. Third, the tenure committee or dean may run into trouble if they suspect that the person won’t do much in the future. How can you fire the person who wrote a classic?
Promoting, or rewarding, one hit wonders incurs risk because professors do more than research. They teach undergraduates, mentor PhD students, do administrative work, and help out the profession by participating in conferences, peer review, editing journals, and other professional functions. Thus, we want sustained engagement from everyone who achieves a degree of stature, such as a tenured position at a reputable university. Also, a long period of inactivity may, rightly or wrongly, suggest that the person is not managing their talent well, or that the hit was a fluke.
In the end, I go on a case by case basis. If the hit was truly epochal, I’m happy to give them a job for life. A little deadwood is fine if we can get the cure for cancer in exchange. But that’s exceptionally rare. From an institution’s perspective, though, you reward people with an eye for the future. It ain’t like paying the guy who just fixed your clogged sink. You have to live with this person for decades.
In honor of its Centennial in 2013, DOL, in partnership with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, is developing a list of Books that Shaped Work in America. To get started, we’ve asked members of the DOL family, as well as many other esteemed individuals, for suggestions. That includes you! Suggest a book to add to the list.
Of course, this list is a work in progress, and essentially always will be, since — like America itself — work is constantly changing and evolving.
Already featured books include Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed, and Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker. Maybe you have additions to contribute that have altered your own outlook or those of your students?
Here are just three examples that my students have reported as either changing their lives (for example, standing up to workplace abuse) or helping them to better understand the organizational underpinnings and dynamics of the workplace:
BTW, the Bureau of Statistics under the DOL produces a handy online book (also available in print at your local library) that helps readers understand different kinds of work that they might like to pursue.
Since defending my dissertation (in 2003), I’ve worked in both academia and for the DMV. Prior to moving back to California, I was an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Texas Christian University (TCU). I’ve continued to teach as an adjunct in the Department of Sociology at CSU-Sacramento while working full-time for DMV.
There are a number of differences between the two types of organization. Some of these differences are obvious, some not. Some of these differences tend to be in favor of the academy, and others tend to be in favor of state service. First, and most obviously, there is the matter of pay and benefits. The salary range of our research program specialist series (the main job titles that are associated with research work in California state service) are roughly equivalent to the salary range of tenure-track faculty in the CSU system. In addition, we have a defined-benefit pension in retirement. On the other hand – and this point will surely hit home for this audience – working for state government involves a non-trivial step down in occupational prestige. Not a season goes by but what I have to answer some version of the question “you have a PhD and you work where?!?” Usually these questions come from persons outside the academy, and probably reflect some inherent sense of the disjuncture between having a high-status degree and working for one of the most “common” government departments (as opposed to a more “rarified” shop like the Demographic Research Unit at the state’s Department of Finance – an outfit which, I should note, does truly outstanding work). Academics may be puzzled by my position, but they are often quickly curious as to the kinds of data we have access to, the kinds of methodologies we use, the publication possibilities, etc. Those working in government are, if anything, impressed by the fact that California DMV has an R&D unit (most states don’t); they are also respectful of the fact that our agency (and the legislature) takes empirical research into account when setting policy.
In a less tangible manner, working for a government agency is stressful in different ways than teaching. While students expect professors to be available 24/7, this is not true of state service. Once the work day is done, I can go home and not worry about checking my e-mail until the next day. That said, the implications of a mistake are very different. In teaching, if we say something that isn’t quite right in lecture we can usually address it in a subsequent class session. If we make an error in a publication, we can issue an erratum. It’s embarrassing, but usually not grossly consequential. In state service, on the other hand, a mistaken statement – or worse, a faulty set of analyses and recommendations – can have real, dramatic, and long-lasting effects on policy and revenues, and ultimately on people’s lives. For that reason (among others), we have multiple layers of review for our studies and publications.
Finally, I would note that when considering a career in government service, it is useful to think about the implications of the grand logics of different types of organizations (cf. Weber 1922; Dobbin 1994; Meyer and Rowan 1977; Meyer and Scott 1983; DiMaggio and Powell 1991). We all know, for instance, that those working in for-profit businesses generally judge a given person’s performance through monetary means. It is only more rarely that we reflect on the fact that those working in government agencies tend to judge personal performance through metrics of power. In my experience, it is rarer yet that we admit the truth about academic institutions: that people are judged almost entirely in terms of reputation (and not just one’s own, but more broadly that of one’s advisor as well as one’s institutions, both past and present – see Etzkowitz, Kemelgor and Uzzi 2000). Switching from one field to another usually necessitates that one be prepared to operate under a different set of institutional rules and expectations. In the case of moving from the academy to the state, this means (among other things) caring much less about what people think about one’s work, and caring much more about making things happen.