should academia change to prevent brain drain?

Two online discussions motivate this post. First, there is the discussion of women in academia, prompted by a Slate article that reports a baby penalty for female scholars. Second, there was a recent twitter discussion about some sociologists who are leaving academia to work for Silicon Valley.

The underlying issue is that academic careers are poorly structured. They essentially require that people take low pay and job insecurity for at least ten years – assuming that you don’t do the post-doc route, that the PhD is only 5 years and you get voted for tenure at the beginning of year 6. In other words, academia requires that individuals shoulder a great deal of risk compared to other professionals. This is obviously hard for women. It is also a bad deal for people who can work in exciting fields outside of academia, such as people with strong programming skills.

The result is that academia is suffering a brain drain. We are losing all kinds of people – women, people with good technical skills, and so forth. Collectively, people just shrug their shoulders and do nothing. And it makes sense – we don’t get rewarded for improving the discipline. We only get rewarded for publication.

But, still, there are some concrete steps that we can do. For example, to help retain women, we should actively make it easier to have children and raise them earlier in the life course. Parental leave is good, but also we should pull back on service work for pre-tenure faculty. For programmers, we should think about structuring PhD programs in ways that don’t sprawl into decade long endeavors and this astronomically increase the opportunity cost of academia.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 20, 2013 at 12:05 am

Posted in academia, fabio

33 Responses

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  1. Who is leaving for Silicon Valley?


    June 20, 2013 at 4:42 am

  2. Apples and oranges. Mothers are being pushed out because of the concealed masculinity of academic careers. People with marketable technical skills are being lured away (pull factor) by decent compensation and cool work. The thing is there is substantial supply and relatively few vacancies, so the latter issue is a good thing since it creates mobility opportunities. If anything, salaries have to go up as a response. The former needs to be addressed, however.


    June 20, 2013 at 4:59 am

  3. The appeal of Silicon Valley for skilled doctoral students is not just money. Working at a start up or at an elite tech company (Google, Facebook, etc.) often gives them a chance to do interesting and challenging work. In many cases SV will provide a doctoral student with smarter, more creative, and committed colleagues than a mediocre academic job, money notwithstanding. I think we in academia underestimate the value that people put on working with entrepreneurial colleagues who think they can change the world—it is infectious. Also, money doesn’t hurt.


    June 20, 2013 at 2:07 pm

  4. Since being at Kellogg, we’ve lost two grad students to Silicon Valley. Actually, they both went to Google. In one case the student completed the PhD and then immediately left academia, and in the other situation the student left after completing prelim exams. But I don’t see it as a “brain drain.” I think both students figured out they’d be happier working for a tech organization than be a professor. I say it’s better to figure that out now than wait until you’re in the middle of a tenure process. Everyone is better off/happier if you find a workplace that fits your needs and personality.

    brayden king

    June 20, 2013 at 3:13 pm

  5. The tweet that Fabio is referring to was mine; it was about multiple friends of mine finishing their PhDs and heading to Facebook. I am leaving academia for a tech job, though in Seattle and not in Silicon Valley. I know of at least two assistant professors (though not in sociology) who are also leaving to work for tech firms.

    My decision was partly pragmatic (my publication record is not strong and I did not succeed on the academic job market), but comments made by sh above also reflect my decision not to try again on the market. The incentives to stay in academia for those of us with technical skills are dropping relative to those in industry.

    Brayden’s comments are a little off to my eye as the option to “wait until you’re in the middle of a tenure process” presumes that getting an academic job is a foregone conclusion. Each of my friends that have left academia for the tech sector have been among the best and brightest of recent PhDs (myself excluded) that I’ve known and have found the social sciences to be frustratingly slow-moving and reluctant to embrace methodological and substantive innovation.

    It’s a relatively recent development, but it’s now possible for a PhD to find an intellectually stimulating home away from academia absent some of the well-known downsides of academia (autonomy over where one lives, low pay, the often seemingly capricious publication process, etc.).

    Trey Causey

    June 20, 2013 at 3:45 pm

  6. Trey – I wholeheartedly agree that getting a job in the tech sector is an intellectually stimulating outcome for the many who make that transition. My comment was intended in the spirit of not thinking of exit from academia as a loss but rather as an opportunity. As tenure-line faculty in research departments, we spend a lot of time worrying about student placement and sometimes, I think erroneously, we act as if being placed in a tech job or in the nonprofit sector is a failure on our part. But that’s not really the case. Transitioning out of academia is a good choice for some people. Clearly, we should do our best to help ensure that those students who want academic jobs get them, but we shouldn’t turn up our noses when students succeed in getting good jobs outside of academia.

    The two students in my program who left academia felt exactly the way that your friends do. Google is a much faster-moving and, in many ways, no less rewarding intellectual environment than academia. Outside of academia, the tech industry may be one of the best places for an intellectually curious scholar to thrive.

    brayden king

    June 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm

  7. It seems strange to describe something as “drain” when you’re talking about a system that creates an order of magnitude more supply than can be consumed internally. Is there “corn drain” from Iowa? I’d much rather see my own grad students get good jobs in industry than be exploited as adjuncts or go into a field where they’re not using their skills at all. If there’s a systematic bias by demographics or skill set then that may be a problem, but overall if industry wants to provide productive use and remunerative compensation to our PhDs when we cannot then that’s not a bug but a feature and moreover it’s a more fundamental issue than could be solved with open access journals or counting service in tenure evals or even replacing tenure with five year renewable contracts.

    This is doubly so if you take a “winter is coming” approach to academia and assume that liberal arts and non-research land grant colleges are vulnerable to disruptive business models, and over the next generation there will be a hollowing out of the academic middle class and even lower demand for PhDs within academia.


    June 20, 2013 at 4:42 pm

  8. Brayden – Like Trey, I am a bit dismayed by your response. Imagine this: if you were a human resources consultant for a firm that was consistently losing top talent, would you shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh well, working for us isn’t the only good career outcome. We are too obsessed with having people work for us.”

    No – you wouldn’t! You start asking tough questions. Maybe your client doesn’t pay enough, maybe there’s a bad working environment or inflexible hours, and so forth. Sure, maybe the company was a bad fit for some folks, but if it’s a bad fit for the type of people you really want to work there, then you have to ask some hard questions. In other words, don’t blame the people who left- look in the mirror.

    Here’s the bottom line: We are now at a point of amazing scientific discovery. We have human genome data, social media data, all kinds of incredible data and we need people with top technical skills. If we just wave bye-bye to people like Trey and pretend that it’s a good outcome, sociology, and other disciplines, will be on the sidelines of scientific progress.


    June 20, 2013 at 4:42 pm

  9. So I guess this is the first time in academic history that people leave for industry jobs? Of course we have to monitor the system, but a few stories shouldn’t really bother data driven researchers, should it?


    June 20, 2013 at 5:47 pm

  10. Anon – Of course not, but (a) the magnitude of the incentive is huge – a 22 year old programmer can *immediately* make more than a full professor in most arts and sciences – that’s new, (b) sociology has not suffered a brain drain yet, it may be a first for our field, or second, if you look at the migration of org theory people to b-schools.


    June 20, 2013 at 5:49 pm

  11. oh yeah, UConn lost a guy to Google, didn’t realize it went beyond that


    June 20, 2013 at 6:51 pm

  12. I think the best solution would be to foster a more distinctly non-corporate environment at universities. Upon graduation, smart people should be given a clear choice between a workplace where they can earn a lot of money and work with cutting edge technology, on the one hand, and, on the other, one where they have the time and freedom to satisfy their own curiosity at their own pace and without worrying about how to turn whatever they discover into a patentable gadget or pill, and how to secure their next promotion.

    That way you wouldn’t get brain drain. You’d just get brains choosing environments in which they function best.

    That means reversing trends that have been transforming higher education and public research since WWII (at least), mind you. The reason smart people are fleeing universities (if they are) is that the working conditions are (if they are) increasingly corporate, characterized by working towards strategic goals and satisfying performance indicators, largely subject to an “up or out” mentality, but without comparable compensation. (I apologize for that “if they are” hedge; I say pace to those who would disagree with that characterization of the “enterprise university” and congratulations on having found a job that is an exception to the rule.)


    June 20, 2013 at 7:44 pm

  13. All academics in the life sciences could make more in private business – why don’t they have a brain drain?! (Sauerman has written a few great papers on the indviduals’ motivation within academia and industry. Again, I am not saying that the academic world shouldn’t monitor their own situation but it sounds ridiculous to talk about a brain drain. It’s not new that technically skilled sociology students can earn more money elsewhere – anyone tech skilled soc has been able to go to financial institutions for decades.
    If I get data on a brain drain I would think differently, but haven’t heard about this within management – nothing beyond what is usual.


    June 20, 2013 at 8:04 pm

  14. Anon – The reason it hasn’t crippled the life sciences is that professors can get high salaries and share in patents. You are right about motivation – academic vs. industry researchers are different. But if we paid $60,000 per year for PhD biochemist in the medical school, you’d see a big drop in the number of people applying, like you do in other areas.


    June 20, 2013 at 8:09 pm

  15. There is plenty of supply. If you are a structuralist, then you know that the difference in human capital between faculty at institutions ranked 10 versus 20 is probably smallish. Most of difference in career paths can be attributed to structural mobility and differential opportunities. If people leave, there will be plenty of people to fill those slots.

    Only about 20% of my starting cohort (at a top 5) got R1 tenure-track jobs. Most left for industry, and the rest ended up at other universities and colleges. I wish Trey the best, but the situation you describe has been the rule (just in a new industry, as opposed to market research, for example). This is good and should be viewed as a success. A new career path for sociology grad students is a good thing and will make us stronger.

    Curious to know why nobody on this thread seems to care about the motherhood penalty, which is a problem.


    June 20, 2013 at 8:52 pm

  16. Fabio – Why are you dismayed? Like Gabriel says we produce more supply than there is demand. We should be thrilled when our students find jobs that they are good at and that they love, even if they’re not in our ideal setting. I can say a little about the two cases with which I’m familiar. Nobody gave up on these students. In both cases, faculty did everything they could to help them find their pathway in academia but in the end both students found jobs outside of academia more rewarding. Good for them, I say.

    I don’t like your analogy of the HR consultant. We are more like agents than we are HR people. It’s not as if we can hire our own students. As faculty we try to help all of our students find the best jobs for them. Usually, that means placing them in a top research program (which I should add Northwestern is very good at and our program, in particular, has a very good reputation at doing this). If they’re not successful in landing in a top research institution or if they do not want that type of job, we try to help them find a job period. In a small number of cases, the students don’t need our help. Industry comes looking for them and they’re happy to go.

    By the way, this advice about preventing “brain drain” seems completely inconsistent with your grad school rule about knowing when to quit. One good reason for quitting grad school is because you figure out your personality and intellectual habits are better suited for another type of job. Why would we want to force a student to stay in a job that he/she is likely to hate? I think it’s a bad idea to force our ideals on a student. So I say, in those cases when a student finds a job to which he or she is better suited and that is ultimately more satisfying to the student. we’d be doing a disservice if we tried to prevent that “brain drain.”

    brayden king

    June 20, 2013 at 8:54 pm

  17. Soc prof: It is a problem because people like Trey are scarce in sociology and we need them. When he leaves, he won’t be replace by another highly skilled programmer type. There’s a good chance he’ll be replaced by a traditional survey analyst, or an ethnographer, or a historical sociologists.

    This has gotten to be so much of a problem that research projects (including my own in the past) simply can’t proceed and have grounded to a halt. In a cohort of 20 PhD students, only one or two will have these skills. And i don’t have the budget to hire people from engineering.

    Yes, I am happy that there is now a good, well paid career path. But we work for science, not Google. The academy needs sharp people and if they leave, we need to ask why.


    June 20, 2013 at 8:57 pm

  18. I think what Fabio is saying is that for the social sciences to continue to be relevant, we will need people who have the technical skills required to work with the new types of data he mentions in the original post. The problem is not that some people are leaving to work outside of academia, it’s that academic sociology (and perhaps the social sciences more broadly) has trouble holding onto people with those types of technical skills because the opportunity cost associated with staying in academia is too high.


    June 20, 2013 at 9:06 pm

  19. Brayden – We are not agents. We are managers of the university system. We have two goals – education and research. We have plenty of teachers. We have an over supply. But, in some areas, we have an under supply of outstanding researchers. If we had dozens of sociologists working on human genome data, or other big data, then I wouldn’t be worried. But we don’t and those that are working on it are leaving quite a bit. In other words, if we care about the institution of the university, then we should care about keeping people. Do you want the faculty to be filled with people who couldn’t hack it in other areas?

    Re: when to quit. My advice is consistent. I say that people should quit when they (a) simply don’t care about research, (b) they aren’t competitive enough or (c) they simply don’t want the life style.

    But still, that doesn’t mean we can’t compete on the margin. A lot of people would like this career if, say, the PhD didn’t take 7 years (!). Or publication wasn’t so darned slow. Other disciplines realize this and have responded. For example, B-schools have lots of competition for labor but they don’t just give up. They offer higher salaries. Good research funds, etc. In soc, we’re collectively shrugging our shoulders. That shows a profound lack of foresight.


    June 20, 2013 at 9:08 pm

  20. OK, I see what you are getting at. Maybe the solution is to push up some infrastructure around “network science” or “computational social science” – make it more prominent in the discipline, which means more tenure-track lines devoted to the area. We could use an ASA section (Section on Computational Sociology) in this area. We could push for being a part of the campus-wide efforts devoted to computational social science, etc. This might solidify an industry and academic pathway for the more technical among us.

    There is currently a Soc of Pop ASA section and the PAA. Why not a network/computational science section and INSNA?

    At my own institution, there is a lot of talk about building up “big data” infrastructure. Social scientists are part of the conversation, but we are a bit of an afterthought. Following your point, if we made it a bigger topic in sociology, that might help us in the competition with other disciplines.


    June 20, 2013 at 9:12 pm

  21. ps, although i think overall it’s a good thing if industry wants to hire our students, I agree with Fabio that Trey has a skill set that we should be developing and there’s something wrong with sociology that it didn’t retain him when he sought a faculty job. I see this as being as much about the reviewers as the search committees since I can’t really blame the search committees for going by publication record. I’ve been a reviewer for stuff similar to Trey’s work and I can assure you the other reviewers don’t grok it so it’s a fight to get it to publication. In this sense changes to the journal review process might help with the allocation, even if I stand by what I said about raw numbers meaning we should be glad to place outside academia. Regardless, I’m glad Trey has a good job now even as I’ll soon miss him being an active member of the academic part of the discipline.


    June 20, 2013 at 9:19 pm

  22. I think there are two different things going on here. At one level we’re talking about the very personal relationships we have with particular graduate students and the kind of advice we give them about taking jobs. At that level we have to be conscious of the opportunity costs they are likely to face in choosing one career over another and be honest about the kinds of constraints and opportunities of an academic career. We can’t send them into academia wishfully thinking that they will be able to change academic culture on their own. I believe on this level we operate more as agents or career counselors and that we need to be concerned about the students’ needs and happiness when doling out advice.

    At a macro level we are talking about the institutions and rules that shape academic careers. If we want to change the job opportunities that are available to data scientists, we need institutional entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and create new mediums for academic publishing, new ways to reward innovative research, and other institutional changes that make it easier for these types of scientists to stay in academia. For example, institutional entrepreneurs like the editors of Sociological Science fit in this category. They are very aware that the publishing cycle in sociology is way too slow for scientists working on the frontier of big data analysis. At this level, we are working more like managers/leaders/entrepreneurs.

    In academia we’re constantly switching between these roles. One minute I’m offering a Phd student fairly personal advice about how to manage work-life balance, and at the next I’m in a committee meeting where we are discussing strategic initiatives. I think it’s smart to give advice to students that you think will help them attain a happier life (which may include letting them off the hook when they’re talking about taking a job at Microsoft), while at the same time trying to change institutions so that academia can retain students like that in the future. The reality is though that universities are slow-moving, durable entities, and sociology as a discipline is particularly slow to change.

    brayden king

    June 20, 2013 at 9:27 pm

  23. One more thing – there are hybrid jobs out there that allow researchers to stay engaged in academia and independent research without being employed by a university. They get all of the research benefits of academia without any teaching responsibilities (which is either a positive or a negative, depending on your tastes). I’m thinking of places like Microsoft and Google that have research divisions that encourage academic quality research. These jobs are amazing places to be! They give you large research budgets, encourage flexibility in choosing your research projects and intellectual pursuits, pay for conferences, and give incentives for publishing in academic journals. These kinds of jobs are increasingly common in communications. danah boyd is a great example of this type of scholar. I know of at least one sociologist who is in a top 10 department who had a similar position offered to him or her at a top technology company.

    brayden king

    June 20, 2013 at 9:33 pm

  24. A discussion over a paper at an orgs conference I just attended underlined that firms will usually partner with academics as a *last* resort to find discovery and innovation, because we are notoriously slow dinosaurs. The evidence in economic history echoes the fact — the technological explosion demarcating the Industrial Revolution was predicated in only a very fractional sense on primary science. Most productive knowledge and social problem solving isn’t created in primary science — it’s created by tinkerers and practitioners in the street (or at Google).

    So I don’t see that the social loss is large when good students move from the academy to private industry. These, to me, are all good things regardless what it means for a particular social institution which may lose in the creative destruction.

    Towards remedying: @socprofessor’s suggestions are great.

    Graham Peterson

    June 20, 2013 at 9:46 pm

  25. As someone with this skill set who will be on the job market within the next few years I feel obliged to reply to this thread.

    Personally, I feel split between the two currents. On one hand, yes, the cutting edge research with big data is happening at Google/MS/Silicon Valley. On the other hand, those firms don’t always have the same concerns that sociologists have and are, more often than not, trying to eventually push out some sort of product. I’ve interned with a more research-oriented group at Microsoft but its eventual goal was to enhance elements of a product (in this case, Windows Vista. I take no responsibility for that mess). I figure the research arms of these companies operate less on a product-centric timeline but places like Microsoft Research are few and far in between. danah boyd is probably more of the exception rather than the rule.

    I would much rather see sociology incorporate these methods and the people trained/inclined to employ them rather than leave the bulk of the work to the firms that can more readily adapt and incorporate them. But I know this is less realistic, for the aspects that others have outlined above. As Brayden mentioned, it’s going to take some institutional entrepreneurs who are open to risk to make this happen.

    Also, I will gladly pay cash money to found a computational sociology ASA section.


    June 21, 2013 at 7:59 pm

  26. Yeah, I’m honestly really surprised that there is not already a computational soc section at ASA and I would definitely be inclined to join such a session if there were one. I mean, we have animals and society, but not computational soc?


    June 21, 2013 at 8:39 pm

  27. Here are the procedures:

    There are a couple of sections that we could draw on for signatures: Mathematical Sociology, CITASA, Economic Sociology, Rationality and Society, and Methodology. We will need a core set of faculty to make the push. I am willing if there are other faculty members willing to do outreach as well.


    June 21, 2013 at 8:56 pm

  28. Why not just push the mathematical sociology people to change the section to “Mathematical and Computational Sociology”? It’s one of the smallest sections, they might welcome new enthusiasm.


    June 21, 2013 at 10:03 pm

  29. […] week Fabio had a really interesting post about brain drain in academia. One reason we might see less big data than we’d like is because the skills […]

  30. I agree with Jeremy. I think we should reduce the number of sections in ASA rather than increase them. But that is a conversation for a different thread.


    June 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm

  31. […] earlier post on the academic brain drain prompted some good discussion in the comments about students who have computational skills who […]

  32. […] earlier post on the academic brain drain prompted some good discussion in the comments about students who have computational skills who […]

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