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.