the magic level of academia

A long time ago, I learned that you didn’t need to be a scientist or scholar to become a professor. I think it was sometime after Michael Dukakis had run for president because I remember being surprised that a politician became a professor. Dukakis wasn’t alone. Many politicians acquire positions in universities after their political careers are over, including a few at my own institution such as the late Richard Lugar and Lee Hamilton.

I was reminded of this fact a little while back when I counseling a graduate student. I was giving the standard advice. Write good dissertation chapters, show your committee, and workshop them so you can submit to a journal. This student was certainly doing that but also had an extra mission. The strategy was that soon after graduation, they would have a low teaching load and run a research center. Normally, this sort of appointment is reserved for people who are a little older. They’ve established themselves in a field and start a center at their institution, sometimes as part of a retention offer. And I said that. But this person then pointed out a few people who were essentially at junior level and were doing this. In those cases, they had parlayed a career in journalism and popular writing into a cushy job directing a center at a university.

The world I operate in is the “normal” version of academia. You get cushy jobs only if you’ve grinded through a PhD program and spent 5-10 years grinding through the journal system and the junior faculty track. And that’s if you’re lucky. Lots of people complete a PhD and never land academic jobs. But my student had a point. If you look around, you see people who seem to bypass this system. Not a huge number, but’s definitely “a thing.”

I call this zone the “magic level of academia.” This is a world filled with best selling authors, MacArthur prize winners, retired politicians, star musicians, and political activists. It’s obviously not a huge world, but it does exist and it is a career goal one can have. It seems that most of this world is built for “stars” who have reached a pinnacle in their profession and need a terminal position in their career. Thus, most of “magic level” academia is really about older people. Yet, you can still get into this stream of academia at a younger age if you are a normal academic, but become a star in the popular press. A while back, I might have put someone like Richard Florida into such a camp. He became a huge focus in the popular press and was able to move very easily between high profile positions and centers.

I use the word “magic” level of academia because success in a non-university domains allows the individual to completely by pass the standard work of academia. People in the “magic level” aren’t expected to battle for space in elite journals or do the grind of running a lab. They have editors at major popular presses eagerly listen to their latest pitches. They don’t mentor dissertation students, or explain why a paper was a B- instead of a B+. And they certainly don’t do faculty meetings! Their job is simply to bring their charisma to the campus, maintain their presence in the public sphere, help some folks make connections, and teach the occasional seminar, where most get As.

I don’t begrudge them this. If having a fancy retired politician helps the university bring in donations, I won’t complain. I also understand that universities are cultural and symbolic institutions. Most people won’t care if a university hires the best scholar who studies symplectic geometry, but they are impressed that a Pulitzer prize winner is on the staff. The magic level of academic has its uses.

As for myself, I will keep treating the magic level of academia as a nearby curiosity. It would be nice to be in that realm, but it’s not really what my life is about. I’m here to do science and I’m here to teach. If the public loves what I say and they promote me to the magic level, cool. If not, I remain grateful. I get to do a job that’s really amazing in an institution that has been nice to me, That’s a good thing.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 17, 2020 at 12:00 am

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. Well…except this breaks down in the era of austerity, when the salary of a magic-level person could pay for a regular-level person who does all the parts of their job but keeping the magic-level person is more important so they retrench the department, fire the regular-level person and the department secretary, and stop offering the courses students need for graduation…



    September 18, 2020 at 4:07 am

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