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Academia job crisis explained Academia job crisis explained
by Joseph Gatt
2020-10-27 11:01:49
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In Europe minus the UK there is no academic job crisis.

For a simple reason. Either in countries like France and Belgium the ministry of education supervises tenure, and getting tenure means taking a state-run one-year intensive course at the end of which there's a test, and you get tenure.

Or like in the rest of Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands etc.) you get hired to teach at a university, and the minute you're hired you pretty much have tenure, or at least some form of job security. Tenure is a fact of life, and you don't celebrate tenure with champagne.

aca001_400Of course there are some disadvantages to the system. In France, when you have tenure, you can't really choose which university you will be sent to. You could be “forced” to teach in Paris or in the provinces, and that can be a bit of a problem.

For example in France if you're an active and ambitious researcher you're going to want to be in Paris where all the big conferences are held, and if you're more of a quiet researcher-type you want to be at a smaller university somewhere in the provinces.

But these are tuition-free (or low-tuition) systems that I'm talking about in Europe. In tuition-free systems, professors are just “normal” people. No one calls them “Doctor” even when they have Ph.D.s. No one expects them to know everything about everything. And they can publish or join academic circles if they want to, but they don't have to.

In the UK, US, Canada and East Asia (high-tuition states) along with Australia, New Zealand and a few other nations, universities tend to be very conscious about their rankings and reputation.

So to get a tenure-track job, ever since the Shanghai rankings that started in 2005, you usually need “6 publications a year in peer-reviewed Citation index journals” (that's a mouthful!). You're also going to need “an established academic career, involving participation at numerous peer-reviewed conferences, membership at elite academic circles, publication of books, and established track of teaching academic subjects, and a PhD that includes 80% of the coursework related to your research area.”

Now this throws the following people out of the game:

-People who don't publish 6 papers a year at “blind peer-reviewed journals.”

-People who don't give frequent talks at conferences.  

-People who don't publish books or book chapters.

-People who have little or no experience teaching (or who teach a variety of subjects).

-People who have Ph.D.s where there was no coursework (many Ph.D.s don't require coursework and only require a dissertation).

-Add to the mix the fact that many universities won't hire professors who in college or grad school got anything other than an A in their grade transcript (one B and you're out!).

These incredibly strict requirements mean “you'll only get tenure if you already have tenure.” Basically meaning that it's usually professors in their 50s or 60s who have that kind of track record.

Until 2005, the American tenure system was a reaction to the French tenure system.

In the French tenure system, you have to go through an intensive year of coursework, take all kinds of very difficult examinations, read (and memorize) all kinds of books, and end to exam with a daunting 7-hour long written examination on a very difficult topic.

To give an example of the French tenure system, if you wanted to be a professor of English, you would be assigned every single book or play written by Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, and a couple of dozen other famous writers.

You would then have to read (and understand) the entire corpus of literature. And the 7-hour examination was usually “name of an author+name of a theme” (for example, the theme of “labor” in Mark Twain's novels) and you would have to write as much as you could on the topic in 7 hours.

The Americans said “we don't do that, we're not sadistic.” So the American tenure system used to involve hiring professors first, inviting them to do “useful” research to the best possible extent, and then “defending” their track in front of a tenure committee, and explain how those 3, 4 or 5 years of research were useful.

Problem is, the Shanghai rankings system started counting how many papers universities were publishing, and universities started demanding that their professors publish, not because they have something useful or meaningful to say, but because they need a good number of publications.

So the “magic number” of 6 publications a year started floating around, and the papers have to be “research papers” (no book reviews or commentaries) and they have to pass the “blind review” process, and they have to be in “citation index papers” (meaning only in a select number of publications). To qualify for “citation index” status your journal usually needs to be published at least twice a year for two consecutive years at precise publication dates (for example February 1 and September 1 or something).

The problem with this system is you had professors who, rather than look at what the demand for research was, and match that demand with a supply of research, were supplying research were there was no demand.

Side note: I'd be careful when reviewing COVID-19 papers that the papers were done with academic integrity and were not written for career statistical purposes.

So why do universities mostly hire adjuncts? Not because they don't have the money. But because they can't wage their bets on professors who won't be able to publish six papers a year for the next 40 years, so the university can stay competitive in the rankings.

The French system, or the European system, in the end, aren't so bad. In Europe, if you want to opt-out of tenure, you can still freelance around; teach at a couple of high schools, a couple of public colleges and a couple of private colleges. Because European universities use the “lecture reading” format where the professor reads lecture notes slowly enough so students can write almost all of what's being said.

In North America, you're usually not allowed to read lecture notes. This means you have to prepare your lectures, prepare to answer questions (Europeans rarely ask professors questions) and North American students love sending tons of emails to their professors with questions about mandatory assignments (there are no assignments in Europe).

So the real question is, why force professors to publish six papers a year? There was an anecdote a few years ago, where a Nobel Economics prize winner got his paper rejected by a journal because the theories were “amateurish.”

The problem probably was that the reviewers were “classical” economists who relied on econometric data, when “modern” economists usually look at behavioral science.

That's just one of many problems.

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