Forty years. That’s at least how long an academic career can last, if you start at 30 and retire at 70. There is no mandatory retirement age (at least in the UK and US) and, unlike most people, tenured academics rarely lose their jobs. For older academics (say over 50) increased longevity can be accompanied by the right to work as long as one wants.
The usual career pattern – always sideways or up, rarely down – means that academics spend 20 years at near-maximum salary and with a tight grip on institutional power and hiring practices. This isn’t actually bad for productivity since studies convincingly show that aging doesn’t affect productivity. And the ability to work into old age is attractive to researchers whose salaries often lag the business sector.
But academic aging-in-place is a serious problem for young people trying to get a job at a university or research lab. With no (or very low) growth, a research university with 1000 faculty can only hire 25 people a year across all departments. For the next couple of decades, limits on hiring are actually much tighter because well over half of tenured faculty are over 50. But young people are a key source of fresh ideas, innovation and energy and are sorely needed by the research enterprise.
These challenges have been exacerbated because PhD enrolments and graduations are common metrics of faculty success, and the best faculty often produce one or more newly graduated PhDs a year. Of necessity, many of these PhDs find jobs outside research universities or institutions, and – happily – are now being sought by a rapidly-growing tech business sector. But there remains a serious over-supply of highly talented and capable PhDs who are raring to get – and who deserve – research jobs. In partial response to the shortage of jobs, long (5+ year) postdocs have become common, but they just extend the waiting time without changing the odds of eventual success.
Here I propose a new plan: restructure academic career trajectories to retain established and tried talent while opening up new room for young people. My proposal is that careers should be sort of parabolic. An academic would start a career as an assistant professor and work her way up to tenure and a full professorship – this is standard. But now the maximum time spent at top rank would be limited to a maximum of say 20 years. And after the first 10 years at top rank, there would be reviews to determine if a further 5 year term at that rank is warranted. After 20 years (or sooner, if review warrants) a full professor would move down in rank and salary to associate professor for 5-10 years; after that, the option would be to stay on but as an assistant professor for 5-10 years. We could argue over the durations, but these changes would keep older faculty active and engaged while paid enough to maintain a reasonable living standard along with medical care and savings programs (essential in the US work force).
Most important, my proposal would significantly ease budgets that are currently constrained by a top-rank-heavy faculty. The money saved would open up jobs for young people, and make it possible to attract, employ and motivate fresh talent we badly need. The short-run effect – measured in new jobs – could be substantial.
I am not suggesting that we do away with tenure – this plan won’t affect job security (tenured people can be fired but not easily). What would change is the age-pattern of earnings and of power and influence that go with rank. This plan won’t change the age structure of research universities. What would change is the age-structure of ranks within academia.
The change I propose would quickly open up budgets and jobs. These effects would be magnified in the first decade or so because current faculties are so top-heavy. But in the longer term, we need more. For one thing, the durations and transitions in my plan could be indexed to increasing longevity. But more fundamentally, enrolments of new PhD students will need to be matched, at least roughly, to the long-term growth of the economy’s knowledge sector.