“A useless pile of half-truths and sensationalistic linkbait”

Dear Mr. Salustri,

I am the author of the piece “how academia resembles a drug gang” that you describe on your blog with the words above. You also write that it is “mortally flawed”, “laughable” and “a complete mischaracterization”. You call my argument “stupid” in a reply to a comment on your piece which defends mine.

My piece, originally published on my blog in November last year, has now been viewed 267’000 times (not counting the version on the website of the London School of Economics), shared more than 10’000 times on Facebook and more than 2000 times on Twitter. I was the first to be astonished by this success, but I assume that it wouldn’t have been shared so widely if it was only “sensationalistic clickbait” and didn’t contain some real insights about the functioning of academia. The comments about the blog have been overwhelmingly positive (on twitterhere or here). Outlets such as Science, the Times Higher education have reported about it. The title is of course overtly provocative, but the piece tries to make a very serious point by using comparative data. You essentially dismiss all of it with the qualifiers above. I thought I should reply to some of your claims, at least those that I can make sense of.

Firstly, you are right to say this piece is “not what one should expect from the London School of Economics” because I work at King’s College London, as is made clear at the bottom of the article. This just shows how carefully you have read the piece.

Secondly, you criticize my perspective, arguing that academics are “not in it for the money”. Now, this is not the point that I make in the piece. My point is to outline the dynamics of dualisation in academia between a shrinking core of insiders and an expanding core of outsiders in precarious positions. I use drug gangs as the most extreme example of such a situation, by trying to explain why “outsiders” accept to stay in academia in spite of very precarious job situations. I am happy to read that your combined income “allows my wife and I to not be particularly worried about our finances”, because many academics are: precisely because of the dynamics I talk about. The incentives are surely not only money, but also precisely the things that you cite (although if you want to “escape pedantry”, academia is probably not the right place to go). My point is that the difference between what is promised to prospective PhD students and the actual reality of academic prospects is huge, just like in a drug gang. I am not saying that academia is like a drug gang, I argue that its logic is similar. I accept that it is an inconvenient characterization, especially for respectable tenured professors, and others have also dismissed it as stupid *without even reading the piece*, but I still think it is accurate.

Thirdly, you criticize how I use the data and evidence in different countries. It is of course true that Slovakia produces much less PhDs than the United States, but the proportion of PhDs as as share of the population is surely the relevant measure, and not the absolute number because that’s what gives an idea of the capacity of different countries to “absorb” their production of PhDs. Of course Slovakia produces fewer PhDs, but Slovakia also has much fewer potential jobs. I accept the idea that the academic job market is not limited by national boundaries, and is largely transnational. Now even if we would consider the world as a whole, the relation between the “global production” of PhDs and the number of permanent jobs available changed dramatically: the number of jobs available has been massively outpaced by the production of PhDs. Now this precisely supports my point. After that, you write that I do not take into account the Bologna Process, “ the anti-science and anti-education lobbies” in the US, “the effect on academia of the billions of dollars that America spends on defence – more than any other country in the world”, I ignore Germany’s “tumultuous recent history, including reunification and becoming probably the most important country in the EU”, and my analysis of the UK “ignores the impact of the development and growth of the EU on UK, which has been staggering”. Well, I also completely ignore the fact that the weather in the UK is usually bad, that Germany won the World Cup in 1990 and that the United States put a man on the moon in 1969. I simply do not understand how the factors you mention challenge my analysis, and you make no effort to explain how either. Being Portuguese, I am well aware of the context of austerity in Greece and Portugal, but again, this reinforces my point: the discrepancy between the increase in the number of PhDs before the crisis and severe cuts afterwards has created a large mass of “outsiders” left with dire job prospects.

Coming back to the general discussion about PhDs, I happen to have had a look at another piece published on your blog which discusses a similar argument than the one I make. I was particularly struck by one segment of it:

Getting a doctorate isn’t (or, rather, shouldn’t be) just for specializing in a particular area; it gives one a chance to refine one’s thinking skills, to become a better reasoning agent, to make better decisions generally.  And this gets us back to the success of a society.  The better people can think, the better the decisions they make, and everyone will benefit. Some find this laughable because of the cost, time, and effort required to get a PhD.  What’s the point, they might argue, in getting a doctorate if you’re just going to be a tradesperson, or a shopkeeper, or an office worker What’s the point indeed.  Most people who would ask such questions haven’t got advanced education anyways. Which rather proves my point.

I found this piece problematic and condescending. I find it perfectly legitimate for people “who do not hold advanced degrees” to question how the money is spent in higher education, especially if they are subsidizing rich people to get these “advanced degrees” while themselves or their children are often excluded from them: rich kids are highly overrepresented in college, so that higher education spending if often a transfer from the low-educated poor to the higher-educated rich. Of course I agree with you that education is good for everyone, but dismissing criticism as simply “stupid” – which seems to be your method of analysis in general – simply delegitimizes the critical approach and openness that should characterize academia. Second, it is all good and well to write that getting a doctorate is not about finding a job but becoming a better citizen, but it is is fairly naive to think that PhD students do not build expectations as to a career in academia, and the point I was making is that the structure of the academic job market is bound to disappoint these expectations.

Please note that i have refrained from using the kind of vocabulary that you use in your own post, even if it was fairly tempting.

Yours faithfully,

Alexandre Afonso