How Academia Works

Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money.

The institution of tenure reduces uncertainty regarding money, and focuses the incentives on power and influence.

Power in academia comes from the number of bodies a professor has under him. These bodies might be apprentices (graduate students he advises), journeymen (post-docs who have a PhD and work at the lab, or staff researchers), or simple workers (lab technicians, etc).

Influence in academia comes from the extent to which one is successful in influencing one’s peers. This is typically measured in terms of influence scores, which are a product of how often the academic is cited, weighted by how important of a publication he is cited in.

The best route to both power and influence is to earn grant money. For example, consider a professor who receives grant money from a federal agency. Some of this money goes to equipment, but the majority goes to employing several graduate students to work on this large project. Likewise, with this funding, he and his team will be writing numerous articles using the latest techniques on very large data sets, and can be expected to quickly become influential in that area. Because these graduate students have him both as an employer and as an academic adviser, when they graduate with their own doctorates, they will be experts at creating ways to detect bad standardized tests (after all, it’s what they’ve been doing for years), in a few years his influence on their careers will be apparent, and they will likewise go about working on similar problems — citing him and each other as they go along.

Because both power and influence are social activities, people and location matter. Grant-funding agencies typical consider an individual’s prior work, and an institution’s prior history of receiving grant funds, in making distributions. An individual who has previously earned grant money and delivered what was promised is more likely to win a grant, all other things being equal, than a researcher who hasn’t. Likewise, an institution that has a history or providing the foundations for success (is it possible for the researcher to actually hire the projected number of assistants quickly? are research facilities available for the work to actually be conducted? etc). This is true whether the institution is quasi-federal, like the National Science Foundation, private, like the Gates Foundation, or private, such as a corporate sponsor.

Peer-reviewed attempt to be blind to the writer. Nonetheless, the editor and the reviewers are public, and the more one knows of their concerns (what are the important questions of the day? what issues must be taken as assumptions? etc.), the more successful one is likely to be. Access to other researchers, both on-site, through personal networks, and through travel to professional conferences, are thus critical.

The importance of location means there is a fierce competition to be a faculty at a large research institution. Bias in working with others in academia is as self-destructive as bias in taking clients in law or in any eat-what-you-kill situation, and you’re spending your time and resources on a luxury rather than a necessity. I’m sure there’s bias in both, but that bias would be most pronounced on those who have found a steady-but-dull existence at the bottom of the heap.

Racism is a disease of the poor. Political bigotry is a disease of the weak. Life is better at ‘big’ schools because you are learning from winners of the system who are focused on expanding their power and influence, instead of acting as tinpot dictators.

9 thoughts on “How Academia Works”

  1. A strong argument for a veritable house cleaning of academia, especially in its lower rungs, where the incentives are all warped.

    I can only agree, especially as I have good odds to be a grad asst. on a significant private-sector grant largely b/c my prof specializes in beating out the competition with his superior media and industry shin-dig talents, amongst other research strengths.

  2. Hey Eddie,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I didn’t mean the post to be a philippic, but a description of an important part of our economy that is mysterious to most people (including me when I started!)

    The flip-side for smaller institutions is that they are generally focused on teaching, and so ambitious researchers who use them as stepping stones can be disruptive to the ability of a small cadre to actually teach the next generation of whatever in whereever.

  3. One consequence of the skewed focus is that research lacks the innovation needed to tackle modern day challenges.

    The British academic model at least retains too much conservatism for true risk taking and with the academic focused on success in grant funding, much public money is spent on ‘safe’ research.

    It also means research follows the fashion of the day – climate change right now, biodiversity a decade ago.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if we managed to set some academics free from the power and influence driver and forced all of them to think and research a common problem, let’s say food security.

  4. Hi alloporous,

    Thanks for your comment.

    You describe two different patterns in academia — ‘safe research’ into ‘the fashion of the day.’ To an extent, these are both true — the safest way to get grant funds is research with a high probability of success into an area that grant-funding agencies are very interested in.

    I remember being in the room while an NSF official pleaded for research into IED detection. (Most of the audience were political scientists.) He emphasized the work didn’t have to involve engineering — they needed /anything/, and were willing to pay for it.

    I confess I don’t understand your last paragraph. If you want to increase research on food security, the structure of academia makes it obvious how to do that (basically, increase grant funding on it). I don’t understand how you free people by forcing them.

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