Status and Academia

Todd Zywicki says something a bit silly in discussing why academics tend to be less happy than people at large. There’s not actually any evidence for the fact that’s to be explained, but that’s being bracketed. He starts off by noting that academia is a sort of status economy instead of a monetary economy–the primary rewards come in the form of higher status, rather than higher payment.

First of all, I’m not sure this is true: as you move from low to high prestige schools, you end up doing less teaching for more money. There are also things like grants, which may give quite successful professors a chance to make money without working. It’s true that there’s an upper bound on what any academic might make, but that’s true of most jobs–once you’ve accepted a career, your salary is likely to remain within relatively narrow bounds.

Leaving that aside, Zywicki makes the following claim:

Now here’s where it gets kind of twisted–given that the money-based economy is the default rule in America, who is it that are most likely to self-select into a status-based economy? You got it–those are are most motivated by status.

This is only true if the kind of status that academics get is recognized as status by those outside of the academic hierarchy. But it’s not–most Americans do not see being the nation’s second best Proust scholar as a particularly impressive status. The best you could say is that of those people who initially are interested in being academics, the ones most motivated by status would be the ones most likely to persist.

Lastly, find your future academics in middle school. Do they look like the kids who are most motivated by status? Either some remarkable inversion happens between then and age 30, or the claim is not particularly plausible.


One response to “Status and Academia

  1. Wait, I think that your claim about middle school future academics is misleading. I think that being subjected to a strict and often painful lower rung of a social hierarchy in middle school might make someone just the kind of person to INSTITUTE a social-reward hierarchy once that person is in control. (Think hipsters) So, the argument should be shifted to academics, after years of being picked on (maybe) have found a way to earn status from their skill set. Go them. Or something.

    Don’t mind me, I’m just procrastinating.