Ways in which academia resembles a drug-gang

The working conditions of young researchers in the first few years of their academic career are surprisingly similar to the working conditions of low-rank drug-gang members. This provocative conclusion can be drawn from the blog post which I came across recently, although it was published in 2013 by Alexandre Afonso, Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London.

Athletes Beginning a Track Competition; source: https://www.flickr.com

Afonso bases his reasoning on the observations published by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in their best seller Freakonomics. The chapter entitled “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?” paints quite a grim picture of the gang organization. As it seems, “the income distribution (is) extremely skewed in favor of those at the top” while those at the bottom risk death and jail while earning on average only $3.30 an hour. It seems that working at McDonald’s is a much more attractive option, and still many youngsters decide to try their luck in a gang. “The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business.” The number of low-payed newcomers, so-called outsiders, increases and the core of wealthy drug-lords, so-called insiders, shrinks. The fact that there is a constant supply of the outsiders “entering the market and ready to be exploited”, enables the insiders to distribute the wealth unevenly. This situation creates the so-called winner-takes-all market.  Afonso notices that this type of market exists in various sectors including in academia.

Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent on the existence of a supply of “outsiders” ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail.

The author does not stop at painting this controversial picture. Instead, he provides some possible explanation for why the winner-takes-all market developed in academia. To find out more, please read the original blog post. Finally, Afonso in his blog post offers some tips and tricks on where to invest your time and energy if you want to advance your career in academia.

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