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Looking for a purpose in life: Update on that underworked and overpaid sociologist whose “main task as a university professor was self-cultivation”

After posting on David Rubinstein’s remarks on his “cushy life” as a sociology professor at a public university, I read these remarks by some of Rubinstein’s colleagues at the University of Illinois, along with a response from Rubinstein.

Before getting to the policy issues, let me first say that I think it must have been so satisfying, first for Rubinstein and then for his colleagues (Barbara Risman, William Bridges, and Anthony Orum) to publish these notes. We all have people we know and hate, but we rarely have a good excuse for blaring our feelings in public. (I remember when I was up for tenure, I was able to read the outside letters on my case (it’s a public university and they have rules), and one of the letter writers really hated my guts. I was surprised–I didn’t know the guy well (the letters were anonymized but it was clear from context who the letter writer was) but the few times we’d met, he’d been cordial enough–but there you have it. He must have been thrilled to have the opportunity to write, for an audience, what he really thought about me.)

Anyway, reading Rubinstein’s original article, it’s clear that his feelings of alienation had been building up inside of him for oh I don’t know how long, and it must have felt really great to tell the world how fake he really felt in his job. And his colleagues seem to have detested him for decades but only now have the chance to splash this all out in public. Usually you just don’t have a chance.

Looking for a purpose in life

To me, the underlying issue in Rubinstein’s article was his failure to find a purpose to his life at work. To go into the office, year after year, doing the very minimum to stay afloat in your classes, to be teaching Wittgenstein to a bunch of 18-year-olds who just don’t care, to write that “my main task as a university professor was self-cultivation”–that’s got to feel pretty empty.

For awhile you can keep busy by playing the game, getting published and promoted, but that gets exhausting, and at some point you reach a level where you’re not going any further. One option is to shift and become more of a team player, but there’s not much point of that if you’re working in an organization with people you dislike and with goals you don’t respect. It’s great to be part of a team and not so fun to feel left out.

Work life doesn’t have to have a sense of purpose–lots of people work 9-5 and live for the weekends. But being a professor is supposed to be more than just a paycheck. Not many people would go to the trouble of writing a Ph.D. thesis in sociological theory just for the purpose of getting a cushy job.

What happened to Rubinstein is something that I’ve seen happen to a lot of other people with Ph.D.’s: at some point they get a feeling that their research has no real point and they can’t really motivate themselves to go further. That’s fine. The question is what do do next. Here are some options I’ve seen:

1. Keep on doing your research. For example, if your field is cosmic ray physics, you keep chugging along, putting experiments into space to estimate the cosmic ray spectrum. If you’re an air pollution guy, you gather data on air pollution, etc. Even if you lose confidence in the big picture, you keep busy doing what you’re doing, with the vague sense that your research is part of some larger endeavor. If you can’t get funding to design your own studies, you can help out on other people’s research, get on at 10% or whatever to do your part. This might not be so easy if you’re studying Marx etc, but it’s a pattern I’ve seen for many researchers in science.

2. Shift to a different area. In statistics, for example, I could dump what I’m doing and move on to signal processing theory, or to experimental design, or to spatial statistics, or whatever. Or, given his political interests, David Rubinstein could’ve done an Albert Hirschman and studied the sociology of political rhetoric. And, in fact, he did a bit in his book, “Culture, structure & agency: toward a truly multidimensional society.”

3. Throw yourself into classroom teaching. This is a natural direction to go, but it wasn’t going to happen, given Rubinstein’s dissatisfaction with his department, the field of sociology, and public education in general.

4. Write textbooks. That’s something I do! It doesn’t make me a lot of money but it makes me feel very useful. I don’t know why Rubinstein didn’t consider this–maybe he felt that his views were too far from the mainstream of sociology to be accepted in a course book.

5. Consult. This is a big one among statisticians and economists but there aren’t so many options to consult on Marx and Wittgenstein, I suppose.

6. Get involved in education in other ways. For example, you could arrange internships for students at local businesses, set up exchanges with visiting scholars, create a summer program for high school students, have college students get involved in community activities, put together a program at the local museum, whatever. All of these involve being part of a team and can be difficult to set up if you already feel left out.

There are probably some other options (for example, become a blogger! Lots of otherwise-obscure profs have reached audiences in that way), but in any case my point is that if none of the alternatives work for you, then you’re stuck in a loop of bitterness, and then maybe at some point you decide you might as well grab what you can for yourself and not worry about others.

The economic question

Going beyond the micro question of the options and motivations of a dissatisfied faculty member, we can consider the macro issues of a system which pays people a lot to do very little work.

The key economic point was identified in this column from atheist-hating pundit Charlotte Allen:

The article was a hoot and a half. Rubinstein chronicled in detail the charmed lifestyle of a tenured full professor . . . he was paid by UIC mostly for doing something that he enjoyed doing anyway: reading and writing about topics of interest to him. . . . The point of Rubinstein’s Weekly Standard piece was to ask whether states and their taxpayers ought to be in the business of funding expensive research universities and equally expensive research-university culture. . . . At elite and well-endowed private research universities–Harvard, Notre Dame, Emory–the answer is easy. Those institutions are willing to pay to subsidize scholarship and its attendant generous perks alongside teaching, and they have the donor funds to do so. . . . At state-subsidized universities . . . that have ambitions to retain top-tier reputations for research, but whose endowments are typically far less generous, the answer is not so easy. . . .

I think Allen overstated Rubinstein’s hoot level–I’d rate his article as half a hoot at best–but she zeroes in on the same point that I had emphasized: the question of whether public universities should compete for top scholars. Allen also comes to a similar conclusion to mine: “the answer is not so easy.”

On one hand, public universities educate millions of students, many of whom could benefit from being exposed to top researchers. (Just for example, the prominent statistician Brad Carlin got his undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska and his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut. Bin Yu received her Ph.D. from the University of California. David Dunson went to Penn State. Peter Hoff went to Indiana University and the University of Wisconsin. You get the picture. Take away top researchers from all these universities and you’re limiting the exposure of students to the best ideas.) If you give up on top research at public universities, you’re removing a major channel for education, research, and technological progress. And research support does make a difference. I have colleagues in European universities (where professorships are much less cushy than in the U.S.; I think David Rubinstein would largely approve of the European university system), and they really do get less done. They’re overwhelmed with administrative responsibilities and often have difficulty finding the time to do research.

On the other hand, budgets are tight, and funding for universities competes with other priorities, such as new highways, bigger prisons, and all the other good stuff that goes into our state budgets. It certainly seems like overkill to be paying profs more after retirement than they were getting on the job. The easy answer would be to continue to compete for the top researchers but to peg retirement benefits at a more reasonable level–but I assume that for legal reasons this can’t really be done.

So I agree with Charlotte Allen that it’s not so easy–but, from that perspective, I’m surprised she’s so supportive of Rubinstein’s article, where he seems to argue that it is so easy, that states should simply make university professor jobs less desirable. This might be a good idea–certainly, in 2011, maybe we don’t need so many experts on Marx and Wittgenstein–but it would have its costs in research and education.

(Matthew Yglesias makes a similar point,)

Reading Rubinstein’s article makes you wonder why anybody would ever do any work that isn’t absolutely required under the employment contract. I think part of the motivation is hidden in Rubinstein’s striking remark that “my main task as a university professor was self-cultivation.” I certainly don’t think that now–as a middle-aged tenured professor, I see my main task at work as being useful to others–but back when I was a Ph.D. student I recall thinking that just about all my life had been devoted to perfecting myself, to building the edifice that was me. As a graduate student, one thing I liked about teaching was that it took me out of myself–that it was about the students in the class, not about me. In the years since, I’ve shared this perspective with Ph.D. students, some of whom put huge effort into their teaching. One of my goals as an adviser is to help channel that effort so that it is most effective. For example, I think our grad students who teach would be better off working to increase student involvement in class, rather than preparing extra reading to supplement the textbook. Anyway, my point here is that teaching, within its defined parameters, is often its own reward. People typically go into academia partly because they like to teach: this is probably less true in a laboratory science such as biology, but I imagine that most sociology professors enjoy teaching, as long as the time commitments don’t feel overwhelming.

P.S. There’s also a small debate on whether Rubinstein was a “slacker.” In his original article he wrote that his “main task as a university professor was self-cultivation” and that he spent very little time on teaching. On the other hand, in his follow-up he writes that he has published in leading journals, and Google scholar shows some citations. I think the cleanest resolution here is that Rubinstein was a moderately productive scholar at a middling-rank university–not a scholarly “slacker” in that many other professors of his generation have had similar productivity.

Rubinstein’s point is that he’s not the only one: if he’s a slacker, so are many others. The system has allowed people like him, who do the minimum possible level of teaching and service, to slack off once they get tired of doing research. The economics question is whether it’s worth paying these people (in salary, retirement benefits, job security, and working conditions) in order to attract the dedicated scholars and teachers that make the system work. As the atheist-hating pundit says, the answer is not so easy.

10 Comments

  1. zbicyclist says:

    re options 1-6: don't a lot of people get into university administration this way?

    Also note some similarity of Rubenstein to "Wally" in Dilbert — a character those of us in bureaucratic institutions without tenure instantly recognize.

  2. JL says:

    "And, in fact, he did a bit in his book, "Culture, structure & agency: toward a truly multidimensional society.""

    I think that's a different David Rubinstein.

  3. Xi'an says:

    I like this line in Rubinstein's reply: "The last professional paper I published—after my promotion—was accepted by the leading journal in my field." He makes it sounds as exceptional that he still published a paper (papers?) after his promotion…

  4. Phil says:

    Andrew, I'm not sure whether your list of possible responses to being tired of research was intended to imply only to professors or to everyone, but in either case you seem to have left out a major possibility, which is: do something else altogether. For instance, I have a friend, a psychologist, who was (presumably) a year or so from being offered tenure at a public university when he realized he didn't want to be a professor, especially at that school, so he quit and went into private practice in another city. Another friend won awards for "best researcher under age 40" and "top innovator and humanitarian of the year," but came to question the value of what she was doing and mostly just to be tired of working on it, so she quit to do a low-paid biology internship (not her field) while she figures out what she wants to do with the second half of her career. Another friend quit her science career and became a journalist, and is now a sort of PR flack.

    I feel like I have something to say based on my own experience that is relevant to this discussion, but I haven't quite figured out how it's relevant. I'll tell my story, but warn you, the reader, that if you start to find it boring you should just drop it, since it doesn't culminate in a cogent point or argument.

    I have an academic-like job — I am judged based on my publications in academic journals, I supervise grad students, I do research — but I do not teach and I do not have tenure: I have a cushy (but not very highly paid) job at a government research lab. Due to a natural tendency towards laziness it sometimes requires an effort of will to avoid just coasting through in Rubensteinish fashion…although lack of tenure helps too: my job is entirely funded through grants, so an unsuccessful year of grant applications means a pink slip. Even so, it would not be hard to slip by for a few years without much focus or productivity, and in fact I have done so in the past.

    About 6 years ago, after working for several years on research I didn't think was important and didn't enjoy (but that was very fundable), I took six months off to think about what to do. I spent about two months traveling, but also did some consulting, did some informational interviews, did some volunteer work, and did a brief internship. (It's amazing how much you can do in six months if you don't have a job!). Basically I felt like I was just going through the motions and that my job was not rewarding, and that I needed to change something.

    Ultimately I decided to go back to job but to move into more important and interesting areas of research. My transition involved about two years of combining components of Andrew's options (1) and (2): initially I just said "yes" when people asked if they could have a few months of my time to work on a project if it was in the field I wanted to move into…and, importantly, I had to say "no" to people who wanted me to work in the field I was trying to leave. Fortunately, there were enough opportunities to say "yes" that I was able to keep my job and make the transition, although that was not by any means guaranteed from the start. Now that I'm at least tenuously established in my new research area I am getting my own grants (usually with colleagues) and shaping my own research agenda.

    So…well, so what? I guess one point is that just "mailing it in" is not restricted to tenured academics, people get away with it in lots of jobs, including me in mine. But tenure does seem to encourage a certain type of person to give in to the temptation to be a slacker. Rubenstein apparently is that kind of person, which is nothing to be proud of (even though he does seem to be proud of it). In contrast, I found it distressing to find my work unrewarding, and took steps to shift to other work…but if I were in an academic department that might be a lot harder, I don't know.

    Basically I do think Rubenstein has a good point, though not a new point, in suggesting that some professors abuse the system as he did. What I'm not sure of is what, if anything, should be done about it.

  5. This post is all quite a bit removed from anything I know very much about, but I'd just like to say that that was a pretty sweet "Don't Worry Baby" quote in the middle there.

  6. numeric says:

    First there's research, then there's teaching, then there's departmental politics.

  7. Eli Rabett says:

    Perhaps the question is not so much what David Rubensteins purpose in life is (and btw, as someone at a not so researchy place who has stayed active he is, to put it politely, full of himself) but what the purpose of college is. Louis Menard had some interesting things to say on the matter recently in the New Yorker. You could read the whole thing, or you could read the summary at Rabett Run but it starts with a student;s question we have all heard:“Why did we have to buy this book?”

  8. Jack says:

    I think what is most unfortunate is that Rubenstein's baiting tone and cheap shots distract readers away from several important and correct claims he makes about the crisis in higher education:

    – Are too many PhDs minted in the humanities and social sciences?
    – Are pension benefits for public sector employees too generous given the recent financial crisis?
    – Should we ask professors to teach more courses, but which can be ''bought out'' by research funds (this way, very research-productive faculty can do their thing, and more teaching-inclined faculty do theirs)?
    – If sabbaticals are costly, would it be such a big deal to get rid of them, and instead encourage faculty to do more shorter visits to other universities? Or, sabbaticals could be ''bought'' with research funds, as above for courses
    – And so forth… worthy discussions I think, but all the reader takes away from the article is that professors are lazy and overpaid, which is untrue for probably 95% of them (in any field, you'll have at least 5% slackers)

  9. Andrew Gelman says:

    Jack:

    Maybe. But I think the central problem with Rubinstein's critique is that he's saying that professors get paid a lot, and they get generous retirement benefits, and they get sabbaticals, and they don't have to work so hard, and they have job security. As if the rule is that if you have more of one of the above good things, you should have less of the others. To me, the real question is should universities compete for the top profs? If so, they'll have to offer some combination of salary and benefits to attract people.

    Actually, I wouldn't mind if they put a bit less effort into attracting the top Marx/Wittgenstein scholars, but that's just my perspective as a quant.

  10. Jack says:

    Thanks for the reply. To be sure, I was trying to interpret the original article charitably. Plainly, it's a hatchet job on academia.