How grad school is like dealing crack

I can’t claim the analogy in the title as my own — it was drawn by my friend and sometimes colleague Rob. Based on a description of how crack dealing hierarchies work, and some observations of academic life, he states:

It turns out that crack dealing works on what is called a ‘tournament system’.

The irony is that for most people in the hierarchy, crack dealing is the most dangerous job in the world and pays less than minimum wage. People subject themselves to the punishment and risk for the chance to someday “make it big.” These “tournament systems” have one thing in common: to enter the tournament, you have to start at the bottom and work your way to the top. They occur among crack dealers, publishers, and hollywood producers.

I assert that grad school is a tournament system. The ratio in a typical school is usually 1 hot-shot professor/5 normal professors/5-8 postdocs/25 grad students/20-30 undergrads. Work at the lower levels is difficult and poorly compensated, barely above minimum wage. People put up with grad school for 6 years, 2 years of post-docs, and 5 grueling years of assistant professorship, all for the chance to “make it big,” i.e. tenure or freedom to direct your own research.

Like being the head of a drug ring, he observes that

… most people can’t all be taking jobs as professors. My department graduates 40-60 Ph.D. students a year. Other schools also seem to graduate 1 Ph.D. student per professor a year. A professor that “makes it” keeps tenure for 20 years, so turnover amongst professors is relatively low. If all Ph.D. students found a way to get tenure, then the number of Ph.D. should double at least every 2 years. However, the number of professors can’t be growing exponentially. Where are all these Ph.D. students going?

The whole post is here. He’s planning on exploring other facets of grad school and academia as the week goes on. Rob’s a very astute observer and all-around sharp guy, so it will probably be worth your while to follow these posts. I’ll also link to them here as they come up.