Is there any research/study that looked at the extent to which the prospect of a guaranteed-for-life job (tenure) motivate researchers to stay in academia?

I am most interested in the United States and the field of computer science.

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    Do you mean: "for recent PhDs, the prospect of a job for life entices them to stay in academia" or do you mean "for tenured faculty, how much does the prospect of a tenured job encourage them to stay" -- because I think these are two different questions.
    – RoboKaren
    Jun 11, 2015 at 17:50
  • @RoboKaren I was thinking about both cases, and more generally any stage of the researcher career. I'd be happy to split into two different questions if you think it's more appropriate. Jun 11, 2015 at 17:58
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    I couldn't say whether it needs to be split, but there is indeed a drastic difference: for many recent PhDs, the prospect of having a lifetime job is probably worse in academia than outside it, and is likely motivation for many PhDs to leave academia. This is obviously not the case for those who have already made it as tenured faculty.
    – David Z
    Jun 12, 2015 at 9:06
  • @David Z: I am not sure that the chance of a lifetime job outside academia is very high, particularly in companies that would hire a PhD in computer science. Jun 25, 2015 at 22:50
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    @OswaldVeblen I suppose the chance of having a guaranteed job for life (i.e. something akin to tenure) is low or nonexistent outside academia. But I think the overall chance of spending the rest of your life doing skilled work that is at least somewhat related to your PhD field is much higher if you restrict yourself to non-academic jobs than if you restrict yourself to academic jobs.
    – David Z
    Jun 26, 2015 at 4:53

2 Answers 2


I'll respond based on anecdotal evidence, but over 30+ years, worrying about my several PhD students, and partly in a role as director of grad studies in math, giving career advice, etc. My experience is in math, not comp sci, though.

In any case, even 25 years ago, it was clear (both anecdotally and documentably by the AMS at the time, although not so accessibly, due to lack of internet...) that the "golden days" of academic math (at least) were waning, because of growth of PhD production that surpassed growth of academic positions. There had indeed been a boom of branch campuses, but that had roughly stabilized c. 1990. Some very good people (including some of my own students) got tenure at a branch campus in rural areas, but/and decided that the heavy teaching load and isolation was not what they'd signed on for.

By the mid-90s, the job market was consistently tight enough so that new PhDs with partners very often opted for non-academic trajectories, but so they'd not have to commute crazy distances, and so they could have a family with both parents participating. Hard to argue with that. The former "monastic" model of academe, or of infinitely-accommodating spouse, etc., is not acceptable these days. (I've tried long-distance stuff myself, too, and, sad-to-report, it really only works well when one is secretly glad to be apart... uh,...)

In the last several years, some of the most able and motivated grad students have had the sense to realize that, in particular, their chances to make a big-enough contribution to get a permanent job at an R1 place were pretty slim... and they didn't want to stay in academe "at all costs", so shifted their energies to avenues where being smart, motivated, and hard working had a better chance to pay off (these days). (See @DavidZ's comment.)

I've followed up with some of the people who did stay in academe and settled in relatively remote areas at small branch campuses, and, while they're "ok", they have "confessed" that it wasn't at all what they'd hoped for. Some speculation (obviously plausible) that without forced retirement, there's a lot of "waiting around" for better positions to open. (Not unlike situations in Europe, as I gather from friends there, where saturation had occurred much earlier, apart from mandatory retirement issues.)

The palpable corporatization and commodification (or at least the greater visibility of it) of higher education does also seem to have a consistently disenchanting effect on undergrads' choices about what to do after their B.S. in math (e.g., going to work for an insurance company... is (even?) more attractive now than it may have been in the past, and for some people seems vastly more viable than "grad school"...)

Although I suppose one should always be wary that possibly one's own cumulative disenchantment interferes with perceptions of others' opinions, I do have a rough idea of our local "stats" about academic versus non-academic positions for PhD'd people: once upon a time, everybody went into academe, but nowadays perhaps as many as 1/3 of each year's PhD's do not.

Even disregarding the mandatory retirement issue, it's simply not a time of expansion for higher ed... but/and the element of Ponzi-scheme of academe has no mechanism built in to reduce PhD production without finding someone else (adjunct faculty!?!) to exploit... or else (in the case of math) teaching loads would skyrocket, etc.


(This answer is about tenure in the United States.)

One convincing economic interpretation of tenure is that it is a form of non-monetary compensation. Of course, not every field is ripe with high-paying industry jobs. But academia is generally full of bright and motivated people who could do other things if they chose to leave academia, and salaries in academia are often lower than jobs in industry. This is particularly true in computer science at the moment, because of the booming tech sector. Tenure helps universities keep at least some faculty who might otherwise leave.

Sure, someone might be able to raise their salary by leaving academia, but they would also gain more employment risk. Small businesses (e.g. startup companies) often fail, and even larger businesses often lay off workers by the hundreds. By comparison, universities may seem quite stable, and with tenure someone has a much higher expectation of not needing to look for alternate employment. So the security of tenure may help to compensate (through lower risk) for the lower salary.

There are changing circumstances in higher education, and the analysis just presented may not be as compelling as it was 20 year ago. Not all universities seem very stable nowadays. And there are challenges with the tenure system that evolved in the 20th century. But perhaps the bigger question is whether academia, by promoting security over salary, might over-attract people who are simply risk-averse, rather than those would would be the best professors.

  • Good game-theoretic analysis... Thorsten would be proud. :) Jun 25, 2015 at 22:50
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    And, further, indeed, the question of the influence of "risk aversion" is non-trivial, and completely different from the assessment of risk (which may be subjective in itself, after all). My own subjective perception of actual academic climate is that there is less appeal these days for risk-averse faculty than 20 or 30 years ago, because it's relatively much more difficult these days to "get a spot" in the first place, so that no "rational" risk-averse person would have chosen the route... In contrast, yes, there did indeed once exist a sub-population of academics, even in nowadays-R1 ... Jun 25, 2015 at 23:05
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    universities who'd gotten there early on, and had not written too many papers after their thesis, and did not exert themselves too much, ... but it seemed not to matter. In those days, it did not even seem to be any sort of moral or ethical failure, just a small personal embarrassment that no one would mention. After all, 30-40 years ago, it was apparently not the case that too many other people wanted to teach calculus (or would have been able), so... it just didn't matter. It misrepresents those people to call them "deadwood", though... Jun 25, 2015 at 23:06
  • ... that would be a popular and convenient caricature. In their times, and still into the last 30+ years, the idea of academe as an abstracted "monastic" existence that did not make one rich, but allowed one to forget about worldly cares, and only required a certain bit of smartness and occasional focus... was it. Now it's a business... Jun 25, 2015 at 23:08

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