Arnold Kling and Megan McArdle have generated some discussion concerning, in Margaret Soltan’s words, “why American university professors are bitterly jealous status-obsessives.” I tend to think the following reasons identified by Megan are the most important:
It’s so hard to switch jobs. Job mobility is so low that you can’t salve your ego by telling yourself that your current job is merely a waystop en route to something better.
Academics have virtually no control over where they live. They usually seem to go where the best job is, regardless of whether or not the local area suits them. In many cases, this further focuses them inward on academia, because there aren’t all that many other people around who share their interests.
[I]t’s all terribly zero sum. Any article a colleague gets into a good journal is one less slot for your articles; any good tenure-track job secured by a friend is one less job you an apply to. All industries involve competition for market share, of course, but few have such a fixed supply of both jobs and customers.
Another important factor identified by one of Megan’s commenters is the incentive structure of the position itself:
People with PhD’s are [not] trained to be teachers. They’re trained to research—whether that research be population migrations in sub-Saharan Africa or Syriac poetry. The only way one has any possibility of “moving up’’ in the academy is to publish books or articles that few will read but those who do read them have a good amount of control over your future employment. This research is a job in itself, and it easily consumes 80 hours a week.
Yet within the broader world (and among your students) you are known primarily as a teacher. You teach graduate and undergraduate courses, you grade essays or problem sets, you meet with students, you participate on committees. Many academics find this quite meaningful and another job unto itself, but it has little or nothing to do with promotions, ability to change jobs, etc.
Certainly as I’ve considered tenure-track positions over the last four years these issues have been at the front of my mind. At the low end of the perceived status hierarchy, the incentive structures for gaining tenure and getting another job are almost entirely non-overlapping (to the point that some items that count as tenurable “research” at my future institution wouldn’t count at all in any category when being considered for a position at another institution)—in large part because there are no external metrics for anything but research. Another employer has no real way to determine whether or not I’m a good teacher except (a) by reading the teaching evaluations which I provide to them (and which are inevitably cherry-picked to include the most positive evaluations) out of any institutional context, (b) by presuming that if I weren’t a good teacher I wouldn’t have a job, or (c) by bringing me in and having me teach a class (which has its own problems). Service has even less in terms of definable metrics.
Further, the first and second factors I borrowed from Megan overlap. There is a non-negligible chance that even if I were to decide the first day I arrived at my future job that I hated it and wanted out, I could nonetheless not be able to secure another job but, because of the non-overlapping criteria for tenure and mobility, get tenure—at which point the potential mobility for academics drops even further, particularly in the upward direction on the status ladder (downward parachutes tend to have softer landings as long as you’re not at the bottom to begin with). This fear isn’t entirely rational, in that there are other job options for most academics (for-profit teaching, community colleges, secondary-school teaching accreditation, and non-academic work), but given that the academic job market is arbitrary and capricious there is no guarantee that merit (which to external observers is generally defined as “count and placement of peer-reviewed publications” and little else) will win out over less merit-based factors, such as perceived political leanings, the status of the institution where the person is teaching at, where the person got their undergraduate degree, etc.