Let me describe two very different academic careers.


Dr. X chose a Ph.D. advisor with a reputation for being not very demanding. Now Dr. X’s every effort is aimed at maximizing his publication record. He and his friends from grad school conspired to become junior editorial board members at good journals, and to recommend each other’s papers for publication. He chats up and proposes co-authorships to senior journal editors. His papers make for marginal advances in knowledge (for example, a new statistical test that, in certain situations, provides 1% more power than earlier tests) or no advance at all (e.g., using an opportunity sample of unknown quality to test a proposition that is already blindingly obvious to industry practitioners. Of course, Dr. X calls it a “hypothesis.”)

Indeed, a really big or good research idea could rock the departmental boat, and Dr. X would never do that; he is an organization man. He also understands that it’s easier to publish a paper in a currently popular research stream. Pioneering a new problem area might mean struggling to get a paper published; it fails Dr. X’s cost-benefit test.

On the contrary, he did his graduate work in a particular methodology, and all his papers are applications or minor extensions of this methodology. He knows the limitations of this approach – if your only tool is a hammer, then all problems look like a nail – but he also knows that if you pound down enough nails, you become known as The Hammer Guy, and then no one will ever write an article about hammers (or mallets or gavels, for that matter) without citing your earlier papers.

By pandering to students rather than challenging them, Dr. X compiles a file of good teaching evaluations. Using the momentum of his publication and teaching record, he jumps from university to university – some of them prestigious institutions – before any of the schools notices that Dr. X is neither creating nor transmitting very much knowledge. In the same way, X builds some industry consulting income. His clients benefit from the reflected prestige of Dr. X’s university’s name, and from the people Dr. X can introduce them to. Not surprisingly, they receive no substantial or incisive advice from Dr. X himself.

His network of co-authors and alumni act as enablers in this charade.

X would never dream of working outside academe.  His goal is a comfortable life with a good income.  He has mastered the academic game, he plays it consistently, and he achieves his goal.

His real success factors were his people skills and salesmanship. He would have done very well selling computers. He chose academe, instead, because it seemed easier, and probably less cyclical economically.


1.     What adjectives would you use to describe Dr. X?

2.     Dr. X has enjoyed certain career satisfactions.  Do you hope for rewards in your own career that go beyond Dr. X’s?  If so, list/mention some of them.

3.     Is a career like Dr. X’s achievable in today’s environment of unstable government funding for education and research?  If so, in what kinds of universities?

4.     What would be some features of an alternative kind of academic career, i.e., one that is more adventurous and less self-serving, but still rewarding?


Like Dr. X, Dr. Y enjoys people and never needlessly antagonizes them. Unlike X, though, Y marches to his own drummer. He loves to learn of industrial and social problems that are real, costly, and interesting. He attacks them with multiple methodologies. Once or twice he has even invented a new methodology for dealing with novel problems – or with old, heretofore intractable problems.

Dr. Y’s quirky and original research creates conflicts with some journal editors, but its rigor and unarguable acceptance by industry means that ultimately it gets published. If it’s not always in “A” journals, Dr. Y is not bothered overmuch. Dr. Y’s colleagues seek him out as co-author because of his creativity and his orientation to practical and real-world issues. For his part, Dr. Y seeks out collaborators on the basis of their complementary research talents and what they can bring to bear on the problem at hand.

He once asked Dr. X for access to a data set used in one of X’s papers, and was refused, to his bewilderment. Y trusts and values intellectual diversity; he knows he will not see quite the same truths in a given data set that his colleagues will. There’s plenty of grist for everybody’s publication mill, he believes. Furthermore, he thinks that a person who has one good idea in his life will surely have two or more good ideas; there’s no need to jealously guard data to prevent others from publishing analyses of it. “Trust your creativity!” is his motto. Dr. Y is a careful analyst. However, if a colleague, using Y’s data, finds an error in Y’s analysis, that’s wonderful! It advances science the way it’s supposed to be advanced, and it opens new opportunities for investigation, for Y and for others.

When Dr. Y is working for a state university, or on a government grant, he is aware that he owes his livelihood to the taxpayers. For this reason, and due to his native idealism, he wants to work on important problems that are in the national interest or that alleviate human suffering. His expertise on some of these “big problem” areas have led to invitations to serve on NSF review panels, and even to some Washington job offers which he is considering.

Due to his practical interests, Dr. Y has, earlier, taken breaks from academic life to work in industry. (This has slowed his “career advancement” in both sectors. However, that kind of advancement has not been central to Dr. Y’s values, so he doesn’t mind.) He is now bemused to find that the world has come to see the value of cross-sectoral dialog; university president searches, for example, now favor candidates who have worked in at least two of industry, government and academe. “Marching to his own drummer,” it seems, may really have been a subconscious prescience about the future of education and research.


1.     Dr. Y’s approach seems appropriate for the educational environment of the future.  Is it too extreme for the present moment?  If so, how would you, as a new doctoral graduate, strategize your career for these transitional times?

2.     Dr. Y’s career seems to show a theme, but not much of a plan.  Can you suggest a way to add structure to a “Type Y” career to increase its effectiveness and reward?