Academic Caste System

I came to Virginia Tech for a PhD and I decided that I was not going to do it full time. For the last 5 years, Virginia Tech considers me not in “residency” for my PhD. I had to derive a plan and approved by my committee to show Virginia Tech that I am meeting the criteria for residency through various activities. I live and work outside of academia. For me, I only have a foot in this big world of academia. I always joke that I wear two competing hats but I try very hard not to wear at the same time. I wear a hat with the company that I work for between 40-50 hours a week job that I work for a paycheck. I had an agreement with them that my “extra time” beyond the full time schedule was for my schooling. The other hat is some form of Virginia Tech that I occasionally proudly put on. My employer’s setup of being completely virtual and having a flexible work schedule for the last 5 years let me go back to school.

In the private sector, there is a caste system that you are supposed to pay your dues. The entry level folks do the “grunt” work and you work your way up from the bottom. The speed of how fast you work up the ladder is wholly dependent on how many other skills that you have or you can learn quickly. In the “consulting” business, that usually corresponds to how fast you pick up the business and start managing projects. Your fancy degree only counts on your first job and if you are going to be licensed. However, the vast majority of project managers and upper management doesn’t care about the degree that you earned. Most employers avoid people with PhD because they think they will complicate all the projects and make them science fair projects. All that matters is the amount of work that you have and the amount of money you are bringing into the company. There is a serious competition both internally between colleagues and externally between companies. If you look at the demographics, only 10% of all engineers and scientists will go on to have a career in the consulting field. Yet, the movement upward is quickly. You are managing projects within 5 years and trying to get to the next level of managing. Once you get 10 years, you are a peer.

In academia, there is a pedigree. Where did you do your undergraduate? Where did you do your master’s? Where did you do your PhD? Did you do that postdoc at NASA or some well renowned professor on the other coast? In the academic world, you don’t matter until you have your PhD and what your pedigree is. Honestly, I know very little about the hierarchy of professors. I don’t know how if there is much of a gap between the assistant professor and the professor with tenure? I have no idea. I imagine there must be one. I know that you are judged by the number of papers that you publish and the quality of the journal where those papers are published in. Yet, I don’t know what those levels are either. The whole world is foreign to me even going through my masters now 20 years ago and now this part time expedition for the last 5 years. When are you considered a peer in academia ranks? Is it also 10 years? 5 years for a PhD and then 5 years to get tenure?

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1 Comment

  1. Your evaluation of hierarchy in consulting an academia reminds me that labels only have meaning within a group. If you ask someone on the street the difference between an assistant and associate professor, they most likely will not know what those roles are. I believe having levels within an institution is beneficial for many reasons as long as individuals at all levels are respected and valued. Whether someone is at the bottom or top of the ladder, it is helpful to have moments when those labels can come off.

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