I had coffee in early June with Chris McKenna, Associate Professor at Oxford’s Said Business School.
When I say we “had coffee”, we didn’t actually drink coffee, but I had offered to buy Chris one as I thought it might give him a reason to meet with me.
Chris’s area of expertise is strategy and business history, and he is also Director of the Centre for Professional Service Firms.
Needless to say, I was interested to hear his views on strategy, the professional services industry, and the state of the academic job market.
During the course of some light-hearted banter about his academic career, I decided to tell Chris that I was toying with the idea of doing a PhD, and all of a sudden he turned serious.
Don’t do it. He told me pointedly. Lots of people fancy the idea of teaching and research as a job, but the reality is that the odds of getting tenure are extremely remote and the odds of getting tenure somewhere nice like Oxford are slimmer still. Moreover, the opportunity cost of pursuing a PhD is extremely high because you not only miss out on a higher salary which you could have earned pretty much anywhere else, but you may also make yourself less employable in the process.
He conceded that if I still wanted to do a PhD despite his warnings and the lack of job opportunities, then there were a few things to bear in mind:
- Only do it if the university is willing to pay. His reasoning on this point was that a PhD is very time consuming and since it doesn’t offer a good return on investment anyway, you can’t afford to get into debt while doing it. He also suggested that the willingness of a university to provide funding is a proxy for how much they want you to come and join them, and so it is a kind of “leading indicator” for whether there will be follow on opportunities like post-doctoral work, consulting, and lecturing opportunities.
- Look for the spider in the web. Read lots of academic papers, and then talk to the academics whose research really resonates with you. You may find that the academic’s ideas are not as interesting as the research articles had led you to believe, and the reason that this can happen is that the research ideas may have come from the academic’s supervisor. If this is the case, then try talking to the supervisor or to some of the supervisor’s other hatchlings.
- In deciding which faculty to apply to, think about which subjects you would like to teach. If you would like to teach supply and demand, then apply to economics faculties. If you would like to teach strategy, then apply to business schools. Chris’s reasoning on this point was twofold (1) most PhD’s require you to do a year or so of course work which brings you up to speed on the core courses offered by the faculty, and (2) a PhD like any other degree has a certain “signalling effect”. If you do your PhD in a business school then your ability to find work in a business school following the PhD will be enhanced.
After Chris had finished advising me on how to avoid imminent demise and how to successfully navigate the academic job market, he then mentioned something in passing which was even more interesting.
He said, if you really want earn money in a university, then you should become an administrator. With the rise of online courses, the teaching function is likely to become more and more automated.
If you wanted to become a farmer, he told me, then the best job prospects for that industry came and went several hundred years ago. And if you want to become an academic, then the window of opportunity for that market is similarly closing. Universities need administrators, but they need fewer and fewer academics.
I wonder how long it will be before universities start offering a Masters of University Administration? And where will all the creative minds go once universities no longer need them?