A little blog debate brought about by this trenchant observation:

The last couple of years have seen my friends begin to start their honest-to-goodness careers, as opposed to jobs that were by design short-term. I’d say that among people I would call friends, a good two dozen have gotten long-term/serious jobs in the last couple years. And here’s the thing: literally none of them got there jobs without some sort of "in", a personal connection that got them the job.

The second to last link up there, at Uncertain Principles, compares academia to media industries, in which there are simply too few positions for everyone at the bottom to eventually rise to the top (which is basically true everywhere).

Let me add what I think is the worst part about the academic job market: if you don’t succeed, there is virtually no way to transfer your skills directly.

Take a lawyer. One path, the path strongly encouraged at prestigious law schools, involves working your way up the ranks of a large corporate firm, eventually becoming partner and making loads of money working for big businesses. Make one mistake, like bad grades one semester or a poor undergraduate record, and you will usually be barred from that path for ever.

As a lawyer, though, you do not have to care about that. You can join in a small firm and make a good salary working decent galleries. You can go into business for yourself, and earn anywhere between little money and a boatload of money while working anywhere between a few hours a week and as if you were actually out on a boat in rough seas. There’s a lot of room for variety.

In academia, however, there are no freelance biologists or independent physicists. Unlike someone in the media industry, you can’t even hope to have a breakthrough screenplay or acting performance. You are simply out of the loop.

That’s not to say there aren’t other options for PhDs and the like. There are, but in entirely different fields; there are plenty of PhDs doing career work only vaguely related to their education, work definitely not related to academic pursuits.

I won’t pretend to have the solution here but I do think the problem is far more pronounced than generally recognized. It’s not that the best and brightest end up choosing law and medicine instead — trust me, they don’t — it’s that many potential superstars in the field languish entirely, captive to their own passion about the subject while also unable to land an appropriate job.