And not always the one that you think it is
Good analysis. A few additional thoughts.
Whether a faculty compensation package is sustainable can partly depend on the cost of living of the region where the college or university is located. For example, my preference was to teach on the west coast, but almost all of the programs where I might have plausibly been hired were located in metropolitan areas with high housing costs. Moving there would have doubled my monthly mortgage payments, but take-home pay was not commensurably higher. Paying off a mortgage by age 65 would no longer have been realistic.
To make matters worse, few of the positions had as strong of a retirement plan as the one I enjoyed as a government bureaucrat. This led me to wonder: Were the charms of academia worth the financial hit?
One attractive quality of a faculty position is the relative autonomy. Even so, I saw a paradox there: Getting published required navigating a gatekeeping process that could be just as politically challenging as what I experienced in the practitioner realm as a public policy analyst. Indeed, it could be even more challenging if one specialized in a topic or a theoretical school of thought that was considered suspect by old-school scholars. At least in my academic field, these were the folks who tended to have the most power at peer-reviewed journals and scholarly presses.
In general, the stakes are higher in a scholarly career track. For example, as a practitioner I could usually find another gig down the street if I didn’t like the new management in my organization. That would typically not be possible in my scholarly field, where the job market is national – and increasingly tight.
Teaching can be great, good fun, but building a successful life in academia can be “fraught with peril,” as one of my professors once warned.
I find reading some of the subreddits associated with professors really interesting in terms of getting a sense of what some people think the job of professor is like, a sense of what is common about the job of being a professor in almost all contexts, and a sense of just how different the job of being a professor is across institutional political economies and cultures in some domains or areas.
One really sharp example of this is the obsession that a lot of working faculty have about cheating--about catching it, about not being able to catch it, about anger over cheating. I always have to stop myself before responding that it doesn't seem like it's that big a problem, because at that point I realize:
a) I have different students than a lot of the folks who are posting
b) I teach subject matter that is harder to do 'easy cheating' on simply because there's a relative lack of online materials dealing with African history
c) And most importantly, I have a completely different institutional environment to deal with, where the fuzzy production of cultural capital is at least as valued as the achievement of specific qualifying credentials that have a known and tangible ROI; the faculty who are highly focused on cheating are trying to hold the line on making sure that certified graduates can actually do specific work that the credential says they can in an institution that is pushing through huge numbers of students while undervaluing faculty labor and professional diligence--these are folks who are trying to handle hundreds of students at a time while maintaining standards and most of the students are struggling with resentment and financial precarity as they try to make it through an academic program.