Meritocracy in Academia: A Useful Myth?

Sisyphus signI’ve previously blogged about enhancing production as a way to develop a more robust CV, and have suggested that publishing well and widely may (for instance) increase one’s odds on the job market.  Both imply that academia is a meritocracy.  It isn’t.  But meritocracy can be a useful myth.  Please note: that’s can be, not is.

A friend (who has asked to remain anonymous) and I have been talking about this over email. Friend argues that increased productivity does not in fact increase one’s odds on the job market. Although I disagree, I do think Friend is correct to note that many other factors (over which the job candidate may have no control or may be unable to anticipate) play an important role, too.  To name one personal example, one of my MLA interviews (in 1999) led to a campus visit, which in turn led to my coming in second place for the job. First-place candidate turned it down, and the job went to me. That’s luck! However, it’s also not entirely luck: having the publications helped me get to second place. To name another personal example, I later learned that my ability to create a website was one thing that attracted the department – this wasn’t something I anticipated, but for a department that does all its own web work, web ability turned out (in 1999-2000) to be a marketable skill. And so on.

But, as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, publishing is the currency of academe, and we get to print our own money: If you publish more, you increase your cultural capital (within academia).  Please understand that I am not arguing that the system should work this way. I think that young scholars should have more time to develop; the rush to publication may create more scholarship, but it does not necessarily create better scholarship.  Furthermore, I’m troubled by academia’s failure to reward teaching and service in the same ways that it rewards research.  All three are equally important.  That said, though I take my three obligations equally seriously, I also know that research is valued more – and thus I tend to work overtime so that I can invest a little extra in research. If I cannot change the system, then at least I can figure out how to succeed within its terms, right?

Well, it’s not that simple.  In allowing the system to guide my professional choices, I in fact help to sustain those very features that I criticize.  By gaining from a system of which I disapprove, my actions uphold that system’s assumptions – that industry and productivity provide a path to success for all.  Friend summarizes the paradox nicely:

in another context, Lauren Berlant has argued for the necessity of sentimentalism as a means of survival, even as it reinforces the structures of oppression that make survival difficult. In the context of the job market, meritocracy is one such sentimentalism.

In other words, the belief that hard work will eventually lead to success encourages academics to undertake lots of unpaid labor … which helps keep academe running, but may not necessarily help Ph.Ds to land that elusive tenure-track gig.  As Friend points out, the excellent scholarship being done by those beyond the tenure track refutes the idea that academe is a meritocratic system (if it were, then all adjuncts and post-docs doing great work would swiftly find good jobs on the tenure track).

So.  What should an aspiring academic do?

  1. Focus on what you can control.  Having been on hiring committees, I know that publishing does set you apart from other job candidates.  Friend disagrees with me on this point, but I believe publishing more does increase your odds – and this is the sense in which meritocracy is a useful myth.
  2. You have to act as if your actions will have an effect, even though you know full well that they may not. On the one hand, you sustain some level of belief in the meritocratic fantasy, and on the other, you acknowledge that, at most, all you’re doing is improving your odds. In other words, maintain a kind pessimistic optimism (or optimistic pessimism?), in which the “optimist” portion is always 51% or greater.
  3. But Friend has the best advice here. The best reason to be productive is that you believe in your ideas, and recognize that you’re doing real work in the world. This is a much healthier approach than “productivity increases your odds.”  The satisfaction of doing good work that you believe in is a more spiritually sound way of living.  If you’re only trying to expand the CV, then the focus is too much on the production and not on the reasons you do the work in the first place.

Finally, I should say that I do not find my answers to be wholly satisfactory. So, as always, do feel free to critique them, and – better – provide stronger answers of your own.

More posts on academia from Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):


Image source: Michelle Kerns’ “Hilarious yet Heartbreaking: The Reviewerspeak Awards for May 2010.”


  1. Reply

    I’d add a couple of caveats here. First, publishing more sets you apart for certain kinds of positions–most notably research universities, but also striving schools of various sorts. More teaching-focused institutions that are entirely comfortable with their mission (perhaps a small number, perhaps even only community colleges) may actually look askance at “too much” productivity. There’s also the issue of the kind of publishing. I know my institution and many like it would be more impressed by one very highly-placed article than by three book reviews, or any number of blog posts and/or non-refereed publications, even if they are actually quite good publications.

    Finally, in addition to your three points, above, I’d add a fourth: once you get in, work for change. Get on your tenure & promotion committee and argue for the value of teaching. Get on the committee that designs the teaching evaluation instrument so that it actually tells you something useful. Get on a committee that considers peer review of teaching. Be a part of faculty governance, and work for change from within. No, it won’t get you promoted, but it might make the path more sane for the next person, and the next.

  2. Robin Bernstein


    Really interesting post, Phil. I look at it in the inverse way: publishing may guarantee you nothing, but not publishing will guarantee that you are disqualified from certain jobs. And who can afford to disqualify her or himself from jobs nowadays?

  3. Rod McGillis


    1. More important than publication these days is money. Grants. Recently my Department sent a form to each of us on which we were to list publications over the past five years. The form only allowed for funded publications.

    2. “the world of research has gone berserk,/Too much paperwork.” His Bobness

  4. Robin Bernstein


    I absolutely agree with Rod. I recently saw a hire in the humanities who had surprisingly few publications but who had a stellar track record for grants and fellowships. It helped that he was fresh out of grad school–and by the way, once he got the job, he started publishing a lot (and continued to nab great fellowships and grants).

  5. Reply

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments. Good fourth point, Libby! And, true, my emphasis on publishing assumes the pursuit of jobs at what were once called “Research 1” institutions: a teaching-oriented school comfortable with its mission may not care so much about research. Robin: Hmmm… your inverse formula may be more persuasive. Will direct Friend to your comment.

    The news about money is depressing. I have won some fellowships & grants, but haven’t been applying for them lately — I’ve been too busy with other projects! These comments remind me that I ought to resume the pursuit of such professional (and monetary) accolades… or that, as Libby suggests, I should do more to advocate reasonable standards.

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