Wiseguys of Academia

An interesting discussion on academic life leads me to arrive at some sort of conclusion… is being academia like being in the mafia?

Beginning at the bottom we are the undergrads. A bunch of thugs pushing theories like blunt tools. Unsure how they should be used, unsure what they mean but we slowly reach the conclusion: For some this brush with the system is enough – they are scared straight and go on to normal fruitful lives. For the others we begin our slow climb upwards, which begins with the recognition of a desire. We simulate theory, assimilate method but in reality still basically use these a blunt instruments in our own work. We are the wannabes.

We graduate to our master’s thesis. We struggle to be noticed by the Phd students, Phd’s and many levels of professors. We are discerning a structure, its still a mix of awe and mystery but we recognize there are a path and a hierarchy. There is less pointless use of violence but we are fully prepared to use our strengths to impress those above. We remain squeamish about acting as enforcers.

The first real step is to be inducted into the crew. We are chosen by a professor to work on a major project of our own. We are not seen as particularly profitable but we are vaguely useful. The tests are many. Acquiring knowledge seems almost secondary to learning the codes, traditions and manners of our crew. We adopt gang colors and sneer at other gangs for their lack of stringent theories or their sloppy methods – we are on the true path, we are the most loyal supporters. We are the small time enforcers pushed forward in conferences and seminars to fight for the amusement of our superiors.

During this process we grow as individuals are singled out for different paths and purposes. We begin to prove our worth and more importantly our potential for increasing the value of our chosen crew. We make our bones by attending and surviving conferences and bringing honor to our supervisors. Failing at this is not an option… many simply disappear for failing here.

The moment of truth occurs when we defend our own positions within the culture of our families. To survive the viva is to become a made man. We leave behind the role of soldier, and have obtained the first step to true power within our families and may begin the journey onwards.

From Wikipedia:

A made man is traditionally seen as “untouchable” by fellow criminals, a man to be respected and feared. To attack, let alone kill, a made man for any reason without the permission of mafiosi higher up in the organization is a cardinal sin normally met with severe retaliation (usually death), often regardless of whether the perpetrator had a legitimate grievance. A made man can however be killed if a good enough reason is provided and the Mafia bosses give permission.

Translation: no grad, undergrad, or PhD student poses a serious threat to your position. But your position within the organization is still insecure. Incurring the displeasure of the capo (professor), the Don (dean of the faculty) or the Consigliere (Faculty Chief administrator) can incur the death penalty or banishment from the family.

From this point we begin to diversify our interests. We still run the scams and games created by those who have sponsored us into the family. Our loyalty is still to the family but we are also beginning to create our own lines of income and power (research grants). This is permissible as long as we still show deference to the Don and make sure he gets a cut (of money and citations). To be profitable is to survive.

If nothing goes wrong, and you continue to prove your worth, you graduate to capo famiglia (full tenure). From this point the underlings look up to you, you walk the campus with a security and sense of power that only the chosen few have. A wave of the hand decides whether underlings live or die. Power struggles within the family (other professors) and with other families (other faculties) are common. Occasionally families act in concert (called a university) and attempt to beat out other universities in vicious turf wars.

The end of a long successful career may lead to a position of respect and admiration (emeritus) however many good soldiers have disappeared on the way.