Careers in Academia – Endings and Beginnings

June 7, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Rubinstein, professor of sociology, was, by his own account, something of a slacker. Now that he has retired, he’s telling tales out of school (i.e., at the Weekly Standard) about how much he was paid for how little work.

Sure, he didn’t do squat, he seems to have been a lousy teacher. But even though he pranked academia for several decades, and even though he’s standing there, thumbs to ears, waggling his fingers and sticking out his tongue at his former home, I’m ambivalent about lobbing tomatoes at him. You see, I owe my first job, and the prestigious name Princeton on my vita, to a Rubinstein-like professor.

I had finished my third year in grad school and had no more course work to do, just the dissertation. It was a mid-May afternoon, and I was hanging around in the department. The academic business for the semester was over. Almost nobody else was around, and I was chatting with one of the secretaries who I was on good terms with. A call came in. She answered it. I discreetly moved down the hall.

When I came back, she said, “That was John Darley at Princeton. They need an advanced graduate student to be on the faculty. Here’s his number.”

I called back almost immediately. John was the head of the social psychology section of the psychology department. He explained that there was a guy in the department, an older, tenured professor, that they’d been trying to get rid of for years. He taught the minimum, did little or no research, didn’t work with any of the grad students, and spent most of his time in his office on the phone making real estate deals. Finally, he had announced his retirement, leaving the department with a use-it-or-lose-it line and no time to do a real search.

John was calling his old professors looking for a grad student to fill in. I guess I sounded reasonable, for he told me to fly down to Newark, rent a car, and drive to Princeton for an interview. Which I did. The “interview” was a year-end department party, faculty and students drinking and milling around, and I was introduced to them. That was about it.

A day or two after I had returned to Boston, John called and told me I had the job – a lectureship. I wouldn’t really be teaching. I’d run some “precepts” (discussion sections) – basically what their grad students did. My instructor’s salary was at the bottom of the faculty scale, but it was three times as much as the stipends my fellow grad students got. And if I needed secretarial help (this was way before computers), all I had to do was ask. All told, a sweet deal. I had my own office and plenty of time to work on writing my dissertation. Come to think of it, I was bit like Rubinstein myself, getting pretty good money for not very much work.

I’m not sure what Princeton got out of it except a place-holder for two semesters. It was made clear to me that I needn’t bother entering the real search that they were doing during my time there (though I did attend a couple of the presentations). That was fine with me, for as I got to know what academic psychology was, I realized that I definitely was not a psychologist.

That was my first job in academia – two semesters and out. I held what John referred to as the Folding Chair in Social Psychology.

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