How is a tenured professor like a drug lord? How is a new Ph.D. researcher like a street-level drug dealer?

These are not riddles intended to amuse. Rather, they present the gist of an essay by Alexandre Afonso, who teaches political economy at King's College London where he holds the rank of lecturer. Taking off from a chapter entitled "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" in the bestselling-book Freakonomics, by economist Steven D. Levitt and writer Stephen J. Dubner, Afonso argues that academic departments have a lot in common with drug cartels: A few highly paid, permanent top dogs enjoy power and comfort while farming out the dirty work to large numbers of low-paid, mostly temporary underlings.

The question that Levitt and Dubner answer is why street dealers and mules—or, in Afonso's retelling, grad students and postdocs—accept miserable pay and working conditions when they could be earning more in less annoying and dangerous, more secure endeavors. "Yet," Afonso writes, "gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members"—and neither do academic departments. "The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business: low-level drug sellers forego current income for (uncertain) future wealth. Rank-and file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing. It is very unlikely that they will make it (their mortality rate is insanely high, by the way) but they're ready to 'get rich or die trying.'"

The same goes for academe—minus, of course, the firepower and risk of arrest, he continues. "The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small (unless you mark student papers very harshly), one can observe similar dynamics."

As we have previously mentioned, economists with less flair for dramatic examples have long made a similar point by comparing academe to so-called "tournament" labor markets like professional sports and rock music. In these cases a few winners earn fame and fortune while a much larger number of also-rans—some with skills and talent as good as or even better than the stars'—play in the minor leagues or their own garages.

Afonso's seemingly outrageous comparison has been getting attention on the Web, notes Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed. Afonso's goal, Inside Higher Ed reports, is not to warn ambitious young people away from academe but rather to let them know about the reality of its brutal job market. "If they want to stay in academia, they have to know that the competition for permanent positions has increased tremendously, and they have to know that a Ph.D. alone is no longer enough when they arrive on the job market," Afonso says, quoted by Inside Higher Ed.

This might convince some young people to just say "no" to academe and seek their fortunes elsewhere. The spoils of even the cushiest full professorship or the grandest academic honor prize pale, after all, beside the wealth and power of a top cartel commander. But for those with the right combination of ability, ambition, and intellectual interests, the lure of academic success may well be worth the risk and the hard road to get there.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300260