What motivates academics

Some time ago the Cleveland Plain Dealer had an article in the business pages that began by noting that when you visit the faculty parking lot of any college campus, you will find very few expensive cars such as Mercedes Benzes, Cadillacs, Porsches, Hummers, and BMWs. The writer made the inference that college professors, while perhaps very smart people in their fields of expertise, were not very smart when it came to managing their money.

The reporter was correct that college campus parking lots are not the places to find fancy cars. But her inference that this is because they are not good with money is wrong. Academics may or may not be smart about money but the cars they drive are not a good clue as to this ability. I have worked my whole life in such settings and I don’t know a single academic who drives such expensive cars, even though many can afford them. When they do splurge on a car, college faculty tend to go for the low-end models of upscale car lines like Lexus or Volvo or Acura or Saab. I myself am now on my third successive Honda Accord, now four years old, which followed a Fiat, a Toyota Corolla, and a Subaru, all low-end cars. Our other family car is a 13-year old Civic.

Once my daughter asked me what car I would drive if I could have any car at all, and I told her that it was the car that I already had, the Accord. I had reached the peak of my automobile ambitions with a car that was reliable, reasonably priced, economical to run, comfortable, nice-looking, and easy to drive. Why would I want more? I don’t think I am unusual in the kind of car I own or my attitude towards them. I think most academics are more likely to brag about how long they have owned their car or about how fuel-efficient it is, rather than its luxuriousness.

The Plain Dealer reporter had completely misunderstood the motivations of academics. Most academics do not go into the field to make a lot of money. They go into it because they love the subject they study and want to spend their lives doing it. This does not mean that they are ascetics. They have no objections to making money but that desire is not usually strong enough for them to forego other important things. They know that academia provides a comfortable life with good working conditions and that they can provide adequately for their families.

For example, writing a scholarly book takes years of time and effort and at the end you are lucky if you sell a few thousand copies, mostly to university libraries. You are never going to become rich writing scholarly books. So why do academics do it? They do it to advance knowledge in their field and to secure their reputation among the few dozens or at most a hundred or so people working in closely related areas, and to leave something of value behind for posterity.

For a physicist, to have a discovery associated with him or her or an equation or a principle named for them would bring little material benefit but be more precious to them than a fancy car ever would. If an academic were offered a deal whereby they would live in near poverty all their lives in exchange for making the kind of ground-breaking discovery that (say) a Charles Darwin or an Albert Einstein made, I suspect that must of them would unhesitatingly accept it. I know I would. In the world that academics inhabit, good ideas are a rare and precious commodity and the person who discovers one has found something far more valuable than discovering oil on her property.

This does not mean that academics are not ambitious or competitive. Many of them are fiercely so but the reward they seek is the respect they get from their colleagues when they make a major contribution to their field, and the fame that sometimes comes with it. This fame is not like that of a film star or politician. Except for a few like Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, even famous academics are not immediately recognizable to the general public and their fame is limited to a small circle of peers but that does not matter to most of them. To be the keynote speaker at important conferences, to have one’s work be cited approvingly by one’s peers, and even to have it form the framework for further work, these are the heady heights which academics seek. Driving an expensive car is nothing compared to the pleasures that such things bring.

It may be that in the corporate world, the only way that people can advertise to others that they have become a ‘success’ is via tangible symbols like cars, fancy houses, Rolex watches, designer clothes, and so on. But the currency by which success is measured in academia is your reputation for being an excellent scholar. If you have that, then you don’t need the other things. In fact, if you flaunt those other things, your colleagues may suspect that you are trying to compensate for your lack of meaningful intellectual achievement. Either way, the academic culture works against ostentatious displays of wealth.

POST SCRIPT: Only in America

For those who did not get a large enough dose of patriotic fervor over the weekend, here’s Bruce McCulloch of the sketch comedy troupe Kids in the Hall.


  1. says

    I agree with you. A lot of people put to much meaning into a car. Like our houses and clothes we tend to see cars as part of our status in society. I am a car enthusiast myself, but when it comes down to it the car is a mode of transportation. And the Honda Accord is great one for that.

  2. says

    I have a friend who is a professor and Dean of his department. His home and automobiles are very modest but I understand that he is extremely good with money having no debt whatsoever. I think being simple and living within one’s means is something that actually reflects a certain type of intelligence.

  3. says

    I agree with you..Most of the academics are really down to earth and do not indulge in expensive cars..Our HoD still drives Volkswagen Golf and other professors also do not have expensive cars.

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