Ranks in Academia vs. Nelson’s Navy


I’m a huge fan of nautical fiction. And by that, I mean age of sail stuff, not WWII submarines (though I loved Das Boot ). The literature is much deeper than Hornblower and Aubrey/Maturin (though it doesn’t get better than O’Brian). I’ve read hundreds of these books. If you want to join me, you might find the following helpful.

I think I’ve pretty much read every nautical fiction book published in the last 50 years. I had to go back to sci-fi and even fantasy (thank you, Patrick Rothfuss, for making my life better a book at a time).

Officer Grades

Given that nautical fiction almost always focuses on the officers, I’ve come to realize that the books are really about organizational structure and management. I see a strong relation to the academic pecking order, which I summarize in the following table.

Academia Navy
undergrad nipper
grad student midshipman
post-doc lieutenant
junior faculty commander
tenured faculty post captain
department head, dean admiral

Non-Commmissioned and Warrant Officers

What about the rest of us?

Academia Navy
research scientist sailing master
research programmer boatswain (aka ‘bosun’)
grants officier Admiralty bureaucrat

Sailing master because us research scientists know the technical bits of being an officer, namely navigation and how the ship works. Programmers are bosuns because they’re the most technically adept at the low-level functionality of academia. I guess if you weren’t in computer science, the research programmer would be a lab tech.

4 Responses to “Ranks in Academia vs. Nelson’s Navy”

  1. David Tresner-Kirsch Says:

    Where do adjunct faculty fit under this projection?

  2. Alex Morgan Says:

    Stephen Maturin is like adjunct faculty. He’s not really in the chain of command, but he can help people out and get some respect if the local faculty member likes him.

  3. Bob Carpenter Says:

    For adjuncts, there’s often a fellow from the Army hanging out on ship (the pinnacle of ridiculous along those lines was Sharpe at Trafalgar). Or someone from a scientific expedition.

    Also, visiting faculty are like officers from a friendly navy on board.

    • David Tresner-Kirsch Says:

      Excellent — good to know my place! Bob, it’s a wonderful mind-twister to think about being “someone from a scientific expedition” in a non-scientific metaphor for scientific hierarchies.

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