Tuesday, May 08, 2012
Adjuncts on Food Stamps
The general idea isn’t new, of course, but the numbers are. The story notes a threefold increase just from 2007 to 2010 in the number of people affected.
I have to admit that my first response was “there but for the grace of God.” Anyone who clings to the myth of the academic meritocracy is invited to explain the speed of the increase in people in this position. Yes, I work hard at my job, but so do plenty of other people; denying the role of luck is just ungracious.
That said, though, I wonder if this article – and others like it – will reach the audience it should reach. The target audience should be talented and ambitious undergraduates.
It’s hard to break free of what William James presciently called “The Ph.D. Octopus” once it has its tentacles around you. Years of socialization into the narrow and unsustainable professional norms of the guild make it all too easy to deny the economic realities of the situation. And the outside world has little respect for graduate study outside of the STEM fields, so even though one could make a strong case for the transferable skills developed through intensive graduate study, many employers simply don’t want to hear it. (And in this economy, they don’t have to; most of the time they can have their pick of people whose training or background is an easier fit.)
But if good people can be dissuaded from getting too close to the octopus in the first place, they can avoid a terrible fate.
I know the objections to this. But none of them strike me as persuasive, whether separately or together. They don’t pass the “I’d send my kid” test.
Some will trot out the old “let’s just fire all the administrators” canard. Others will suggest that a strong social democratic revival could be just around the corner, if we just try hard enough. A few will even try the old “the academic job market isn’t really a market” line, not realizing that the first illustration of their point is the institution of life tenure. Others will argue the need to diversify the faculty, which presumes that all those diverse candidates would actually become faculty.
But those don’t add up to any reason to believe that ten years from now, new Ph.D.’s will be in high demand. If anything, I foresee the situation worsening. Public colleges and universities are being underfunded to make room for tax cuts, health insurance costs, and prisons. None of that falls under the purview of local administrators. The backlog of underemployed graduates is growing, not shrinking, so even a significant uptick in demand would be more than swamped by people already in the system. Twenty years of academic activism on this issue haven’t reversed the direction; I don’t know why ten more suddenly will.
No. The best we can do is to prevent the next generation from falling victim to the issues that did such damage to this one. We need to prune both the number and the size of graduate programs. We need to actively dissuade bright young students from jumping into the sausage grinder. We need to support unionization of adjuncts, though with a clear-eyed view of the limits of what that’s likely to achieve. (My own campus has unionized adjuncts, and has had them for years, so I know of which I write.) Yes, we need all the macro-political stuff that would help, but let’s not mistake hope for expectation. Offer me Swedish-style social democracy and I’ll happily vote for it, but I’m not holding my breath for it to win in America anytime soon. In the meantime, let’s at least save our students from becoming the second generation of adjuncts on food stamps.
It's too bad that the Invisible Adjunct archive has disappeared, because she was so good at just destroying this specious line of reasoning. Yeah, intensive graduate study does develop some skills that are transferable, but you know what else does that? Spending eight years working in the industry you're trying now trying to break into. Implying that employers are looking for the cheap and easy way out because they don't want to trade getting someone with domain knowledge, professional networks and contacts, etc. for "sustained focuse" and "the ability to write long documentation" is not going to fix anything.
I built in forward links to other parts of the series, but you need to go specifically to June 5, 2008 to read an update to the blog about supply that includes an attempt in the late 70s to discourage people from pursing academic degrees. Note well that this was in a STEM area where about 2/3 of all PhDs seek jobs outside academia!
PS - All of the links in those old articles are broken by now, replaced by new data.
I mean, aren't there any people with PhD's in finance or accounting, or biology or chemistry in a similar situation?
why did the 'face' have to be a major with little to no outside application?
Yup, I cringed when I saw the field she specialized in. It's almost like the author wanted to give naysayers an excuse to bash the subject of the story. It certainly isn't for a lack of adjuncts facing the same plight in those fields.
Oh, and my strong agreement with the above posts about the field that the "face" is in. It really does seem the author wants to give naysayers a way to say nay.
The economics that will drive grad programs to expand is that TAs are cheaper than profs - even adjuncts - and that will make the schools do things that don't make sense. The only hope is for students to walk away.
However, those with the bright and shiny PhD's made the choice to do so. At some point, personality responsibility for the choices they made needs to be calculated into the problem. We all wear rose colored glasses when pursuing our dream but we also must be held accountable for being adults and taking them off at some point to see the writing on the wall.
And sometimes you have to take jobs you don't want just to pay bills. Your PhD doesn't make you too good to work at Best Buy.
if a degree isn't going to land you a good job, why get the degree? i still don't get it. why spend years and thousands of dollars on a PhD in medieval history? get a good degree, and read about medieval history in your spare time. i love politics, art, and economics. but i didn't get a degree in them, because i don't want to be poor. so i got a useful degree, a good job, and i read up in my spare time.
a PhD in medieval history is about as useful as a PhD in typing, blinking, or hole-digging. call it what it is.
i love that we can tell high school kids to face reality, and that they just won't ever be able to make it at a professional level in football/baseball/basketball. but telling them that they won't amount to much with some off-the-wall liberal arts PhD is taboo. when i hear of a kid going down that road, i give them $5 and tell them to give me 50% off of their commission when they eventually get their realtor's license in 10 years...
As a current grad student, articles like this strike fear into my heart and I realize the job market sucks. I am working on picking up actually "transferrable skills" and really, really hope someone gives me a chance. But grad school can be an instrumental decision when your other option is hanging around indefinitely in dead end minimum wage jobs.
Attacking one symptom of the problem won't solve the problem.
Now, far from being a world leader in support of education, we are becoming a laggard (see Goldin & Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology). In the face of rising enrollments, this lagging support virtually forces public institutions to raise tuition significantly *and* to increase their reliance on adjuncts. My own campus has seen its state support remain virtually constant--in nominal, not real, terms--since I arrived 25 years ago...and we are not an outlier.
The question is how to return the US to its historic position of treating education as a societal priority, and to support it accordingly. And if I had an answer, I'd be glad to let you all know.
Absolutely correct. We probably should also stop deceiving people about how incredibly, inherently valuable higher education is. Also, the person above who noted the excess of JDs being produced is absolutely right. However, we still seem to be short of MDs.
This state of affairs isn't because we as a society don't value education, it comes about because a significant fraction of what passes for higher education turns out to be nonsense, and the public now knows that, and doesn't like funding it.
As one of the few PhD's in our organization, I am constantly consulted by co-workers who wish to earn a PhD. I always ask them why they wish to obtain such a degree. Many do not understand the purpose of a PhD. Many have no interest in research or teaching. For some, it is more about signaling and status.
I also remind them that the payoff from a PhD is not much higher than a Masters. I also tell them that I would not have pursued one myself if I had to pay for it. That really seems to speak volumes. A PhD is not required anywhere in my organization.
My intent is not to poo-poo their dreams, but to bring a sense of reality to that commitment.
We, as a society, can't be expected to support higher ed when it aspires to enroll all of our HS grads as enthusiastically as we did when it enrolled (maybe) 10% of them, or even 30%. The payoff is not nearly as good for society as a whole, particularly when it's becoming apparent that many of those college students will not graduate, and many of those who do will have learned not much more than HS grads used to learn. And I'm not saying this as a proponent of the good old days -- those days weren't so good, colleges mainly enrolled middle class and upper class white men, remember. Butthe public is not dumb, and they aren't seeing a good return on investment whether you see the investment as economic only, or whether you see it in broader terms. It's too bad that we've created an appetite for the life of a professor in too many young people, but that's about the size of it.
yer killin me here
Man, you can always count on conservatives to not just adhere to Poe's Law, but to make sweet, sweet love to it for days at a time.
However, I did try to find adjunct work in my new city. Unfortunately, spring semesters tend to be bad news for adjuncts who weren't around in the fall, especially at the community colleges as enrollment traditionally goes down from fall.
What's crazy is that my weekly unemployment benefit amount is higher than I would make if I taught the maximum three 3-credit courses for an adjunct at the local community college district.
Given that I can collect benefits through the summer, when I'm usually out of work with no income, my unemployment benefits come out to more than I would have made teaching FIVE adjunct classes.
Crazy, huh? But true!
This argument could have been said about both (near-) universal HS education and increasing bachelor's level education above 10% of the population.