Tuesday, May 08, 2012

 

Adjuncts on Food Stamps

If you haven’t seen this article yet, go read it.  I’d advise skipping some of the comments  -- they’re about as enlightening as internet comments on polarizing issues tend to be – but the story itself is really disturbing.  It’s about a study recently released showing tens of thousands of Ph.D.’s across the country,  and hundreds of thousands of people with master’s degrees , who are on food stamps.  Most of them aren’t unemployed per se, but they’re badly underemployed, often making about the equivalent of a graduate student stipend by adjuncting in multiple places while trying to raise kids.

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.

Comments:
Even if we did have Swedish-style social democracy, we'd still have too many PhD's in many subjects. And this has gone on, cyclically, for decades (although it is worse now). It's intersting that students who major in performing or visual art are clear from the start that they will make their livings doing something else, but those in literature, languages, and some of the social sciences dont see it that way.
 
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.)

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.
 
It didn't work 40 years ago, so it might not work now. I documented my views on supply and demand in physics back in the early days of my blog. I am regularly horrified when I think about what biology must look like, and puzzled as to why other fields do not have and regularly publish data like the AIP does.

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.
 
Why did they have to pick a medieval history major?

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?
 
Joe--

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.
 
I know two FULL time faculty that get medicaid assistance for the children they have and one is a math prof and the other chem. I know it's not food stamps but STEM faculty aren't safe from needing assistance either.

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.
 
STEM is not immune. In biology, if you don't have previous industry experience your Ph.D makes it hard to get a job. Master's are better but hard to come by since schools see them as having less of a payoff in terms of slave labor.

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.
 
I'm sorry that my comment is going to sound really harsh. I really feel for the people on food stamps, those struggling to make ends meet. I have friends and family in that very same situation.

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.
 
anonymous, people need to feel bad for in this situation is any kids that are effected. children can't help the fact that their parents spent years and thousands of dollars in a field of study that will bring them zero income.

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...
 
I'd just like to say here that yes, the situation sucks, but sometimes when you take off your rose colored glasses what you are left seeing is not, "oh, I can just work instead of going to grad school!" What you see is, "This seems like the only thing I can do to NOT go on food stamps, and hey, it's a paycheck for five years." I graduated into the recession and applying for every job I could get, I wound up with three part time jobs adding up to 30-35 hours a week at minimum wage, observed over time that almost everyone with full time employment in any of the fields I was interested in had at least an MA, and went into a PhD program instead because my paycheck doubled and I didn't have to take out loans.

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.
 
I defended my dissertation (in a STEM field) in January. Academic calendars are such that there were no jobs that started before July. Best Buy, Subway, and Burger King (where I had worked in HS) wouldn't even give me an interview. To anon 4:52 AM, sometimes things just aren't that simple.
 
It's not just PhDs, though. JDs are being overproduced, as are MLSs, most MAs and probably lots of BAs. We have set up a Higher Ed. system designed to grow. University presidents are praised for leaving their institution larger and stronger than they found it. Deans look for more funding. Departments fight for tenure lines. Even those of us who think the system is too large think that someone else's portion should be reduced. Tax that man over there under the tree.

Attacking one symptom of the problem won't solve the problem.
 
I've been underemployed my entire academic career. For almost 20 years I've been an adjunct, often as a freeway flyer between various universities and community colleges. My State U PhD in English that I thought would lead to a modicum of job security has proved to be relatively useless in that regard. All campuses where I've taught say they need more English teachers, but they increasingly fill those needs with adjuncts instead of living-wage FT positions. My PhD makes me as valuable as a grad student or MA holder--that is, not at all. I've been lucky; the last few years I've been a FT instructor (on a one-year "Emergency hire" contract, but that funding was lost with the last state budget cuts. I'll be taking that PhD abroad just as soon as I possibly can. At least some other countries still value higher education.
 
Working at Best Buy certainly won't get you off SNAP (food stamps)! YOU GOT JOKES!!!
 
I see the change in academic labor markets--especially the trend toward part-time, contingent faculty--as one more manifestation of a reversal in the historical support for education in the US. For nearly 150 years, at the local level, at the state level, and nationally, we, as a society, saw education as a means for people to advance themselves economically and as a way to integrate people into the society. The expansion of education--including higher education--during that period was astonishing. (Factoid--in higher education, it was not just private higher ed. Indiana University, where I work, enrolled 600 students in the fall semester in 1900, and 3500 in the fall semester in 1930.)

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.
 
"We need to prune both the number and the size of graduate programs."

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.
 
Actually Kate, Best Buy is not that bad of a place to work. My dad who was in his field for 30 years before resigning worked there for 2 years before finding a full time job in his field again (hospice). They were great to him. Even after being there only a few months and taking a FT job that ended shortly thereafter because the company went out of business, they took him back instantly. Even though he's been gone from there for more than a year now, they still ask him to come back. They appreciated that he was "seasoned" and wouldn't flake out like many of the teens they hired.
 
As a PhD working in the Social Services sector, this is no surprise. Throughout the recession our staff have noticed an increase in customers with advanced degrees seeking public assistance.

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.
 
"I see the change in academic labor markets--especially the trend toward part-time, contingent faculty--as one more manifestation of a reversal in the historical support for education in the US. For nearly 150 years, at the local level, at the state level, and nationally, we, as a society, saw education as a means for people to advance themselves economically and as a way to integrate people into the society."

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.
 
This state of affairs isn't because we as a society don't value education,

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH (gasp)

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

hee

oh man

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.
 
Our society rewards parasites, not producers. That's what the 1% are. If you want to get ahead in life, steal. Don't produce, that's a mug's game. If you do produce, it's for your personal emotional satisfaction, and you need to accept that.
 
Actually, Punditus, I'm a dyed in the wool liberal. And I want society to value education (which most of us seem to do, as we have been conned into sending as many of our children as we can to college). I'm just saying that there are some structural problems that education faces when it becomes as universal as it now is, and we have to face them rather than boo-hooing that "they" don't value education.
 
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I am an adjunct currently on unemployment insurance, having had to move to a new city due to a family emergency. Luckily and thankfully, due to budget cuts and a nice department chair, I was officially "not reappointed" and eligible for unemployment benefits.

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!
 
Anonymous @ 3:15 PM: "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, ..."

This argument could have been said about both (near-) universal HS education and increasing bachelor's level education above 10% of the population.
 
No, it couldn't. The law of diminishing returns applies here, although not as mechanistically as it does in other areas. Pushing all the HS grads into college does create some additional value for some of the additional college students, but it also to a large extent becomes competition for credentials that are not really needed for a lot of the jobs that now require a degree. I do agree that getting more students to graduate high school would have been a good idea even 50 or 75 years ago. But many of the students who dropped out were making a considered decision that reflected their accurate perception of how much value they could accrue by finishing, versus how much they could accrue by starting to work at a job that didn't require a HS diploma back then.
 
Educating adults (people who are 16 and over) is very different from educating children. The idea that we should cram adults into schools is very different from the idea that we should cram children into schools.
 
The point is, it's a jobs "market", not a right, and people should wake up to the fact that we are all having a portfolio career. The specialism that a PhD brings does not guarantee anything, and even in a Swedish-style democracy the safety net only stretches so far. Ultimately it's up to you to manage your skillset and options in different career fields.
 
As Anonymous says, get ready to not be able to afford kids, ever. Mittens needs a bigger bonus, and Obama needs to give it to him.
 
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