"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Friday, June 10, 2011

An Article About Adjuncts Readers Should Read

A few posts back, I posed the question to readers of whether the Ph.D. was worth it. Most of you that commented said no.

The author of an article out today answers more or less how I would:

No one pursues a career as a college professor in order to become rich. Professors do what they do because they are passionate about research and teaching. And if you recently earned a Ph.D., you know well that the years you devoted to inquiry, research, writing, and sharing your knowledge in the classroom weren’t wasted.
At the same time, passion doesn’t put food on the table, and a middle-class wage is a very reasonable expectation.
A decade ago, it was possible to say that persistence and a year or two on the adjunct track would pay off. “Stick it out,” advisers would say, “You’ll get a job eventually,” and they were right. But that advice is outdated: “Since that time, faculty work has become more fragmented, unsupported, and destabilized,” and “the proportion of faculty who are appointed each year to tenure-line positions is declining at an alarming rate.”
If you are a prospective or current graduate student today wondering if completing the Ph.D. is worth it, the answer in 2011 is almost unequivocally no—not unless you are independently wealthy and can afford to live “the life of the mind” without ever having to worry about how to support yourself or feed your family.
In other words, whether or not the Ph.D. is "worth it" depends on whether you currently are at the beginning of graduate school or at the end, already with Ph.D. in hand. 

The noneconomic value of doing the Ph.D. is not negligible, but advisers need to do a better job of emphasizing the economic realities. And graduate programs need to do a better job of preparing graduate students -- those who want to give it a shot in spite of the job prospects -- for those realities, so that they can hit the ground running in the nonacademic job world if they don't want to or can't afford to work as adjuncts once they're finished.

Like, at my Grad U for example, in addition to the useless certificates in teaching and critical theory offered, they might have offered Ph.D. students the opportunity to earn a certificate in professional writing. Graduate students in English acquire strong writing skills inevitably, but it's hard to convince nonacademic human resources people without some documentation, like a certificate and/or a portfolio of some kind that demonstrates you can not only teach writing but write all the dumb stuff (fact sheets, press releases, summaries, reports, etc.) they want proof you have "experience" writing.

Go read the whole article here.


  1. Thank you for both posting this article...and for your thoughts. Yes, you're right.."In other words, whether or not the Ph.D. is "worth it" depends on whether you currently are at the beginning of graduate school or at the end, already with Ph.D. in hand."

    Sadly, I'm forced to conclude that since departments aren't really being honest and upfront about the job situation for their doctoral students.

  2. Hi Anthea,

    Yes, some departments are not honest, not with their graduate students or with themselves. I also think, though, that some -- and especially some advisers -- are actually well meaning but are looking at the job situation through an outdated lens. Advisers look at their bright, talented students and see a lot of potential. They want them to succeed in the profession. Especially if the advisers are older, they look at those students through their own experiences of what has always been a competitive job market and say, "Hey, just stick it out. I did, and it turned out well for me. It will for you, too." But that just doesn't hold anymore.

    Their intentions are good. They're just no longer realistic. And I imagine it's difficult, too, to look at how things are in one's own department and acknowledge the inequities.

  3. I liked the article. Although it cites me, I will say that working in Africa beats going on food stamps. I am actually making more in real dollars than a lot of adjuncts evidently.

  4. I think that's the point when the article quotes you -- that leaving the country absolutely beats going on food stamps, if one's life is mobile enough to pack up and go. I've said before that going abroad isn't really an option for me, but I've also never been on food stamps, thanks largely to a partner who is gainfully employed outside academe, as well as my own current willingness to try out other kinds of work. If I were facing that choice, between food stamps and taking a job in Africa or womewhere else in the world, going abroad would most definitely seem like the better option!

  5. "mobile enough" being one of the key questions for me when students express an interest in graduate study. The first question I ask is "are you willing to move anywhere in the United States to get a job" and if the response is no, as it normally is, then I say, you may want to consider getting an M.A. and teaching private high school or community college, because the Ph.D. market is NATIONAL and LOTS of the jobs are in "less" desirable locations. For the vast majority of candidates, good jobs in good locales are something you work towards AFTER the Ph.D., so that may mean uprooting yourself, and whomever else comprises your familial unit, several times until you land where you want to be.

  6. Well, yes and no. Given how long grad school takes, many people may truthfully answer "yes" to the mobility question at 22 but "not so much" at 32.

    Also, not to take away from the fact that lots of jobs are in less desirable locations and always will be, another equally true fact is that THERE ARE lots more jobs in desirable places, like here in Crapital City, than we typically acknowledge.

    They're just disguised as adjunct jobs.

    And I find it very hard, personally, to justify moving somewhere I don't want to go when there is clearly a need for people to do the work I'd be moving to do right here.

    A few posts back, I wrote about the ratio of adjuncts to tenure-track faculty in my Grad U department alone -- that the number of adjuncts is grossly disproportionate to the number of tt faculty. Those positions could and should be converted to "real" jobs, IMHO.

    And Grad U is only one of many institutions in this general area. To me, moving somewhere less desirable to do the same work I could be doing here in a place I like living and where my partner is gainfully employed doesn't make any sense at all.

    I may just be too stubborn for my own good, but I think more people need to stop acquiescing to the working conditions of a seriously flawed and exploitative system because they think it's the only option they have. It's not, if we're willing to think outside the box.

    We are trained, from our earliest days as graduate students, to think the market is more national than it actually is because believing the need for faculty is so very limited distracts us from seeing just how bad the problem of adjunctification is. Doing so does not serve our own ends.

    I'm finding it -- so far at least -- a better use of my time to work at creatively reinventing myself as an independent scholar than to waste time as an itinerant, moving every other year from one unsatisfactory teaching job to another.

    And if you are mobile, I think J. Otto Pohl is right that it's better to move abroad for a permanent, decently paying position than to bounce around here from one postdoc/VAP/adjunct gig to another for years on end.