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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Column: Ph.D.s without futures

Imagine you’ve spent the last five years in a Ph.D. program. During that time you have taught dozens of courses, produced a book-length work and become an expert in your field. You’ve also sacrificed years of your life, making tens of thousands of dollars less than your peers outside of academia who are now buying houses and settling into their careers. But you have a secure, tenure-track job waiting for you afterward, right? Wrong.

Most Ph.D. graduates will work as adjunct professors, instructors not eligible for tenure and paid based on the number of classes they teach. Though often considered part-time, adjuncts typically teach more classes than a tenure-track professor. Many adjuncts receive less than $20,000 per year, with no health care or retirement benefits, and most of them can be fired at will. Some don’t even have offices. Some are on food stamps.

As the president of the Modern Language Association (MLA) Michael Bérubé recently pointed out, adjuncts are “the new faculty majority”: 1 million of the 1.5 million college instructors in America are adjunct faculty. According to most estimates, graduating Ph.D. students have a 50 percent chance of ever achieving that coveted tenure-track position.

The problem here is not that there are more Ph.D.s than academic jobs. There are plenty of academic jobs; it’s just that most of them don’t pay a living wage or promise employment beyond the next quarter. It’s obvious why universities want this: Undergraduates pay the same tuition for a class taught by a low-paid adjunct as a high-paid full professor.

At the same time, graduating Ph.D.s often find themselves overqualified and inexperienced for work outside of academia. Moreover, even temporarily shifting to another career carries a stigma: Ph.D.s often think of it as a failure while hiring departments look at it with suspicion. So, in order to keep their academic careers going, Ph.D.s accept adjunct positions.

We’ve seen hand-wringing throughout the profession, but there is a huge disconnect between ideology and practice. Facing budget constraints, hiring freezes and growing class sizes, even the most radical-minded of departments is often forced to hire more contingent workers at lower pay.

Meanwhile, Ph.D. students respond to the dwindling number of academic jobs by competing harder. Students are expected to spend more time on teaching, take on more administrative responsibilities and publish more peer-reviewed articles to keep up with the vanishing job market. Instead of training for our profession, we’re expected to think like we’re already professors up for tenure.

But hyper-professionalism is no guarantee of a university job. Because very few are getting tenure-track jobs, graduates stay on the job market for years building their C.V.s. Some academic interviewees now show up with their first book already published. When there are thousands of others competing for a handful of jobs, there’s no surefire way of distinguishing yourself.

Even fallback positions are glutted. A colleague of mine recently looked into a position at a private high school only to find that their English teachers were all Ivy League Ph.D.s!

While the adjunct trend has been exacerbated by the recession, it’s been moving in this direction for decades. At this point, we can no longer think of it as a crisis. This is now the routine functioning of universities, which follow what academic labor theorist Marc Bousquet calls the “excremental theory of graduate education.” Regardless of individual or even departmental intentions, schools now effectively produce Ph.D.s not to fill tenure-track jobs but, rather, as a “waste product,” cheap, expendable labor that can be easily “flushed away.”

So, what is to be done? The MLA’s acknowledgement of the problem is a great first step, but it seems unlikely that we’ll see a solution handed down from above.

Instead, we have to realize that we cannot respond to this problem individually. Imagine if adjuncts, tenure-track faculty, and Ph.D. students collectively went on strike and refused to work at institutions which paid academic workers less than $40,770 per year, the MLA’s adjunct salary recommendation. Those schools would quickly realize that adjuncting is not an apprenticeship. Without adjunct workers, universities would cease to run.
JORDAN S. CARROLL, a Ph.D. student in English, can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.


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