How Do You Explain Adjunct Exploitation?

Megan McArdle also read that article in Insider Higher Ed about the exploitation of adjuncts and part time employees in academia. Some highlights from the Higher Ed article:

[Adjuncts and contingent faculty] now make up an amazing 73 percent
of the nearly 1.6 million-employee instructional workforce in higher
education and teach over half of all undergraduate classes at public
institutions of higher education. Their number has now swollen to more than a million teachers and growing.

Those one million workers are making less than workers in McDonald's. They enjoy no benefits, no security, and they are working sixty hour weeks doing the same work as tenured faculty.

Megan wants to know how this exploitation can occur in a profession that is dominated by liberals, who should be the champions of the exploited.

This is a good question. Is it hypocrisy to be champions of the  underdog, while letting some guy down the hall from you survive on ramen noodes? 

YES, IT IS! Well, somewhat, sort of.

So, why are senior tenured and tenure-track faculty turning a blind eye to exploitation in their own midst? Lots of reasons.

First of all, people are allowing themselves to be exploited. Actually, lots and lots of people take these adjunct jobs with the vague hope that they'll someday win the lottery and get that smoking jacket and a tenured job. These people have been twisted to believe that an academic lifestyle is the only acceptable route to happiness and that working for the man means dull, meaningless work. It's hard to get the energy to fight exploitation, when there's a long line of people waiting to take a beating.

Secondly, the tenured and tenure track are in separate worlds from the adjunct faculty. They aren't chatting in the hallway about last night's American Idol. The adjuncts aren't invited to the Christmas party or the faculty meetings. The adjuncts are the invisible house elves who teach those icky intro classes. So, the tenured and tenure track are really in the dark about the conditions of adjunct life. Or they convince themselves that the adjuncts will find a good job in the next job cycle. Or they get Darwinian and believe that the adjuncts aren't as smart as they are; they are the Neanderthals of the academic world. Really, they just don't think about it at all. 

Thirdly, tenure track are under a lot of pressure themselves. They have to get tenure, which is hard work and stressful. They have to appease the right people, and it would be stupid to critique the system. The older faculty just doesn't get it.

Fourthly, the adjuncts aren't organized. They aren't part of the union that represents the other faculty. There is no organization to form a rally and make demands. If they were better organized, the tenured faculty would certainly support their demands, but it would be unreasonable for the tenured faculty to take up the cause of a decentralized, mobile, disorganized, demoralized group of people who aren't even aware that they're being exploited.

RELATED: Check out Harry B's post about whether teaching matters at American universities.

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63 thoughts on “How Do You Explain Adjunct Exploitation?

  1. Why think this is hypocrisy? Faculty members skew Democratic Party in their voting preferences. Not Socialist party or Communist Party.
    You miss one aspect of the complicity of tenured and tenure-track faculty in the exploitation of adjuncts: oversupply of PhDs. We want to teach graduate seminars (they are easy to teach badly, and a pretext for spending a semester thinking about the one thing we want to think about) and administrators will only let us do so if we have enough graduate students to take them. Better to give faculty the option of a course off or a graduate seminar (many would choose the course off, and this would diminish the demand for admitting more grad students).

  2. Better to give faculty the option of a course off or a graduate seminar
    While reducing the supply of PhDs is certainly a good idea, I don’t think it will be much easier than other options. First, without at least one former graduate student who becomes faculty somewhere, no professor can really be a big deal. Second, and more important, is the issue that no department (at least in the social sciences) can keep any standing without putting out a few PhDs a year. And from what I have seen, it is those more marginal Ph.D. programs that graduate most of the adjuncts. Getting professors in top 25 departments to take fewer students might help, but not as much as getting rid of the more numerous programs that don’t give graduates much of a shot at all. And getting rid of those graduate program cuts the legs out of any faculty member clinging to standard measures of economic status.

  3. From the point of view of a graduate student, I’d like the course-off or seminar approach. Presumably graduate students wouldn’t be forced into a course they don’t need for numbers, or take “not as good” guided reading courses in that system. (I really hate to think how my transcript looks to people, particularly since I was shoved into one course FOUR TIMES to keep its enrollment numbers up.)
    I do know some faculty members who like teaching the intro courses. (I like them myself.) In such a case, should they continue to do so, or pass on them to let an adjunct pick up a potential second course for the paycheck? Just pretending this is “The Ethicist” here.

  4. I really enjoyed the comment thread, but thought that McArdle’s point–that the abusive, winner-takes-all academic work environment likely colors views of the non-academic workplace among the professoriate–was largely lost in the shuffle. A pity, because I suspect it’s quite accurate.
    I’ve witnessed conversations in which, after detailing an absolutely horrible, degrading battle over tenure, the academic says ‘but I’m sure it’s as bad or worse in industry.’ And the response from the industry-employed professional is, ‘if things got that bad, I’d get a different job down the road.’

  5. Another factor is that many adjuncts don’t really consider themselves to be exploited, and are right. My father, for example, has taught a university class (one per semester, usually, though occasionally two) for 10-15 years as an adjunct. It was always something he did for extra money and for fun. He has an MA but not PhD and no pretensions of doing more in academic life. There are many similar people adjuncting at Boise State, where I did my BA. Some of them have PhDs and either are moon-lighting from other near-by schools or else live in Boise for other reasons and have picked up courses as extra money. Most of these people don’t think of it as their career or think it will go anywhere. It’s still not a great system- there are real advantages to taking classes from full-time professors, and it would be better in many ways if many of these classes were taught by people hired on new lines. But in a large number of cases (how great a percentage I have no idea) it’s hard for me to see the exploitation case.
    (This isn’t to say that the exploitation case cannot be made out ever- in some instances it’s much clearer.)

  6. It was a good thread, Ben. Thanks for pointing it out to me.
    re: “the abusive, winner-takes-all academic work environment likely colors views of the non-academic workplace among the professoriate” Yeah, academics have a really twisted notion of what it’s like to work in the private industry. Twisted. But that’s because most of them have never had a job. Never earned a paycheck until after they graduate from the PhD programs. They don’t socialize with people outside the university. Many don’t even know what to say to someone who doesn’t work for a college.

  7. (I really hate to think how my transcript looks to people, particularly since I was shoved into one course FOUR TIMES to keep its enrollment numbers up.)
    I have never heard of that happening even once. Granted, it has been a long time since I was involved directly with graduate coursework, but I think you may have an over-assed department or something.

  8. Matt, that’s what I would think of as adjunct faculty: people who bring background and experience but aren’t necessarily full-time academics.
    The IHE brought out a different term, contingent faculty. I think separating the two might make it easier to see the exploitation.

  9. The whole thing pisses me off royally. I couldn’t get past Megan saying that the core issue wasn’t part-timers but full time contingent faculty. All the work I’ve been able to find has been part-time, so it *is* an issue. And they’d much rather fill those empty slots with part-timers without benefits than full-timers. Even the contingent faculty get benefits as soon as they hit full time. Those benefits might not be as good as t-t, but they’re still there.
    When I tell some of my faculty friends that I’m considering a move to K-12, they gasp. And I did the corporate thing myself many years ago, and while I’d prefer not to go into industry, I can imagine there are jobs in industry I’d enjoy. They just haven’t crossed my radar lately. It irks me that when I go to social events with my faculty husband that only other academics get any respect (not true of our closest friends, but distant colleagues, yes).
    I suspect that I will never go back to higher ed and increasingly, I’m glad not to.

  10. MH,
    First, without at least one former graduate student who becomes faculty somewhere, no professor can really be a big deal.
    Define “really big deal.” If you mean, “receives the sort of accolades and professional respect entailed by the markers handed out by professional organizations,” you’re probably right. But there are, obviously, so many other ways professors can be “big deals.” Besides scholarly work, there is community work, journalism, administrative service, activism, popular writing, etc., etc. Scholars need to think about other metrics of excellence. If more of them took jobs at smaller, non-Ph.D.-granting, teaching-rather-than-research institutions, they’d realize that.
    But then, of course, if more of them took those sort of jobs, then they’d have even less exposure to adjuncts, because they’d be teaching the “icky intro classes,” which is as it should be.
    Second, and more important, is the issue that no department (at least in the social sciences) can keep any standing without putting out a few PhDs a year.
    Again, define “any standing.” Apply what I said above.
    Getting professors in top 25 departments to take fewer students might help, but not as much as getting rid of the more numerous programs that don’t give graduates much of a shot at all.
    As a stop-gap measure to keep the whole academic industry in America from being hollowed out and sinking, this is probably worth trying. Probably half of all the Ph.D. programs in the U.S. could be cut using this measure.

  11. For some reason Russell’s comment prompts me to say this. Once you have tenure, you really do have a lot of freedom concerning what metrics of excellence you choose to measure yourself by, and who you choose to hang out with (whose opinions of you are most likely to impact your self-regard).
    I’ll add that there are faculty on my own campus who may not even realise what a “big deal” they are, because students are reluctant to say to their faces how great they think they are, but are comfortable telling other faculty (one colleague in another department, in particular, is someone I routinely get unsolicited good reports of from smart and reflective undergraduates).

  12. I think there’s no systemic solution to “contingent faculty” exploitation, except for the people themselves to say no and remove themselves from the system. I think it’s a tournament model, where the winners do win pretty big (though using metrics that aren’t always the same ones used in other fields). They don’t necessarily get popular fame or lots of money, but they get security, freedom, intellectual rewards, status, flexibility, and a certain kind of fame of their own. It’s a good job if you can win the tournament.
    The problem is that not everyone who enters understands that it’s a tournament. And, it’s a seductive tournament, because the odds seem a bit more favorable than those in art, acting, music, sports, writing, . . . . where more of the entrants know that their odds are slim.
    We can talk about systemic fixes — Megan started with the idea that tenured faculty would somehow help fix the system. But, tenured faculty are the ones who would hve the most to loose, and gain the most out of the current system. Even if we believed they were pretty good guys, they’d have to be saints to give up what they’ve got.
    As explored in Megan’s comment section, solutions like paying adjuncts better or trying to change contingent faculty into non-contingent faculty, probably won’t work, and might actually make the situation worse.

  13. RAF,
    I mean a big deal using whatever you want to call the standards of ambitious faculty at an R1 university. I’m not endorsing the standard, but I’ve now spent over 15 years affiliated with one or another, and I don’t think I’m wrong on what is needed for academic standing. I’ve heard too many people called “X’s student” when they are 40 years old not to read the pattern. In medicine, it is even stronger and having junior faculty that you’ve mentored is a nearly absolute requirement.
    Not having a Ph.D. myself, I can’t play those status games. Screwing with junior faculty who get too pushy with me is all I’ve got.

  14. It is very hard for me to feel that people with the social capital to obtain a Ph.D. can be considered “exploited.” Brainwashed, perhaps, but they have the option and wherewithal to find other jobs.

  15. As explored in Megan’s comment section, solutions like paying adjuncts better or trying to change contingent faculty into non-contingent faculty, probably won’t work, and might actually make the situation worse.
    My guess, and I didn’t read Megan’s commenters because they make me want to smack my head into a wall, is that it will only get better if parents start steering their kids toward colleges where most classes are taught by permanent faculty. I don’t see how any other relevant actor has the motivation and the pull to change anything. (I’m not suggesting that the parents fixing things is likely, just more likely.)

  16. This comment at Megan’s seems to me the crux of it, something that has driven me as well as many of the various adjuncts I’ve had the pleasure to work with:
    “My take is that Academia has a peculiar honor/shame economy, where working for a University is so valuable in terms of professional prestige, people will subsidize the University (by taking below market wages) in order to get a position.”
    There’s a point at which some, but not enough, realize that this is the dynamic at work and leave. It would help, I think, if faculty didn’t look down their noses at those who take their Ph.D.’s elsewhere and find fulfilling and sometime lucrative work. I know. I know. Stop laughing.

  17. “I hadn’t noticed that McArdle’s switch to registration had altered the comments so much. ”
    I think it depends on the thread, too. Registration doesn’t keep out the nuts, but the nuts don’t usually want to comment on the economics of adjuncting. I thought the adjunct comments were actually quite illuminating, and that several brought in economic language about labor markets that made me understand the situation better (the mechanism of reward/reinforcement in a tournament model, for example, the vested economic interest of the tenured faculty in the current model, the status rewards of university employment, including the honor of being respected for your expertise).
    I think that parents steering children towards classes taught by tenured faculty might have an effect, but don’t see that that would be the benefit of the children, at least in the short turn. I have no reason to believe that tenured faculty are better teachers than contingent faculty, and the fact that they are virtually unjudged, especially about their teaching, is likely to produce little incentive for them to be better teachers.
    I think people who can find fulfilling and lucrative work elsewhere shouldn’t get too hung up on the fact that faculty will look down on them. That’s probably not going to change. You could go away and make mucho bucks, and have them come back to you begging, if that makes you happy, but they’ll still look down their noses.

  18. “My guess, and I didn’t read Megan’s commenters because they make me want to smack my head into a wall, is that it will only get better if parents start steering their kids toward colleges where most classes are taught by permanent faculty.”
    I remember thinking, when I was reading the beginning of that lament by the German department guy that it was more than possible that the adjuncts and the graduate students are better language teachers than the tenure-track. I don’t have a huge pool for comparison (since all my Russian instructors as an undergraduate were TAs), but the Russian TAs were all pretty good (perhaps with the exception of myself), and the two tenured faculty I got to see in action in grad school were not totally impressive as language teachers–they were either too old, too lazy, or too disorganized. For language teaching, there is a major advantage to getting a native speaker (Ph.D bearing or not), or a non-native speaker with fresher in-country experience (Ph.D. bearing or not).

  19. I have no reason to believe that tenured faculty are better teachers than contingent faculty…
    I’m sure there isn’t, but it is much easier to get mom and dad to pay $15 grand a semester if they don’t know Johnny’s teacher makes $6.23/hour.

  20. I was pleasantly surprised by Megan’s comment thread as well, both because of the awfulness of some of her usual commenters on the Atlantic site and because bringing the tenure/adjunct issue to a non-academic audience seems likely to be a crank magnet. Everyone brings resentments to the conversation: whether it’s of professors they had as students, degree-holders who were promoted above them, or the high salaries industry bestows to people who didn’t work as hard as they did. And that’s without even going into humanities-bashing, “liberal indoctrination” fears, or the rising cost of tuition.

  21. Laura/Geekymom: I’m not saying that I don’t care about anyone who has a part time job; I’m saying that I don’t particularly worry about the low salaries for someone who is teaching a class or two on the side of a more lucrative job (something that’s pretty common here in DC). Anyone who really needs the money to pay the rent is part of the class I worry about.
    To our hostess–I’m not sure it works to say that the folks are lining up to be exploited. The same is true of illegal immigrants in Tyson’s plants, but I’ve never met a leftist academic who said, “Well, that’s all right, then, as long as they really need the money and aren’t trained to do much of anything else”

  22. Yeah, the fact that people are willing to accept these conditions doesn’t make the situation kosher, but it does explain why a professor might not feel the urgency to take a unpopular, controversial position. Lots of very well-meaning people believe that these adjuncts and contingent faculty are happy with the status quo.
    MH, I think you’re totally wrong about parents caring that their kids are taught by tenured professors. Their primary concern is the cost of tuition. The University of Phoenix is now the country’s largest university. State colleges and community colleges that employ most of these adjuncts are overflowing.
    CUNY’s new college is an elite community college located near Columbus Circle. They will be employing lots and lots of contingent faculty teaching 5-5 teaching loads. Just the thought of a 5-5 teaching load with 50 kids per class makes me shudder. I would never, ever assign writing assignments and only use scantron tests.
    Laura/GeekyMom – There is life after the university. It’s tough for you because you’re still in those social circles. I’m in the process of setting up my own business (totally unbloggable) and am having huge amounts of fun.

  23. Megan, I get your point, but the number of people teaching on the side while holding down another lucrative job (lawyer, CIO, whatever) is very small. Far more likely are the people who take those crappy, part-time jobs in hopes of it leading to full-time work, either at the same institution or elsewhere. I’m not sure the same is true for illegal immigrants, which is how, I think, academics can justify the use of part-time labor. They assume that those people end up in better paying, maybe even t-t jobs. Of course, the reality is the complete opposite. Most don’t end up in jobs in their field.

  24. Most don’t end up in jobs in their field.
    Maybe the solution is to expand the fields. Like Penn State’s new Department of English Literature and Small Appliance Repair.

  25. I wasn’t making any assertion about the number, just that the people we should worry about are those who got a PhD with an expectation of jobs in their fields, and are now reduced to adjunct slavery with the dim hopes of finding a job–not folks like me, who occasionally teach a class on the side. (Though I’m not sure I’d call journalism a “lucrative” profession, to be sure.)

  26. “I’m in the process of setting up my own business (totally unbloggable) and am having huge amounts of fun.”
    Running nursing home sting operations?

  27. Regarding the exploitation, and the comparison to Tyson’s illegal immigrant workforce. Well, as someone else said in this thread, a adjunct, even one teaching a 5/5 load, isn’t being exploited in the sense of a Tyson’s worker (especially the illegal immigrant, who has no legal recourse, say, to being locked in the plant to finish their shift). It’s simply not the same level of exploitation.
    Adjuncts who feel exploited really really should leave the field. And, they can. I’m not sure I”d call them “brainwashed” (since if that were true, perhaps we’d have to call in the deprogrammed and get them out of the cult). They’re people making a high risk high reward choice (as opposed, say to the rewards associated with being a waiter in LA waiting for your acting or screenwriting break). I think people outside the field sometimes don’t see the “high reward”, but in fact, if you want to spend your time thinking about obscure knowledge, it’s a fabulous gig.
    I think our duty is to remind people that they *are* taking a high risk path, and not allow past experience (when the academic force was expanding) or reports of mythical “shortages” to drive their behavior.
    And, a reminder that this is also true in the biomedical workforce, except that the “contingent” faculty are called “research” faculty, and get a 100% of their salaries from grants. I think it’s a better job than an adjunct when you’re funded, because you get a decent salary and a full-time job. But, funding isn’t guaranteed. And, there are the permanent post-docs, who work at the whim of another research laboratory (and it’s funding), usually on 3-5 year cycles. Again, seems better than adjuncting, but also contingent, and people stay to stay in the tournament.

  28. And, a reminder that this is also true in the biomedical workforce, except that the “contingent” faculty are called “research” faculty, and get a 100% of their salaries from grants.
    BJ, the salary/benefit level is so different that isn’t even comparable. Plus, it really isn’t as much of a tournament since there are more non-university positions available.

  29. Is there any actual statistical data available on adjunct and other non-tenure track faculty? How many are archetype 1: the engineer/accountant/lawyer in private practice who enjoys teaching and is happy to give up two mornings a week? And how many are archetype 2: the 35-year-old comp lit Ph.D. living in a Chelsea tenement and teaching 250 sullen undergrads for half of what a paralegal or bartender makes?

  30. @laura yes, I think I’ve found the life, but totally unbloggable at the moment. keep an eye out.๐Ÿ™‚
    @megan agreed–from what I’ve seen that’s most of the people in adjunct jobs–and lol@journalism as lucrative career. At least it mostly pays the bills, I guess.๐Ÿ™‚
    @MH actually, i think that would be nice–maybe not the small appliance repair, but still thinking in different ways about disciplines

  31. “Plus, it really isn’t as much of a tournament since there are more non-university positions available.”
    But the non-university positions aren’t the same and vary quite a bit across subfields. I think that the perception that a post-doc who’s aiming for the faculty position can “settle” for a job in big pharma, without significantly modifying what attracted them to the field is no different from imagining that a adjunct who teaches english couldn’t switch to high school english (and, I know, there are licensing requirements, but they’re surmountable). It is a tournament, if you’re goal is a tenured faculty position with stable funding and the ability to lead your own research team, with flexibility, and to guide your own research interests (oh, and throw in the occasional teaching of the fun classes, presentations, and meetings in exotic locations). But the big thing people are looking for (and I think this crosses fields in academics, the big reward), is the ability to pursue their own creative & intellectual interests, and be paid for it. That’s a big big reward. And it’s a perk of academia. You don’t get it if you switch to pharma.
    So, when guiding our youngsters, you have to figure out why they’re focused on the goal. I think there’s a lot of lack of knowledge about professions outside our own, and that kids get guided incorrectly because of that (or, alternatively, follow the same path as their parents, which might work if the landscape hasn’t changed too much).
    And, I don’t know enough about the salary structures to compare at that level, but I can see that they’d be different. Post-docs earn 40K or so, and their benefits are variable, though I believe this has been improving. Research faculty get paid more than baristas.

  32. I wonder what percentage of adjuncts are female. Does it work like entry-level publishing, where you essentially have to have three roommates, rich parents, or else a spouse with a better-paying job to do it?

  33. It is a tournament, if you’re goal is a tenured faculty position with stable funding and the ability to lead your own research team, with flexibility, and to guide your own research interests (oh, and throw in the occasional teaching of the fun classes, presentations, and meetings in exotic locations).
    Everything is a tournament if you are talking about people going to the very top. The use of “tournament” in this type of discussion implies a winner-take-all (or a few winners take nearly all) type structure. That the average biomedical worker at a university can support a family in standard middle class ways, seems to indicate we are dealing with a much flatter reward structure.

  34. The exploitation of adjunct workers is different than a “tournament” or than Tyson, because the adjuncts were ignorant or even out right deceived about the prospective job opportunities. They were lied to by their graduate programs that there were jobs at the end of the line. They are no jobs at the end of the line. Meanwhile, they invested eight to ten years of unpaid labor into getting this degree and tons of tuition and book costs.
    My cousin the cellist always knew that there was a very low chance that he would end up as Yo Yo Ma. He gave it a good shot for many years, but then got his law degree when things didn’t work out. He’s not bitter, because he had complete knowledge of his chances of success.
    The science PhD might be able to transition to private section, but what is the philosophy PhD going to do with his vast knowledge of Kant? Nothing. One philosophy PhD that I know is now a contractor in Western Massachusetts. Luckily, his dad taught him how to use a hammer when he was a kid.

  35. They are no jobs at the end of the line.
    I remember very frequently hearing that the Baby Boomers were about to retire in such numbers that there would be jobs for us all. Of those in my year, there are more lawyers than university faculty.

  36. Not that I feel I was deliberately deceived. The department I was in still did manage to place nearly everybody who gamed it right and stuck at it. Nearly all the lawyers self-selected out after a few years.

  37. ” That the average biomedical worker at a university can support a family in standard middle class ways, seems to indicate we are dealing with a much flatter reward structure.”
    But, in a contingent job, as a temporary employee, and in the case of post-docs, in a position that was developed for another purpose (i.e. training). As with adjuncts, post-doc is a troublesome permanent career track, because it was designed for training (as the adjunct position was designed, as “adjunct”).
    I guess I’m not really going to say that deciding to risk it all on a philosophy degree is the same as risking it all on, say, a degree in biology, where you study the mating habits of a wasp. But they’re a lot more similar than the philospher would think.
    And, although I hear from others that they were deceived, I don’t feel that I was deceived, or that we deceive in our recruitment. Were there really people saying there were going to be lots of jobs in philosophy 20 years ago? I always saw the newspaper articles about it as being perfect nonsense (in science).
    I think the reason I keep belaboring this point is that there’s a myth out there that there’s a safe path out there, and I don’t think there is. There’s a plan A to shoot for, accounting for the risk, and a plan B (and C and D) to have as backups. The risks of plan A are different, but a lot of jobs that seemed to have clearer career tracks (journalism, publishing, science faculty, even law . . . ) are becoming riskier now, and we have to train our children to function in that world, not imagine that if we direct them on the right path they’ll have easy sailing from there.
    I’m not arguing that because all paths have risk, that they’re equivalently risky, just that people underestimate the risks of paths they haven’t taken.

  38. I’m not arguing that because all paths have risk, that they’re equivalently risky, just that people underestimate the risks of paths they haven’t taken.
    I have actually taken two paths, social sciences and biomedical. I had the same education on both paths and mostly the same brain. The later path has both lower risks and higher rewards and it isn’t even a close game on either count.

  39. Caveats: Your own experience may vary. For example, if you studied English because you don’t like math, Iโ€™m sure it is a different job world. Also, I did not go very far down the first path. Certain restrictions may apply. See your dealer for more information.

  40. I have to say that we are much less “adjunctified” up here in the remote north (in large part due to the long distance one must travel to obtain a Ph.D. in any but a few disciplines or interdisciplinary areas). But that doesn’t mean that we get much of a say in whether or not to “adjunctify”.
    When retirements aren’t filled or current faculty leave and a department is, at best, offered one or two term courses in their place, the choice is to either not hire adjuncts (and have that thrown in our face next year when we continue the fight for filling the position) or to do so and perpetuate the system.
    I’m always surprised that people think that tenured faculty have the power over hiring. We might be able to advise on or rank candidates if a job search actually goes through but we certainly can’t make jobs appear or stay.

  41. They were lied to by their graduate programs that there were jobs at the end of the line. They are no jobs at the end of the line. Meanwhile, they invested eight to ten years of unpaid labor into getting this degree and tons of tuition and book costs.
    Look, things are bad enough without being misleading. Some programs might involve some out-right lying, but few, I think, do that. People are over-optimistic and Polly-anna-ish, but that’s different. It might make one feel better to call it a lie, but that makes clear-headed thinking _less_ likely. And it’s obviously false to say there are “no” jobs out there. Even this year, a terrible year, some people got jobs. In better years _many_ people get jobs. In top departments _most_ people get jobs. And, people should not be taking on “unpaid” labor. If you don’t get an assistantship or fellowship with a tuition waiver, you shouldn’t go into the program unless you are just doing it for fun and have money. Reputable programs do this. And, if you have reasonable funding, it shouldn’t take close to 10 years to finish. Now, many people are in programs that are not reasonable. They should leave. But it does no one any good to make out a bad situation to be even worse than it is. That’s even less likely, I think, to make people address their chances and odds realistically.

  42. It would be tremendously helpful to us non-academics if someone could explain what “contingent” means with regards to both the obviously-exploited teacher with a 5/5 and the not-so-obvious biomedical worker. I’ve had a great job at the same firm for almost ten years now, but I could certainly be terminated if my performance declined substantially or if my employer faced massive financial losses. Am I contingent?

  43. Matt, I’m not being misleading. It does take liberal arts majors 8 – 10 years to finish this PhDs on average. There’s plenty of data to support that claim. Menand’s book has it.
    Maybe the top 10 universities are placing people, but there are a whole lot of other PhD granting universities.
    The percentage of the incoming students who get PhDs is tiny. The percentage of PhDs is even tinier. Again plenty of data on that. Menand’s book is a good place to start and I can get you other references, if necessary.
    Do any graduate programs open up their orientation with statistics about placing their students? No, they don’t. I call that deception. Individual faculty give false hopes, because they mean well and because of ignorance.
    Many schools offer no financial assistance, yet they continue to operate and bring in huge numbers of students. You blame the students for being unreasonable. I blame the university.
    There are really no jobs, Matt. There are maybe three openings in the entire North East for certain subfields and they will only consider graduates from the top 10 schools.

  44. I’ve had a great job at the same firm for almost ten years now, but I could certainly be terminated if my performance declined substantially or if my employer faced massive financial losses. Am I contingent?
    To the people with tenure, you probably are contingent. The research side of a university has what they call “soft money” positions (and what anybody else would call “regular jobs”) where you get laid-off if they cannot find the money to pay you. In my experience, excepting the people at the top, it is pretty easy to shift over to another grant if you are known for doing good work and not too highly paid. Universities give crap raises, so pull to hire somebody new at a lower wage isn’t as strong. Obviously, any major retrenchment by the feds (who funds most of this stuff one way or another) and the lay-offs hit huge.

  45. ben, contingent is used in academia the way it’s used in buying a house. Often a purchase is contingent upon the buyer selling their house or getting a loan or the inspection, etc. In many of those cases, the deal goes through. In most cases, of course, you know in advance the risks of the contingency. In the case of contingent faculty, their employment is contingent upon enrollment and/or staffing. And those numbers fluctuate from year to year. So enrollment could stay flat, but a faculty member takes a leave, therefore the adjunct/contingent faculty has a job. The next year, enrollment remains flat, but no one’s on leave, so the contingent faculty doesn’t have a job. It’s different from employment at will where one can be terminated for any reason, often related to employee performance, though, of course layoffs happen when earnings are down. It’s just that earnings don’t generally fluctuate from year to year very dramatically. In a corporation, being a good performer often shields you from being laid off (though not always, of course). In academia, it never does. A really good teacher will be let go if there aren’t the students to teach. Often the contingency isn’t just year to year but semester to semester. So, every semester, an adjunct may have to go to a chair, remind them they exist and that they want to continue employment and then they have to hope that there are enough slots. It’s a really unpleasant situation.

  46. “Maybe the top 10 universities are placing people, but there are a whole lot of other PhD granting universities.”
    My husband’s school (not top 10) placed someone this year. We all feel as pleased as a Jane Austen mother who has managed to marry off a daughter, even though I believe it was a 4-4 job.
    “Do any graduate programs open up their orientation with statistics about placing their students? No, they don’t.”
    My old graduate program claimed a 100% placement rate. As I later discovered, that was probably technically true, but very, very misleading. I know that there were a couple of placements after my time, but during the actual 2.5 years that I was there, none of the senior grad students got jobs.
    “So, every semester, an adjunct may have to go to a chair, remind them they exist and that they want to continue employment and then they have to hope that there are enough slots.”
    An adjunct that I know has solved this problem by boarding foreign students from the college, several at a time. Voila, a consistent flow of courses!
    My husband is a graduate placement guy, although not the main guy. His department is not high-ranking, but there is a dependable group of small schools that look to it when they have an opening.
    The college has pretty strict funding rules for graduate students (5 years and out), so it’s important to make sure that every year counts.

  47. The college has pretty strict funding rules for graduate students (5 years and out), so it’s important to make sure that every year counts.
    I think I’m at least partially responsible for one department’s rule as to how long you can take. In my defense, I was only a full-time student for four years.

  48. Laura- I don’t know about many fields- I can speak mostly of philosophy. But what you say is, at best, misleading about philosophy. There were quite a lot less job this year than in the past, but in no way were there “no jobs”. Some fields are worst than others, of course, but “no” = 0, and that’s just not the case. It’s true that less good programs have a terrible time with placement this year, and many years, but that’s a reason to not go to those programs, or not go if that’s the program you can get in to and you really want to be in academia, but it’s not a reason at all to not go to a better program.
    Again, I don’t know about other programs, but these days nearly all philosophy departments place their placement records on their web-page. Some are more misleading than others, but many, perhaps most, are pretty good. So again, what you say is at least misleading when applied to philosophy. 8-10 years, for example, is long is philosophy, and would be long anywhere where one was decently funded. But people shouldn’t go to programs where they are not decently funded. That’s the story they should learn, not the flat, “don’t go.”
    I’m aware of the book you mention, and have even looked at it. I still think you’re exaggerating here, and that you’d be more effective if you presented the true (bleak, but true) story rather than an exaggerated one.

  49. Laura/Geekymom, you’re portraying contingent faculty as equivalent to what my world calls “contract work”. It’s short term, and ends when the work is over. There are no benefits, so you have to pay your own health insurance, and you have to line up your next gig. A friend of mine who does this only takes on half-time assignments so that he can get some stability/predictability by diversifying who’s funding him. The difference, of course, is that software contract pays substantially more than full-time work, sometimes approaching the $100/hour range.
    MH, your equation reminds me of the point made above about what parents are willing to pay for. I’m not sure I’d want to be taught by someone getting away with the kind of things that would get me fired from my job.
    Thanks to both of you for clarifying, though, as this helps a lot.

  50. Do any graduate programs open up their orientation with statistics about placing their students? No, they don’t. I call that deception.
    Sure. But in the first few years of grad school, when one notices that folks who graduate aren’t heading off to TT positions at Bowdoin or UC Santa Cruz but instead are adjuncting, they reality would become clear. Someone who chooses to stay another 6-8 years after that certainly knows what they’re getting into.
    It is very hard for me to feel that people with the social capital to obtain a Ph.D. can be considered “exploited.” Brainwashed, perhaps, but they have the option and wherewithal to find other jobs.
    Yup. I find it very tone deaf to compare people who could get office jobs as office managers or administrative assistants but just don’t want to to the folks caught up in the Agriprocessors raid.
    To Megan’s original point about most academics being clueless about the realities of industry work: so true. I am in a field where most industry jobs are very well-paid and in which there is generally a lot of acceptance of on/off ramps and fluidity between industry and academic, and yet out of a very large department (30+ faculty), I’m the only one who has held a full-time, non-academic job since… 1970, maybe? (I can’t even say “full-time, industry job”, because they guy I’m referring to worked for the CIA back then.) Not only would this effect faculty’s perception of how their treatment of colleagues/staff compares to industry, but it also affects undergraduate advising. We don’t have an over-supply problem — most people who graduate with PhDs prefer to find industry jobs — but for a lot of them, I think time would have been better spent if they had just started working directly after undergrad.

  51. Regarding the PhD oversupply problem, I have a basic question: how is it people with minimal chance of finding work are able to get loans? Cut off the loans and I bet much of the PhD pipeline dries up. (We could discuss at length whether that’s a good thing or not.)

  52. “I find it very tone deaf to compare people who could get office jobs as office managers or administrative assistants but just don’t want to….”
    Now this, this is tone deaf. Ever heard the word overqualified? It took a woman I know over a year to find such an office job simply because her BA was from too prestigious an undergrad institution (not even a top tier one).

  53. “explain what “contingent” means with regards to both the obviously-exploited teacher with a 5/5 and the not-so-obvious biomedical worker.”
    Laura explained what it means for “adjuncts” — basically the difference between that and “at will” employment in the private sector (the public sector is different, too), is that people effectively apply for their jobs every year (or even every semester). They may regularly get employment, but there is no institutional commitment whatsoever. I think the model is replicated in the private work force, but usually for people like servers at restaurants and retail sales and the like.
    In biomed, it’s employment that’s contingent on funding. People who fit in that category can include anyone who is payed off a grant. They are hired for limited terms, “contingent on continued funding availability.” MH seems to be in a fortunate situation where this has meant that, in general, people who perform satisfactorily can switch employment among different people with funding. Some technical staff can have protections — they are still contingent, but they must be interviewed for open positions if they are let go for reason of funding in their current position. Other employees (i.e. post-docs) don’t qualify for that protection (because they are “trainees” or fellows).
    (And, each university will have it’s own set of rules and constraints, as well as titles. One university I know of has over 20 titles for faculty, ranging from acting assistant clinical instructor to professor).

  54. I see I commented without reading all the comments. I think adjunct work is kind of like contract work, except, as you point out, adjuncts can’t claim the contract premium (of being paid more, in return for having to 1) be responsible for their own future employment and 2) having no benefits). In a way, this discussion *is* about why adjuncts can’t claim the contract premium you describe for programmers. And, I’m guessing this premium went up after the Microsoft (and other?) settlements that tried to define what a contract worker was, and not just allow the companies to call one category of worker “contract” employees and then deny them the employment benefits awarded (and sometimes required) for other employees who did similar or the same job.
    Adjuncting exists in the pre-settlement/ruling environment for contract workers.
    Post-docs are in yet a different environment — they’re not contractors — they are employees, just for limited terms and contingent on funding. It’d be interesting to come up with a comparison. Perhaps a government contractor who regularly does a certain kind of work?

  55. MH seems to be in a fortunate situation where this has meant that, in general, people who perform satisfactorily can switch employment among different people with funding.
    It’s possible I’m just really smart. I think we can rule out hard working by looking at the comments here.

  56. “It’s possible I’m just really smart. I think we can rule out hard working by looking at the comments here.”
    Ah, but I was assuming that this was true for more people than just you. So we’d need evidence that not only are you really smart, but so is everyone else for whom the successive grant-funded employment is working.
    And, is this for Ph.D. scientists, that you’re arguing the model is working?

  57. I’ve only known a few people who have been laid-off, though many who have shifted to other work for not getting a grant or insufficient raises.
    As for the Ph.D. scientists, the junior ones do get pitched-out if they can’t get their own grants after a few years, but the rates of being tossed don’t seem alarming high by most non-government standards of risk in employment. A junior Ph.D. certainly runs a greater risk of being unemployed next year than I do, but also a greater chance of advancement.

  58. Many of the comments in this thread underscore the point of my post.
    The original article that started this discussion said that 1 million people are adjunct and contingent faculty. That’s a lot.
    I’m done with this thread (though you all are free to continue chatting).

  59. I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who, for the past two years has been teaching two classes as an adjunct at a major eastern liberal arts college, while also working full time at a major national department store.
    Well, I was talking to her because she just learned today that she will not be invited back to be an adjunct for a third year. My friend is devastated, of course, and it is not relevant at all that the job at the department store pays more.
    Nor is it relevant that she has been rebuffing offers to enter the “management track” at the department store, which would — at least mentally — switch her from a “job” to a “career.”
    So, now my friend is faced with her worst case scenario — “Oh, Lord! I might become the regional manager for Sears!” And she’d give it up in a second to get her adjunct position back.
    As I try to be consoling, I am finding it hard to see what was happening to her as “exploitation,” though. She had been living her dream — teaching classes she was passionate about.

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