Adjuncts and the Devalued PhD


If you are a college student today enrolled in four classes during any given semester, it is likely that only one of your teachers is employed by your school in a permanent position that comes with a middle-class salary, job security, and benefits. The other three are contingent faculty, often called “adjuncts”; they have job titles like “instructor” or “lecturer” rather than “professor” but their roles in the classroom are the same. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), adjuncts at U.S. colleges and universities now comprise “more than 75 percent of the total instructional staff.”

But the vast majority of adjuncts–who typically either have Ph.D.s or are in the advanced stages of completing them–earn a fraction of what their tenure-track colleagues do. Their contracts are offered on a course-by-course, semester-by-semester basis and often come without benefits. Unlike most tenure-track faculty, few adjuncts even know until just a few weeks before the semester starts which classes they will teach, if any, and many take part-time jobs off campus–or at multiple institutions–to supplement low pay and forestall the crisis of a semester with too few classes to pay the rent.

Contrary to trends reported by the Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that the more education you have the more income you are likely to earn, a majority of college and university faculty today earn considerably less than workers in other industries with similar levels of education—and less even than workers with significantly less education. According to the Census, for workers across the board, “Average earnings ranged from $18,900 for high school dropouts to $25,900 for high school graduates, $45,400 for college graduates, and $99,300 for workers with professional degrees (M.D., J.D.,D.D.S., or D.V.M.).” While the AAUPthrough their annual survey of faculty salaries—confirms that tenure-track faculty, along with non-tenure-track faculty working under multi-year, renewable contracts, do earn what workers with similar educational qualifications in other industries do, the same is not true for adjuncts. At a national average salary of just $2,758 per course, adjuncts who have the good fortune to be assigned full-time course loads of eight to ten courses per year, take home a salary between $22,064 and $27,500, respectively, just below and just above the salary earned by those with only a high school diploma.

More education doesn’t always pay. 

But the question today’s graduate students and recent Ph.D.s are beginning to ask with greater urgency is not simply “Is the time and effort spent earning a Ph.D. worth it?” but “Is a career spent pursuing the ‘life of the mind’ worth the sacrifice of a lifetime of effort for low pay, lack of job security, lack of opportunities, and lack of recognition for good performance?” In 2011, there is no shortage of faculty just yet, but the economic devaluation of the Ph.D., exacerbated by the Great Recession, is leading many of our nation’s brightest and most promising young scholar-teachers to at least consider other lines of work.
Back in 2003, Thomas H. Benton—the penname of William Pannapacker, then an assistant professor of English at Hope College—published the first of series of articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education (others following in 2009 and 2010) warning would-be graduate students of the pitfalls of pursuing a career in higher ed. “It pains me,” he wrote, “to tell some of my best students that the structure of employment in the academy has been hidden from them—that many faculty members make less than fast-food workers and have no health benefits.” Indeed, Benton advised, nearly a decade ago, “if you go to graduate school, you are contributing to the problem by making it less necessary for universities to hire full-time faculty members at decent wages.”
Yet, to recent Ph.D.s in 2011, many of them newly matriculated graduate students in 2003, Benton’s dire warning rang a bit hollow, for Benton also left open the possibility that if they were really and truly meant for it—if living “the life of the mind” was their passion—and if they had absorbed the grim realities of the profession and still wanted to talk about becoming a professor, “then maybe they are right for it.” To smart, hardworking students, those motivated by genuine intellectual curiosity and used to being at the top of their classes, Benton’s message seemed to be, “Becoming a professor isn’t easy, but it is possible if you are the right kind of person. If you have what it takes and do everything right along the way, you have a chance.” That may not have been what Benton meant, but to headstrong students unafraid of competition, the obstacles to becoming a professor seemed merely the next and toughest set of challenges to be met and overcome. 
No one pursues a career as a professor to become rich. Academics do what they do—are supposed to be able to do what they do—because they are passionate about research and teaching, because they value the pursuit of knowledge over the pursuit of wealth. And, indeed, cultural capital has its own value, especially if you come from a working class background. Unlike law or business degrees, which have also come under scrutiny recently for not being “worth it,” the Ph.D., because of the nature of what you do to earn it, carries a kind of value that doesn’t translate easily into money. Blogger Anastasia puts it this way in comments here: Getting the Ph.D. “was worth it to me as a way to transcend the confines of my upbringing intellectually. I am an educated person in a way I simply would not be—even if I'd gone to college—given that I grew up poor white trash. So at that level, it's worth it to me that I did it. I am transformed.”
But, while working to make money may represent, for some people in academe, a betrayal of the ideal of living “the life of the mind,” others, especially those whose early careers have been directly impacted by the recession, are forced to reckon with the fact that it is impossible to devote yourself fully to teaching and research when you must struggle financially to support yourself and your family. 
For example, Anastasia blogs about quitting her grossly underpaid adjunct position to teach at a private high school because she couldn’t provide adequately for her three children as an adjunct. Recent Ph.D. writes about quitting an adjunct job to take a better-paying position as a secretary. Amanda Krauss, a former classics professor at Vanderbilt University, cites, among other things, her disgust at the “irreparably screwed system” that exploited her adjunct colleagues as one of her reasons for leaving academe.
And these are just a few of the accounts that abound across the blogosphere, juxtaposed with those of individuals who have stayed, like the appropriately named Sisyphus, who has bounced from one temporary faculty position to another for the past five years since earning a Ph.D. Or Andy Smith, who taught in the Tennessee public university system for a decade, never earning more than $2,100 per course and eventually resorting to food stamps to provide for his daughter.
President Obama has said that, as a nation, we should aim “to produce 8 million more college graduates by 2020, because America has to have the highest share of graduates compared to every other nation.” Indeed, Obama contends, “Education is the economic issue of our time,” because “we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”


7 thoughts on “Adjuncts and the Devalued PhD

  1. I’m a former *tenured* faculty member who walked away from the university. My reasons were many, but my outrage at the unethical basis of Ph.D. training made walking away feel pretty good. I spent 15 years among tenured faculty colleagues who thought it was declasse and tacky to speak of vulgar things like jobs, job skills, and the salaries that their Ph.D. students were actually living on or could anticipate in the future. To acknowledge the Ph.D. students as workers would require them to acknowledge themselves as workers—and this they could not do, as it would have popped their bubble of illusion about the “higher calling” and illustrious status of what they called their ‘work.’ The irony was lost on them that what they called “work” (“right now I’m working on the abject in early American literature”) was what they refused to acknowledge as actual work, ie, labor being traded for wages in a capitalist market.
    I’ve now started a blog and business dedicated to what I call “telling you the truth about graduate school, the job market, and tenure.” I wholly endorse anyone deciding against, or walking away from, a Ph.D. But for those grad students and junior faculty who are in too deep to get out, I want to cut through the lies of omission, widespread delusion, and regime of bullshit, and give them the information and skills they need to make it through with their sanity and wallet intact.

  2. I left the academe for many of the same reasons as stated in the article. My situation was never as bad as stated above, I always held positions that were annual contracts and paid a middle class salary as a lecturer and visiting professor. What became an issue in my situation was that I was a 2005 minted doc in my 50s. Most departments were interested in a younger person who they felt had more staying power or longevity. This happened to me three times where I worked for a period of 2 years in each department at different universities. So I left the university and opened my own cultural resource management firm doing history research, national register noms etc.

  3. Well, funding is a major problem — for salaries (hence all the adjuncts) and also for decent working conditions and so on.
    I’m a tenured professor, so I’m in a much better situation than the adjuncts. And I am a faculty child, so I thought I knew what I was getting into.
    But I live in a poor state and in the current brave new world, and it is much more difficult economically than it was a generation ago. I do things like put off recommended medical care; the adjuncts don’t even go to the dentist.
    (Speaking of which, I had a tooth restored last year and the hygienist assumed that since just having it pulled would be cheaper, that would be my option, since I’m university faculty.)
    It’s at the level of getting adequate teaching materials for students, too.

  4. I do agree with you all. Even if you listen to the song by George Michael ” You Got have Faith”. Sometimes my faith goes away. But we teachers and professors who’d been in this field for decades, suffer more this hard times than the young ones. After the age of 40, it is so hard to change a career. It is a sad story that any one can make more money than a college professor.But it is the truth in the so-called greatest nation in the world.

  5. Thank you for reminding your readers once again of what remains a despicable festering sore in our university system. That an institution of such ancient and respectable status should continue employing so many well-educated and passionately committed individuals at less than poverty line wages is an outrage that no civilized nation should tolerate.
    My own story is a well-worn and familiar one. After 8 years earning 1600 per class, per semester (yes, that’s $13K a year for a full-time teaching load), I started a consulting company teaching business professionals, primarily biologists with the United States Fisha and Wildlife Service, how to write more clearly.
    I am proud of the PhD I earned, and I believe I have valuable contributions to make to the literary scholarship of my specialty, postmodern British literature. But I demand to be rewarded for the effort I have put into my greatest asset–my knowledge and expertise. And living like a nomad, with no job security beyond a 2-year contract, earning $40K a year to pay back $200K in student loans does not qualify as “being rewarded.”
    In this capitalistic society, we reward people for their expertise by the money we pay them. Is the “life of the mind” altruistic? So are the healing arts, and doctors earn high salaries. Is it intangible? So are mortgage-backed securities, and their traders are still earning unconscionable bonuses. Is it vital to the survival of our society? Ask the biologist whose writing either preserves an endangered species or not. Better yet, ask the polar bear.

  6. Thanks, Vanessa. You’re right that academe is not itself indispensable to “the life of the mind” (a phrase I actually find a bit misleading — the mind is part of the body etc.). The question of access to knowledge resources, though, is an interesting one. Access is a privilege of affiliation. If one leaves academe in order to take a better-paying “day job” but still wants to remain active as an independent scholar, things can get tricky. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out for myself and have been blogging about lately (I’m the author of one of the blogs linked to, but you’ll have to guess which one. I’m trying to keep at least a modest distance between it and my non-blogger writing, at least for the time being.)
    Keep up the good work at NFW!

  7. Thank you for a balanced, informative article ~ as well as not trying to answer an unanswerable question. The continual ongoing life of the mind vs make a living trade off is well and cogently stated. I would add that although academic life and its knowledge resources feed intellectual curiosity, it is not indispensable to sustaining the life of the mind.
    And a hat tip to your choice of links too. I already had most bookmarked or in reader (along with Minding the Campus) but appreciate new addition and reminder about the others. Blog fodder. I have folders for academic and adjunct blogs and recently added one for “leaving academia.” It’s a growing blog sub-genre.

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