A major reason I decided to launch Scholapreneur was the terrible job market for adjuncts. The hours are long, the pay is terrible, the benefits non-existent. They rarely lead to any permanent employment in a university, but an adjunct often can’t get away due to the social stigma that academics give to other academics who leave the university. It is the the job equivalent of Jean Paul-Satre’s “No Exit.”
But most stay in their jobs because they: a) believe that the market will one day turn the corner because elderly professors will retire and open up their tenure-track positions, or; b) have no other career options.
The first notion is sadly false; the second notion is happily false. But we will stay on the depressing side of the ledger in this blog post and explore why things will get worse for the adjunct job market before they get better. Knowing the full nature of a disease is necessary before designing a cure.
1. Baby Boomer professors aren’t retiring:
College professors are notorious for never retiring – much like concert conductors or third-world dictators. Young faculty know this, but ever since Generation X got its PhDs, they have been waiting for waves of baby boomers to retire in large numbers, leaving behind their tenured positions. Now Generation Y and even millennial PhDs have stepped into the queue. First of all, the claim that waves of baby boomer retirements will clear the pipeline for young academics is a well-documented, pernicious lie. But the last six years of a sclerotic economy have made elderly department members grip their tenure with whiter knuckles. The financial crisis has diminished 401(k)s have many many professors put off retirement significantly or indefinitely.
According to a Fidelity Investments study, 74 percent of professors aged 49-67 plan to delay retirement past the age of 65 or not even retire at all. Approximately 69 percent cited financial concerns, but an even higher number said love of their careers determined their deision. “While many would assume that delayed retirement would be solely due to economic reasons, surprisingly 8 in 10 — 81 percent — cited personal or professional reasons for delayed retirement,” said John Rangoni, vice president of tax exempt services at Fidelity. And with no maximum retirement age for professors, new PhDs could be cut out of tenure forever.
2. The competition is increasing for all PhDs coming on the market
There is a surplus of doctorates looking for the shrinking number of positions, and the disparity is accelerating. In 2000, 44,8000 people finished their doctorate programs. The number has increased every year, with 70,200 finishing in 2010. The U.S. Department of Education reports that over this period, nearly 600,000 new PhDs were added to the supply of current PhDs, but only 150,000 jobs were added. Simple math dictates that a new PhD is 450,000 jobs less likely to get an academic position than 10 years ago. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, note that America produced 100,000 doctorates between 2005 and 2009 while only 16,000 new professorships during the same time.
The New York Times paints an even bleaker picture. There is double the number of professionals with MAs and PhDs from the 1990s to today. It is this reason that universities consider their PhD students to be disposable labor that is inexpensive and easy to disregard.
3. The market is not getting better anytime soon
All of the trends of PhD joblessness are long-term. They did not being with the economic crash of 2007-2008; they merely took a sharper turn downward. According to a December 2012 Survey of Earned Doctorates, the proportion of new doctorates with firm commitments for employment or a postdoc fell across every broad disciplinary category. It dropped from 71.6 percent in 2006 to 65.5 percent in 2011. If you are not in the science and engineering fields, the numbers are likely worse. Almost 75 percent of research doctorates were awarded in these areas.
“Things weren’t really so great before 2008, and since [the start of the economic downturn], they have gotten much worse, said Paul Stephan, an economics professor at the University of Georgia. He presented research in February 2013 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and showed the decline in the biological sciences. Stephan compared the jobs of those who were 1-5 years out from earning their PhDs, 6-10 years, 11-20 years, and more than 20 years. Following an uptick in the 90s boom years, from 2000 to 2008 tenure-track jobs fell in every research area.
The misery in the academic job market is a feature of the industry.
4. Adjuncts are psychologically trained not to think of any jobs besides tenure-track professors
When Jennifer Polk realized a few years into her history PhD that less than 50 percent of her colleagues at the University of Toronto were getting tenure-track professor jobs, she sat at the departmental meeting horrified. Polk saw that the culture of academia made the transition from university life to the working world extremely difficult. “Everybody asks you, inside and outside the academy, ‘So are you going to be a professor?’” said Polk to MacLeans. “When you get to the point where you realize maybe this is not for me, you feel like a loser.”
Why do so many scholars stay in the profession when their employment prospects are terrible and not likely to get better? The same economic mentality that causes a homeowner to shovel endless money into fixing a house with a leaking roof, sunk foundation, and termite infestation – adjuncts have invested so much time and energy into their goal, thousands of dollars and all their 20s – that they cannot imagine doing anything else and admitting their career choice was a mistake.
“Path dependence and sunk costs must be powerful forces,” said political science professor Steve Saideman. “Why? Because I cannot imagine why people would continue to teaching as adjuncts, making, on average, $2,700 per course. This means that to make a meager wage of $30k per year, one has to teach eleven classes… I just don’t get it. I do not mean this to be a failure of empathy but perhaps a failure of imagination.”
Thus path dependence and sunk costs begets more path dependence and sunk costs.
5. Academic institutions will usually not support those who haven’t gotten tenure yet because they are considered failures if they have not
Adjuncts who have years of experience teaching and researching are at a disadvantage against younger PhDs when competing for tenure positions. In some cases they are dismissed outright for this experience in favor of young PhDs with more “potential.” This has led to academia becoming what Rebecca Schuman notes as the only profession (besides, perhaps, the world’s oldest) in which experience counts against you.
Many academics have internalized this mindset, that they are failures if they venture outside of the ivory tower. Even though some scholars lucky enough to be on the tenure track admit that (albeit pseudonymously) that only through sheer luck did they get their job, those outside the system are sometimes considered dead to the academy. And the level of shunning that takes place against those who consider leaving academia is so strong that professional career counselor Marget Newhouse wrote that graduate school has much in common with mind-control cults. The level of behavior control and emotional control is so strong that detaching from the system is an enormously painful process.
6. Adjuncts do not make enough to sustain a respectable level of life quality
Few adjuncts need to be reminded that adjunct teachers earn a paltry salary. But it is worth a moment to look at the numbers to understand the depth of the problem. According to a 36-page report presented to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, most adjuncts only make between $2,000 and $3,500 per three-credit hour course. The average annual teaching salary was $24,926. Nearly 10% reported salaries that would put them below the federal poverty line for a three-person family. Some are on Medicaid or food stamps. They reply emphatically that they are not welfare queens, but one respondent said, “During the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for [my child’s] daycare costs.”
One account by English PhD Troy Camplin is particularly startling. Before renouncing university teaching altogether, he was paid so little for his English composition courses that it did not even cover the costs of daycare for his children. He worked a third-shift front desk clerk/night auditor at a hotel while adjuncting during the day. Then his course load was cut. When adjuncting did not even pay for his children’s daycare, he began staying at home with them. Camplin say he hates to use a word as Marxist as “exploitation,” but there is no other word to describe the pay for somebody who has as much education as those who work as adjuncts in community colleges.
7. Some scholars are serious talking about the death of tenure
The chimeral hope for all adjuncts – tenure – may not even be long for this world. Scholars are debating whether it will exist in the future. Keep in mind this discussion is not even over the finances of tenure, but its ethics. In a 2010 New York Times roundtable debate, five educators debated whether it should exist, never mind whether it would continue to exist due to budget realities. Of course, many argued their points from the vantage point of a long career of iron-clad job security.
English Professor Cary Nelson gave the traditional argument that tenure is a cornerstone of academic freedom. It protects unpopular ideas, supports free thinking, etc. etc. Religion professor Mark Taylor countered that tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible. The financial investment for a tenure professor is a 30-year locked investment for salary and benefits. Tenure decisions render illiquid a significant percentage of endowments and encumber university hiring finances.
Yes, that’s right. Taylor’s solution is to give a university more “flexibility” so that everybody can be treated like an adjunct, not merely the 80% who already are. While he has a point that few businesses can operate on a model of lifetime employment and that freeing up the spoils of tenure to all instructors could improve university teaching conditions, such a proposal for change offers little short-term hope to adjuncts.
8. Even university administrators want to kill off the tenured professor to pad their already-large salaries
But it may not be necessary for professors to have a discussion about the future of tenure because university administrators might make the decision for them. As full professors retire, they are often permanently replaced with part timers. Administrators do this so they can gorge on a higher salary while swiping the figurative refugee ration-packet salary from academics.
Think I am not being generous? Some administrators earn $300,000 a year to fundraise for new football stadium skyboxes. Your Director of the Office of Sustainability earns comfortably above six figures, has an office of 10 staffers, and an annual travel budget higher than most adjunct salaries. Vice Presidents at the University of Maryland saw their salaries increase by 50 percent between 1998 and 2003, as faculty positions were slashed. Nothing is metasizing like the number of administrators on a university campus. Today the number of administrators and staffers largely outnumber full-time faculty members on campus. Administrator spending increased by 36 percent between 1998 and 2005.
The problem is that most of these administrators make the decisions that lead the university with little faculty input even though they have no faculty experience. They consider their management to be the end of the university, not the instruction that students receive. I agree with Benjamin Ginsberg in his article “Administrators Ate My Tuition” that they sadly consider expanding their own power in the university more important than promoting teaching and research.
9. Unionization for adjuncts might not solve the fundamental problems.
This last point pains my soul. First of all, I am glad to see that an increasing number of adjuncts are seeking unionization. Nobody will improve the lot of adjuncts if they don’t work for it themselves. It is refreshing to see non-tenure scholars take matters into their own hands, fight university administration, and demand a fair salary. A record number of adjuncts across the United States unionized in 2013. With enough numbers they can demand benefits, long-term contracts, and better pay. SEIU’s Adjunct Action even won victories in a Los Angeles campaign.
But future victories will not come without a fight. Seattle University administrators stated that they “opposes ongoing efforts to unionize non-tenured instructors and [has] encouraged faculty to oppose joining a union.” Northeastern University has hired a law firm to bust the nascent union. Sadly, even some tenured faculty may be against unionization for fear of seeing their low teaching workloads and high salaries vanish. With all these difficulties in place, the move to unionize adjuncts could take years to reach an institution near you, if it comes at all. Even if unionization does succeed, it could introduce its own problems. Some worry unionization could lead to less flexibility in academic hiring, swapping out low-paid jobs for no jobs.
The bottom line is that whether or not adjuncts are able to unionize, every scholar should have a back-up plan in case their ideal job does not materialize. In future blog posts and podcasts we will talk to scholars who have taken control of their academic destiny and created their own jobs.