The New Economics of Academia: Wanted: Really Smart Suckers

Reporter Anya Kamenetz has a must-read feature in The Village Voice (27 April) for anybody who has ever spent time working in academia–or who ever hopes to. It’s entitled Generation Debt – the New Economics of Being Young, subtitled “Wanted: Really Smart Suckers: Grad school provides exciting new road to poverty.”

Here’s an exciting career opportunity you won’t see in the classified ads. For the first six to 10 years, it pays less than $20,000 and demands superhuman levels of commitment in a Dickensian environment. Forget about marriage, a mortgage, or even Thanksgiving dinners, as the focus of your entire life narrows to the production, to exacting specifications, of a 300-page document less than a dozen people will read. Then it’s time for advancement: Apply to 50 far-flung, undesirable locations, with a 30 to 40 percent chance of being offered any position at all. You may end up living 100 miles from your spouse and commuting to three different work locations a week. You may end up $50,000 in debt, with no health insurance, feeding your kids with food stamps. If you are the luckiest out of every five entrants, you may win the profession’s ultimate prize: A comfortable middle-class job, for the rest of your life, with summers off….

But the Internet means no isolated community has to stay that way. A new group of tortured, funny, largely anonymous websites are providing an outlet for academics who feel like they’re getting spanked by their alma mater. They have names like Invisible Adjunct, (a)musings of a grad student, Beyond Academe, and Barely Tenured, and they address the emotional just as much as the practical consequences of competing in, and losing, the academic job-market lottery.

Founded in February 2003, Invisible Adjunct quickly became one of the most popular such blogs. Dozens of regular posters followed discussion threads like “The Old Boy Network” and “Is Tenure a Cartel?” Invisible Adjunct’s author—call her IA—is a New Yorker in her late thirties with a Ph.D. in British history, an adjunct for the past two years. “I’ve spent all these years and I’ve failed,” says IA, who entered graduate school in 1993 and received her Ph.D. in 1999. “You agree to do this five-to-seven-year low-paid apprenticeship because you’re joining this guild. And if you end up as an adjunct you think, wow, I’m really getting screwed over.”

The also pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton was a frequent contributor to Invisible Adjunct’s blog and has penned a series of cautionary columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is even more blunt than IA. “The premise of graduate education in the humanities is a lie: Students are not apprentices preparing for a life of scholarship and teaching,” he says. “They are a cheap source of labor and status for institutions and faculty and, after they earn their degrees, most join the reserve army of the academic underemployed.” Benton, a professor at a small liberal arts college, warns his students about trying to follow in his footsteps. “My experience as a working-class kid who finally earned an Ivy League Ph.D. is that higher education is not about social mobility or personal enrichment; it is one trap among many for people who are uninitiated into the way power and influence operate in this culture.”


Grad school applications are up slightly over the last decade, as unemployed college grads seek a haven from the job market. Every winter, a new crop of bright, bookish, maybe slightly fuzzy-headed kids, the kind who cover the sidewalks of the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, decide they’re sick enough of the 9-to-5 grind to borrow some money and go back to school.

Unlike trade schools, most graduate programs do not offer prospective students detailed data on job placement, which varies widely from program to program. Tri-State Semi Driver Training School in Middletown, Ohio, for example, guarantees a job before you even start driving, while the American Language Institute in San Diego promises lifetime placement assistance to its teachers of English as a foreign language. Your local Ivy League English department can’t offer the same deal: Last year, the Modern Language Association expected some 965 Ph.D.’s to be granted, while only 422 assistant professorships were advertised, a drop of 20 percent from the year before. In the foreign languages, there were only 263 positions advertised (for the 620 Ph.D.’s projected), a drop of one-third from the previous year. The MLA estimates that students who entered English programs in 2003 had a 20 percent chance of coming out with a tenure-track position. The situation is better in history, where the number of new Ph.D.’s in 2003 almost equalled the number of new jobs, after a decade of “overproduction,” with growth coming in trendy specializations like the Middle East.

But numbers like these do little to deter the best students. “Top undergraduates are arrogant; they lack perspective,” says Benton. “They’ve been fawned over all their lives, and they think grad school is there to help them realize their potential, not to use them up and toss them out.”

The Chronicle (30 April) profiles the Invisible Adjunct at some length. Almost like an obituary.

Now, she senses that the Ph.D. in her pocket has grown stale.

“I have to confront the fact that my shelf life has expired,” she says, “and I’m not going to get a job in the academy.”

My sentiments match those in the comment posted by Anita Henderson on History News Network, where Ralph Luker noted the Village Voice article.

The reason grad students and adjuncts are taken advantage of is because they can be. And that’s because there are too many of them. More than the market needs.

What’s amazing is the sense of outrage in academic circles about the system, as if being a college instructor were different from other jobs. I’ve been through downsizing efforts in industries. Many, if not most, Americans have. People watching their earning potential fall through the floor. What they’ve worked to achieve for years become devalued in the marketplace.

Ivory tower academics must be oblivious to this, thinking that the old system of establishing yourself and then sitting back and letting the money roll in is in place. Rather than feeling sorry for themselves and their colleagues, they should try getting on with life the way most people do.

Lots of people want to be rock musicians. A few make it big, a few more earn comfortable livings. Most do it as a hobby along with their day job or barely squeak by. Lots of people want to be professional athletes. A few make it big, most don’t.

There’s nothing unique about academia. Social activists always say we need to tune inner city kids to reality, make them understand that they probably won’t become sports stars, the odds against that are too high, so they should have some other plan to fall back on. Maybe we need to let these professor wannabes [learn] the same thing.

Here’s my advice, from one who has made the transition out of academia, and back in, several times: Start early. Stay in practice. Avoid irrational optimism.

I first started after finishing high school in Japan (Canadian curriculum, not Japanese). I decided I didn’t want to go to college. (I wasn’t that eager to immigrate back to the U.S., either.) After working the summer in my uncle’s service station–not just pumping gas and checking oil, but changing tires on farm tractors and logging trucks, I acquired a new appreciation for schoolwork. So I applied late to my father’s alma mater, the University of Richmond, Va., where I was one of two “foreign” students–both American missionary kids, in fact. The Richmond Collegian interviewed us both, concluding thus.

Joel had visited the U.S. at several intervals before coming to UR. Joel said that his opinion of the U.S. changed each time he came. He said that he likes the U.S. better now than he did. However, he added, “When I read Mad Magazine in Japan, I thought the magazine exaggerated situations, but now that I’m here, I do not think the magazine does!”

I don’t think I phrased it quite so awkwardly, but that’s pretty much what I intended to convey. My U.S. college experience was not what the Asian edition of Newsweek had suggested it might be. Ferment, no. Boredom, yes. I dropped out in my sophomore year. The draft beckoned. The best I could do was opt for the Army language school. They gave me the 7th language on my list of 8: Romanian. So I spent my Vietnam-era Army days assigned to a stateside Civil Affairs unit that had more officers than enlisted men. I took a couple of extension courses on base, and spent a lot of time in the library and volunteering at the language lab on base: teaching an English class to Korean officers (always careful never to be seen in my enlisted uniform), and to a lovely class of Thai and Vietnamese army wives.

I took advantage of an early out to resume college, and managed to stretch my G.I. Bill benefits out well into my Ph.D. program, thanks to work-study, graduate assistantships, and other temporary or part-time jobs. I swore I wouldn’t get married until finishing my dissertation, then did anyway. I swore I wouldn’t accept full-time employment before finishing, then did anyway. I did finally manage to finish, mostly writing on weekends. And I finished only $2,000 in debt, which I paid off early! After spending most of the 1970s in grad school, I spent most of the 1980s doing computer support work in the business world (even taking a couple night classes in accounting), then migrated back into academic publishing during the 1990s.

In many ways, I’m a natural-born academic. But my wife teaches. Other friends and family teach. Heck, I’ve taught. And I know it’s not for me. Nor is the long stretch of pre-tenure paranoia and post-tenure burnout. I suppose this blog is now my classroom. Whimsy is my syllabus. Attendance is optional. And there are no papers to mark. My day job pays the mortgage. But I do worry about how to encourage my daughter to pursue her interests–even more academic than mine–while steering her away from a career in academia.

UPDATE: Via an update to History News Network, I see that Erin O’Conner of Critical Mass adds further thoughts and outlines her own answer to “The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad grad school question“:

Between the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s farewell paean to the Invisible Adjunct, the current Crooked Timber thread attempting to theorize the unconcern and even contempt tenured academics display toward the adjunct labor that sustains their comfortable lifestyles, and yesterday’s Village Voice piece on how you’ve got to be a hell of a sucker to go to grad school in the humanities or social sciences nowadays, I’ve been thinking a great deal not only about the politics of the academy, but about the politics of lamentation about the state of the academy.

There is something a bit, ummm, noisome in the spectacle of established, tenured academics clucking their virtual tongues and beating their virtual breasts about the terrible lot that has befallen the Invisible Adjunct and all those other adjuncts for whom she has so invisibly stood. What besides clucking are these folks doing to reform the abusive system that chewed IA up and spat her out? …

You can say that this is a fine case of the pot calling the kettle black. After all, what have I been doing on Critical Mass since March 2002 besides lamenting the state of academe, and devoting considerable space to the corruption of the academic humanities? I’ve clucked about the exploitation of adjunct labor more than once on this blog, and I’ve done it from a tenured position whose shape is structurally dependent on all the non-tenure-track lecturers, adjuncts, and grad students that my department regularly employs to round out its course offerings. So where do I get off?

I’ll know the exact answer to that question next week, when I decide which of several job offers teaching high school English to accept. In the meantime, I’ll simply note that what gives me license to point fingers in this moment is that I am leaving academe–in no small part because I cannot see a way to resolve the many interlinked crises facing the academic humanities, and I cannot reconcile my beliefs in institutional fairness, personal and professional integrity, and, much more basically, education, with a life lived from within a university English department. I’m not sure the problems can be resolved at this point. And, frankly, I’m not sure they should be. The self-discrediting behavior of the humanist “haves” during the past several decades of progressive deprofessionalization, combined with their confirmed collective refusal to take their own disciplinarity seriously (whether as scholars or as teachers), doesn’t suggest there is a whole lot worth saving….

There is one market, though, that is WIDE OPEN for humanities M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s, and that is the independent school market. “Independent” is mostly a contemporary code word for “private,” though it can also mean “charter.” Your Ph.D.–or, if you are ABD, your M.A.–is a very attractive qualification in this market….

Locating and applying for such jobs could not be easier. There are agencies whose entire mission is to match you with schools that are looking for candidates like you. The agencies are entirely free to the candidates. They are not gimmicks. They work.

Why do you hear absolutely nothing about this career option from within academe? Why do academic departments pretend this entirely dignified and deeply meaningful career path does not exist–even though it could be just what many of their otherwise unemployable Ph.D.’s, not to mention their dissatisfied faculty, are looking for? Why do they treat as beneath their notice a type of work that they ought to be embracing as a seriously significant alternative to the dead-end academic career of the adjunct? Do I really have to ask?

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