Thoughts on life after the PhD
This will be the first in a series of posts on “Alternative Careers for Literature and Humanities PhD’s,” a roundtable discussion organized by a professor in my university’s English department. The two-hour session was some of the most productive conversation I’ve ever taken part in, and while there was a lot of very grim information there were also inspiring and funny stories, as well as practical advice on how to make the most of your post-PhD existence. It was standing room only, which I think says a lot about where many grad students’ minds are these days.
The first speaker (we’ll call him John, I try to keep this blog quasi-anonymous since sensitive subjects get discussed) had been an adjunct professor at a variety of universities for about twenty years. His comments were by far the most grim, though laced with a lot of sarcastic humor and advice on not letting the system beat you into the ground (when I talked to him one-on-one afterward he also revealed himself to be very passionate about Japanese films). The first thing he told us was that the “death of tenure” problem is not going to go away, and that if anything the number of adjunct positions (currently 60% nationwide) is only going to increase. For those not in the know, being an adjunct professor can essentially mean doing the same job as a tenured professor, but having no health or retirement insurance, no job security beyond a given semester, no office, no computer, and being paid a wage that often requires you to get a second job. I’ll just list some of John’s main points here:
1. In the past decade or so the average salary of the tenured professor has increased, but the number of tenured *positions* has dramatically *decreased.*
2. Public school teachers, city bus drivers, and prison guards make more money than adjunct professors.
3. Academic freedom is very limited as an adjunct, and benefits are rare.
4. As an adjunct you are judged by your teaching abilities, but you are also sent the message that teaching isn’t really valued, and in focusing more on teaching than on research you are deemed “less serious” by the academic community.
5. Myths of adjunct teaching include the idea that if you stay at a university long enough as an adjunct you will eventually be hired for a tenured position, when in fact the opposite is true–the longer you stay at a university as an adjunct, the less likely you are to get a tenured position. John argued that there’s a 3-5 year adjunct “window”–teaching as an adjunct for any longer than that effectively damns any chances you have of landing a tenure-track job. Applications are removed from the pile if the candidate is deemed a “generalist” (i.e. someone who’s been teaching a variety of subjects as an adjunct for several years) or “not serious enough about their career” (again, an adjunct).
6. Succeeding as an adjunct–managing to teach all your classes well on a meager salary with no benefits and limited access to campus resources–sends the message to universities that tenured benefits are unnecessary.
7. Adjuncts are almost never “fired”–they’re simply told that there isn’t enough money in the budget to hire them for the next semester (which is sometimes true, sometimes not). Not being fired means no severance package.
8. Bottom line: don’t adjunct while you’re ABD unless you’re able to teach only one or two courses related to your dissertation, don’t adjunct for more than a year or two unless you want to be labeled a “generalist,” find out what course credits you need to teach high school so that you have a back-up plan, and get familiar with new technologies and online learning. And urge the MLA and the AAUP to start fighting for the rights of adjuncts.
One woman in the audience who had worked as an adjunct for several years made an impassioned plea–don’t adjunct, period. You’ll be exploited, you’ll ruin your chances of a secure academic career, and you’ll contribute to an exploitative system.
A question was asked about unions, and John responded that the AAUP recently made the decision only to represent the interests of tenured professors, while the MLA still hasn’t done much to address the needs of adjuncts. The against-adjuncting woman said simply that the AAUP sucks. Everyone was urged to make their voices heard when it comes to adjunct rights, and it was stressed that there is a real need for a national or international organization specifically for adjuncts, though organizing adjuncts has been very difficult in the past.
My reaction to all of this was to seriously re-think my position on adjunct teaching. John admits that his views are simply his views, and there are plenty of people in the adjunct world who might think differently, but his experience seems to reflect a lot of what I’ve heard from the adjuncts I know. I would never condemn anyone for taking an adjunct job, especially someone who loves to teach and sees that job as the only way to do it. But the ethical implications are hard to escape. By applying for adjunct positions, particularly long-term adjunct positions, we are essentially sending the message that it’s acceptable to pay skilled workers unskilled wages. We are contributing to a system that does not value teaching or the rights of the teacher. Some might throw up their hands and say that the system is what it is, it’s not going to change, and we should be grateful just to have jobs. But I have to believe that focused resistance can have *some* impact. That if enough adjuncts or potential adjuncts stood up and demanded a living wage, benefits, and the same job security that even those without a college diploma can reasonably demand, we might begin to see some change. At some point the university has to realize that skilled teachers are not commodities that can be discarded at a moment’s notice, and they won’t realize it until we demand not to be treated as such.
Next post: The benefits of teaching in private high schools.
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