The Dangers of Victimizing Ph.D.'s

No one but you is forcing you to accept low-paid adjunct work

Brian Taylor

April 01, 2014

Every month or so, a disturbing story emerges from the frontlines of the academic job market, contributing to a growing genre of social commentary about the brutality of academe.

A few weeks ago, Patrick Iber, a visiting lecturer at Berkeley, wrote yet another such essay, describing how his quest for a tenure-track position had been repeatedly met with failure, even though he is eminently qualified and well-respected for his scholarship. As a result, he has taken one temporary, poorly paid position after another, with no end in sight. For a young, bright-eyed academic, such relentless rejection can lead to despair, but when combined with the everyday struggles of life—the loss of a parent or the anxiety of supporting a child—Iber shows that it can be soul-crushing.

I have a great deal of empathy for Iber. In fact, our stories are surprisingly similar. Like Iber, I began my doctoral program in 2005 and graduated in 2011. My field is also squarely situated in the humanities: My Ph.D. is in South and Southeast Asian studies with an emphasis on women, gender, and sexuality, and I wrote my dissertation on sexuality in early South Indian literature. I spent years on the academic job market, carefully crafting letters and portfolios for positions in departments that I knew would be inundated with far too many applications. I went to interviews and job talks, sometimes waiting months for a response before realizing that the university in question was not even going to bother telling me no. Like Iber, I sometimes felt that I had lost my dignity in the process.

As has become evident over the last few years, my story and Iber’s are not extraordinary: They are the norm. Academe has produced too many Ph.D.’s, too few tenure-track positions, and far too many part-time teaching jobs. Each doctoral cohort serves to flood the academic job market further. According to a study released by the U.S. House of Representatives this past January, full-time tenured professors accounted for 70 percent of college faculty in 1970. Today, the report noted, adjuncts make up more than half of the faculty in higher education, and many of them live "on the edge of poverty."

In the many published accounts of the employment struggles of Ph.D.’s, there has been a tendency to present the status quo as inherently unjust. But the tenure-track market has been difficult in many fields for years now; the 2008 recession only made it more so. I would like to make the case that we cannot keep framing our fates as an act of injustice on the academy’s part. That framework only leaves us powerless, with no control over our own lives and decisions.

Last year, Rick Perlstein wrote in in The Nation about the adjunct crisis. He described academe as a kind of aristocracy where tenure-track professors oversee "an army of intellectual serfs" and showed how adjuncts cope with working conditions that often involve teaching multiple courses across several campuses at a salary that barely covers their commuting costs.

The flaw in Perlstein’s argument is that, unlike serfs, Ph.D.’s are choosing to stay in a labor market that is unfavorable to them.

Many employees struggle with unfair working conditions, such as undocumented immigrants or factory workers. Compared with those groups, Ph.D.’s are qualified to work across a range of industries, including the news media, consulting firms, and nonprofit groups. It is disingenuous to appropriate the language of labor abuse for a class of people who have the privilege to choose a particular career path.

Iber also deploys the language of disempowerment in his essay: "Compensation for our labor is unprofessional," he writes, "and we and our families are expected to bear this as a sign of commitment to disciplines and institutions that reserve the right never to commit to us."

I disagree. No one but Ph.D.’s themselves expect Ph.D.’s to live without the dignity of a living wage or to work for academic institutions that do not respect them. Indeed, when adjuncts continue accepting temporary work with no benefits, they perpetuate the very system that is taking advantage of them. The laws of supply and demand dictate the academic labor market as they do every other labor market, and universities have no incentive to change their labor practices when adjuncts willingly work for so little.

The victimization narrative only aggravates the hopelessness that struggling Ph.D.’s feel in academe. That narrative contributes to the fallacy that underemployed academics are powerless to change their fates, since so many Ph.D.’s appear unable to break out of the same unfair system. That generates inertia, rather than change.

Yet Ph.D.’s have the power to resist. They can choose to reject academe altogether and find satisfying work elsewhere.

Indeed, in fields where newly minted Ph.D.’s are willing and able to leave the professoriate for the private sector, the labor market is less slanted in favor of employers. For instance, in economics and computer science, there is not a huge excess supply of labor. As a result, universities must offer more competitive salaries and employment conditions to hire the best talent in those fields. The private-sector demand for the services of economists and computer scientists partially explains their more favorable conditions within academe, but the willingness to leave academe—whether to work for a technology company, a bank, or the government—plays an important role as well.

Graduate students in the humanities and social sciences often argue that they do not have the same opportunities to pursue intellectually fulfilling work outside the academy as those in quantitative fields. Yet doctoral candidates in the humanities have also failed to adequately market themselves to the private sector.

There is no reason that Ph.D.’s trained in writing, research, and public speaking are not sweeping the best jobs in journalism, publishing, public relations, NGOs and think tanks. Being attractive to other industries will require gaining some work experience—or what Iber disparagingly calls "dues paying"—but that is also the case for Ph.D.’s in technical fields who typically take internships before landing full-time jobs. The more that those of us with doctorates reveal that our skills are transferable, the easier it will become for subsequent doctoral recipients to enter the hiring pipelines of private industry.

Doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciencs cannot be entirely blamed for failing to prepare their Ph.D.’s for the nonacademic job market. That kind of thinking reinforces the notion that we do not have the agency to find alternative work on our own.

Ultimately, the academic system is not so much nefarious as pragmatic: Universities are not invested in preparing doctoral candidates for employment outside of academe because they benefit from drawing from the largest possible pool of job candidates. I would argue that the onus falls on us to create a new equilibrium where teaching in the contingent workforce is not the default.

For some Ph.D.’s, however, teaching in higher education will always be the first and only choice, no matter the cost or the conditions. With eyes wide open to what it now means to teach at a tertiary level, those Ph.D.’s have considered other opportunities and believe that no other work will offer them the satisfaction they receive from teaching college students. At the end of his essay, Iber concludes, "this is the job I should be doing; the job I have long wanted to do—and still want to do."

Given the realities of the current academic job market, that is a brave choice, but it is a choice nonetheless.

Elizabeth Segran received her Ph.D. in South and Southeast Asian Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. She is a freelance writer for The Nation, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Salon, among other publications. Her book, The River Speaks, was published in 2012 by Penguin Books.