‘Scientific American’: Academic Labor Market ‘Gone Seriously Awry’

In a draft article published to its website today, Scientific American blasts some of the junk analysis bedeviling mainstream higher-ed coverage and what passes for policy “thought” about academic labor. “The real crisis in American science education,” the article concludes, “is a distorted job market’s inability to provide [young scientists] careers worthy of their abilities.” Bingo.

The piece turns around an apparent contradiction: half the policy analysis decries a “shortage” of U.S. scientists and engineers, and the other half claims an “oversupply” of persons with doctorates in science.

That doesn’t make sense — except when you understand that both camps are wrong.

There is no shortage of U.S.-trained scientists and engineers and there’s no oversupply of persons with doctorates in science or any other field.

What’s really happening is restructuring of the labor market from a “market in jobs” to a market in contingent appointments. Throughout the economy, we have substituted student and other temporary labor for faculty and other more secure workers.

The name for this restructuring is casualization, the making temporary (and cheap, and controllable) of work that used to be secure (and more expensive, and more difficult to manage). This restructuring has been occurring since 1970, when roughly 3/4 of faculty were tenured or in the tenure stream.

Today, 1/4 of faculty are tenured or in the tenure stream. Less if you address pervasive undercounting of nontenurable faculty, and teaching by staff employees and graduate students. The trend line points steeply down.

All of the under- or unemployed scientists with doctorates could be employed overnight if more science, and more science education, was done by persons holding the Ph.D.  Instead, we do science and science education with persons who are studying for the Ph.D., or who gave up on studying for the Ph.D. simply because they can work cheaper than persons who actually hold the doctorate.

If the percentage of faculty working in the tenure stream were anywhere near what it was at the high point of U.S. scientific and technical dominance, we’d actually have a vast, sucking undersupply of persons with the Ph.D. Hell, just one large state system could absorb most of the so-called surplus doctorates in a few years — and as I’ve already noted, taking students out of the work force and working toward full employment for faculty would be an actual stimulus plan.

Junk Analysis, False Solutions

If the problem is casualization, why is all the policy noise whirling about in the “shortage/oversupply” contradiction? Why is almost 100% of the conversation invested in claims that are equally but oppositely bogus — irreconcilable yet inseparable, glued together like oppositely-charged particles?

Because both wrong answers are useful to those whose interests are served by casualization.

University managers, employers like Bill Microserfs Gates, grant writers at the pinnacle of the winner-take-all science pyramid, politicians looking to hijack curricula and hand them to corporations — all of these constituencies and many others find that their different agendas are served by either or both of these fictions. (Correspondingly, they have a substantial interest in mystifying what’s really going on.)

The Scientific American article is particularly good about the first half of the equation. It targets the transparent fiction endorsed by Bill Gates that the United States doesn’t produce enough scientific, engineering, and technical talent.

Gates makes that claim because he likes to hire cheaply and contingently, creating huge rewards for loyal core employees, reserving the secure jobs as golden lures to keep the temps working unpaid overtime. (Ironically he borrowed the Microserfs model for his “campus” from higher education.)

With the claim that he can’t find U.S. talent, he wins the right to employ on H-1B visas, importing cheaper labor from offshore. Not only do the imports work more cheaply, they lower the price of non-imported labor.

Politicians support Gates because he pays them handsomely for their loyalty. Or because they support other employers who also want to import labor, or who benefit from the lowered wages that result.

Gates also gets the support of those who want to diminish further the role of teachers and faculty in curricula, and hand schools over to Walmart and other corporations.

The piece is less strong on the second half of the equation, the “oversupply of Ph.D.’s” fiction, largely because it is so focused on debunking Gates that at times it uses the claims of oversupply uncritically — as a usefully clear, blunt rebuttal to him and his near-universal political support.

The usefulness of the “oversupply” claim, as I’ve made clear many times, is that it obscures restructuring: Work that used to be done by persons with the Ph.D. is now being done by students and staff and adjunct lecturers. Even undergraduates. There’s zero “undersupply” of persons with doctorates if that work is given back to them.

But the piece still makes a good start on this point.  Without explicitly referencing casualization, at several points it complains about the failed structure of the science labor market — as “gone seriously awry,” failing to provide real jobs, etc.

One path forward for the article would be to address a core question such as: Well, is a Ph.D. really only for researchers at R1 schools?

Or is a Ph.D. for those with teaching-intensive positions as well? — as used to be the case.

The combination of speed-up of the tenured minority and casualization of the majority who teach has tended to a growing assumption that the Ph.D. (and tenure) are really associated only with those on a major research track.

But that isn’t the case now, nor was it well back into the last century: Tenure and doctoral study were also for those with teaching-intensive appointments.

Failing to address that question, the article lists some of the ineffectual junk responses to restructuring that disciplinary association staffers have been pushing for decades: Oh, the excess doctorates should be trained for alternate careers! Or: They should be warned that graduate education is like trying to make a career out of acting or playing the guitar! The problem of a winner-take-all society or winner-take-all science isn’t going to be resolved, as one of their economists recommends, by making tenure function even more like a “jackpot” than it already does.

Still, a nice start.

I Haven’t Forgotten the MLA

Which reminds me: After I deal with some other obligations (reviews of recent books by Cary Nelson and David Horowitz, and covering the March 4 National Day of Action to Defend Education, etc.), I’ll get back to our friends at the MLA.

As I see it, the MLA’s many stages of denial regarding the restructuring of academic labor go something like this:

There is No Problem (1989); There is A Problem But It’s Not Our Job (1995); Shut Up About the Problem!(1996-2000); There’s an Easy Solution to the Problem — Just Be A Screenwriter! (1997-present); The Problem’s Not as Bad as They Say (2007); Let’s Pray For a Literature-Lovin’ Miracle — Or Test Them For Literary Compliance (with our religious friends at the Teagle Foundation, 2008); We’ve Been Working Hard at This Problem for Three Decades, plus Cary Nelson and Marc Bousquet Don’t Exist! (2010).

But that’s kind of a personal perspective. I’ll work on it and get back to you.

Journalism Starting to Get It

The New York Times — which is profiting from the collapse of other newspapers and also trying to make money on a sleazy distance-learning scheme — continues to publish drivel about the radical transformation of the academic work force. And the other mainstream higher-ed press (um, you know who you are) continue to give way too much space to disciplinary association staffers producing hackneyed faux analysis. 

But other journalistic coverage is getting better in recent years, in part because journalists are being squeezed in the same way, as portrayed especially well by The Wire. Even Michael Connelly’s latest thriller features a one-time investigative journalist bumped from The Los Angeles Times for an intern.

Across the country, media outlets and journalism programs now use undergraduates and M.A. students to replace working journalists, using an endless supply of feel-good rubrics from “reviving community reporting” and service learning to “internship opportunities.”

But in reality, just like graduate-student teachers, their apprenticeships are the only job in their field that most of these student journalists will ever have. When they graduate, most of the jobs they’ve trained for will already have been cannibalized into other “student learning opportunities.”

Related posts:

Occupy the AHA!
At the AHA: Huh?

Who’s a ‘Historian’ to the AHA?
History ‘Job Czar’ Shuts Down PhD Production
(Oversupply Continues for Two Decades)

x-posted: howtheuniversityworks


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