Draft Op-Ed: A Solution to the Ph.D. Market Disaster

Recent graduates from Ph.D. programs across the country all face the same, unforgiving, frustrating job market. Even those graduating with doctorates from the nation’s very top programs are sometimes finding it difficult to secure long-term employment in the form of an academic career track. Needless to say, the employment outlook for those graduating from schools not in the top ten in their fields often are finding it nearly impossible to secure a tenure-track position in higher education. Often, faculty advise incoming graduate students not to pursue a graduate degree if they will be dissatisfied not working in academia after they earn their degree. They tell them: Be prepared to work in another field. Be happy merely earning your degree. If you get a job, consider it a bonus. This kind of psychological preparation is not without cause. Most Ph.D.s graduating in this post-Great-Recession world will not find secure, long-term employment at the university level.

As a consequence of these circumstances, Ph.D.s flood the short-term employment market, working for low pay on an extremely short-term basis. As of 2012, adjunct instructors teach some 70% of all university courses. Because adjuncts are contracted by semester (or occasionally by academic year), they can lose their job without warning simply by not being re-hired by their home institution. Institutions have little incentive to change the system, apart from what are very real concerns about the consequences of low employee morale.

There are a few key benefits provided by relying on the current adjunct system for higher education institutions that are worth noting. First, were today’s adjuncts on the job market ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, many adjuncts would have qualified easily as tenure-track candidates. They are qualified to teach. Second, and taking into consideration the poor compensation conditions under which part-timers labor, they are singularly dedicated to teaching undergraduates – otherwise, they would simply move on and find a higher paying job with greater job security (usually, one can find such a job at [insert fast-food restaurant of choice]).  Adjuncts are often more dedicated to teaching than their full-time colleagues because they can afford to be – they must be, in fact. Full-time faculty members work with the expectation that they will continue to publish original and valuable scholarship. This kind of research takes a lot of time and energy that they cannot devote to teaching. Third is a second reason why adjuncts often make better teachers than full-timers: Because adjuncts tend to make ends meet by picking up as many courses per term as they are permitted by law to teach, they have experience that full-time faculty members often lack. A fifth-year adjunct instructor may already have taught 35 or more courses at two or more institutions, and their sole focus during those years has been on teaching. A full-time faculty member at a research institution, on the other hand, not only may not hit that mark until their ninth year, and, for most of those years, teaching was the distraction to their research and not their primary focus. For these latter two reasons, universities often get better teaching from part-timers than full-timers. Full-time faculty members often do not wish to teach, and, even if they do want to do it, they don’t have the time or energy to focus exclusively on teaching.

None of these facts detracts from the services provided and value added that full time research professors contribute to the four-year institution. Without their publications, the research university would not be able to compete for federal and private funding, would not be able to sustain public education at a cost below the private-school market, and would not be able to draw students from far away places. They would not have instructors who lead their fields, who are informed of current research, and who are innovative and inspiring in ways the part-time faculty never could be.

The conditions that result from a market flooded with Ph.D.s wanting more than anything else to teach amount to exploitation. The exploitation in which universities, and in many cases public universities (and so state governments and the federal government), engage is not intentional. Market conditions combined with higher education’s obsession with an archaic tenure system have created the problem. Because adjunct labor is cheap, because part-timers are very well suited for their jobs, and because these workers provide a major source of revenue for universities (they teach the students, whose tuition pays many of the university’s costs), there are no incentives built into the system at present to solve the problem.

There is a market-based solution, though the market alone will not solve the problem. Two paths available to universities. They can do nothing, and their part-time labor force will unionize, strike, and cost universities a tremendous amount of money. Alternatively, they can take action to halt exploitative practices and move towards correcting the market problems they have helped to create. Some universities’ part-time instructors already have made moves toward unionization, and strikes may not be far off.

The solution to the flooded adjunct market that produces exploitative conditions is in front of us, and already is used in ways other than that which I’m suggesting here. I have in mind full-time, long-term employment for teaching professors. These exist, in a form, and are called “lectureship” positions. In the case in which someone is hired as a lecturer, that person is contracted, often for a year or two at a time, at a rate much closer to adjunct pay than to tenured pay, but also is given health benefits, an office, and other perks that are important to any worker feeling secure in her position. Were universities to broaden their lectureship position benefits – including a longer-term contract or indefinite employment without tenure – they would be able to teach more students at a cost lower than that at which they pay tenured faculty, and they would lessen their exposure to striking adjuncts. This is all not to mention the moral obligation we might think the states and private employers have to treat their workers with respect.

Perhaps lecturers continue to be paid at a lower rate than tenured faculty – but perhaps tenured faculty, in the educational world I’m imagining, have a lighter teaching load. We can leave the heavy lifting in research to those who are committed to it and the heavy lifting in teaching to those who are dedicated to that practice. In this circumstance, we could reduce the number of tenured faculty employed by institutions of higher education, and offset much of the increased cost for paying formerly-adjunct instructors a fair, living wage. Though this won’t solve all of the market problems created in part by a drastic downturn in our macro- and micro-economic economies, it is a solution that can only help to stabilize a proportion of our labor market and create new jobs for desperate Ph.D.s.

An interesting, recent piece in the Chronicle discusses adjunct working conditions.
You can find a recently-published report regarding contingently-hired faculty here.
Another Chronicle article reports on the growing number of Ph.D.s who rely on food stamps to make ends meet.

About Steve Capone

Interested in Domestic and Foreign Policy, Ethics, and Political Thought. One-time adjunct instructor and current full-time educator of small humans. Europhile, historophile, & bibliophile. M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007)
This entry was posted in Political Commentary, Rough Ideas and Arguments and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Draft Op-Ed: A Solution to the Ph.D. Market Disaster

  1. I think that the solution could work. Though, I have to think about it a bit more.

    Nice post! Important topic.

    • Steve Capone says:

      One result of its implementation, I think, would be a lower overall number of jobs available, but a higher number of full-time/secure jobs than are available at present.

  2. sean says:

    If you want a market-based solution, it would be to tear down the cartel operated by the university system. Demand for college courses has more than doubled. In a fair market, supply would rise to meet that demand. We do not have a fair market. We have a cadre of unseen people shaping the market, using the tool of accreditation. They set arbitrary rules which we feel compelled to follow, for some reason. It would be great to see startup colleges popping up, perhaps small ones no bigger than an office, dedicated to or biased toward certain disciplines. I’ve entertained dreams of a software engineering college, with no more than 100-200 students, with reasonable tuition and low overhead, where a large part of the curriculum is dedicated to research on engineering methodologies, open source software, etc. Unfortunately, the current system makes that all but impossible.

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