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.

Welcome to the world of the humanities Ph.D. student, 2004, where promises mean little and revolt is in the air. In the past week, Columbia's graduate teaching assistants went on strike and temporary, or adjunct, faculty at New York University narrowly avoided one. Columbia's Graduate Student Employees United seeks recognition, over the administration's appeals, of a two-year-old vote that would make it the second officially recognized union at a private university. NYU's adjuncts, who won their union in 2002, reached an eleventh-hour agreement for health care and office space, among other amenities.

Grad students have always resigned themselves to relative poverty in anticipation of a cushy, tenured payoff. But in the past decade, the rules of the game have changed. Budget pressures have spurred universities' increasing dependence on so-called "casual labor," which damages both the working conditions of graduate students and their job prospects. Over half of the classroom time at major universities is now logged by non-tenure-track teachers, both graduate teaching assistants—known as TAs—and adjuncts. At community colleges, part-timers make up 60 percent of the faculties.

Star students, turn back now: Graduate assistants on strike last week at Columbia
photo: Shiho Fukada
Star students, turn back now: Graduate assistants on strike last week at Columbia


Log on, shout out:
  • Invisible Adjunct
    The archives of this now-defunct blog cover every aspect of the academic job market issue. There is a long list of links to just about every blog on the topic.
  • (a)musings of a grad student
    Harvard grad student Rebecca Goetz writes about academics, politics and life.
  • beyondacademe.com
    Professional profiles of historians working outside the academy.
  • Barely Tenured
    A professor at a small Midwestern college muses on her discipline, academia, and quest to get pregnant.
  • Easily Distracted
    The excellent blog of Swarthmore social science professor Timothy Burke, an IA poster, ranges across politics, culture, academia and the role of higher education.

    Other Web Resources:

  • Adjunct Nation
    Website for the magazine Adjunct Advocate, with polls and job
  • Chronicle of Higher Education
    Higher education's foremost professional journal.
  • Average teaching loads for grad students have increased, while benefits are often cut off after five years. Humanities TAs are paid stipends ranging from less than $10,000 at a public school like SUNY-Buffalo to $18,000 at unionized NYU. Adjuncts, more and more likely to be recent post-docs who couldn't find a better position, earn less than $3,000 a course—usually without benefits, and far less than the $60,000 yearly national average for full-time professors. Meanwhile, the debt burden has grown: The average holder of a graduate degree spends 13.5 percent of his or her income paying back loans (eight percent is considered manageable). Fifty-three percent of those holding master's degrees, 63 percent of those holding doctorates, and 69 percent of those holding professional degrees are over $30,000 in debt. If they end up as "marginal employees," the academic freedom and security of tenure is replaced by a constant anxiety and alienation.

    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.

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