Wanted: Really Smart Suckers


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.

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.

Unlike trade schools, most graduate programs do not offer prospective students detailed data on job placement, which varies widely from program to program. Tri-State Semi Driver Training School in Middletown, Ohio, for example, guarantees a job before you even start driving, while the American Language Institute in San Diego promises lifetime placement assistance to its teachers of English as a foreign language. Your local Ivy League English department can’t offer the same deal: Last year, the Modern Language Association expected some 965 Ph.D.’s to be granted, while only 422 assistant professorships were advertised, a drop of 20 percent from the year before. In the foreign languages, there were only 263 positions advertised (for the 620 Ph.D.’s projected), a drop of one-third from the previous year. The MLA estimates that students who entered English programs in 2003 had a 20 percent chance of coming out with a tenure-track position. The situation is better in history, where the number of new Ph.D.’s in 2003 almost equalled the number of new jobs, after a decade of “overproduction,” with growth coming in trendy specializations like the Middle East.

But numbers like these do little to deter the best students. “Top undergraduates are arrogant; they lack perspective,” says Benton. “They’ve been fawned over all their lives, and they think grad school is there to help them realize their potential, not to use them up and toss them out.”

Dan Friedman completed a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale University this spring after 10 years. He now teaches at a private high school in New Jersey, making twice the $25,000 he was offered as a university part-timer. He says that as a TA back at Yale, he tried to warn his favorite students. “I’ve had a few bright students, majors, who are often interested in carrying on and I’ve said to all of them, ‘Don’t do it.’ I really wanted them to stop and think. And without exception, they thought I was joking. Only one of them came back to me—she ended up at NYU—and said, ‘Now I know what you were talking about.'” Friedman says, however, that he isn’t sure he would have taken his own advice back then. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. It would have been different if I had known. You’re committed to your subject and you think, I want to study literature. You don’t think of yourself as a 40-year-old trying to support a family.”

As a scholar of contemporary theory, Friedman quotes a cultural critic’s perspective on the economic impact of the love of learning. “As graduate students get more and more exploited, people believe in it more and do it despite the difficulty.” He refers to the 2001 book The Invisible Heart by feminist economist Nancy Folbre, which describes how the work that is most important to a society tends to be the most undervalued. “Teachers, nurses, people who do things they really care about, get shafted.”

Devotion to the academic world, however, is not necessarily healthy. “People develop this identity,” says IA. “They say, ‘This intellectual work is who I am.’ And it’s hard to give that up. Even though there are two jobs in your field this year and 300 candidates, it still feels like you’ve failed.”

Ironically, defining herself as essentially an academic cuts off the humanities Ph.D. student’s best shot at making a decent living: a job outside the academy. Last year, Alexandra Lord and Julie Taddeo created the website Beyond Academe, whose purpose is to profile history Ph.D.’s, like themselves, who’ve found satisfactory employment while still practicing their discipline—with museums, nonprofit foundations, government agencies, or as researchers for companies.

“I’ve been stunned by what people have said at some of the blog sites,” Lord says. “They seem to believe that working as an adjunct and earning $19,000 and having no health insurance is preferable to working outside the academy. I think this prejudice is even stronger with people in grad school now than it is among older faculty.” For her own part, Lord has no regrets. “I was a single New York woman teaching in a small rural town in Montana. I could go days without speaking to my colleagues, and all my social contact was with 18- to 20-year-olds. I felt that I had sacrificed my personal life for a professional career and I didn’t see a reward.” Now a public historian in Washington, D.C., Lord has peers she can talk to and makes $37,000 more than she did as a tenure-track professor.

The Invisible Adjunct is herself headed beyond academe. After making a final pass at the academic job market, she is leaving the academy, and her blog, behind this spring. “I’m finishing up my semester of teaching and then I’m just going to have to figure out what my next move should be.”

Like Lord, Friedman has no regrets at leaving the ivy-covered walls. He currently teaches literature and an interdisciplinary seminar to high school freshmen four days a week and coaches soccer. “The best phrase I’ve heard for us is the intellectual lumpenproletariat,” he says, using the Marxist term for the ground-down members of the underclass who lack the class consciousness for revolt. “If something happened to empower those people, there would be an incredible efflorescence of culture in this country, because there’s more of them now than there ever has been. But they are too busy scuttling around getting shitty jobs.”