I don’t feel bad for adjunct professors (let the hate mail begin)

Over at Gawker, they are running a series on Adjunct professor’s, whom they refer to as “academia’s hidden underclass”.  I figured I would comment because I have a blog and you can’t stop me.

  1.  Let’s stop talking about the academic job market as if it’s one homogenous entity.  Applying for academic jobs with a philosophy Ph.D. is no where near the same thing as applying for an academic job with a Ph.D. in a STEM field.  And even within the STEM fields that are HUGE differences between fields.  There isn’t one academic job market, there are many vastly different academic job markets and some of them are very strong markets and others are basically lottery systems where you just have to get lucky.
  2. If you are working as an adjunct professor and that’s your only job, you’re doing it wrong.  Universities never intended for adjunct professors to make a living solely based on teaching as an adjunct.  It’s not a full time job, and it shouldn’t be treated as such.  The idea of an adjunct professor, in my mind, is someone that works a full time job, usually in an industry that is related to the subject they will be teaching, and they teach one class a semester, maybe two.  Maybe.  When I was in grad school we had an adjunct professor who worked for a major pharmaceutical company who taught clinical trials.  I can assure you he wasn’t struggling to make ends meet.
  3. Do universities rely to heavily on adjunct lecturers.  Absolutely.  But why shouldn’t they?  What incentive does a university have to NOT use this model?  Students don’t seem to be demanding that universities use less adjuncts.  (And if they did demand that, tuition would probably go up.)  And it seems like there is someone always willing to be an adjunct.  It would be nice to think that universities would stop relying so heavily on adjuncts because it’s the “right thing to do”, but that ignores the financial realities of running a university.
  4. We need to get rid of the idea that if you get a Ph.D. and don’t end up in a tenure track position that you are a failure.  I think that’s why a bunch of people end up as adjuncts.  They think they adjunct for a little bit and hopefully get a tenure track position later.  But for a lot of people it’s just not going to happen either because the job market just isn’t there or they simply aren’t good enough.  When I got my job in 2014, it was my only job offer.  If I didn’t get this job I was all ready to apply for jobs in industry rather than take some temporary lecturer position.   And that wouldn’t have made me a failure.  It would have been fine.
  5. I don’t feel bad for you at all if you went and spent 10 years getting a Ph.D. in medieval studies and now you are an adjunct professor making $5000/year.  I just don’t feel bad for you.  And no one else should feel bad for you either.  If you aren’t making enough money, then maybe it’s time to go in a different direction.
  6. Doing a Ph.D. is not a good financial investment.  Even if you get a STEM degree, often times the bump you get from the Ph.D. isn’t enough to justify the 4-10 years in school making almost no money and possibly even going into more debt.  If you are not in a STEM field, it can be a financial disaster.  The ONLY reason to do a Ph.D. is if you really love researching a particular topic.



Posted on May 23, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Agree on the general principle here. One quibble, for quibble’s sake:

    I worked at a global biotech company that employed a lot of chemistry and biology researchers. People with a BS started at something like 55-60k, and were in a band that topped out at around 80k. It was possible to get promoted out of that band, but not easy (hard to say how much of that ceiling was because the population was self-selecting and how much was because of credential bias).

    Grad students got paid around 20k, and it took five years or so to get a Ph.D. Starting salary with a PhD would be 70-85k, with more upward mobility. So It wasn’t hard at all to make up for the difference in early-career incomes.

    That said, the PhD definitely wasn’t a good investment in any of the fields of engineering I worked with. And I doubt it would be for physics. So chem/bio research may be a special case.

    • Is this generally true? I’d love it if people in other fields could would comment. I think in statistics it’s not generally true. You can make quite a bit of money with just a master’s degree.

  2. I am anot operations management PhD, and it’s paid off as an investment.

    I got paid 30k to get the PhD, and graduated in 4 years. An currently in an academic job, but was offered ~100k in industry as well, fresh out of PhD. Maybe a data science MS pays that much with 2 years of experience, but you’ve had to pay for the degree. Also the PhD allows a much wider variety of work, I find.

    But outside of econ/business/stat and maybe a few other STEM fields, I think a PhD is a bad financial investment (although probably not a bad life one, if you enjoy it).

  3. Point #2 is partially correct, yet entirely wrong. Ideally, yes, this position should only be taken on a limited, part-time basis. It should be for people working industry or elsewhere, who wish to share their expertise with students.

    However, that cannot and will not happen. Ignoring the market forces that drive the supply of academic labor and the demand for it, imagine this scenario:

    You’ve just graduated and you decided to leave academia for a position in industry.

    You: “Hey boss, I need Tuesday and Thursday mornings off, to give back to the community as an adjunct professor.”

    Boss: “Great! Giving back is important! Also, you’re fired.”

    This is such an astonishingly outdated notion, similar to the idea that a family should be able to live off of one income. They both sound great in principle, but neither is true, any longer.

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