The academic sweat shop

Young PhDs are scrambling for a few tenure-track jobs, working as poorly paid adjuncts for years on end and getting very, very angry, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg.

Rebecca Schuman’s “naming and shaming” of UC Riverside’s interviewing process set off an angry online debate, including Job Market Rage Redux and How the Tenured Are to the Job Market as White People Are to Racism.

“Academia is now one of the most exploitative labor markets in the world,” writes McArdle.

It’s not quite up there with Hollywood and Broadway in taking kids with a dream and encouraging them to waste the formative decade(s) of their work life chasing after a brass ring that they’re vanishingly unlikely to get, then dumping them on the job market with fewer employment prospects than they had at 22. But it certainly seems to be trying to catch up.

. . .  it’s not surprising that so many academics believe that the American workplace is a desperately oppressive and exploitative environment in which employers can endlessly abuse workers without fear of reprisal, or of losing the workers. That’s a pretty accurate description of the job market for academic labor … until you have tenure.

The academic job market won’t improve until graduate programs admit fewer students, she writes. “A lot fewer.” Some PhD programs should “go out of existence.”

But of course, this is saying that universities, and tenured professors, should do something that is radically against their own self-interest. That constant flow of grad students allows professors to teach interesting graduate seminars while pushing the grunt work of grading and tutoring and teaching intro classes to students and adjuncts. It provides a massive oversupply of adjunct professors who can be induced to teach the lower-level classes for very little, thus freeing up tenured professors for research.

Only a third of university professors are tenured or on the tenure track and only 19 percent of non-tenure-track teaching jobs are full time.

Desiree Robertson teaches sociology part-time at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis while working full time at a foundation. The adjunct’s life is a balancing act, she tells the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Adjuncts average $2,987 per 3-credit course

Average pay for adjuncts at colleges and universitiesis $2,987 for a three-credit course, reports The Adjunct Project, which is crowdsourcing information on salaries and working conditions. Community colleges pay much less than most four-year universities, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Adjuncts at 16 colleges reported earning less than $1,000.”

Joshua A. Boldt, a writing instructor in Georgia, is working with The Chronicle on a web site that sorts data by department, college, and region of the country.

At top research universities, adjuncts average $4,750 per three-credit course. Adjuncts at rural, medium-sized, two-year institutions, where pay is the lowest, average $1,808 per three-credit course.

In California, where faculty at two- and four-year public institutions are unionized, the average pay is $3,888 per course, according to data reported to the Adjunct Project as of last month. In Texas, by contrast, a state where unions are rare, the reported pay is lower: $2,805 per course.

Salaries are lower in the humanities: Adjuncts who teach English reported earning an average of $2,727 per course.  At Houston Community College, adjuncts average $1,200 to $2,200 for a three-credit English course. The national average for adjuncts who teach engineering is $4,789 per course.

Only 22 percent of adjuncts reported that they were union members. Seventy percent don’t serve on governance committees.

“We’re not compensated when we do that,” Peter Feiden, an adjunct economics professor at Montgomery College, in Maryland, says of part-time faculty members there. He earns about $3,000 per course at Montgomery and about $6,000 per course at Catholic University of America, where he is also an adjunct.

Few adjuncts qualify for health insurance, retirement or other benefits.

About half of all faculty members — 70 percent at community colleges — are part-time adjuncts, estimates a 2010 survey by the American Federation of Teachers. Eighty percent of community college faculty teach part-time, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Universities keep turning out English PhDs even though there are fewer full-time jobs, writes Mark Bauerlein. That makes it easy to find people to teach freshman composition for low pay and no benefits.