The Underemployment Crisis and Me

I met Zakiya Muwwakkil as we were both receiving our PhDs from Fordham University on our graduation day in 2010. We hit it off right away. She was receiving her degree in theology and she went on to deconvert from Christianity shortly thereafter. She made this video to raise consciousness about the problem of unemployment among young college graduates and underemployment among people with advanced degrees. She and I are both among many underemployed people with advanced degrees. If you can support her project of creating a documentary on the subject, her website is Degrees of Separation. Please check it out to learn more. Zakiya appears in the video about the project below, at the 2:25 mark.

Last school year I taught 17 sections of college classes across six universities in three states as an adjunct professor just to make ends meet in New York City and deal with my student loan debt and accumulated credit card debt from when I was living at subsistence level as a graduate student for a decade.

Adjunct professors like me are drastically underpaid for our levels of qualification, years of schooling, classroom experience, and years of committed service to our institutions and to our students. By the end of this semester I will have taught 82 classes at the University level over the span of ten years, including during 7 years while I was also writing my dissertation. I have a Teaching Fellow of the Year award, excellent student evaluations and faculty evaluations, and numerous schools willing to hire me semester after semester year after year. Though my PhD is from Fordham University, my dissertation on Nietzsche’s ethics was written with John Richardson of New York University, one of the most elite scholars of Nietzsche teaching at one of the highest ranked philosophy programs in the country, as a reader on my committee.

Yet I only make between $3,600-$4,200 per section depending on the school and, until possibly this semester, have had no health benefits through my employers. One school paid me less than $3,000 for a section even after I had served there for several years and had attained to my PhD. Meanwhile many of these schools charge students at a rate of over $3,000 per section, which means that out of the 25-35 students in my classroom typically only one or two pays my salary for the semester.

I know that there are people more impoverished and in greater danger of immanent economic ruin than I am. I know that to some significant extent that this is the result of a choice I made to do what I loved and believed was meaningful at the risk of decreased income, rather than to do what was more economically profitable with the risk of doing difficult work that I found meaningless. I also know that I am not the only one who has to put in a 60 hour week if I want to make $60,000 a year. I also have the summers off to compensate for the extra hours during the school year and could conceivably just commit to working a full 12 month year, as long as I found something I could do seasonally for summers–maybe even something related to my skill set.

And even though schools pay me badly per course, they are each part time jobs which require little enough on-campus time commitments that I am able to squeeze in up to 9 sections in a semester sometimes. And I was even able to find enough time to blog dozens of essays last fall while still meeting my academic obligations.

I could also yet net a tenure track job in the future–though it gets harder to do that the longer I am out of school and have little time to do the kind of academic research and publishing that at this point in time is practically a necessity to even get consideration for such a position. I know I could cut out blogging and maybe make some progress in that direction. So maybe I’m just stubborn. If I only have extremely limited time to do my own writing and reading, I would rather write pieces with a broader appeal and relevance outside the ivory tower than the kind of specialized, narrowly technical kind of work that alone is respected in professional philosophy.

And, honestly, I had always said that I did philosophy for its own sake and not as merely a means to a career, and so it would feel a bit whiny now if suddenly I disparaged my time doing academic philosophy because it has not gotten me a stable career. I made choices that I knew in theory had some serious risks involved even if, in my youthful overestimation of my own skills and invincibility, I assumed that they would never befall me. I decided at the time though that the life of philosophy was simply for me, whatever the economic consequences of that commitment would be. I doubted the choice only briefly, during my first year of graduate school when I struggled academically for the first time in my life.

But by the time I was in the classroom, nothing could either tear me or entice me away from life as a teacher. I thrive in the classroom like nowhere else in my life. And writing and talking about philosophy are like eating to me. I feel starved, lethargic, and depressed when I haven’t done them in a while. Philosophy is my raison d’être. I am dogged, hardworking, and resourceful enough that I am optimistic about my chances of finding unconventional ways to make a living and a positive impact on people as a philosopher, outside of the traditional tenure track system, both inside and outside of academia.

But even were tomorrow the various ventures that I pursue in order to make my career as a philosopher to utterly flop financially and I were forced out of professional philosophy completely, I would nonetheless always have had at least 16 years spent studying, teaching, and writing about philosophy. That’s 16 years of living with barely any felt distinctions between my passion and my work. 16 years being paid to be who I am and do what I love.

And that’s really something. And it’s something I’m grateful for. And maybe were the guarantees to success in my profession greater and the expected compensation for tenured professors greater, the competition would have been greater and I would never have had these opportunities at all. If pay were more equitable or profitable, maybe I would not have any teaching opportunities available to me, rather than an overabundance, all of which I have to take.

So, fundamentally I am neither resentful nor unappreciative. In many respects, I live a far better, far luckier, and far more fulfilled life than many others. If nothing else I get to express myself to fairly sizable audiences, through writing and speaking and dialogue, practically from the time I wake up until the time I fall asleep. You would be amazed how therapeutic and how much more at peace this leaves me than when I had less to do. It is more exhausting, but then surprisingly it becomes more exhilarating and more reenergizing at the same time. I have less time for sleep but feel less need for it as I am buoyed by overwhelming excitement at all the ideas racing through my head and all the means at my fingertips to express them.

So, I am not complaining because I cannot bear this life or because I wouldn’t choose this life over countless other options. I complain about my underemployment because it involves various forms of unfair exploitation that seem intrinsically wrong to me. And this kind of life has more deleterious effects on countless of my peers than on me. I also highlight this issue because it gives lie to the myth in this country that the economy as currently structured inevitably rewards hard work and that economic struggles are a sign of weakness of character. When it is this hard for people with graduate degrees and new BA’s to thrive financially, what does it mean for the statistically average person who has even less educational advantages.

And, finally, it pains me that numerous of my talented, graduated students are among those facing such severe unemployment, underemployment and student loan debt in this economy. I also admit that I am a bit chagrined to think of how much more predatory lenders make off of my students than my students individually ever actually paid me to teach them. Actually, worse than merely chagrined, I’m rather sickened at the thought–especially as the interest accrues on student debts I can’t pay, while I get taxed at higher effective rates than millionaires, and that taxed money is invested in the military ten times more than it is in education.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Bret

    I knew the system was fucked when I realized one of my biggest regrets in life was graduating from college.

    • Goldstein Squad Member

      Dan, all this information was known when you were getting your degree.

      It should have been no surprise.

      Maybe all you atheists weren’t so smart after all…and yet ironically atheists want to tell everyone else how wrong they are.

      You know, maybe the world really doesn’t need Nietzsche.

      I love it!!! This is truly PRICELESS!

    • Daniel Fincke

      Dan, all this information was known when you were getting your degree. It should have been no surprise.

      Known to whom? Do you think anyone explains to the average undergrad or graduate student anything that is happening in terms of adjunct employment? I myself went to an undergrad institution which employed almost no adjuncts whatsoever. All my courses were taught by full time professors. Then I went to a graduate school where I rarely ever heard of adjuncts. It was all full timers and graduate students. And regularly my friends who graduated from my department were getting jobs. The economic collapse of 2008 was not known to me. The job market that I entered for the next several years was far worse than usual. Some other variables that would wind up hurting my individual job chances were not known to me.

      Maybe all you atheists weren’t so smart after all…and yet ironically atheists want to tell everyone else how wrong they are.

      That’s a pretty gross generalization. One atheist has a rough turn in life, therefore all atheists aren’t smart? Sorry, it’s not very “smart” to leap from one intellectual error (if that is even what I have committed–it’s much more complicated than that, as I look at my life) to not being smart. Some atheists think they’re smarter than others therefore all do? I don’t. I have been on the record a long time opposing intellectual arrogance among atheists. Please treat me like an individual as I aim to do the same for you.

      But anyway, atheists have every right to make the case that others are wrong if we have good arguments to that effect. Again, seizing on our imperfections in reasoning here or there as evidence that somehow we’re wrong on the God question is a total non-sequitur. If you would like to make your case that we’re wrong about there being no gods, by all means, explain your arguments to us. Pointing at the fact that I’m overworked and underpaid and laughing is not a proof for the existence of God. (Though I’ll give you credit for originality–I’ve heard countless arguments for the existence of God and this one is at least new!)

      You know, maybe the world really doesn’t need Nietzsche.

      I fail to see the connection between the value of Nietzsche’s writings and my employment situation. Care to elaborate?

      I love it!!! This is truly PRICELESS!

      I will assume your nastiness here is some sort of misplaced defensiveness and resentment, rather than a generalized cruelty and pettiness of character. But seriously, you’re not representing either yourself or your faith terribly well here, “Goldstein Squad Member”. I do give you props for the amusing name.

    • Goldstein Squad Member

      I love it when “free”thinkers moderate.

      Of course, what can you expect from someone who devoted so much effort to studying the rantings of a Syphilitic Lunatic?

    • Daniel Fincke

      I love it when “free”thinkers moderate.

      In case you are at all genuinely philosophically curious about what my actual views on the matter are, I directly explained how moderation and freethought in specific interrelate in my post “My Philosophy on What the Best Freethinking and Free Speech Really Entail”. I have also explained the bad experiences which made me realize I had to start moderating in this post. But really I most summarily made the case for civil dialogue (and so the need to moderate not the content of people’s ideas but how they treated one another) in my Civility Pledge.

      In short, if people come in here and mistreat one another and exacerbate interpersonal or intergroup conflict the way your caustic comments to me are aimed to do, then any productive discussion about the major ideas which divide us is doomed not to happen. And that would be a pity. I would like people like you to stick around and debate with me and my readers vigorously. That won’t happen though for as long as you (or we) are name calling and taking personalized pot shots at one another.

      It is your call whether you want to switch back to making substantive, good faith philosophical replies as you did in your first comment today. You’re more than welcome to stay and contribute in that case. If you want to just make this about personal attacks and hostility, then I’ll start moderating you now that you’ve been warned. Very few comments get edited or deleted here. The ones that do, all that is lost is the hatred, not the content of anyone’s ideas that might be at all conceivably valuable from a truth standpoint. I have no interest in editing out people’s thoughts, just their hatred.

      Of course, what can you expect from someone who devoted so much effort to studying the rantings of a Syphilitic Lunatic?

      It is wholly unclear Nietzsche had syphilis. It is certainly false that his writings were “lunatic” on account of the fact that he eventually had a mental breakdown of some kind. His sufferings for the last decade of his life are really a lousy (and lazy) intellectual basis for dismissing writings of immense creativity, ahead of their time insight, literary value, and penetrating insight and complexity. He is hardly right about everything. He is hardly to be blindly trusted in everything, either morally or intellectually. But he is most definitely worth studying. And I take it as a sign of a shallow defensive mindset when believers lob ad hominems at him as a way of upset me. When you do this, you’re simply being tedious.

  • CC

    Thanks for posting this! I have 2 grad degrees, over $100,000 in student loan debt, and I can’t even get an interview. I have a J.D. from a respectable school, but even a professional degree isn’t a meal ticket anymore.

    I worked as an adjunct for a while before going to law school, so I know about the adjunct’s plight and I sympathize. In fact, it’s why I decided to go to law school. I guess the joke’s on me!

    Luckily, my husband has had more success in his chosen field, so I was able to contribute a little to the campaign. I’d love to see a documentary made about these issues.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thank you CC!

  • Alex Songe

    This just reminds me of how awful just-world believers are. What the just-world believers often talk about with “kids these days” is just so completely wrong. Year after year, with the younger workforce, productivity has been increasing. Yet since the 1980′s, pay increases were cut almost in half compared to productivity increases which have not changed in decades. The American worker is always getting more productive, and the pay has almost always largely gone up (excluding the last decade) but worker productivity isn’t being rewarded as much as it used to.

    I am lucky that my line of work has workers in such high demand, that even having a degree doesn’t make much of a pay difference. I live in a world where I can get my intellectual fulfillment from an omnivorous consumption of philosophy, science, as well as my specific field of software architecture, none of which could solely fulfill my life. Still, I have interviewed for jobs where I’ve been asked to lower my salary expectations because of a lack of experience (usually after denigrating my experience in some way). Often, what is the case is that all their employees are underpaid and paying me would cause resentment because salary is not just compensation, it’s status. Now, these people can surely find workers at 50% of the rates I expect, but they’re not the employers I want to work for. That said, how many workers have this kind of power in negotiation? I wouldn’t even imagine working more than 40 hours a week if I didn’t have a substantial amount of equity at stake.

    • Drew

      Same boat man. Though I have chosen to hitch my wagon to academia and get some free advanced degrees in computer science. What is it about software engineers that makes us come across as so arrogant? Probably that we’re the only field left who is fairly compensated *most of the time* for our work. Obvious exceptions like the employers you mention (who don’t want software developers, they want software librarian drones to bang out the next iteration of their steaming pile of .NET code), or some startups.

  • ACN


    I’m a physics graduate student and the problem of adjunct faculty is something we’re dealing with also, and I don’t think it’s being handled well at all.

    At many research universities, there are two classes of non-adjunct faculty: tenured/tenure-track, and research/contract. Contract professors typically have no teaching obligations, while tenure-track faculty have teaching obligations that factor into whether or not they get tenure in an (allegedly) non-trivial way.

    However, once the tenure-track faculty obtain tenure, they’re allowed to buy-out of teaching. Here’s the rub, if they have grant money to pursue their research, they’re actually encouraged to do this by the departments because the departments charge more for a semester buy-out than the cost of hiring an adjunct faculty to teach the class.

    You may ask “so why even offer the classes? if the prof doesn’t want to teach, don’t hire an adjunct and don’t offer the class!”. Well, you see, the departments collect money from the university based on the number of students they teach. So the financial “best case scenario” is to have all of your tenured faculty buy-out of teaching, then hire a bunch of adjuncts to cover all the largest, lowest level, classes that are worth the most money.

    On top of this, it creates a class system inside the tenured faculty:
    “Oh you teach every semester? How quaint. I have an army of grad students/postdocs who churn out papers for grants. It’s far better.”

    The whole situation is really frustrating and seems very exploitative. I wish I were in a position to be able to do more about it. :(

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks for sharing this, ACN. It’s infuriating.

    • SocraticGadfly

      Holy crap. This is the university-as-business model in a snapshot, eh?

  • James Croft

    Shit. Now I’m wondering why I’d ever want to graduate…

  • smhll

    The low salaries seem even more unconscionable when students are paying very high tuition. I’d really like to see an economist or a forensic accountant do a breakdown on how few cents of the tuition dollar actually flow to the instructors.

    If I only have extremely limited time to do my own writing and reading, I would rather write pieces with a broader appeal and relevance outside the ivory tower…

    I can’t pray for you, but I can wish that you hit the jackpot by writing a breakout best-selling non fiction book. (I’ve read quite a few that were not a lot more than an extremely catchy title paired with a long magazine article length “book” plumped up with white space.) Some of these hit books had about as much content as 5 or 6 long blog posts. Even if you blog only for your own enjoyment, there might be a payoff in the hazy future.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I was going to start compiling and rewriting blog posts into a popularly accessible book this summer but got overwhelmed by so many other things going on. That’s part of the long term plan though. My problem is that I don’t want to write something that’s crap and don’t know if I can market something that’s good. It’s a hazy middle ground trying to write real philosophy outside the academic system and selling it.

    • ACN

      I seem to recall seeing a study that the Univ. of Cali. system did about this a while ago. I’ll see if I can dig it up, but if I recall correctly, the money seems to be flowing into new levels, and larger numbers of administrators that command large salaries and large benefit packages.

    • bluharmony

      You write extremely well and touch on many subjects I’m fascinated by. I’d buy the book in a heartbeat.

  • ACN


    If you’re serious about putting a book together, I’d bet that you may have an audience on FtB that would buy it. Have you considered a kickstarter sort of thing? Some of us who would buy it anyway might be happy to contribute capital up-front to such a project :)

    • Daniel Fincke


      If you’re serious about putting a book together, I’d bet that you may have an audience on FtB that would buy it. Have you considered a kickstarter sort of thing? Some of us who would buy it anyway might be happy to contribute capital up-front to such a project :)

      Thank you. I was just contemplating this the other day. I was wondering if I could get enough people who would basically buy the book in advance so that I would have the money to live while I wrote it. Then maybe the book could sell some more afterward or if it doesn’t at least it’s no loss as it already sold to its supporters in the first place.

      But I seriously doubt I could raise the thousands of dollars I need to pay my bills here in New York for even half a year let alone longer and I am not sure that I can estimate exactly how long it would take to finish the book. I figure it could be a few months with concentrated effort. But I’d like to still blog simultaneously and that would really slow down the effort. Plus I am worried about my perfectionism. I took 7 years writing my dissertation for a reason. And I worry about even temporarily leaving jobs that keep renewing me semester to semester. And a summer seems not enough as this past summer didn’t even get the book started. I am just not convinced the plan is realistic.

      But, on the upside, I really do have most of the material for a few books already drafted on the blog and it could be a fairly manageable project if I am primarily organizing them into a cohesive and accessibly packaged whole. I would just want to finally spend some of the in-depth time dotting my scholarly i’s and crossing my scholarly t’s by doing more research before publishing it as an official statement of my philosophy.

    • CC

      I’d pre-purchase the book.

    • Mark_Sakura

      Kickstarter? No need for that. No need to convince a publisher to invest in your book if it doesn’t fit a niche. Self-publishing ebooks and Print-on-Demand can be done with very little money up-front.

      There’s tons of information online about how to do this. Here’s one site with a lot of great information. Granted, he’s a mid-list genre fiction author, but most of the advice should still be relevant.

      Click on “Think like a publisher,” and “Killing the sacred cows of publishing.”

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yeah, I’m not above self-publishing. That’s not my problem. If self-publishing was good enough for Nietzsche, and I’m no Nietzsche, it should be good enough for me. And I have a friend with some means who volunteered that he might be willing to invest in helping me promote a book.

      Kickstarter would simply be a matter of paying my bills while I would take half a year off from teaching in order to research and write full time so that I can make sure my book is as well sourced as possible. With the demands of my teaching commitments, when I am teaching my normal schedule it is nearly impossible to do the research required for a book. Maybe the writing could be done–if I abandoned the blog for the time being–but not the research.

  • Jason Cooperrider

    Thanks for writing this, Dan. This is certainly a pervasive problem across academia and a number of articles have been written about it this year (here is one from The Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The Ph. D. Now Comes with Food Stamps”:

    I am getting close to completing a doctoral degree in neuroscience and am just getting a personal taste of the adjunct’s plight this semester for the first time. Fortunately, our program provides a decent stipend that requires only research, so teaching for me is not an obligation at this point, but rather a desire, as it is what I would like to do (at least in part) for my future career. Because there is no undergraduate neuroscience degree here (University of Utah), it is difficult to gain teaching experience, which is why I had to make do with a few guest lectures in various courses over the past couple years to gain some. This semester, however, I was hired as an adjunct professor to teach a Drugs & Behavior course in the Department of Psychology here and a Neuroanatomy course at a nearby private institution called Westminster College. The latter course pays less than $1,500 for the semester, which is simply ridiculous. If I were forced to subsist on the amount of pay from teaching courses paid at such a rate, I would be in major trouble–teaching 8 such courses would just barely put me over the U. S. poverty line, which is currently about $11,000 for a one-person household!

    My best friend back in Ohio, where I am from originally, was hired as an adjunct professor of physics at a community college about 8 months after he received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering back in 2009. He moved up to a full-time position a year later and is still there. Until this year, I used to think he’d thrown his degree away by taking such a position and not going for the Ph. D. in physics he’d planned, but now I realize he got really lucky with such a hire. He makes around $45,000 per year now and is the only full-time physics faculty member there…and he gets summers off to travel. I’m starting to think that he doesn’t have it so bad and perhaps I need to rethink my priorities (my plans to date have been to become a research professor at a liberal arts university or a research university).

    Best wishes for your situation. I hope this problem gets resolved before long, as it is a major detriment to the U. S. education system in a number of ways, including discouraging people from pursuing higher education, which should ideally be a priority for everyone.

  • JJ


    I can sympathize, my degree is in the social sciences but I make my living in engineering. As much as I would love to find a way to go back to grad school and finish a PHD, I recognize that that is not possible. So, I do my job to the best of my ability and in my free time, I read the literature of the discipline that I really enjoy. You actually have an advantage; you can teach part time and get paid for your writing ability. It has been my experience that philosophy majors are well equipped to pursue careers in business, finance, and technology.

    So, don’t conflate doing what you love with doing what you do to earn a living. If you have the opportunity to do both, I’d call you highly successful!

  • Robert B

    Hi Daniel,

    I can only echo your experience. I spent several semesters as an adjunct, a year as a visiting professor, and now, am unemployed for a year because there are too damn many biologists for too few positions.

    I Love teaching. I come home happy every day. I do a good job and my students come out extremely well prepared for their next class. I’d say that my students are better prepared for their next class than students from most of my colleagues, but I am extremely modest.

    My mentor died a year after I graduated, while I was finishing up a couple of projects. There goes a letter from my mentor saying that we were on good terms and that he supported me getting a post-doc. There goes his connections to labs I would have wanted to work in. Doors that I won’t ever know existed… simply evaporated.

    But I was available at the right time. My undergrad alma mater needed an adjunct and I fell in love with teaching. I’ve been out of the lab for more than five years now, which pretty much means that I won’t be going back to full time research, even if I wanted to.

    I’m still trying to land that job. I get on campus interviews, but so far, I’m second best to somebody else. More experience. More publications. I got one offer… from a fundamentalist university that keeps trying to infiltrate the bio dept with creationists to the point that every member of the faculty all but asked if I was a plant. Yeah. I turned that down, and it was a good thing that I did.

    I wrote a piece about the Kentucky Ark Park’s tax incentives that got Ken Ham’s attention. The blowback would have gotten me fired on the spot from the unnamed fundie university, but didn’t from my college. I’ll never know if it had anything to do with my not getting another year on my contract as a visiting prof. I don’t know. But I do know that I won’t be like the whiny shits in Expelled that claimed they were fired, when the only thing that happened is that a contract was not renewed.

    So I write about evidence based science education and am working on a study guide for intro bio students that will be a serialized ebook. I’m trying to get a job in non-profit science literacy activism. I may end up teaching for a year at a private middle school.

    The worst part of all this is that we were told that this was the field to go into. There were going to be positions opening all over. The golden age of -omics was before us, and every university and corporation would need PhDs. Genomics and proteomics weren’t the booms that were predicted. Pharma cut back on R&D and granting organizations didn’t keep up with the need for funds, not that they ever did before… The EPA got the shaft. Universities became more reliant on part timers than they were before.

    I could have been an electrician. I’d be debt free and making more than two or three post-docs by now. But I wouldn’t be doing what I really want to do. Teach.

    And yet, I’m not doing that right now, either.

    • Robert B

      Thanks for letting me rant. Much better now.

  • Dave Churvis

    Reading stuff like this frightens me.

    I dropped out of high school when I was sixteen to go to work as a software engineer. I was very good at it, but I got burned out. A couple of years ago, I decided to get my GED and go back to school. Originally I was going to go to law school, then I was going to pursue a business degree… and then I took an economics course.

    I fell in love with the subject. I have never been more fascinated by a subject, and I have never understood a subject as well as economics. I immediately changed majors, and I am currently working on my undergrad degree while continuing to work full-time as an engineer.

    The thing is, at some point I ended up realizing that the scholarly study of economics is all I want to do for the rest of my life. So I immediately started working through plans to go to grad school when I finish my undergrad degree. I’d save up and quit my job and eke out an existence as a grad student, and then go to work teaching and researching.

    And now I start reading things like this. I turn 30 next year. I am a junior in my undergrad program, and if I’m lucky I’ll get my PhD by the time I’m 37. I have finally found something that I want to spend the rest of my life doing… that I am very good at… that most likely will sentence me to even greater burnout than I am currently experiencing.

    Somehow, I’m pretty sure I’ll continue on anyway. I’ve been told I’m stubborn. But reading things like this really scares me.

    • ‘Tis Himself

      I’m an economist. When I graduated from high school in 1966 I had no idea what I wanted to study in college and the Vietnam war was going on. So I joined the Navy and spent six years as a nuclear mechanic in a submarine. During that time I read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations* and fell in love with economics. I got a BS and an MA** in economics. I then got a job working at the Treasury Department. I’m presently Chief Economist for a fairly large company.

      There are jobs for economists outside of academia.

      *I had an argument with a libertarian who told me that Smith had answered all my objections to anarcho-capitalism back in 1776. So I read Wealth of Nations and discovered this libertarian didn’t know what he was talking about. If you haven’t read Wealth of Nations I recommend it. The language is somewhat archaic but Smith is actually a clear, concise writer. You’ll also discover that Smith is closer to Marx than von Mises. Incidentally, I own a first edition of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

      **I got a masters because it would take me a year less time than getting a PhD. Since I was already six years behind my contemporaries this was a concern.

  • Jesse

    Daniel —

    Look at this from a labor relations point of view — something I am a bit more familiar with :-)

    By hiring people as adjuncts, the university can say you are essentially non full-time employees. That means the labor protection you are entitled to is (in the US) effectively nothing.

    It is a lot cheaper for a university to hire a bunch of part-timers who they will never have to offer benefits to than to hire full-time employees.

    Now, something that you need to be very cynical about, for this to make sense: modern universities in the US do not care about being universities.

    The point is not to educate people. That ship sailed in the late 80s. The point is sort-of-job training (in the sense that even entry-level jobs require a BA now) and profit generation, even for big names like Harvard and Yale. The presidents of said universities have been quite explicit about this point.

    This is a symptom of another problem: pricing the middle class away from anyone who might want to enter it. This is all deliberate. Nobody put a gun to anyone’s head. The whole point is to keep the riff-raff from getting an education or even wanting one. ANd the point in terms of you and your peers is to render you powerless.

    So what to do? There’s nothing for it Dan, but to start sending notes to your friends, and their friends, and say “we aren’t taking this anymore.” You show up with 1,000 people, and tell them they aren’t getting a damned thing until shit changes.

    If 100 adjuncts showed up in a university president’s office and told him what for, you an bet the situation would change. You have to make them fear you. It’s really that simple. The only way labor has ever gotten anything was when capitalists — universities in this case — feared the workers. The Bonus Army failed on the day McCarthur — yes, that one — routed them, but they won the argument, ultimately, because they scared the crap out of the people in power.

    Am I saying threaten the university president’s life? No. I am saying maybe it’s time adjuncts unionized. But you have to stop assuming that the people who do this to you have the slightest shred of concern for you, or educating students. They do not. They do not see you as a human — if they did they’d pay you more than minimum wage. (And I might add, you could make a case that they are violating the law in that sense if they have you total up hours).

    But you are nothing to them, Daniel. You have to let go of the idea that the administrators care if you have no health care and die. They don’t care and never will.

    What matters is power. Raw, naked, brutal power. And sometimes that comes from numbers.

    Dan, your post angered me. Because the tenured profs don’t seem to care either. They’ve given up on the whole project, of education, it seems. Maybe it’s time to tell them what for as well.

    I’d love to live in a world where reasoned debate decided fights like the one you are in. But that isn’t the way it works.

  • Daniel Fincke

    But you have to stop assuming that the people who do this to you have the slightest shred of concern for you, or educating students. They do not. They do not see you as a human — if they did they’d pay you more than minimum wage. (And I might add, you could make a case that they are violating the law in that sense if they have you total up hours).

    But you are nothing to them, Daniel. You have to let go of the idea that the administrators care if you have no health care and die. They don’t care and never will.

    What makes you think I don’t realize all this. I can’t tell you the rage that has at times coursed through my veins thinking about their indifference to whether I live or die.

    Read this:

    And, yes, I agree with your analysis completely and I am grateful that you get it and are angry on my behalf. Adjuncts have unions but they are powerless. The question is whether they can replace us if we all quit. They probably can. That’s the problem. Too many of us are willing to cling by our fingernails to the classroom. They have the supply and demand labor advantage because they are working with a pool of idealists interested in intrinsically meaningful work and willing to sacrifice their financial well being for it.

    • Jesse


      I wasn’t thinking you were ignorant of it, but as you note some folks see the work as meaningful and are willing to go through it because they love the field. That premise only woks if the people you work for care too, and they don’t.

      So, the solution is 2-fold. One, talk to the AAUP and ask if they have ever thought through the implications to their membership of the continued adjunct abuse. I have a strong suspicion they have not. Don’t make a moral case. Make a power case. “You will lose power if this keeps up because there won’t be any more professors” is basically what it is. It isn’t like profs are paid a ton, either.

      Second: time to talk to all the adjuncts you know. If the union at your school(s) is full-timers only talk to the SEIU. They might be more receptive. ANd your workforce actually resembles their membership more in any case. If they can unionize a supermarket, or a Starbucks, then you can get representation too.

      One more thing: check the nuances of hours/wages law. If you have to punch a clock you have to be paid minimum. If your hours are more than that which makes ~$7 per hour, the law might well be being broken.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I wasn’t thinking you were ignorant of it, but as you note some folks see the work as meaningful and are willing to go through it because they love the field. That premise only woks if the people you work for care too, and they don’t.

      Meaning does not come from loving the field, it comes from loving the subject and your students and the chance to exercise one’s talents and do the work one loves, etc. It has nothing to do with an expectation that one’s bosses or one’s field cares about you in the least.

    • Jesse

      Well, let me put it another way: lots of people love their work and find it meaningful. Lots of people love teaching. But there’s a difference between wanting to get paid for that and doing volunteer work.

      The universities are exploiting the fact that people like yourself care about what they do. Ironically, the situation might be easier if you were all working in food service or as janitors — none of you would have the idea that your work is “meaningful.” (I’m not saying what you or they do isn’t important or whatever, quite the reverse, I’m just saying the way we look at jobs like that is different). So you’d all be demanding a better paycheck straight up, you know?

  • Ace of Sevens

    I think i was making more than you at my previous job and this was in Iowa. I was a college drop-out with no degrees when I landed the job and mostly I sat around surfing the Internet and waiting for people to call.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I sat around surfing the Internet and waiting for people to call.

      In my job that’s called “office hours”.

  • Neal

    I would like to bring a few random, general observations to this discussion.

    1. Value is determined at the margin. Gold is worth more than water, even though water is much more important.

    2. Wages are determined by both supply and demand. They function as an important signal to people considering careers.

    4. The general scarcity of jobs is caused by the Fed’s current criminally tight monetary policy. (I have a soapbox over there if anybody wants to know more.) This issue is distinct from underemployed, highly trained professionals.

    5. Discipline-specific training is a form of human capital.

    6. If, as Dan posits, “The question is whether they can replace us if we all quit. They probably can. That’s the problem. Too many of us are willing to cling by our fingernails to the classroom,” I would suspect that the market is relatively free and the colleges’ hands are roughly as tied as the adjuncts’.

  • Neal

    I would add that the status hierarchy in universities — grad students < NTTs < postdocs < tenure-track < tenured — is deplorable.

    Status is distinct from wages or underemployment. If the status hierarchy were eliminated and our society had reasonable social protections, I think the position of adjuncts and other NTTs would be much improved, without consideration of wages.

  • Collin

    I share the frustrations echoed by so many in the comments here. Where I did my adjunct work previously, the only union was for the full-timers, many of whom couldn’t have cared less about the adjuncts. It would be easy to think that we were just there to bring in revenue with the teaching being incidental. We might’ve unionized, except the state government was trying pretty hard (and apparently succeeding) to make that impossible.

    It’s hard to stay positive.

  • Charles Sullivan

    I wonder if most Ph.D adjuncts would be doing just as well with a Master’s degree and teaching as an adjunct at a community college.

    • Interrobang

      If my local experience is any indication, the answer is a resounding ‘No’. I taught a semester as “partial-load” faculty at the local community college, and given that they don’t pay for out-of-class time, I was making about $2/hr when you factored in office hours, all the marking/grading I had to do, reading, lesson prep, and so on. And in my jurisdiction, partial load faculty are the only group legally forbidden to unionise.

      YMMV, of course, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I took my Master’s degree and got a corporate job, and I’m much happier (stability will do that for me) and much better paid. Bonus points for my company giving a damn about professional education, so I also have journal and training access, too.

  • keith

    At least some of this is out of the hands of universities. It is easy to say that institutions should hire more T/T faculty, but money simply is not there. To blame ithe problem on higher admin salaries is not the answer either. Even if you took 80% of the salary of the presidents, provosts and VPs, splitting it amongs faculty, this would amount to only a few $ per person. Nowhere near enough to cover the transition from an adjunct workforce to a tenured one.

    I put the blame on the declining support by state governments. Whereas in the past most public schools received most of their revenue from state support, with tuition being only a small percentage, due to declining state economies, this has now flip flopped.

    Most college, whether we like it or not, don’t really have much choice in the matter, deplorable as it is.

  • John Moriarty

    your pain comes from buying into the lifestyle but not the underpinning unfairness. Now you know you have to fight, and I wish you success.

  • Pen

    This is really a major social issue of our times. I feel unable to advise my daughter to go into higher education because it will cost so much and graduate degrees are so devalued she seems unlikely to make it back. Between the studying, the debt, the biological clock, and the cost of a mortgage, she would just about get her feet on the ground in time to face retirement. Or she could make the choice of the young law student we met recently who told us very candidly that she was reconciled to a life without a committed relationship or children, because she understood that it was either that or a career.

    It’s very depressing, both in terms of our minimum needs as a society, and in terms of our aspirations towards higher things like knowledge or culture.

  • rturpin

    One question occurs to me: Why isn’t there more effective union representation of adjunct faculty?

    • Daniel Fincke

      One question occurs to me: Why isn’t there more effective union representation of adjunct faculty?

      All I can give are my observations. In most cases I hardly know any of the other adjuncts at the schools I teach at since we’re all in to teach and then out. There’s also probably a lot of turnover. It’s not like most of us can be counting on any of these jobs as our long term career. You have a lot of people willing to endure the poor pay and treatment because traditionally they are just doing it a year or two before getting tenure. The supply of such willing fresh adjuncts means it is hard for those of us who are “professional adjuncts” to have any leverage.

      Really, to me, what it comes down to is that the full-time professors and the American Association of University Professors have just thrown us under the bus so they can exploit us to their benefit, rather than binding themselves to us and our cause.

      The piously liberal professoriate of academia is extraordinarily hypocritical in this respect–this only respect in which their liberalism would make a tangible economic effect at risk of personal cost to themselves.

  • rturpin

    I’ve known quite a few adjuncts that do that work for many years. And as pointed out, there are many non-tenure track academic workers in labs or on research projects. Especially in the technical fields. Their teaching load may be sporadic or none. They move back and forth between there and industry. But many spend years with universities. They likely get paid a bit better than adjuncts, since a research project wanting to hire an engineer is fishing the same pool as outside industry.

    Still, it sounds to me that it is past time for there to be a union for non-tenure track university researchers and faculty. As you point out, the AAUP has pretty much thrown y’all under the bus.

  • Chrissa

    This is one of the reasons that I read your blog (and would buy your book)–clear explanations of a subject that I might otherwise have shrugged off. Without making me feel like the lazy reader that I can certainly be, your blog posts generally convince me to slow down and consider what is being said, to the betterment of my own understanding. Thanks.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thank you so much, Chrissa. I try to be really clear but I realize I often require of readers the patient willingness to slow down if they are to benefit from that clarity. It’s heartening when readers express a willingness to read me carefully. It makes me very grateful.

  • michael scottmonje jr

    Yeah, I’m on the adjunct train as well. My area is creative writing, which translates to teaching freshman composition, since the actual CW classes are taught mostly by faculty and grad students who need them for practicum. While I’m not doing 18 sections a year, I am teaching a class with 5 required essays, and I’m running at about 11 sections per year. Full time for this kind of thing is usually 8.

    I am doing the self-publishing route, but as I pointed out, my work is creative. I don’t have to worry about research. I’m finding that I can take higher course loads without losing my writing time if I teach online, which also helps save on transportation expenses.

    It’s good to see posts from others that are in this situation. Thanks for writing this.

  • Brandon

    I’m an immunology postdoc. That’s pretty much ’nuff said if you’re familiar with what an absolute trainwreck that whole system is.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I’m going to go out on a limb and say most of us aren’t here familiar with the particularities of this train wreck. Can you elaborate some more?

    • Brandon

      The first thing that I find surprises people that aren’t in the field the most is how strikingly poor postdoctoral pay; as a general rule, the majority of postdocs are paid in line with NIH scale, which starts under $40K. Not exactly what most people are thinking when they hear “Ph.D. in a biomedical field”. Throw in a relative lack of security (we’re generally on one to three year contracts), and it feels like underemployment even though it’s quite standard.

      What’s more frustrating is the sort of backlog that’s faced as far as getting a “real job”. I have to run off at the moment, there’s a very good article that I thought I had bookmarked that I don’t seem to have. I’ll see if I can find it.

  • bodie425

    This is embarrassing to admit. This is not fair.
    I have a two year associates degree in nursing and have been nursing for 22 years. Last year, with a smattering of overtime and working dedicated weekends, I made just over $100,000 (I pour my heart and soul into my work and I do deserve my salary).
    It disturbs me to no end that men and women who have dedicated so much time and toil in obtaining higher degrees of education are so wretchedly treated. A PhD making so little money makes me sick to my stomach. How on Earth can this be?! The disregard this country has for educators is beyond the pale and will be viewed by our great great grandchildren as a “dark ages,” in US history.
    BTW: Mrs. Medlock, US History 11th grade 1979, South Point High, Belmont NC. My mouth was tired from watching yours move for a solid hour–I will never forget you.
    Mr. Burroughs, Georgia Military College, Biology–I still remember your lectures from 1982 on the Krebs Cycle, tree biology, photosynthesis. Wonderful teachers who had a passion for imparting knowledge–fascinating people.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Many thanks for your sincere sympathies, bodie. My girlfriend is a nurse too and as I told her when she was appalled on my behalf, “As a plus, I don’t have to reach up anyone’s anus and pull their shit out for them” as she’s described having to do. There are reasons we adjuncts make the tradeoff we do and I also wouldn’t begrudge any nurse his or her salary based on a comparison of degrees acquired.

    • bodie425

      Yeah, been there, done that. I developed an iron stomach before I even made it out of nursing school.

  • Ace of Sevens

    As a plus, I don’t have to reach up anyone’s anus and their shit out for them

    I think you accidentally a word.

    • Daniel Fincke

      fixed. thanks.

  • rturpin

    Assuming you’re single, I do have some practical advice: Live cheap. Turn it into a philosophical act to be more frugal than Thoreau. Eat beans and rice and oats. Sleep in an old camper. Or a rented basement. Use public wifi. Save at least half of every dollar you make, first paying off debt, then building a kitty.

    Because you don’t know what you’ll want to do in ten years. Life can surprise you.

  • AKAHorace

    Don’t worry Daniel, you can ignore the link below, the guy is a facist who does not believe in diversity.

  • Kacy

    I know I’m a little late to the conversation, but I think my story is worth telling. I graduate in 2007, cum laude, honors program, with a double major in Sociology and History. I married my boyfriend from college, and started working in a management position at a department store. We applied for graduate school together and both got accepted at Fordham.

    We were all set to go to graduate school when I found out I was pregnant. (We were Catholic at the time and using the Catholic, natural family planning form of “birth control.”) We decided to move to NYC anyway. I was able to finish by first semester before the baby was born, and we were able to work split-shift schedules to take care of the baby the second semester. However, our apartment was leaky, had lead paint, a homeless man living on the roof, and it wasn’t a good situation for the baby.

    We ended up leaving graduate school and moving to Tennessee, where my husband found a job as a high school teacher. I stayed home with the baby. Then all those teaching cuts happened in 2010, and my husband was laid off. By this time, I was pregnant again. He took a job as a truck driver to pay the bills, but this wasn’t enough. Nobody would hire me becuase I was so obviously pregnant, and we had to move back to Texas and move in with my husband’s parents.

    Thankfully we had a safety net to fall back on. He’s now back in school to be an engineer. (Philosophy and Theology just wouldn’t pay the bills.) And I’m taking care of the kids, waiting for them to get old enough to start school, so I can perhaps complete my degree. Thankfully, we don’t have much student debt. I have a little from undergrad, but we both had full rides and decent jobs at Fordham.

    I oscillate back and forth with being happy we left grad school, since the academic job market is horrible, and being sad because I miss sociology and miss doing research. I also wonder if I’ll ever get out of Texas or find a job that’s sufficiently interesting and pays decently. There simply aren’t many employment prospects where I live now, and having no money and two kids means I’ve pretty much lost my mobility.

    As a side note, I wonder each time I see studies on the rise of atheism, if there is a relationship here between the underemployment crisis and high education of today’s youth. I’ve a lot of spare time on my hands to read and study more, which has led me to let go of religion. Also churches used to be places where people could make connections and find job prospects. With the lack of jobs available, churches can no longer perform this latent function. I can imagine that this pushes out the nominally religious. If I were still in Sociology I would try to set up a survey and some interviews to see if there is a connection here, but alas C’est la vie. Nobody really cares what a grad-school drop out stay-at-home mom has to say.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Nobody really cares what a grad-school drop out stay-at-home mom has to say.

      Well I do. Thanks for chiming in with your story. It’s important. And thanks for the provocative thought. It is helpful.

    • Kacy

      Thank you, Daniel. I really enjoy your blog, even though I generally just lurk. Living in an anti-intellectual area, and away from my college friends, I depend on blogs and the internet community to continue to feed my mind, so to speak. It keeps me from feeling like my education is a curse. Around here people aren’t interested in all that “fancy book learnin’.”

  • Ace of Sevens

    Can’t you make side money running an Internet business where you write papers for undergrads?

    • maxdwolf

      I am so cynical that not only am I unsure whether this is intended as humour, I give it a thumbs up regardless. Though it will be awkward when his own students hand him papers that he wrote.

  • Little Magpie

    Sorry, I know *very* late to the discussion; the other thing that’s unconscionable is how much academia has changed (as a job market). For my BA I majored in one of those things that the only way you’re going to have work “related to” your field is to go on into graduate work and get a job in academia – in a very small market (not a popular subject) – so there was a certain expectation that I’d go on to grad school. This post just gives me *another* reason to know it would have been a bad idea (apart from 1-tiny potential job market and 2-researching and teaching just wasn’t something I saw myself wanting to do).
    Not least among people with that expectation was my dad. And this is where I get to the point. My dad was able to land himself in a tenure-track position in the late 1960′s-early 1970′s, in his mid-late 20s, pretty much fresh off his PhD. In, by the way, Classics. (ie Greek + Roman history and language etc.) And made full professor, and had good pay and all sorts of benefits until he (just recently) retired. The academic job market just isn’t like that anymore; and I rather imagine that as profs of his generation, hired in better times, are retiring in droves, the positions aren’t being replaced by similarly full time, tenure-track with benefits positions, but with the sort of stuff you describe. Or by casual, part-time rehiring of retirees for like one course per term. (Not kidding.)
    One of his grad students (he’s recently enough retired that he’s still acting as thesis advisor for a couple of people), in any given term, may be teaching at that university’s downtown campus (downtown = central and south); at the same university’s satellite campus in the far reaches of north-east suburbs; at a campus of another university, in fairly far northwest part of the city; and I think she had a job teaching Greek at a seminary, which IIRC is sort of downtownish.
    So apart from needing to pay one’s rent and worry about the student loan, you also have to worry about car payments. Because even in a city with fairly decent public transit… getting around between such far flung places would be ridiculous that way.