The Closing of American Academia: More Reality Therapy from Prof. Eeyore…uh…I mean Enns

Sarah Kendzior received her PhD in anthropology this past May from Washington University in St. Louis. Earlier this week, she posted her reflections on the dim outlook of freshly minted PhDs, and I think she makes a number of sober observations. (I posted on this issue a while back here and here.)

Highlights (or, as it were, lowlights):

67% of American university faculty are part-time with contracts renewed on a semester by semester basis.

At an adjunct salary, a typical full time teaching load would net about $10,500 a year. (Kendzior is assuming $2100 a course for 5 courses, which is on the low end of a reasonable expectation. Let’s up this to 10 courses, a staggering amount of teaching: 4 each semester, one in January and 2 over the summer. At even $3000/course this yields $30,000/year with no benefits plus other potential drains on this salary like travel to multiple sites.)

Attending annual conferences to look for a full time job can cost about as much as adjuncting one course.

She notes the irony of conference organizers given preference to locales with “living wage ordinances.” Adjunct teaching is very time-consuming, leaving little time for a “second job” but the wage can be below the poverty line.

Teaching is considered a “calling” which is thought to justify a low wage. and expecting faculty to dip into savings in order to continue teaching.

And the money quote (and I’m sure Kendzior wishes I were being literal):

“In May 2012, I received my PhD, but I still do not know what to do with it. I struggle with the closed off nature of academic work, which I think should be accessible to everyone, but most of all I struggle with the limited opportunities in academia for Americans like me, people for whom education was once a path out of poverty, and not a way into it.

I have heard some say that the use of adjuncts is a justice issue. Schools can get away with paying eager teachers a low wage while charging students high tuitions to be taught by adjuncts, all the while leading to life-long debt.

Let me crank out some numbers here to make sure you get good and depressed. Based on my own experience (and I’d be happy to hear others chime in), let’s allow $3000/course and 36 contact hours (3 hours a week for 12 weeks), that comes to about $83/hour. Not bad. But…

Let’s factor in class prep at 1 hour per class hour taught. (Experienced profs don’t need that much time, but most adjuncts are lower on the food chain.) Also, there is the intangible of needing to know your field in general and keeping up with some reading, which feeds into what you offer your students. Let’s put it at 3 hours a week (36 hours).

And let’s not forget grading exams and papers. It’s hard to quantify that because it depends entirely on the number and length of written assignments and whether texts are essays or fill in the circle. The number that seems right to me is about 20 hours at the end of the semester and another 20 throughout the semester (including midterms).

So, to teach one adjunct course at $3000 requires about 148 hours of work, or about $20/hour.

I want to remind you most adjuncts have earned doctorates. $20/hour. Hmm.

Anyway, 148 hours spread out over 12 weeks comes to about 12 hours a week. Which means–IF YOU CAN FIND THE WORK–you can probably squeeze in 5 courses a semester (a 50 hour work week) for a yearly salary of $30,000, maybe 7 courses if you have less prep time (although who teaches 7 course at a time!?). But now if you factor in travel time (since rarely do adjuncts work at only one school), travel expenses, the need for a social/family life, continued need for professional development (writing and speaking), and maybe a minute to yourself now and then, it begins to sound like you are in a pretty stupid line of work.

Who wins in this scenario? Are schools really doing right by the students and the teachers?

Personally, I think the answer is no, but we should resist the urge to demonize administrators for the simple fact that they are charged with keeping schools afloat financially. Money is driving all of this (duh) but that alone doesn’t make the situation unjust. The bigger problem is (stop me if you’ve heard this one) the rising cost of providing a college education that requires (1) new revenue steams, (2) increasing old revenue streams (tuition), (3) and lowering costs.

Cutting costs is always easier than increasing cashflow. An easy way to cut costs is to hire adjuncts. It costs about $75,000 to hire a low-level fulltime professor and maybe $100,000 or so for an experienced professor: about 2/3 to 3/4 to that is salary and the rest is health benefits, social security, etc. The teaching load is typically no more than 8 courses a year (and that’s high).

Why would a school shell out 75-100k to cover those 8 courses when it can be done for literally 1/4 to 1/3 the price? And when you have young men and women with earned doctorates from the most prestigious research universities in the country banging on the dean’s door to teach–anything remotely consistent with their field of training–it comes down to “simple economics”: get the job done as cheaply as possible.

Anyway, I’m depressing myself just writing this, but let me end with one more Puddleglum moment. True story. A friend of mine finished his PhD at a well-known research university. He landed a job at the seminary he had graduated from a few years earlier. At the same time, a maintenance man was hired at a competitive salary–which was considerably higher than the professor’s.

When the department head approached the president, asking him how he can possibly justify paying a professor from an elite doctoral program considerably less than a maintenance worker, the president replied, “Because I can get a professor for that much. I can’t get a maintenance worker for that.”

I’m not sure you can fault the president. The problem is a larger systemic one. Unfortunately, I think this problem will wind up working itself out naturally and leaving a lot of collateral damage in its wake.


Why Adjunct, Underemployed, and Otheremployed Evangelical Professors May Be The Key to the Future
preeeetty sure my version of Christianity is right and yours is wrong
10th anniversary edition of Inspiration and Incarnation coming this summer
are PhD programs in biblical studies ethical? a final thought from SBL
  • Don Johnson

    The economic law of supply and demand is a tough one to fight. The basic challenge is that the supposed other economic verities are not so true, especially in this economy.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    “Why aren’t you working on your Ph.D. right now, Derek?” Well let me show you this little blog…

  • PJ Anderson

    I just had this conversation with a young man in our congregation. He’s attending seminary and desires to get a PhD and go teach. He believes the process is just this easy. So I sat down and over ten minutes explained reality to him. My encouragement to him was to go and get your PhD, if he believes he is called, but do it planning on spending 20 to 30 years in pastoral ministry. This has been my encouragement for many young people looking to get theological or biblical studies degrees. Unless they desire to go and get two masters (the MDiv is not a suitable stand-alone masters for PhD work) and then go to a top tier research school for their PhD, then they are fighting an uphill battle with an avalanche coming.

    The alternative, I suppose, is to get their degree and go into academic administration. Those positions are expanding. Which is idiotic. We have far too many academic administrators and not enough professors. Our whole world is upside down.

    This is a good post and we need to hear more of these. There are lots of young people thinking about their PhDs because it appears colleges and universities have an attractive package to present. As we know, the reality is anything but this myth.

    My pathway has been to get a PhD and serve in the local church. We need informed and educated pastors and not the anti-intellectual rabble we hear about day in and day out. Most churches desire a pastor with a doctorate anyways, so this is an easy fit for folks who can navigate the difference between academia and the pew. Frankly, I’ve got a wonderful position where I can set my own schedule, I get paid to “research” and study, and teach several times a week. All of this an I am paid a salary that is able to support my family in a nice style of living. I don’t know why more folks who are getting PhDs in theology and biblical studies don’t consider this avenue. With an outlook that is so terrible and bleak, and so many churches needing good leadership, it seems a natural step.

    • peteenns

      Good point, PJ. Re: administrators, I am finding that schools are actually more interested in hiring people trained to be administrators, with higher degrees in that area. The evangelical world–esp. smaller seminaries–are littered with academic PhDs who get put in administrative positions, even dean and president, and don’t have the requisite administrative skills. So do, may don’t.

    • Mark Chenoweth

      Your church option is an interesting one. But it does seem odd to look at working in a church as almost a fallback position, no? “Well, I’d REALLY like to be in academia, but I’m at a church as a second best option.” Or is this not what you’re implying at all?

      • PJ Anderson

        Not entirely, though I do think we tend to over-spiritualize this notion of “calling” by only applying it to ministry.

        Generally I almost always encourage any young person considering academics and teaching to consider ministry as a viable option for fulfilling that vocational calling. We need good ministers. Our churches are gasping for good ministers. Why not get some seasoning (ala Helmut Theilcke, Karl Barth) in ministry prior to your ensconcement in academia?

  • hopaulius

    The scandal here is the blatant hypocrisy of the leftist academic elite. They expostulate on and on about social and economic justice, all they while they are luring graduate students to be their serfs, paying them nothing or next to nothing to assist them (the professors) with their research and teach their courses. They preach that unionization is the answer to workers’ plight, but resist unionization of their grad students and adjunct army. (When was the last time a tenured faculty went on strike on behalf of their adjunct colleagues?) They preach equal pay for equal work as they enjoy their perks of tenure and ignore the poverty and indebtedness of their colleagues. They preach “tolerance” and “openness,” yet squelch opposing points of view and select their tenure-track colleagues almost solely on the basis of ideological purity. (This last point is also true of religious institutions with doctrinal fidelity requirements.) Then they turn around and disdain applicants who have spent years slaving as adjuncts, because, well, obviously they don’t have the right stuff. It’s sickening and disgusting.

    • peteenns

      Something’s gotta give–as I’m sure it will.

    • Alan Lenzi

      That’s a broad-stroke brush you’ve got there, Hopaulius. We’re not all so easily caricatured.

  • David Clark

    This is the law of supply and demand. The only way to solve this problem is my opinion is to simply stop training so many Ph.D’s. In the mid 20th century undergraduate enrollments were constantly increasing, which meant that there was a steady demand for Ph.D. trained persons. More people got Ph.D.’s and it was relatively easy to get a job in that economic climate.

    The problem is that we are still training as many (or more) Ph.D.’s as before but undergraduate enrollments have stagnated. I think this is a long term trend, the only increases in enrollments will come from increasing general population. This is much slower than mid century when undergraduate enrollment outpaced population growth. The reality of the situation is that there probably isn’t going to be a big demand for Ph.D.’s in the labor force for the forseeable future.

    The only solution, in my opinion, is for graduate schools to severely curtail the number of Ph.D.’s they grant. Basically they should train as many Ph.D.’s as there is a need for in academia, plus some % extra because some Ph.D.’s get sick of academia and would go into non-academic careers regardless. From my understanding, medical and dental schools already do this. They only train the numbers of doctors and dentists as to guarantee that they can find good paying work. Ph.D.’s should probably switch to a similar system.

    Of course this won’t happen. Already someone is probably ready to reach through their monitors and punch me for being a “know-nothing anti-intellectual,” which is of course false. No one is prevented from studying and learning in their free time. But the real reason this won’t happen is because the system has become a Ponzi scheme of sorts. Large numbers of Ph.D.’s already working means there is a demand for large numbers of Ph.D. students so as to justify the existence of the number of currently working faculty and to guarantee funding for graduate schools. If the number of Ph.D. enrollments goes down, then programs and faculty will get downsized. To prevent this the system continues to function the way it is, which guarantees that most of the people investing their time and money into a Ph.D. will not get the rewards of having that Ph.D., which is a classic pyramid scheme.

  • Brian LePort

    Depressing, but much needed truthfulness here. I have worked as an enrollment counselor as a mid-sized evangelical seminary for three years and I have had dozens of bright eyed prospects tell me their plans for getting doctoral degrees. Most think it is a simple 12 step plan and they will be on tenure track. I tell them the truth and try to remind them that academia is an absolute traffic jam with no promise of employment. They seem to feel quite betrayed by this news.

    • rvs

      More students, graduate and undergraduates, should be fully educated on how universities (including Christian universities, sadly) exploit cheap labor in order to make money. It would be nice to see some Christian universities lead the way in terms of spelling out what constitutes ethical/ unethical use of adjunct faculty, cheap faculty, etc. If 24 students at a private university are taught by an adjunct who makes $1,500 for the course, then everybody should know it–and administrators should be prepared to defend (to parents, alumni, other students, news reporters) why they are engaging in these types of practices. A stigma of cheapness might emerge, and then perhaps another type of conversation will begin.

  • Susan M.

    This is my life at the moment. Three courses this semester at two private universities. I can only do this because my spouse is the major bread-winner, and I’m really interested in maintaining flexibility until my second son finishes high school.

    The truth is that until the tuition payers start to demand accountability for how their money is being used, this is unlikely to change much – the supply/demand imbalance is too severe. So, parents out there: if you’re paying $55K/year to send your student to private school, and she is being taught by adjuncts, you may wish to investigate how your cash is being spent, because it’s not going to the professors!

    • Mark Chenoweth

      Yes. New workout facilities, hot tubs, pools, chapels, sanctuaries, gyms, big screen tvs, places for Ping Pong, coffee shops, pool tables…

      If we just had a borring university and it let students find their own fun OFF campus, it might help the profs out. But then, who would want to go to the university? It’s a vicious cycle.

  • Craig Vick

    I can’t help but wonder if some of the problem is the result of academia selling itself as a path to employment. Historically, I doubt that was a goal of a liberal arts education. Once that’s the goal it can’t help but shape the practices and content of the institutions themselves.

  • Henry Michael Imler (@henryimler)

    I hear you all. The year my wife got sick (she’s now disabled), I taught 10 classes a semester – barely – to make ends meet.

    I’ve since gotten a job in administration making more and getting health benefits. I adjunct here and there for extra cash (to pay off those student loans) and I’m thinking about moving further away from the field (into online course design).

    And the sad thing is, if there was an FT opening at one of the local community colleges, I’d jump on it in a heartbeat.

  • Wheaton Thunder

    God as plans for each individual! Just we don’t know his plans for us. That means we need to keep our hopes up that he will take care of us.
    Some of us are gifted and should use and strengthen their gifts. Going to get a PHD in a specialty area is one valid way. But consider your finances and do not go in deep depth as many ignorant students do. The job market for academics is difficult, unless you are motivated and flexible. Remember, you learn for life and that means you learn everyday of your life.
    The world is now international with all the downsides (and upsides) to it, flexibility could mean to relocate to Asia for example.
    And yes, faculty positions in the current economic situation are difficult to obtain, even at Wheaton College you only get 1 year contracts, even if you are tenured or tenured and chaired. It is supposed to be safe, but somehow there are always back doors to get rid of faculty….

  • Sean in Philly

    How can consistent academic or intelligent popular writing affect one’s ability to cut through the crowd of PhDs in the first 5 years or so after degree completion?

  • James Rednour

    Just curious. Do these statistics apply across all fields of study or are they limited to those fields where it is difficult to find a high paying job related to the degree? I’m wondering if the STEM disciplines are affected as well rf if institutions of higher learning still see a benefit in paying a hefty salary for those professors.

    I don’t want to sound cruel, but there are simply too many degrees being handed out in fields that will never yield employment commensurate with the cost of the degree. I understand that people want to become experts in something they love, but usually something you love doesn’t pay well. I find philosophy to be fascinating, but I’m under no delusion that I would never be able to find work in that field to offset the cost of the degree. There has never been a better time to learn about something you are passionate about without paying tens of thousands of dollars. Pick up a book by an expert. Look on MIT’s (and many others’) website at the free online classes.

    The point is that this was never sustainable and the effects are now propagating up to the people teaching.

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  • Bobby B.

    Part of the problem is the rapidly increasing number of “non-traditional” doctorate programs. Lots of folks knock out a Ph.D. in 3 years while working full-time and wonder why they cannot get a full-time, tenure-track position.

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  • Terry M. Gray

    Being there and doing that. Science adjuncts fare a bit better but the pay is still low, no benefits, and no assurance that there’s a job next semester. At least you’ve got book royalties and speaker honoraria.

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  • JT
  • Christy

    I made more money teaching ESL to immigrants in a government funded Community College program than I did teaching adjunct at William & Mary for a semester. I made twice as much and had great benefits teaching public high school, but it was a lot harder work. It is kind of sad that the way our society and education system is set up, it is most feasible to get and MA or PhD when you are young (and a childless spouse can work and pay most of the bills), but then you lack experience when you are applying for a job. It seems to work out better economically to get graduate degrees later in life, when it has the effect of validating some relevant work experience, but that requires a lot trickier balancing of family and financial responsibilities.