Ph.D.s On Food Stamps

Ph.D.s On Food Stamps May 16, 2012
Elliott Stegall, 51, who teaches English courses, picks up food assistance at the WIC office in DeFuniak Springs, Fla. "The first time we went to the office to apply, I felt like I had arrived from Eastern Europe to Ellis Island," he says. "We all had that same ragged, poor look in our eyes." (Photo by Jeff Haller)

Getting a Ph.D. is a nice feather in one’s cap, but that’s about it these days. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the number of people with PhDs who are struggling to get by. In fact, many are on food stamps.

One of the reasons is that more and more schools are hiring adjuncts, the slave labor of academia:

Some adjuncts make less money than custodians and campus support staff who may not have college degrees. An adjunct’s salary can range from $600 to $10,000 per course, according to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced database about adjuncts’ salaries and working conditions. The national average earnings of adjunct instructors are just under $2,500 per course, according to the American Association of University Professors.

The article goes on to note that the amount that adjuncts get paid is academia’s “dirty little secret.” We adjuncts — yes, I’m one — work with short-term contracts (or no contract), receive no health care or benefits, do not get to participate in the governance of the school, and can be fired or not renewed without notice.

I hustle adjunct jobs wherever I can. Three places that used me in 2011-2012 aren’t having me back in 2012-2013. I think I’ve got one new gig lined up for next year, and I applied for but didn’t get another one.

I’m not asking for pity, and I’m not on food stamps. But this is a reality in today’s world, and it’s an ugly one.

Wanna see how much an adjunct makes at your school? Click here.

Do you think that pay is fair, or unfair?

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  • Carl

    Ouch, those salaries are rough. Then again, if adjuncts stopped being so willing to be hired at those numbers, they would go up. At least in part, the people to blame for the low salaries are the adjuncts. Supply and demand and all that.

    • Dan Hauge

      I guess the alternative would be for all people teaching adjunct status to just stop teaching, en masse. Is that at all realistic? This situation actually shows how the ‘natural workings of the market’ don’t necessarily provide good outcomes. When an institution has enough leverage that they can get away with exploiting people, they do. Adjuncts do it because they want to teach, and there are no other real options.

      • Carl

        Or perhaps the current educational system, corrupted by money, government influence, and power, has overfilled the market with people who apparently have no real skills outside of adjunct professorships. Also, the free market doesn’t assure everyone of good outcomes. The essence of freedom is that some may have lesser outcomes than others. Real freedom lies in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. Too many people are choosing to be adjunct professors. Why is that? Not sure, but I’d be willing to be my first sentence above has something to do with it. The great thing about the free market, if allowed to act equitably, will self-correct. Enough people hear about adjunct professors on food stamps… er, WIC, and they will look to go into another line of work.

        • Dan Hauge

          So first off, by talking about ‘good outcomes’ I didn’t mean that everyone who wants to teach should get paid exactly the same. But if we have a scenario where greater numbers of people who are teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level can’t make even the most basic living doing so, maybe we should ask if that isn’t part of the problem in providing a good education.

          I’m a little curious as to where you’re coming from–are you assuming that most people who apply for adjunct professorships are people who simply don’t have enough skills to do anything else, so they say, ‘hey, why not give adjunct teaching at a college a try?’ Because I’m fairly sure a large percentage of adjuncts are people who would like to teach full time, but those positions are rapidly shrinking in number, since universities are choosing to have their classes taught increasingly by adjuncts to save money on salary and benefits. So (most of) these adjuncts are taking a crappy deal in hopes that it will lead to a better deal, in their chosen field.

          Now, you could say that this means there are just too many people who want to be professors, period, and we don’t need so many, so those with gifts and calling to teach ought to suck it up and look into selling real estate or construction or something. Fair enough, from a good free market standpoint there is no obligation, or incentive, to make sure everyone can survive doing what they are best at, or most passionate about. I guess my next question is whether that state of affairs really helps the broader goal of providing a good education for our next generations, if we believe we can get by with either so many fewer professors, or by paying so many teachers so little as our new normal.

      • ben w.

        Yeah, I agree that the language of “exploit” is too strong. “Caveat emptor” applies to the academic as well. If exploitation is involved, it seems most reasonably on the “front side” – that is, “selling” a PhD to a youngster with bright dreams of notariety, full professorship, and financial security. As these number show, that should be presented as a longshot. Yet I think most universities and seminaries actively promote the PhD as if it were simply a product to sell, while possibly misrepresenting its marketability. The PhD student gives the school cheap, productive research labor (probably even provide revenue for the school!) for a few years, but the school certainly isn’t as invested in that student’s job prospects as the student should be. I wouldn’t call baseball’s minor leagues exploitative, they are just a function of millions of kids with big dreams of MLB + people’s desire for entertaining local baseball. To be sure, it stinks if someone was sold a bill of goods about the PhD and so it’s important to make information like adjust salaries public so students will be aware of the realities. I think the problem filters though into all forms of higher education, where young students pursue various degrees at great cost to themselves and their families, with outdated or mis-information about the return-on-investment they should expect upon graduation.

        For more concrete numbers and consideration of the problem, the Economist has an well-written article from a couple years ago, titled, “Doctoral degrees: The disposable academic” ( One clarifying stat:

        “In a recent book, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, an academic and a journalist, report that America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new professorships”. = low salaries and benefits. I certainly don’t want to impersonalize the issue because many families have staked their livelihoods on these degrees and the expected benefits, but we should also speak plainly about the realistic expectations (as Tony is pointing out in his post) so that those considering a PhD would have right expectations for their post-graduate marketability.

        • Champ Kind

          ben w.,

          I miss your musk. You speak with a common sense not common in this forum. When this all gets sorted out, I think you and me should get an apartment together!

        • Curtis

          The exploitation of students in higher education enters in with how higher education is marketed — with the overemphasis on the personal prosperity you will achieve with an advanced degree. There was once a time society viewed higher education as a benefit to the community, something that will give the community better doctors, teachers and engineers, resulting in better hospitals, teachers, and industry. But over the last couple decades the marketing of higher ed has shifted from how it helps the community to how it promises personal economic gain. Those over-rosey expectations of personal wealth are then used to entice prospective students into massive debt on sometimes very bad terms. In this scenario, colleges and banks win at the expense of exploited students.

          If we were to shift the focus of higher education back to its original intent of helping the community, let the community that will benefit decide what skills it needs, then put the onus for funding that education back on the community that will benefit, rather than putting the onus for funding on the individual student with a misleading promise of individual prosperity, we will remove the exploitive aspects of higher education that have crept in over the last twenty years or so.

          • Carl

            Agreed, Curtis. The government needs to stop putting such huge incentives into higher education.

          • Curtis

            Well, I would phrase it as the government, and private industry, need to clarify what skills and human resources they will in the next 5, 10 and 20 years, then invest the money into higher education that will provide those resources. Higher education should then be available to talented students at an accessible, reasonable price that does not require personal loans — they way higher education was throughout history until the emphasis on personal wealth in recent decades distorted higher education.

            As long as the community as held as the proper beneficiary, and the proper owner of higher education, the market will sort out what programs are provided to students.

          • Carl

            Yep, and the key word there is “talented students.” We’ve gotten to the point where somehow a college education is the right of every American. Yet we forget that plenty of Americans (more by the day due to a floundering public school system) aren’t smart enough to pursue a college education. And that’s okay. Not everyone needs to go to college. It doesn’t speak poorly of a person if he isn’t skilled enough for higher ed.

    • Fortuna Veritas

      Sounds like that would require unionization of a very, very disorganized pool of labour, to even have any realistic hope of enough people saying no to mean more than a handful of PhD degrees going unused.

  • Curtis

    A point of clarification, “Food Stamps” and “WIC” are different things. Food Stamps is the common name for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal program to provide food assistance to families at or below the federal poverty level. WIC or “Women, Infants and Children”, is a federal nutrition and health screening service for pregnant women and their children up to age 5. To qualify for WIC, you must have an income at or below 185% of federal poverty level — about $43,000 for a family of four. At that income, probably most single-income families, and many double-income families, qualify for WIC. I have heard that over half of the children under 5 in the U.S. qualify for WIC.

    Not to say one is better or worse than the other, they both have their place. But receiving WIC benefits is being in a totally different financial ballpark than receiving Food Stamps. And why there is a stigma attached to either is still a mystery to me. The vast majority of Americans gladly accept free education for their children through high school without any sense of stigma. But as soon as it involves health, people get the heebie-jeebies. The entire rest of the world, even most undeveloped countries in the world, provide free health screening for pregnant women and children. But try to provide or receive the same screenings in the U.S. and you are called a communist. Go figure!

  • Colleen

    You’d think with the price of tuition they’d be a little less greedy…especially when the associates are running the classes.

    • Curtis

      It is worth noting that, at least concerning public higher education, the total cost of providing a degree has not changed relative to inflation. What has changed is the state’s portion of paying for the cost; that has been in steady decline for over a decade. Consequently, if the state portion goes down, the student portion must go up.

      In many cases, it is not school greed driving the costs, it is diminishing of state and private funding of schools, and a resulting shift of the financial burden to the students. This shift is justified by the false notion that education is only a personal benefit that is accrued to the student, and a lost recognition for the value that higher education brings to the community and to private industry.

      The community value of higher education is the fundamental value that most colleges are based on. Read about the history of our Land Grant universities as one example. That community value of higher education has been all but lost in today’s “ownership society”, and it is destroying our colleges and universities, as well as the financial future of families who don’t choose careers that result in six-figure salaries.

      • Fortuna Veritas

        I was wondering about that when I kept looking and failing to find the reasons behind the exorbitant costs of higher education.

  • JillCC

    The trend in colleges & universities right now is towards “casualization” – hiring fewer and fewer full-time and tenure-track faculty and relying instead on adjuncts and TAs who receive low salaries and no benefits. At my ivy-league graduate school, students were active in labor union organizing around precisely these sorts of issues, in particular how their work as TAs was being used for the university’s benefit without them as workers having any say in their employment (as the school persisted in claiming it was solely for their professional development, even as it relied more and more on their work for its economic advantage).

    This benefits no one – not adjuncts and TAs, of course, but also not undergrads and students who come seeking a robust education. Not that adjuncts aren’t good teachers – in fact, more and more top-notch people are taking this route. But as long as those good teachers have no stability, they can’t invest in their students & courses, or plan more than one semester ahead, or pursue professional development, or really contribute to the community that in this way marginalizes them.

    Let me suggest, in response to some of the comments above, a couple of reasons why people take adjunct jobs:

    1. These are the jobs that are available. Why? See above. Schools are often far more inclined to invest in a new multi-million dollar hockey rink than their own faculty. This creates a backlog that has a ripple effect: Ph.D.s can’t get a job right after graduation, so they take adjunct work -> in doing so they gain a lot of teaching experience and often build connections, and they have time to complete post-graduate research and publish -> these experienced teachers are then out on the job market competing with new graduates -> pretty soon no one can get a full-time position without having spent several years out of grad school building their vita in this way. This means that adjunct work often becomes an extended internship providing cheap labor for the universities and further impoverishing debt-ridden graduates. Yes, some doctorates are lifetime adjuncts because they are not talented/lucky enough to ever get a job in a glutted market. But often they are more recent grads who are just caught up in this system.

    2. The tenured or tenure-track faculty job that is still the standard in academia is outdated, inflexible, and thus often unworkable for many of today’s grads – women especially, but increasingly for men as well. The academy talks a good talk about equity, and sometimes eagerly solicits female applicants. But let’s face it – what it means to be an academic has changed little in a hundred years. It is based on a model of the independently-wealthy male who is freed from the concerns of life and able to devote himself fully to the ivory tower, with either a housekeeper (if he’s single) to empty his trash and bring him his meals, or a wife at home to raise his kids and devote herself to freeing him from all worldly concerns. Academia is just not accommodating to parents, or to people whose spouses have jobs that prevent them from offering the considerable support that the academic life requires. Try teaching a full course load, including several new preps, participating in faculty meetings, committees, and institutional work, supervising and mentoring students, and being expected to write and produce original research and negotiate publication under the looming threat of your mid-tenure review – this is what is expected of most full-time junior faculty. Can you imagine doing this while being the primary caretaker for your children? And the fact is, the time of life when new grads are looking for jobs is pretty much their prime child-bearing years. The junior faculty position sure doesn’t pay enough to hire a nanny and housekeeper. For many women (and increasingly for some men whose wives have careers of their own), being an adjunct is the only alternative if you want to keep working in the academy and have kids.

    And so the institutions wring their hands and say, “Well, we WANTED to hire a woman for this position, but there just weren’t many applicants,” and never consider that the job itself is structured in such a way as to exclude anyone who isn’t single or doesn’t have a non-working spouse. I know many women, and men as well, who have just wanted to be more involved in their kids’ lives than the academic life allows – as well as many women who have felt they were not free to have children because of the constraints of their academic calling. This is all to suggest that it is not only the adjunct role that needs to change, but also its alternative. Until schools become more flexible in their understanding of what it is to be a professor, and also begin offering good part-time faculty work and more supportive environments for parents and those with other commitments to negotiate (caring for aging parents, church involvement and civic service, even other pursuits which may enrich them as academics), they will be the poorer for the talented people whom they neglect because the adjunct role is the only option for someone who does not have the luxury of adhering to this rigid and outmoded prototype.

  • Colleen

    I just read Joel Olsteen didnt finish seminary. My pastors have their PhDs and I wouldn’t listen to them if they didn’t.

  • tom c.

    The only thing I want to add to the good comments above is that adjunct teaching is a practice that persists because (new/new-ish) PhDs hope that it will enable them to obtain full-time and/or tenure track work (via teaching experience that can go on a CV that will then strengthen applications for other faculty positions). If people with PhDs understood that they were not likely to get FT/TT work, then few would work for average adjunct wages and benefits. I’ve often thought that what is needed is a national adjunct instructor union (something like the Screen Actors Guild), but again, that would require a sizable portion of workers to acknowledge their economic reality. Given that these are not good days (years? decades?) for unions, I don’t hold out much hope for organizing.

    I think similar aspirations are what keep many Americans generally from organizing or embracing the idea of social safety nets…but that’s a soap box speech for another day.

  • Pat

    I’m currently an adjunct for a small college in Kansas, but luckily, I still have my day job at a large insurer, so teaching works out to be nice, part-time money for me.