The road to poverty is paved with graduate degrees

Via Richard, a year-old article in the Village Voice about the perils of the academic job market that makes me think I’m better off financially than I would be had I not quit the PhD in 1999. Of course, I thought that back when I was pulling down $52,000 a year from the federal government. Now I think that even in my present, far less lucrative circumstances, I’m better off. Because at least I’m not trapped in a system that routinely exploits graduate students and sessional instructors.

Grad students have always resigned themselves to relative poverty in anticipation of a cushy, tenured payoff. But in the past decade, the rules of the game have changed. Budget pressures have spurred universities’ increasing dependence on so-called “casual labor,” which damages both the working conditions of graduate students and their job prospects. Over half of the classroom time at major universities is now logged by non-tenure-track teachers, both graduate teaching assistants — known as TAs — and adjuncts. At community colleges, part-timers make up 60 percent of the faculties.

Even if the job market is dire, there is no real disincentive to a department having as many graduate students as it can. Apart from the prestige, they’re a cheap labour pool now, and ensure that there will be a ready supply of desperate sessional instructors to work for low pay.

The also pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton was a frequent contributor to Invisible Adjunct’s blog and has penned a series of cautionary columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is even more blunt than IA. “The premise of graduate education in the humanities is a lie: Students are not apprentices preparing for a life of scholarship and teaching,” he says. “They are a cheap source of labor and status for institutions and faculty and, after they earn their degrees, most join the reserve army of the academic underemployed.” Benton, a professor at a small liberal arts college, warns his students about trying to follow in his footsteps. “My experience as a working-class kid who finally earned an Ivy League Ph.D. is that higher education is not about social mobility or personal enrichment; it is one trap among many for people who are uninitiated into the way power and influence operate in this culture.”

The article goes on to point out that PhDs do much better once they leave the academic job market, which I can certainly attest to. Of course they’re talking about better in financial terms; while graduate school is a case study in deferred gratification, it’s usually ego and prestige that motivate academics — not money. Leaving academia behind is a tremendous blow to your self-image: after years of relentless focus, you’re no longer sure what your purpose in life is. Not easy to walk away, even if it’s in your interest to do so. Small wonder that that’s exploited.