Sunday, September 22, 2013

Too many teachers

I got linked to an interesting infographic about adjuncts teaching university courses in the US.  There is plenty of data there but the summary is that people graduate with PhDs in great numbers and the vast majority of them cannot get a highly paid position as a tenure track professor at a university.  They usually end up teaching as an adjunct which in many cases pays less than a living wage and is a miserable job experience, particularly for someone who is loaded down with student debt from earning their PhD.

There are plenty of things going on here but I think the biggest one is simply that there are too damn many PhDs graduating compared to the demand for them.  You could blame the institutions for graduating far more people that could ever be hired for tenure I suppose, and that has some merit because it isn't like people getting a PhD in English Literature are all expecting to work in industry.  On the other hand I think a lot of people getting PhDs are doing so because they haven't done any work to find out how dismal their job prospects are so blaming them also has merit.  If you are going to spend a fortune and eight years training for a job you had best spend a few days working the internet and your contacts to figure out what you can realistically expect when you get out the other end.

In any case the result is huge numbers of people begging for teaching positions of any sort and that leads to abuse by the institutions hiring them.  If you want to see this situation remedied very quickly just stop anyone entering a PhD program for a decade.  When the young and desperate folks suddenly dry up institutions will discover themselves having to offer a decent compensation package and security to those they wish to hire.  Clearly that isn't going to happen though as there is a neverending supply of people convinced that they are special and that they will beat the odds.

The mindset of "Well, *I* am special, so obviously I will beat the odds and succeed in a field of brutal competition." is endemic in a variety of fields.  Music, professional sports, acting, and of course post secondary teaching are examples.  This is why you see all kinds of aspiring actors waiting tables and why you see aspiring tenured professors taking a position as an adjunct for pathetic pay.  That extreme risk of failure is a price you pay for being involved in a desirable field.  You want to work desperately hard to someday become an accountant?  It is a good bet that someday soon you will be working as an accountant because that field isn't glamorous.

It would be great if institutions would simply pay and treat their adjuncts well.  Unfortunately that is a tricky thing to arrange when there are hordes of people willing to work even when they aren't paid or treated well.  What we really need is the general perception that a PhD isn't a ticket to a great job but rather just an opportunity to spend years doing research for no pay.  That would cut enrollment enough that the system might just right itself - good luck getting there though.


  1. You account for the 'market force' of lots of people choosing to go down the PhD path but you didn't account for the 'market force' of research funding (mostly through government). Less money for research (the Experimental Lakes Area is a shocking recent example) is certainly a strong contributing factor here. Thoughts?

  2. It is certainly true that more research money would result in more academic positions. However, it is inconceivable that this could actually close the gap meaningfully. There are literally 10 times as many PhD graduates as there are tenured positions available for them to fill. Some of those people don't want those tenured positions but not many. Even if we increased funding for research dramatically (which I support, it should be noted!) that isn't going to come even close to making the gap disappear. To make it such that the graduates who seek tenured positions are about as numerous as the positions we need to cut the graduates by 80%??? or so. Increasing tenured positions by that amount is not particularly feasible.

    Another thing which I think is important is that scientific research can provide jobs for people with scientific PhDs. Those people already have reasonable alternatives in private industry for the most part - they might not be aiming for that but their skills are transferable. While it is useful to have research being done in the humanities there really isn't much call for it and those with those sorts of PhDs are the ones who are really locked into crappy teaching positions because their skills are mostly useless outside of academia. (Obviously not *totally* useless but it is clear that they aren't in demand at all.)

    I think the government could very well justify putting a lot more money into scientific research which would make things much better for those with that sort of skillset. I don't think they could justify, and I can't personally justify, shoving enough money to universities to increase the number of humanities profs fivefold. Hell, if they did that then it would certainly result in the system churning out massively more PhDs in response and the same sort of situation would result.

  3. Great response. Thanks Sky.

    Is it possible that we should just be grateful that there are all of these people running around willing to do important research (in both the sciences and humanities - I'm particularly thinking about education research as I'm enrolled in an intro to education research course right now) while not getting paid? We don't need to spend much public money and yet people still flock to do all of this great thinking and discovering for peanuts?

    Obviously I'm not in this position because I'm a fat cat part-time public education worker so perhaps what I just wrote is very insulting. Good thing I have so many overqualified, underemployed friends with PhDs to fill me in (I'm serious about that last sentence.... not trying to be cheeky).

  4. Matt: We do need to spend public money. As it said in the infographic, a realistic scenario is living on $10 a month plus food stamps. That food stamps bit is public money. The fact that this is in the US so they don't have health care so they use the emergency room instead of a doctor at huge extra expense is public money. It's is terribly expensive for the public to have people working an non-living wages.

    I realize it's a separate issue, but in the states social programs are basically used as a crutch by companies (and apparently universities) as a back door to government grants. If people aren't being paid a living wage - but they are still living - then whatever it is that is letting them live is coming from somewhere, and that means it's coming from the public purse. It's a little less unsettling when a university does it than when Wal Mart or an airline does it, but it still feels like an employer trying to cheat the system at the expense of their employee.

  5. Sthenno: Well said. Totally agree:)

    Then again, I'm the guy who can't believe that we don't have single payer for dental care and (some) vision coverage. We may not have any opposing views here.