Regular readers might remember the guest post we had here on the blog from awhile back, called The Real Life of a Tenure Track Faculty Person, which explored the usually unacknowledged financial struggles attendant on having a tenure track job. That is to say, beyond the depredations of a debt-filled Ph.D. program and years of adjuncting at minimum wage levels, there is the real likelihood that even after obtaining the coveted tenure track job, financial struggles continue, and indeed might intensify with the addition of health challenges and other aspects of real life into the mix.
This guest post grew out of a lengthy exchange on the comment stream of an earlier post by me, entitled Should You Go To Graduate School? In that post, I give a list of 11 conditions that I believe should be met by anyone considering graduate school to protect against a fate of poverty and unemployment. Astonishingly, several commenters to that post responded with the view that it is simply an example of first world “entitlement” to expect to earn enough as a Ph.D. student/adjunct/assistant professor to be able to afford the rent of a studio apartment, deal with a health challenge, or support dependents.
The absurdity of this claim needs no elaboration here and I direct everyone to the two respective comment streams to see the spirited reaction to this line of thought. In exasperation, I eventually wrote, “When did middle class become a dirty word? Why are American academics expected to embrace without a murmur the standard of living of other, less wealthy countries? Why is it somehow wrong and ethically tainted to want and expect a modicum of financial security at the end of a decade or so of advanced professional training? Why is the inevitable response to these critiques: find a different job? How have so many intelligent and educated people been so successfully indoctrinated that they’ll accept financial chaos and struggle as the ‘natural’ accompaniment of the academic career? The real financial disequilibrium of the tenure track (partic. in the humanities) is yet another layer of misinformation in the Ph.D. training enterprise, and one that like all the others is defended fiercely (especially in the humanities) so that the cult can remain unchallenged and intact.”
In any case, today I want to direct readers to another recent blog post by Triproftri, Let’s Get Real With Numbers: The Financial Reality of Being a Tenured Professor.
This blog post takes the discussion a step further—to life post-tenure. And to the reality that for many faculty outside the elite institutions, even tenure does not bring relief from the constant financial struggle that is the outcome of the depressed salaries of the humanities and many social sciences, which have lagged far behind the rising cost of living, particularly in expensive cities that are home to so many universities.
When I posted a link to this article on the Facebook page, once again the “entitlement” crowd showed up, telling professors to stop “whining.”
To which one respondent replied, “When did you decide it was OK to live in a society where any job from janitor to professor did not provide the means to meet the most basic human needs of secure dwelling and the capacity to provide for a family? This is a deeply rooted structural problem perpetuated by this cult of ‘personal responsibility’ which denies the existence of society, and dictates that is your own fault if you failed to read the tea leaves properly when first embarking on your career path.”
Indeed, as one regular TPII reader has pointed out, the problem is one of changing goals. What was fun and exciting in your twenties (sharing an apartment with three other people and living on ramen while getting a Ph.D. in continental philosophy for example), slowly becomes untenable over the course of your thirties and forties, as you acquire children, health challenges, aging parents, and the need for more secure living arrangements. But you didn’t (indeed couldn’t) anticipate that in your twenties. Because people can’t; that’s just human nature. What is wrong here is not the less than completely accurate career planning of individual Ph.D. students but the massive defunding of universities (with special ferocity in the humanities) that has deflated faculty salaries to 1995 levels while the cost of living skyrockets all around. Telling people to stop whining, change jobs, or change careers individualizes what is a structural problem—that the world of the university professor in the humanities and many social sciences has become increasingly financial untenable for those outside the elite institutions.