An Inconvenient Truth (A Guest Post)

A reader got in touch to tell me about an infuriating experience at a recent conference. I asked her to write it up as a guest post, and here it is. Professors: stop the madness. Tell graduate students the goddamned truth.

Dear Karen,

I just attended the annual conference for the XXXX Association. All was going swimmingly until the final panel of the conference, which was led by a group of graduate students from an R1 program that is prominent in my discipline. They had clearly been sent by their institution to promote their program and encourage others to consider pursuing a doctorate there. There is nothing inherently wrong with this shameless self-promotion, I suppose, but when one of the PhD candidates on the panel announced that the interdisciplinary program boasted 60 PhD students, I was shocked, and then angered. You see, as a contingent faculty member who has been on the job market for a tenure-track position for 2 years, I wondered if these PhD candidates had any idea what lies ahead for them in their pursuit of the ever-elusive tenure-track assistant professorship.

So I asked them what their post-PhD plans were – if they planned to continue their scholarship through Academia or through an alternate course. The naivete of their responses demonstrates quite clearly what is wrong with higher education, and specifically, doctoral programs that aim to attract large doctoral cohorts.

I was befuddled when the first PhD candidate stated that if he couldn’t find a tenure-track position at an R1, there would be reasonable alternatives at elite liberal arts colleges. I then asked what I think was a much needed follow-up question: “How many of you are aware that only around 25% of faculty across all U.S. higher education institutions are tenured or on the tenure-track?”


Then, a very sweet female PhD candidate announced that she could continue her research for a while after her defense and write a book until she was able to land a job.

I asked her how she planned to fund her research and whether she had been awarded any external grants.

More silence.

I looked around the audience for some support. Yes, my questions were pointed, but I was delicate and supportive. These graduate students needed to consider the realities of the job market.

And then, a colleague I had met the day before chimed in: “If you can’t find a tenure-track position right away, if you’re married, you can always ask for a spousal hire. That’s how I got my job at XXXX University. My husband was offered a tenure-track job in XXXX Department, and he insisted that they hire me, too.”

At this point, I’m pretty sure I saw a unicorn dancing over a rainbow towards a leprechaun holding a pot of gold. Did that really just happen? Did my colleague just tell these students not to worry because they could be hired if their spouse was made an offer?

I was dumbfounded. And then, clearly defeated by the most illogical advice ever, I sat silently until the end of the presentation.

I turned to my colleague and asked if she had ever been an adjunct. She had.

I still don’t know what to make of her advice. Perhaps she was just being polite. Fortunately, a number of the PhD students on the panel pursued me afterwards and thanked me for my candor. I had given them something to think about. Mission accomplished, for now.

Since returning from the conference, I’ve realized that I may have been the only, or at least one of the only contingent faculty members attending my discipline’s expensive annual conference. At a total cost of more than $1200 for travel, hotel, meals, and the conference fee, I doubt many contingent faculty could afford to attend. I was fortunate, in that my institution paid the full bill for me to attend.

The under-representation of contingent faculty at my annual conference is egregious, especially given that it is a discipline devoted to social justice, but perhaps that’s a guest post for another time. And so I was the lone adjunct telling the inconvenient truth of the academic job market to a group of spectacularly bright young scholars, whose naivete is likely to continue until they officially enter the races with me and the thousands of other tenure-track hopefuls.

But hey, at least they have the option of a spousal hire…if they’re married, that is.

Yours truly,

One disgruntled adjunct

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An Inconvenient Truth (A Guest Post) — 16 Comments

  1. A few years back, at my sub-field conference, a panel entitled “what I wish I had been told in grad school” took place, from which we learned nothing terribly useful.
    The funniest bit came when a senior colleague (emerita from an R1) said we should be positive because there were four jobs in our field that year. In the room were about 40 of us graduate students and recent graduates in precarious positions looking for a job. Talk about tone-deaf.

    • Yes, we recently had a speaker who earned a PhD in history and was happy to get a full-time tenure-track job at a small community college where he teaches 5-5. In the talk, he emphasized the need for faculty to make connections to high school and community college students, where the message about history consists of “It’s required for graduation” or “It looks good on a college application” or “It’s needed for transfer.” He emphasized that the lack of full-time jobs will only get worse if students do not value history. In the general conversation after his talk, the R1 tenured faculty didn’t discuss anything about employment, adjuncts, or connecting with students. One faculty did mention that his son didn’t like AP U.S. History in high school…

  2. Sure. Telling them the truth is step one. Step two is doing whatever you can to make them as competitive as possible. Some truth-tellers think they’re done once they’ve “warned” their graduate students that they’re not going to get jobs.

  3. You must be in a very strange field if only contingent faculty are aware that there are not many jobs out there. In my field everybody knows this.

  4. spousal hire to the rescue? Seriously? My spouse and I work in two states and have never resided together and it isn’t an option unless one of us wants to teach 1 or 2 classes a year as an adjunct. And those liberal arts colleges are the hardest places to get spousal hires. Really, the misinformation that is out there. So glad my own national association has been talking about the realities of the market for many years now–too bad the old timers still can’t seem to understand the dynamics of the adjunctification process.

  5. I have also worked as a contingent faculty for years. I would like to see much more about the lack of full-time tenured faculty outreach to the contingent and adjunct colleagues. We make up an increasing number of the nation’s faculty, yet campuses, professional conferences, and academic journals still make no effort to help improve our inclusion, our work conditions, and our academic research opportunities. To make matters even worse, rather than fighting the increase of adjunct slots and the shift toward ever more contingent faculty, many full-time faculty actually take some the adjunct contracts–making extra money while at the same time indirectly supporting the use of adjuncts rather than demanding that more of the adjunct classes be grouped into full-time jobs.

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  7. I always considered spousal hiring an aberration. The person doesn’t get the position by virtue of being the most adequate but… by being married to the correct person. Medieval.

    I just picture myself this conversation: “Sorry, we won’t hire you but we will hire this other person who is less qualified than you because he/she is married to this other person”

    Or worse: “oh sorry, we don’t have any jobs open, but we will especially create one opening for this other person because….”

    But whatever.

    • When a colleague of my husband raised the possibility of a job for his wife at a SLAC they jumped at the chance to get her. For small (poor) colleges in undesirable locations a spousal hire might be a way to score a rock star, or two rock stars who they could never otherwise attract.

      As a trailing non-academic spouse I’m also harmed by the over enrollment in phd programs. In my country many people with lower degrees have full or part time research assistant jobs at universities. In a college town that’s the only sort of job I could get, but in the US they’re filled with phd students.

  8. This is unfortunately one of the truths which some PhD programs are totally ignoring or white-washing, all in the name of attracting more funding to their program from the university (via greater student enrollment). I still remember those Open Days of the department when they got their MA students and advanced undergraduates to stand in at the booth to hand out posters and brochures for the department, without as much as ONE PhD in the lot ironically. While there is definitely nothing wrong with promoting the department and its faculty strengths and so on, few of the faculty members actually tell us about the realities of the market in the midst of this professionalization process during the PhD. There are many requirements made of the PhDs such as the need to remain stoic amidst everything else, and while I can understand the attempt of most professors in my department then in wanting to keep our spirits up instead of being ‘doom-and-gloom’, there was too little done in the way of professionalization till the end, when some emerging new tenure-track faculty were then roped in to explain to us(graduate students) the ins and outs of the job hunt and so on. Being aware of the reality of not getting tenure-track is as important or even more important, and supervisors should do their best to make their students as competitive as possible prior to job market entry.

  9. I can certainly relate to this post. My first year and a half after graduation from a PhD program of growing prominence has been in order: unemployment; freelance copy-writing at an exploitative piece-work rate; working freight and deliveries at a local Home Depot for about a year; and now an entry level position with a Federal agency that requires a Bachelor’s degree. I am very thankful that my latest position might be a stepping stone to bigger and better things. It is research oriented, I don’t have to lift 60-90lb bags of concrete, and it is closer to my field than front-line retail work.

  10. When I was a graduate student no one ever talked about the job market or about the possibility that one of us would not get a tenure-track position. In fact between my advisor and I, the job market never came up as a subject. This was about 17 years ago. After I graduated, I had no idea what to do, how to apply for jobs, where to apply, and whether I was even in a position to apply. After sending out ca 50 applications, all I could get was a post-doc at a government institution I did not want to pursue, and which I thought would finally throw me permanently out of the tenure track dream. And I was right. However, this five-year post-doc also opened me a door to the job I currently have, working as a state scientist. It is not what I wanted, it is not what I have dreamed, but there are many good aspects to this job. Some of my colleagues who would not settle for a more practically oriented route and who have hung on to the tenure track dream are still unemployed. One of them particularly, who laughed at me when I announced that I would take the state job, has a family with three kids and has subjected them to live in a different state almost every other year for the past decade, while on post-docs and visiting professorships. Much has changed since our advisors got their jobs, the market is changing by the day, and very little is being done to help students adapt and find their place under the son after graduation.

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  12. I laughed and cried when I read this article. I am an adjunct faculty and have been for more than ten years now. This year I attempted to saw off the golden handcuffs and start fresh cross country. I thought with my new status of ABD and my ten years of experience surely someone will pick me up while I finish my doctorate. Two thousand four hundred and eighty five miles later I sit here reminiscing of the days/nights of teaching 6 classes but having health insurance and just enough to scrape by another month. Sighs, thanks for the blog …my therapy since Calgon can’t take me away.

  13. I only have an MA and have worked as an adjunct. I stumbled across your blog today while trying to find advice on formatting a CV (that was a great entry as well) and ended up finding this article too. I wish that more effort were made through all steps in academia to help those wishing to ultimately become full-time faculty be prepared for the process. I didn’t participate in research and publications as an undergraduate, other than creative writing endeavors. I didn’t do much beyond required coursework in my MA program, and due to personal issues had to turn down a GA position which would have included being the teacher of record for foundational courses. PhD programs want me to be multilingual, research oriented, have glowing letters of recommendation from multiple people…I feel like a complete failure compared to colleagues who are able to confidently apply to graduate programs. The only jobs out there for me seem to be adjunct positions with semester contracts if anything, and PhD programs will undoubtedly round-file my application. At this point, I’m trying to get into an M.Ed program to obtain a public school teaching license in my state. I realize my struggles are no ones fault but my own, but I still wish I had advisers who actually advised…

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