What Is Free? Elitism and University Careers Advising

I wrote last week about my good times at the American Academy of Religion conference. And it was indeed a very good time. But there was one incident that I can’t stop thinking about, and I want to share it here. Because, it gets at the elitism that creeps into some efforts to assist with Ph.D. professionalization.

As I mentioned, one member of my panel at the AAR was a representative of ImaginePh.D., a newly launched career-guidance tool that is the brainchild of the Graduate Careers Consortium.  The Graduate Careers Consortium is an organization of graduate level careers advising staff at universities around the country.  When I first learned of the GCC in about 2013, I immediately got in touch. How great, I thought—an organization that is entirely devoted to Ph.D. career advising! I’d love to join! But when I inquired, I was told, “sorry, no, no people running businesses allowed at present.”  “Really?” I responded. “That seems a shame!” “Yes,” said the director of the time, “we’ll be raising this for further discussion, so please check back.”

I promptly forgot, until I think last year, when encountering a column written by GCC members in Inside Higher Ed,  I decided to check back in.

“No,” I was told, in no uncertain terms this time, “no businesses.”

Huh, ok.

Fast forward to my AAR panel. When it finished, I turned to the representative, and said, “you are here from the Graduate Careers Consortium, right?  That’s the group that won’t allow people like me to join, yes?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I think they need to change that policy,” I said.

“They,” she replied curtly, “will NEVER change that policy.”

“Why not??” I asked.

“Because GCC members provide services,” she responded, turning to face me, with an expression of great self-righteousness, “for FREE!.  And they do not want to include any members who provide services that have to be paid for.”

Huh, ok.

“You do know that careers centers services aren’t free, yes?”

“Oh no, she said, with wide eyes,” they are COMPLETELY FREE to the students!  No student has to pay ANYTHING for the help.”

Errrr… ok…

Let’s just unpack this a bit, shall we?

What, exactly, is being called free in this scenario? First off, students have already purchased access, or membership to the career services office at their institution, through some form of financial transaction through their tuition or labor or both.  And how is this access gained?  For the majority fo students, through debt.  Crushing debt.  Financial immiseration that forecloses a financially stable future.  But it’s….”free”?

I guess here too we quietly sweep five and six-figure student debt under the rug, just like their academic departments do.

Let’s move on. At many institutions, post-docs are excluded, adjunct or visiting faculty are excluded, as are students on leave.

And the thousands upon thousands of Ph.D.s who lack the institutional affiliation—well, they are out in the cold.

Career services are not even like (public) university libraries, where one can go in and read a book or a magazine.  No pay-no access.  But, it’s “free,” donchano.

Let’s go further.  Are the advising staff working for free? Hmmm… not last I checked. So, what’s paying their salaries?  Oh…. not just student debt, but also:  adjunctification!  Yes, adjunct exploitation makes the full-time salaries of staff and faculty possible.

But those who draw those salaries?  They are pure as the driven snow, donchano.

And then there are endowments. Endowments that generate income from corporate profits.

But those whose salaries are paid by those endowments?  Pure! So pure! #Pure

Even when they are literally advertising their corporate sponsors ON THEIR WEBSITE.

As a current student, you…

“As a current student, you….”

Universities are parasites on corporate profits, as salaried faculty and staff are parasites on student debt and adjuncts.

But never forget, the services they provide are “free.” And they, the providers, are innocent as a day in May.

Let’s examine the way that “free” here is weaponized as a synonym for “virtuous.”  As if, the purveyors of this advising are operating in a sphere entirely free of self-interest.

So these advising staff, who are not volunteers, who draw a salary that is subsidized by exploitation at every level, as well as corporate profits…. believe their work is somehow not self-interested, and therefore more pure and moral that the work of those in business.

What is the sleight of hand, what is the gaslighting, the projection, the cult-thinking, that takes the system of labor exploitation and debt peonage that underwrites the contemporary neoliberal university …. and holds it up as a place of ethical “purity”?

What self-serving mystifications, what delusions of elite status make this possible?

Answer: the very same self-serving mystifications, and delusions of elite status that characterize the faculty and advisors in Ph.D programs, who persistently, even in 2018 [and 2020!], refuse to consider the Ph.D. as vocational training for a wage-paying job, and insist on keeping their graduate students in a state of enforced ignorance and dependency on ivory tower illusions of scholarly “purity” – ie, the illusion that academic work is somehow separate from concerns of money, financial gain, and profit.  Who continue to push a “Do What You Love” rhetoric even as scholars have shown Do What You Love (DWYL) is a core mechanism of late-capitalism exploitation.

University faculty and staff believe that because an intermediary institution takes corporate gains and doles them out into monthly paychecks into their personal bank accounts – obscuring the exploitative and predatory financial foundations that make those salaries possible –  they are somehow independent from capitalist relations.  The resulting state of denial then allows faculty and career advisors to abnegate their responsibilities for the actual job training that Ph.D. students desperately need to confront the catastrophe of the academic job market, minimize debt, and prevent financial disaster.

GCC members would, I assume, not encourage their Ph.D. job seeking clients to work for free (or would they?)  But they then in their organizational practices characterize only certain forms of getting paid as proper, and other forms as unseemly, or debased. And those of us who run business (business that explicitly call out the exploitative underpinnings of the neoliberal academy): ethically compromised.

Any, back to the conversation.

“You do realize that post-ac businesses like mine and many others provide loads of targeted professional and career information for free?” I asked.

Her, with finality: “We’re. Not. Going. To. Include. Businesses.”

Me, emphatically: “Well, I think that is a wrongheaded policy.”

Her, tightly, avoiding eye contact, angrily gathering up her papers: “Well. I’ll be sure to pass that message along.”

And there it ended.

Relating this conversation later to another postac business owner, I learned that the GCC does allow businesses into its conferences – but only in a segregated category, as “vendors.” In other words, a professional organization that purports to prepare PhDs for nonacademic professional careers others the world of businesses in its own professional practice.

Only in the minds of salaried staff and faculty  – and those graduate student still fondly invested in the “life of the mind” goods they are shilling – are university teaching and advising services “free.”  Only for those whose identities depend on elitist proclamations of the “anti-capitalist difference” of the academy is academic wage work innocent of the profit motive.

But more importantly, the rhetoric of “free service” weaponized by the GCC reinforces the self-serving academic delusions that have left Ph.D. students so vulnerable to the existing economy in which they must survive.  This is the attitude that quietly communicates to desperate Ph.D.s that some career options are ignoble and wrong, while university affiliation, no matter how precarious, is noble. [2020 Update: The pure scholar will “give until it hurts.” 


This attitude is pervasive, it is bullshit, and it keeps people trapped in an exploitative cycle of precarious labor. It is time to expose the lie behind what the university and organizations like the GCC call “free.”

Graduate students deserve better.

About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


What Is Free? Elitism and University Careers Advising — 6 Comments

  1. Long time reader, first time commenter. This raises a really important set of points. The purity complex you identify made me prick up my ears, as I’m kind of interested in fake virtue and the damage it does in many contexts, and just read a book I think everyone should read: Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, by Alexis Shotwell. Some really interesting links could be made between exploitation in the academy (‘fake free’), and the way Shotwell shows that the idea of purity is held up to justify all kinds of unhelpful things in other spheres. Anyone else read it and thought this? Keep up the good fight on this blog!

  2. Ha, this makes me laugh. I work at a Household Name Corporation that does a lot of campus recruiting. Career Service Centers charge for everything. $1500 for a booth at the career fair, $500 for access to a resume book, etc. My employer just sees this as a cost of doing business, but I snort at the notion that a career service center is acting like it’s a nonprofit aiding parolees or something.

    A lot of career service centers also are bad. Or at least this was the experience with mine at my undergraduate and graduate alma maters. Both functioned as little more than placement centers and gave pretty generic advice. Both of my alma maters are small, elite private schools that paid low- and mid-level staff terribly, so turnover at the career centers was high.

  3. I am really glad you are here and writing about this.
    I am new to the blogs and website. Kudos!
    As an adjunct for some period, I have become aware of the rotten state of the academy as an employee. I went back to fulfill my dream because I loved the natural sciences. Corporate downsizing helped me in that decision. I thought the corporate world was unethical and devoid of scruples but actors in the academy make Machiavelli look like Mother Teresa.

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