Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post IV

Following up on the article From Graduate School to Welfare in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I am featuring stories of Ph.D. poverty here on the blog, contributed by readers. I will post them on Thursdays over the next month or so. I believe that one of the most important tasks before us is to publicize the poverty associated with graduate school and adjuncting for so many, to break through the denial of Ph.D. programs, and to expose the conditions of labor in the academy to the public at large and in particular to tuition-paying parents.


Here is my story: I finished my PhD in theology in 2004.  I did not look for a job right away because my children were still in high school and we really wanted them to finish where we currently live.  Three years ago, after looking for more than a year, I received an offer for a tenure-track job.  That offer lasted exactly 24 hours before it was rescinded– they told me they did not have funding for the position.  (I believe them, as they have not yet filled that position.  But really–check before you offer!)  I was then able to get a one-year appointment at the University of [Small Ohio Town], making $35,000 for 140 students in four sections a semester, 3-4 new preps. Yes, I know.

That one-year was renewed twice, which means that I’ve had the one-year for three years.  The department would like to keep me, but again, they are apparently out of money.  (They’ve brought in a new chair from outside, which was much more expensive than they anticipated–or so I was told.)  During these three years I have applied for many jobs, and have received a few interviews and even one campus interview, but no job offers.

[Small Ohio Town] has been lovely, but I really need a job with some security for my family.  About 18 months ago my husband was diagnosed with a major illness. This illness killed both his brother and sister, and another brother has also been diagnosed, so it’s not a real surprise to us, and we are living along in the same way we always have.  However, it limits my prospects in some ways, because he needs to be near a major teaching medical center (think Cleveland Clinic), so we need a major metropolitan area.  In other words, places like Helena, Montana, are out.

I can’t figure out why I haven’t been able to get a TT job yet, and neither can many of the other people I’ve spoken to.  One person has said that my degree is “stale” and hiring committees are more apt to go for people just out of school as they have more potential. Others say that I am qualified for an associate professor’s position. I have no idea what to think about any of this. I can’t make heads or tails of the contradictory advice I’ve been given. I’ve been reading your website and have identified a few things in my documents, so I’m hoping that we can work together to make these stronger.  I’m fairly sure that I’m burying my strengths, but I don’t know how to bring them out in the best way.  Also, I’m pretty sure I still sound like a graduate student.  I have many questions about this whole process.

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Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post IV — 11 Comments

  1. I’m so sorry to hear about that initial experience of a job offer being rescinded.
    You don’t say anything about your research publications since the dissertation. All fields are different, but having served on search committees for assistant professors (at an R-1), I would say that dissertations and PhD degrees drop quickly in market value if not followed by publications. If since 2004 you have published articles that make an impact in your field, and have a book manuscript well underway and/or under contract, then your friend may be right that you have an associate prof-level CV. If not, then the person who suggested your dissertation is “stale” may be closer to the mark.

  2. RE: staleness. I’ve also heard that hiring committees prefer fresh Ph.D.s on the assumption that they can start them at a lower salary. Have people found that to be true?

    Your $35K is higher than what I’ve been getting at a big R1 public flagship with the same courseload–I hope both our situations turn around. But on a 4/4 load, it’s hard getting article submissions out, especially when your classes don’t line up with your research.

  3. We adjunct PhDs get low pay because we are doing work for which the supply is high relative to the demand. It’s an inevitable consequence of the fact that we are following a dream which many other smart people have.

    Getting a tenure-track job in a university is like getting a position on a major league sports team. We the adjuncts are equivalent to minor league players. The best of us will get called up to the big leagues; most of us will not. That fact was obvious to anyone with their eyes open when they signed up to play the game. So why do so many people feel that there is something unjust about it?

    • This is a very common view, but it isn’t very convincing. Between 1975 and now, as a percentage of faculty as a whole, FT tenured or tenure track faculty have been about halved-those are fairly decent jobs with benefits-while reliance on part time faculty has almost doubled-those are the badly paid jobs with no benefits. To use your own language-various forces have been shrinking the “big leagues.” it doesn’t get well explained by some idea that the majority of the folks who’ve moved into academia in the past 40 years don’t have “what it takes.” “Business model” management in higher Ed is a better explanation.

    • I can’t speak for anyone else, but I will say that I don’t think I was given a clear view of the job scenario when I was in grad school. I went into an M.A./Ph.D. program, so I went in straight from my B.A. The whole time I worked toward the degree, it was to prepare me for being a tenured professor, and there was no discussion of what to do if that dream didn’t happen. I wasn’t aware that these programs were pumping out way more Ph.D.s than there were jobs. I just always expected that I would land a job after finishing. I didn’t mow I’d be up against 150 other people every time I applied. And I think I could be sort of happy being an adjunct if I had job security and was paid on par with the full timers. I don’t expect to make full time salary, but I also don’t think it’s fair that I make 1/3 of what they make hourly when my work in the classroom is the same as theirs. So to sum it up, i just finished the Ph.D. in March, but I already feel disillusioned and disheartened.

  4. If I’m doing the math correctly, there was a four gap between finishing your doctoral degree and going on the market – which may well have something to do with difficulty landing a TT job.

  5. Are you looking on the coasts? I’m not sure where you’d shop theology, per se, but there are several religious universities in the Puget Sound region, and your husband would have access to UW Medicine, Swedish, Harborview, the Cancer Care Alliance (if that’s his unnamed major illness, or if it’s related), and several other medical groups with varying specialties and research goals (we’re not just planes and software out here). Spokane WA has a couple religious universities and if they don’t have the medical facilities you need, it’s about a 45 minute commuter flight to Seattle.

  6. This blog has kept me sane for the last month, all the way up to my latest chapter deadline. I have one more to go and then about a minute of free time before I enter into the post-doc application phase. Thank you for your excellent posts.

    Ah, and don’t go anywhere… please!

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