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.
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.
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.
One disgruntled adjunct