On Foregone Earnings, or the Economics of Adjunct Life (A Guest Post)

by Russ Burgos

In August 1994, at age 31, I started graduate school in the hope (widely shared) of becoming One Who Professes. In May 2015, at age 52 and stuck in the adjunct life like a bug on flypaper, I rather wish I hadn’t. It’s the money, you see; more specifically, the lack of it.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the teaching, and there’s something indefinably splendid about lighting upon a question, digging into it, and coming up with an answer. I enjoy conversations with brilliant colleagues and former students worldwide. I’ve even been known to have a passably good time at academic conferences, 8 a.m. panel times to the contrary notwithstanding. And while I do blame “The System” for the penury it imposes on contingent faculty, I’m not blaming it for my status as an auxiliary in the armies of academia. I made that choice for what were good reasons at the time; the fact that they’re no longer persuasive is an artifact of changes in my life and not in the university system itself.

Nevertheless, I rue the day that scholarship got its hooks into me. While it is true that money can’t buy everything, it’s just as true that it can buy pretty much everything you need. In a recent column at Chronicle Vitae, Kelly J. Baker wrote of her conflicted feelings at having turned down a retail management job with The Gap in favor of completing a Ph.D. in Religion. Her husband, she wrote, “asked me if I knew how much money I’d lost while working in low-wage academic jobs for 11 years. I couldn’t bring myself to do the math.”

I could; here’s what I found:

Based on my last full year of earnings in the “civilian” (non-academic) world and using the very conservative assumption that I would never have received a raise or moved into a higher-paying position than the one I had at age 30, working in the adjunct professoriate has cost me roughly $750,000 in foregone earnings to date.

Three-quarters of a million dollars. That’s a lot to pay for the privilege of teaching thousands of undergraduates without job security, an office to call my own, or even a trivial share of the professional support the university provides for ladder faculty. And the meter keeps ticking: every year I spend on the adjunct treadmill essentially costs me an additional $40,000 or so in foregone earnings – again, based only on what I was paid 22 years ago – and even controlling for things like commuting expenses (which I would have had regardless).

To put that another way, I would have to work two-and-a-half additional full-time jobs at the federal minimum wage simply to make up the difference, to earn what I was earning as a solidly middle-class worker two decades ago.

Bear in mind, these are back-of-the-envelope calculations; I was interested in the comparative statics of then and now, not in an econometric analysis of my personal finances. My main concession to mathematical rigor was to control for inflation, and so I used the handy dollar inflation conversion table maintained by Robert Sahr of Oregon State to put all my figures in 2014 dollars. Taking out my tax files, I computed both my “what-if” non-academic gross earnings and my actual gross earnings, ignoring changes in tax rates, retirement contributions, and the like (if anything, including retirement contributions and the foregone wealth they would have generated would only make the comparison more stark).

Drilling down into the numbers, the picture gets even bleaker.

Like so many adjuncts, I held out hope too long for a tenure-track position and so stayed committed to the social/professional norms of my field. I went to conferences; I wrote journal articles and book chapters; I maintained association memberships and subscribed to journals; I bought books. Those expenditures were pure losses – not even loss-leaders, because contrary to expectations they didn’t lead to tenure-track employment.
As a non-academic, I certainly would have traveled and bought books. But I have no doubt those travels would have been far more pleasant (no discounted conference hotel rooms next to elevators) and those books far less costly (it’s a rare day indeed when Narrow Market Academic Publishers Inc. puts out a volume for less than $100) – and every bit as satisfying. The difference between spending for pleasure as a civilian and spending for necessity as an adjunct is another example of what Elizabeth Keenan called the “compounding disadvantages of adjunct life.” The more you spend (and forego) to perpetuate your status as an adjunct, the greater the value you attach to having done so: It’s the teaching, the mission, the challenge of exploring new ways of thinking.

It’s self-delusion.

The fact is, people find rewards in all kinds of work. As an undergrad, I drove a forklift. There was satisfaction in a day’s work done well – umpty-ump pallets moved from Point A to Point B – and once the day’s work was done, it was done: no sampling books you’ll ultimately not adopt for a new or revised syllabus, no grading, no curriculum review, no interminable e-mail exchanges with students demanding grade changes, no drafting of conference papers that won’t out-live the conference weekend, no assembly of job applications for jobs you won’t get – all of which constitute loss of value in time, energy, and opportunity costs.

What I have done – and what I suspect a lot of adjuncts and soon-to-be-Ph.D.’s do – is selectively discount the payoffs to the Path Not Chosen so that the “life of the mind” looks better retrospectively. We systematically underestimate the life-satisfaction we would have received from a “straight job” and systematically overestimate our life-satisfaction from things like conference participation and teaching. It’s a form of what economists call “post-purchase rationalization” or the Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome, a cognitive bias that blinds us today to the full consequences of a costly – and bad – decision we took yesterday.

When students approach me about graduate school, I do my utmost to deter them, especially those who hope to become professors. Hope is not a strategy. The fact is, the professoriate is not a calling; it’s a way of making a living. It’s a job. Dressing it up as a “calling” is simply a way of avoiding the cognitive dissonance associated with the costs. As a contingent professor, I’ve come to believe the cruelest part of contingency is not the status, but the rent that status extracts. The brutal economic reality of contingency is this: Adjunct life is a pay-to-play system, one where the dollar value of foregone wealth – and the foregone quality-of-life that implies – is the only real measurement of career progression that matters.

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On Foregone Earnings, or the Economics of Adjunct Life (A Guest Post) — 10 Comments

  1. I’ve read a lot of sad adjunct stories these days. When I received my acceptance letters to grad school I was also being offered a permanent job in advertising (where I was working as a temp). I could have started a lucrative job in advertising at age 26 or so.

    I went to grad school. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I was blessed with the opportunity to study what is not just important but most dear to me. I discussed, I met wonderful colleagues, I taught brilliant students, I interrogated the questions that intrigued me, I read and read and read.

    Now I’m a manager in corporate IT. I make a good living, and I use my communications and research skills for other purposes.

    My life is great. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    • I had a somewhat different experience. I was enrolled in a graduate program and received, at the last minute, a prestigious endowed graduate research assistantship. I had previously turned down a job offer but after two months in my graduate program, it was offered again. As part of my research assistantship, I had to develop a data collection system for contracted research.It would have been tedious and non-instructive. I had an honest talk with my advisor who told me that if I finished my doctoral program in 4 years, I would have the opportunity to teach at less than 80% of what I was offered now. He said that I should take the job, and I did. I have never regretted it. He also said, he knew I would someday return to earn a doctorate. He was right. I did, and the only job I could find (jobs, plural really) was as an adjunct faculty member. I have been one for 13 years.

      Although I do not have the financial difficulties experienced by many adjuncts, I do understand their situation and have worked toward changing it as a union officer. But I am about to retire and my main regret is that I have so far made only a small amount of difference.

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  3. It is my personal opinion that you should recognize when to stop/start. Timing is of extreme importance. You should decide what you want to become and bang on it when you have to! This means look for a job outside academia or jump-start your path to become a professor.

    Academia is not an escape, is a way of life for the dedicated researcher that wants to kick ass. Not for the indecisive that wants shelter from the storm of looking for a job.

    Likewise, non-academic jobs are not for romantic idealists. And they are not going to accept people lightly. It also has it’s pitfalls.

    If you fall into indecisiveness and complacency, you’ll find yourself in the worst of all places… Limbo. There, you wont find stability or means to improve. There is no job security or even social benefits! Why? Simply because this is not a place meant to stay. It is to be a transition. Either in or out. You forget your direction… and you get stuck in there!

    • It is for dedicated researchers, but unfortunately, those researchers have to teach, too. I got into academia–and fell in love with it–for the teaching. You cannot succeed in academia in most places if your first love is not research.

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  5. I always used to read these adjunct horror stories and think that the system is broken and these poor adjuncts are just abused. However, my thinking has changed a bit. There are a few issues here. In this instance, I can’t find a single C.V. on the web for the author of this article. I found his personal webpage, but no c.v. Second, the author appears to have made political comments on the internet (I imagine a search committee running away full speed after seeing such). Third, I found six cites on Google scholar attributable to this gentleman who currently teaches (I believe) at UCLA. If you’re going for full tenure jobs at good universities (as I imagine this gentleman was attempting) you’re going to have to have a lot more pubs. There’s probably a lot more to the story, but my impression from a short search is that this gentleman 1) isn’t going to publish a lot and 2) could embroil my institution in a social media nightmare. Neither of these attributes bodes well for a tenure-track position at a Tier 1 institution.

    • This is why he didn’t get a permanent position: “Michael Thies, a political science professor and chair of the Global Studies Interdepartmental program, said that though Burgos is a lecturer whom students love, the fact that he does not contribute significantly to the department’s research was a primary reason for the decision to not offer him a new full-time contract…”

      Once again, it’s the research vs. teaching issue. Why do universities insist on treating academics who teach as something less than valuable? Universities would not exist without the students, they’d just be private companies doing research. Maybe it is time to either force universities to create ladder positions for teaching students or to just do away with teaching students altogether. Students don’t have to worry about debt and there will be no need for adjuncts or “instructors”.

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