New Survey Suggests Adjuncts May Be Unrealistic About Their Career Prospects

photoby P.D. Lesko

Fasten your seat belts. There’s a new study out, the “College Graduate Employment Survey,” by Accenture. Who’s Accenture? From the company’s website: “Accenture is a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, with approximately 261,000 people serving clients in more than 120 countries. Combining unparalleled experience, comprehensive capabilities across all industries and business functions, and extensive research on the world’s most successful companies, Accenture collaborates with clients to help them become high-performance businesses and governments. The company generated net revenues of US$27.9 billion for the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, 2012.”

The methodology used for the study is a bit dodgy. The survey’s authors explain: “Accenture conducted an online survey in the United States of 1,010 students graduating from college in 2013 and entering the job market, and 1,005 participants who already graduated college in 2011 or 2012. The survey was conducted between March 22 and April 1, 2013.” Who knows if people could figure a way to fill out the survey multiple times, or the people who did respond were actually who they claimed to be? Not Accenture, and not us.

The Chronicle of Higher Education posted a piece about the survey (without linking to the document). They chose to focus on one of the four major findings: “The study identified a wide gap between the expectations pending 2013 college grads have for employer-provided training and what they are likely to receive when they start working — more than three-quarters (77 percent) of 2013 college grads expect their first employer to provide formal training, but fewer than one-half (48 percent) of 2011/2012 college grads surveyed say they received training in their first job after graduation.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Young people have unrealistic expectations about _____________________ (fill in the blank). That’s not news. That’s what parents complain about over coffee in the morning after their high schoolers have stumbled out the door to school. It’s what college faculty roll their eyes about digitally all over the Internet every day. Google the phrase “Why I deserve an A.” Read ’em and weep (or laugh), depending on your mood.

I was struck by two different findings:

  • 41 percent of workers who graduated from college in the past two years (2011/2012 college grads) say they are underemployed and working in jobs that do not require their college degrees
  • 42 percent of 2011/2012 college grads expect they will need to pursue a graduate level degree to further their career, more than twice as many of pending 2013 college grads, 18 percent of whom expect to do so

photoDoes the word “underemployed” sound familiar? You really need a Ph.D. to teach Intro. to Composition? Anyone out there earning $20,000 per year with a $50,000 Master’s degree? Now, 42 percent of college grads say they will need a $50,000 Master’s degree or a $100,000 Ph.D. in order to get the job they want. If the job is working their way along the tenure-track, we know how that trip might just end. Underemployment.

In many respects, those of us who went to graduate school between, say, 1980 and 2000 expecting to teach full-time in Academe were unprepared for the reality that was the higher education job market. I say “us,” because I graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan. In some ways, I was more naive than the average recipient of a graduate degree that year. The joke among MFAs is that the MFA degree is an academic Ponzi scheme. MFAs are graduated to teach more MFAs who are graduated to teach more MFAs—I think you get the picture, short story, script, poem or creative nonfiction essay.

What does this all mean? Well, 70 percent of college faculty work off the tenure-track. When I launched Adjunct Advocate magazine in 1992, 35 percent of faculty worked off the tenure-track. Of those who teach part-time nowadays, about half do so because they choose that path. The other half, are highly educated, underemployed people who either can’t see a way out, or believe that a jump to the tenure-track is their way out. The truth isn’t pretty. Long-term adjuncts are perceived as “damaged goods” by the tenure-line and tenured faculty who populate hiring committees. Some job adverts even specify that applicants must have full-time teaching experience. Long-term adjuncts are no more “damaged goods” than long-term tenured faculty. However, teaching more than 3-4 years off the tenure-track (and particularly part-time) will make landing a full-time job more difficult.

National academic labor union leaders have been arguing for the past several years that part-time faculty are damaging student success and retention. This is a horridly politicized argument used to press state legislators for more funds to distribute to full-time faculty (including funds earmarked for part-time faculty; these are given to full-timers who teach overload courses). In actuality, colleges and universities which habitually hire large numbers of temporary employees at the last moment, don’t adequately orient and train them, and don’t thoroughly evaluate and support them are damaging student success and retention. Meanwhile at the local level, union leaders try to bargain for seniority for part-time members (sometimes). It’s a truly Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Adjuncts, meanwhile, are caught in the abyss of the underemployed and the underpaid.

This recent study suggests that there will be no end to the underemployed and underpaid in Academe. Why? Because if 42 percent of the 6,000,000 undergraduates who earned degrees in 2012 go back to graduate school, and even 10 percent of them end up teaching part-time, that would increase the pool of the underemployed and underpaid by 300,000 people per year. In short, there will continue to be a steady supply of newly-minted temporary faculty eager to get a little teaching experience in order to be better qualified to jump onto the tenure-track.

It’s tough to think that the job market in higher education could get any more crowded and competitive, particularly in the humanities. There are groups, such as the New Faculty Majority, pressing for better wages and working conditions. There are adjunct activists who push for the fair treatment of the non-tenured. At base, however, the only person who decides in which direction a career goes is the individual. A graduate degree is a very valuable commodity. Colleges need to do a better job teaching people how to leverage one into a job that pays well. This recent survey suggests the underemployed need to do a better job of having more realistic job expectations.


2 Responses to "New Survey Suggests Adjuncts May Be Unrealistic About Their Career Prospects"

  1. Disgusted   September 26, 2013 at 11:54 am

    Good Riddance Higher Ed

    After leaving telecommunications in 2005 I decided to put my graduate degree to work and, at age 47, do what I always wanted: Teach in college. Does anyone out there have a time machine I may borrow?

    After 8 years of dwindling classes, treated like a migrant worker, no retirement, poverty wages, no benefits, consistently being lied to, told I was an employee yet paid by “contract” to “contact” and ignored when asked how this can be, (How in the f— can one be an employee and a contract employee simultaneously?) pressured to give high grades to show high graduation rates by a complicit, collectively corrupt administration, teaching so called college students with academic skills below the 8th grade level, rampant cut and paste plagiarism, desperate, hapless adjuncts with no courage to stand and fight for their rights, among many other factors, I am done.

    Question to High education administration America – How can you sleep at night? Question to adjunct nation professors – How can you sleep at night?

    I think of my father and mother and their father and mother and their ilk. Generations that fought company wars, bloody union battles, earned worker rights, and valued the professor as the voice of authority in the classroom. All fought for is lost. Goodbye higher ed. Perhaps America one day will return you to highest ranked in the world however, I doubt it. The trend is to dumb down higher Ed. like our devastated k-12 system and relegate the “professor” profession from those who profess the body of knowledge to part time paper grader. May you pay for your sins.

  2. Dr.P   May 6, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    GREAT article. This is the meat of the matter where adjunct faculty are concerned. There is a steady and ready supply of people willing to be underemployed and underpaid, if even for a year or two. It’s enough so that colleges and universities are in the position of always having a buyer’s market. I agree that the methodology of the survey may be less than ideal, but the reality of the results is something most adjuncts just can’t argue with.


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