Poor, Priviledged and Pedantic—Why America Ignores Under-Employed Ph.D.s

Photo 26by P.D. Lesko

The latest NSF report, “The Survey of Earned Doctorates,” relies on data from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. The report concludes that a high percentage of newly-minted Ph.D.s complete school with “significant debt” and without jobs. Yet, colleges continue to enroll increasing numbers of doctoral candidates.

Cue up “Casablanca” and Claude Rains’s Captain Renault: I’m shockedshocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

Get ready for the annual hand-wringing (Ph.D.s/academics), outrage (friends of Ph.D.s/non-tenured academics), fauxoutrage (academic administrators/staffers) eye rolls, head-scratching and, yes, mostly yawns (the rest of America, including 21,000,000 undergrads).

Laura McKenna, a former Political Science faculty member at Ramapo College and a contributing writer for The Atlantic, frets in a piece about the NSF study posted on April 21, 2016, “Yet few people seem to be paying attention to these findings; graduate programs are producing more Ph.D.s than ever before.” Her article is titled, “The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.Ds.”  McKenna goes on to write, “So, you would think that this kind of information, which has already been discussed in many news articles and books over the years, would dissuade universities from admitting more students.”

Evidently, Laura McKenna is unaware that higher education is a trillion dollar industry accustomed to gorging on a groaning buffet of public and private money. Higher education is singular in that it is a trillion dollar industry whose spending on administrative pay, perks and benefits is relatively unencumbered by federal or state oversight. To make matters worse, higher education institutions routinely thwart media scrutiny and reporters’ efforts to unearth public records. Public colleges and universities—most of which post bare bones financial data online to satisfy the rubes—continue to be some of the most obstructionist and secretive nonprofits in the country concerning the exact particulars of their spending.

How is this possible? Politicians use higher education happy-talk to sway voters. Bernie Sanders would wave a magic wand over Wall Street and have the money to make higher ed. free to all. In 2008, then Senator Obama told voters: “We need to recruit an army of new teachers. I’ll make this pledge: If you commit your life to teaching, America will pay for your college education.” In return, higher education uses politicians. Since 2006, American colleges and universities have spent $1 billion to lobby Congress. College presidents and their lobbyists roam the halls of legislatures free to buy, bully, pressure, lobby, cajole and browbeat elected officials for increasingly large allocations.

The Atlantic’s Laura McKenna isn’t the only Ph.D.-holding education writer suffering from naiveté.

On April 26, 2016 The Chicago Reader published an essay by a Chicago adjunct named Dawn Kennard. Since earning her doctorate in 2014, Dr. Kennard has “juggled a trio of teaching jobs at three different Chicago universities.” Dr. Kennard begins her piece: “I’ve had a sore throat for six straight weeks. To soothe my pain and preserve my voice, I’ve tried the typical home remedies: drinking fluids, avoiding cough drops with menthol (which dries out vocal cords), and sitting in my steam-filled bathroom. If I really wanted my pain to end, I’d have to give my voice a break and go to see a doctor. But I can’t do either of those things because I teach six college courses and have no health insurance.”

tape-mouthAbout 25 percent of the country’s non-tenured faculty hold Ph.D.s. Yet, most of the higher ed. hand-wringing and media attention focus on unemployed and under-employed Ph.D.s. It can easily be seen as akin to mewling about one’s broken down Maserati and publishing pithy essays bemoaning the damned inconvenience of personal jet travel.

In 2008, 40,766 people earned doctorates from American universities. American universities awarded 52,760 doctorates in 2013, up 3.5 percent from nearly 50,977 in 2012 and nearly 8 percent from 48,903 in 2011. According to data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of adults completing a Master’s degree grew by 18 percent from 2008 to 2013.

Today, one-half of one percent of all Americans hold Ph.D.s. and about 8 percent of Americans hold Master’s degrees. Graduate and post-graduate degreed individuals, then, are a very privileged lot, academically speaking. In theory, education is supposed to translate into higher lifetime incomes. According to data from the College Board, a Ph.D.-holder’s average lifetime income will be between $2.5-$4.1 million. Someone with a Master’s degree earns in a lifetime, on average, between $2.2-$3.9 million. The lifetime earnings of a high school graduate, according to data from the College Board, are about $1 million.

Put these facts together and we have at least a partial understanding of why the average American just can’t relate to under-employed and unemployed Ph.D.s.

Then there’s the salary gap. Why do some of our nation’s brainiest people work at faculty jobs that include enormous pay gaps between women and men, full-time and part-time faculty? The AAUP’s recently released salary survey revealed a shocking full-time/part-time faculty pay gap. The highest paid full-time college faculty in the U.S. earn $260,000 per year. The highest paid full-time adjunct faculty earn $26,000 per year. That’s just cra-cra, as my 16-year-old might say. We live in Michigan, where teens are not required to be paid the entire minimum wage ($8.50), if an employer so chooses. My son has had his job for 16 months and is now looking for another, thoroughly irked that Kroger (a regional grocery chain) is paying him $7.25 per hour. I can only imagine his outrage if he were to find out his pay was 1/10th that of the other courtesy clerks bagging the same groceries.

My 16-year-old is “salty” about the fact that his 15 percent pay gap amounts to lower earnings and less disposable income. Needless to say, he doesn’t have a Ph.D.

In The Atlantic Laura McKenna asks good questions but offers no answers: “Why hasn’t all this information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors—why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic? Are people risking so much in the hopes of getting a cushy job with a six-figure salary and no teaching requirements? Is it because academia is a cult that makes otherwise sane people believe that there is no life outside of the university? Are graduate programs failing to inform their students about the realities of the job market?”

As Facebook might say about one’s relationship status: it’s complicated. Or not, as my son’s limited experience facing down a pay gap might suggest.

Dr. Dawn Kennard’s Chicago Reader piece is a shot at Chicago colleges that capped the number of courses individual adjunct faculty can work rather than classify those adjuncts as “full-time” employees under the rules of Obamacare. College administrators are predictable. They can justify hiring 75 new interim vice associate assistant deans of living student engagement rather than provide benefits to adjunct faculty.

Before we pile on Chi-town colleges and unis, however, I just finished reading PSC-CUNY’s union contact. In it, the New York college faculty union exempts its thousands of adjunct faculty members from due process when fired— a perk reserved for full-time faculty union members only. The contract caps the total number of hours adjuncts can work on any CUNY campus. The union negotiated a total $14,000 raise for tenured profs over the three-year contract, and a total $16/hour raise for Adjunct Professors over the three-year contract.

If Dawn Kennard worked at CUNY and were covered by that union contract, she wouldn’t have health insurance until she’d taught six or more credit hours each semester for two consecutive semesters. One wonders, naturally, how often CUNY adjuncts find themselves teaching two classes and then a single course in the subsequent semester. After all, there are interim vice associate assistant deans of living student engagement needed on every CUNY campus.

If the under-employment of Ph.D.s and their salary gaps isn’t enough to enrage the American people, might Ph.D. college debt and penury do the trick? The NSF study states, “More than 12 percent of all Ph.D.s complete their doctoral programs with over $70,000 of combined undergraduate and graduate student-loan debt.”

American rage? Not so much.

We know that people with Ph.D.s will, on average, earn up to $2.5-$4.1 million over their lifetimes. Thus, $70,000 in student debt seems relatively manageable.

According to data collected by the Institute for College Access and Success, “Seven in 10 seniors (69%) who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2014 had student loan debt, with an average of $28,950 per borrower. Over the last decade—from 2004 to 2014….average debt at graduation rose at more than twice the rate of inflation.” These data are for the undergrads that graduate. Isn’t is fair to say that $30,000 in student debt to someone earning minimum wage is somewhat more insurmountable than $70,000 in student debt to someone who has earned a Ph.D. and has exponentially more job opportunities?

It won’t surprise anyone that the NSF study revealed that humanities Ph.D.s were least likely to find a job after finishing their doctorates, at 54.8 percent. It may be a surprise, perhaps, that in 2013 Ph.D. recipients in the life sciences and engineering didn’t do much better: 58.5 percent of the former and 59.3 percent of the latter had offers for either employment or further study lined up after graduation.

It’s important to point out that from B.A. to Ph.D., the percentage of America’s higher education students who fail is, literally, about the same. Half of all undergrads drop out and half of Ph.D.s find themselves under- and unemployed at graduation. A significant portion of undergraduates and, to a lesser degree Ph.D. graduates, struggle with student debt.

The Big Winners in this Game of Diplomas? America’s richer than Croesus (and tax-exempt) colleges and universities. They get their money whether or not undergrads matriculate or Ph.D.s find employment.

So should Ph.D.s just shut up and stop publishing essays about having to rely on food stamps and public assistance programs to make ends meet? Absolutely not. These people are our historians, truth-tellers about the corruption and disintegration of the system of higher education in our country. Just as the Romans (and posterity) needed Suetonius and his salacious, racy, gossipy history The Twelve Caesars to document the corruption and disintegration of the Roman Empire, America needs its under- and unemployed Ph.D.s. to keep writing. America needs these Ph.D.s to use their superior skills of observation, research and analysis to document the ongoing corruption, profound greed and failure of our system of public higher education.

Americans, as always, reserve as their right to ignore history and every salacious, racy, gossipy word written about higher education–even as they continue to fund the enormously expensive production of every soon-to-be unemployed Ph.D.

14 Responses to "Poor, Priviledged and Pedantic—Why America Ignores Under-Employed Ph.D.s"

  1. Wojtek Sokolowski   May 12, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Two observations. First, the life time average of $2.5. million is misleading because it pretains to PhDs who have already lived through their life time, not those who just graduated and still have some time to go. It may well be that the average life earning of this new cohort of PhDs will turn out to be much lower than the quoted figure.

    Second, the problem is not unis profiteeering from overselling credentials to unsuspecting dupes (although that is a questionable practice), but the demand for college credentials in the job market. Many jobs descriptions require advanced degrees for jobs that do not require advanced research skills. The choice is between entering the rat race and hoping to win the lottery or not entering it and knowing that the only job option available is menial service jobs. To put it simply, good jobs are scarce and to have a chance of getting one, one must accumulate many college credentials.

    This whole discussion is yet anotheer example of liberal Democrat obsession with education as a panacea for all social problems. If everyone could get into Ivy League uni, all social problems would be solved. Consequently these folks finds it surprising that folks who followed that mantra end up on the unemployment roll. The problem is not education but the economy that puts profits before people, but this is the subject for another discussion.

  2. Olivia Lake   May 12, 2016 at 8:51 am

    So glad I didn’t waste another 3 to 5 years of my life! I just laugh when I consider the balance between the pittance a Master’s in English earns and the student loans I took to get that degree. What a joke our higher education system has become. If you are considering teaching at the college level in humanities, just don’t.

  3. Lee Hall   May 12, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Please don’t leave adjunct professors of law and legal studies out of the conversation. We are not PhDs (we have JDs and some of us hold LLMs) but we are part of the affected population.

    • AdjunctNation Editorial Team   May 12, 2016 at 10:15 am

      @Lee Hall Thanks for pointing that out! Since those with professional degrees, such as JDs, are perceived to have multiple job paths (teaching, private practice, employment in a law firm, public service, etc….) what’s the picture really like in your experience?

  4. MG Gainer   May 12, 2016 at 8:47 am

    What kind of bullshit is this?!

    • AdjunctNation Editorial Team   May 12, 2016 at 8:59 am

      @MG Gainer That large numbers of Ph.D.s are under- and unemployed you mean?

      • MG Gainer   May 12, 2016 at 9:02 am

        No, that the writer made it sound like those folks don’t deserve any empathy because they’re privileged.

  5. Patrick Drazen   May 12, 2016 at 8:46 am

    I’m in my mid-sixties, and I’ve been warned off–courteously–from even thinking about going for a PhD. That window has apparently closed, regardless of whether I can bring anything new or different to the table.

    • AdjunctNation Editorial Team   May 12, 2016 at 8:56 am

      @Patrick Drazen Patrick do you teach?

  6. LeNie A Adolphson   May 12, 2016 at 8:45 am

    People really don’t care about the plight of adjuncts. Only adjuncts care and some don’t need the money or benefits and they don’t care either.

    • AdjunctNation Editorial Team   May 12, 2016 at 8:54 am

      @LeNie A Adolphson The plight of adjuncts has been written about in major newspapers across the country, sometimes multiple times. The Atlantic Monthly, Gawker, Slate and other online sites have done features on the subject.

      • LeNie A Adolphson   May 12, 2016 at 10:25 am

        Writing about it is not enough. We need a MLK direct action campaign.

    • AdjunctNation Editorial Team   May 12, 2016 at 10:16 am

      @LeNie anything you think would prompt people to sit up and take notice?

      • LeNie A Adolphson   May 12, 2016 at 10:22 am

        Yes I have numerous ideas. First, it needs to become more publicized. However we need a national movement for unionism. It was embarrassing to see McDonald’s workers demonstration more radicalism than adjuncts. Where is that spirit in adjuncts. How about going on strike.


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