Ph.D. and Starving: The Plight of the Adjunct

Sep 07, 2011

For the past several decades, colleges and universities have relied more heavily on adjunct faculty - essentially part-time professors who are generally not eligible for tenure or institution-sponsored employee benefits. The Education Insider takes a look at what appears to be a devaluation of the Ph.D. in higher education employment realms.

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by Erin Tigro

adjunct starving phd tenure

Cost of Obtaining a Ph.D.

According to data compiled from the National Center for Education Statistics from the 2007-2008 academic year, the average price of graduate school tuition and fees cost just above $17,000 annually. Consider that those who earned a Ph.D. probably spent 3-6 years pursuing their doctoral training; that's approximately $50,000-100,000 in addition to any undergraduate school costs, and let's not forget basic life needs. Assuming that students take out loans, paying back the cost of a Ph.D. education can cost a fortune. But what's the payoff?

Adjunct Instructors in Higher Education

A 2010 survey published by the American Federation of Teachers Higher Education union indicated that the majority of undergraduate courses throughout the U.S. were being taught by temporary faculty. Postsecondary institutions have made a habit of hiring these professionals on a contractual basis, often for one term at a time. In such situations, colleges' obligations to adjunct personnel are minimal. Incidentally, contingent instructors are typically denied participation in faculty meetings and are not usually provided with office space or paid office hours.

Wage Distinction Between Adjuncts and Full-Time Tenure-Track Professors

Adjunct faculty pay is not what you'd think. To many, the common sense and seemingly fair method for calculating adjunct wages would be to derive an hourly rate based on full-time professor salaries, but this is not the case. Many adjuncts battle indigence, few making just enough to get by. It is commonplace for these highly educated professionals to take on jobs at more than one local community college or university. Some of these Ph.D. holders may even undertake positions outside of the college system.

Dire Straits for Adjuncts

In gathering information for a project detailing the lives of adjuncts, documentarians Debra Leigh Scott and Chris LaBree got to see firsthand how many of these temp faculty get by. One adjunct they interviewed was living in a shelter intended for addicts, another was on the verge of homelessness and still another was about to move below ground level to a family member's basement. Scour the number of adjunct-specific blogs and you'll read about others whose temporary home was a friend's couch, a college laboratory or a van. How is it that these academically accomplished individuals can earn such meager wages and be driven to live this way? In response to their findings, LaBree and Scott began an emergency fund and are accepting donations to help the adjuncts they spoke with. In addition, the American Federation of Teachers is trying to rectify the wages and working conditions for adjunct faculty.

Read on for information about alternative jobs for humanities adjuncts and related Ph.D. holders.

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