Another Note to Prospective Graduate Students

Back in April I wrote about resources for persuading naive students that graduate school in the social sciences will not lead to lucrative and secure academic career.

Indentured ServantAt first glance, a recent plan floated by administrators at The Johns Hopkins University appears to contradict me. The plan emphasizes:

  • promoting junior faculty in greater numbers instead of hiring senior faculty from other universities (granting tenure from within improves the career outlook for those who have already been hired),
  • reducing the number of doctoral students (fewer people getting PhDs increases the chances that those who do get PhDs will find full-time tenure-track academic positions).

However, part of the plan means replacing doctoral program teaching assistantships — doctoral students who receive financial support in the form of tuition waivers, wages, stipends, and/or medical benefits — with part-time adjunct faculty who hold master’s degrees. Adjunct instructors, of course, have no job security at all — they are hired at will on a semester-by-semester basis — and they receive no medical or retirement benefits. The end result (if the plan is implemented as written) will be that the undergraduate courses now taught by people who are pursuing their PhDs will be taught at a much reduced cost by a pool of adjuncts.

Various publications estimate that anywhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of university courses are now taught by part-time labor. The opposite conditions existed twenty to thirty years ago. Why has “adjunctification” of post-secondary education occurred so quickly? Josh Boldt, a contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education and an adjunct instructor at the University of Georgia, attributes adjunctification to shifting baseline syndrome — the tendency to measure change against what was observed at the beginning of one’s career, rather than against an objective standard established at a fixed point in the more distant past. Faculty don’t perceive the magnitude of the changes that have been underway in the academy for the last thirty years because most of them haven’t been employed nearly that long. And those same faculty are advising current college students about whether to go to graduate school.

As a side note, as the plan at Johns Hopkins indicates, even the most prestigious and wealthiest universities in the USA are not immune from adjunctification. In many cases, their current cost structure is unsustainable, and shifting baseline syndrome makes undergraduate instruction an easy area of operations in which to pinch pennies.

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