Plan B

January 27, 2011 at 3:20 pm 11 comments

| Gabriel |

Over at OrgTheory, Brayden discusses the lack of a meaningful “plan B” for people whose academic career doesn’t pan out. I’m convinced that one very concrete way you see the repercussions of the lack of a plan B is that so many people are willing to work as lecturers for very little money and under unpleasant conditions (no job security, half your time on the freeway, very heavy teaching loads, little prestige, etc). These are talented people, they are after all PhDs, and it seems like they could have more stable and remunerative lives outside of academia. The fact that they don’t exercise this option reflects either a strong nonpecuniary attachment to academia or a more objective lack of salvage value to the highly asset specific human and social capital they developed in graduate school. That is, staying in academia under bad conditions reflects either emotional or practical barriers to a “plan B.”

The AAUP likes to think that we can solve this by organizing lecturers and demanding better contracts for them and/or a greater ratio of ladder:contingent faculty. This may be true on the margin, but the big picture is that academic labor has a right-shifted supply curve and this drives down the market clearing price. Politics and institutions can only take you so far away from the economic fundamentals, especially in a sector whose primary stakeholders (i.e., ladder faculty) would resist redistribution of compensation and privilege and whose other major stakeholders (i.e., state governments and tuition-paying students) are already straining under Baumol’s disease and wouldn’t welcome a further rise in total payroll implied by an adjunct labor contract. You see a similar set of dynamics with artists (also chapter 4 of Creative Industries).

The dirty secret of academia is that we elite research faculty get to have large graduate programs, low teaching loads, and cheap course-buyouts because there is a large pool of people who are so attached to academia that rather than pursue “plan B” they willingly form a spot market for teaching at about $7000 total compensation per class (or less than half the cost of having a ladder assistant professor teach the class). Giving our graduate students the emotional and practical resources to take plan B seriously would undermine our power as people who depend on a flexible labor force and our self-esteem as people whose self-image is based on training a new generation of scholars, but would be an act of humanity to the people who spend five to ten years being trained by us but nonetheless find it doesn’t work out as planned.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: .

Shufflevar update Escaped quotes and syntax highlighting


  • 1. mike  |  January 27, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    Gabriel — I think that you hit the nail on the head regarding subsidies that tenure-line faculty receive from the pool of cheap labor, but don’t quite take it far enough. Large graduate programs themselves provide cheap labor (TAs, RAs, etc.) that allow for tenure-line faculty at large institutions to pursue their own work cheaply while not having to work.

    The secondary effect of large graduate programs is an increased labor pool that makes it even harder to find the few tenure-line jobs available. If there are 10 top-10 programs and each graduates 7-10 PhDs per year; it is not difficult to see how this process plays out. Those who can’t land jobs end up in the adjunct pool and, by virtue of demographic composition, add inertia to the increasing size of that labor pool.

    One real solution would be to shrink the size of graduate programs, though that is even more unlikely than other solutions.

    I also have to quibble that adjunct unions would only make a difference on the margins. While it is true that faculty are not likely going to give up their share of the pie, it is also true that their share of the pie is shrinking due to the growing ranks of the contingent labor supply. To the extent that adjunct faculty are successful at organizing, they a) drive up their own cost because universities have to provide competitive salaries and benefits and b) they make labor less flexible because they want provisions for job security. This means that it is less advantageous for administrations to hire adjuncts relative to tenure-line faculty (compared to the current situation) that could — in theory — make tenure-line appointments more attractive (or at least less unattractive). What is more, while tenure-line faculty are unlikely to want their subsidy taken away, they themselves are not organized and likely to react by a) organizing themselves and demanding more benefits, including more tenure-line appointments or b) failing to organize and losing part of their subsidy to provide better salaries and benefits to the contingent workers.

  • 2. Noah  |  January 27, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    Like the post. I think there may be some skills that are much more transferable than others. Knowing how to run a regression and interpret the results can be sold to a number of private employers. In some cases, I’d think soc grad students could have an advantage in that labor market, because interpreting quant output is a rarer skill than performing computations. Being a professional, private sector ethnographer is a lot harder. Tough market to get into, few jobs, hard to legitimize your role to other corporate actors, etc.

    • 3. gabrielrossman  |  January 27, 2011 at 8:02 pm

      there actually is a private sector demand for ethnographers, mostly in marketing, but it’s probably not as big as the one for quants.

  • 4. drschweitzer  |  January 28, 2011 at 4:12 am

    Tenured faculty are very privileged, no doubt. But I think that tenured faculty are part of a star economy. It’s better to think of your chances in the academy more like training yourself at a place like Julliard or FIDM, and when you think about it that way, it’s more believable. For every Frank Gehry, there are dozens of underpaid and very unhappy architects enforcing parking codes in a crap city offices, and Gehry has dozens of minions that work for less than they should for crumbs that fall off that table. All of them in design school started off thinking they were going to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright. This town is full of blondes with big fake endowments trying to be the next starlet waiting tables and doing commercials—most actors make less than $10K on their profession. Should I be crying in my soup for them, too? Didn’t dozens of people warn them they wouldn’t make it?

    Nobody cries for musicians who invest years in practicing the cello because they want to play in a symphony orchestra…only to teach high school band. Or golf pros who make a few fast bucks on the pro tour and spend the rest of their careers getting paid little to golf at boring clubs with middle-aged WASPs in ugly pants. There are dreamers who dream and strove and wound up with their Plan Bs everywhere, working for cheap. It’s not like failed academics can’t go to law school or business school or plumbing school if they get fed up, and it’s not like they have a corner on broken dreams and crapshoot payoffs. Shouldn’t all those folks get paid more than the crumbs they accept for remaining on the margins of the youthful dream?

    The key factor of star economies is that at the margin, little merit separates the chosen from the unchosen. It’s unfortunate but true.

    Moreover, I know of no faculty advisor who DOESN’T tell their graduate students that the market is tough. I certainly do. I tell them that if they want a ghost of a shot they better be out in four to six years, they’d better be writing, and they’d be networking, and even then it might not work out for them. But I am in a field where many jobs exist outside of the academy.

    I went to grad school 10 years ago. EVERYBODY thought I was nuts when I chucked a six-figure consulting gig to back for my PhD. EVERYBODY. So painting jobless PhDs as victims here makes me wonder: when I went back to school, everybody—everybody from my grandfather who neither read nor spoke English to Polish diplomats I hardly knew–warned me against doing it because–and I quote “You’ll never get a job.” And if you do, you’ll get crap pay. Ten years ago. I’m in a field where PhDs get jobs all over government in addition to the academy–I could have gone straight back to full-time consulting. But still, nobody supported the decision except my spouse.

    If you become attached to the academy on the words of your advisor, you are not thinking straight.

    I knew going back there was a chance I wouldn’t make it; I took that risk with very clear eyes. And I worried about it every step. Of all my peers at UCLA who got t-t jobs versus those that stay adjuncting, I’d actually say we got our just desserts in the labor market. None of the people still adjuncting wanted to or were able to move from LA or California. By contrast, I took a job in a location I knew I’d HATE living in to get my toe onto the tenure track. It’s how I’d built my lucrative brand in consulting, too: I started off taking jobs nobody else wanted in places that nobody wanted to go and making good on it. All the rest of us who got and stayed on the t-t did the same thing, going to FSU or some other place we’d rather not while the people on the adjunct track said things “I can’t move from LA.” It’s hard telling how true that perception is from the outside, but it’s amazing how many of my PHD students say that, loudly, and then change their mind when an offer materializes from somewhere. This is not a market where you get to be geographically picky until you are a real-deal hotsy totsy.

  • 5. drschweitzer  |  January 28, 2011 at 5:05 am

    As long as I am blithering… What subsidy?

    Out in Moo-U, where nobody wanted to live, I was in a department that had two classes taught by adjuncts (retired faculty and city employees.) Instead of the major structural differences you suspect, all of the faculty taught all of the courses–the adjuncts taught classes they had wanted to teach or liked over the years. And the regular faculty handled the undergraduate advising.

    But we all still taught 2/2 loads. We just offered fewer credit hours and charged more for them than if we had had more adjuncts. So where’s the subsidy? We generally got paid the same as people in other backwoods public universities.

    As to the whole “grad students are cheap labor and save us all from really working”…I suspect that varies by field and by program. I do enjoy interacting with good graduate students, but few in my world are worth what they cost. Our PhD program is a revenue loser to our unit–I suspect quite a few are, as unlike English graduate students, few in my field will come without good support and that means we pay their tuition, not them.

    And I’ve spent more time re-doing work that my grad students have done than I can count. They deserve relatively lower wages because they aren’t that well-trained. Let them clean the data? Um….yeah. Only if I want to completely re-do it from start to finish. My grants support graduate students, I spend a lot of time training them, and I get little product from them because they are just learning. I’d be MUCH better off with an ambitious peer, post-doc, or just paying myself as we’d get more done in less time.

    I can count on one hand the PhD students who were worth the time I’ve invested in them, compared to the dozen or so I’ve tried to get rid of because they were, simply, hopeless time sinks. This whole “lazy prof living off graduate students” image does not hold up in my field, and I strongly suspect it’s mostly cultural fodder. Graduate students are expensive to me and to programs, so I, for one, have no interest in taking in more rather than less of them. I publish extensively with my graduate students, which means I rewrite what they write and keep their name on the publication to try to help them get a job someday. They need me way more than I need them.

    It’s hard to vet who is going to come and who isn’t, and it’s even harder to judge who is going to succeed and who isn’t at admission time. And then it’s hard to throw them out of programs once they get in. We can say we are going to shrink programs to 3 admits, and we make our selection and our wait list, and some of those people accept and then flake and then we wind up with 2 people in a class, nobody on the wait list coming, and then we have people who feel like they “don’t have a cohort” and we can’t offer them any classes (we have to have six registered in order to offer a class at my uni).

  • 6. Nick Cox  |  January 28, 2011 at 5:30 am

    I enjoyed drschweitzer’s bitter but telling analyses. For “just desserts” read “just deserts”.

  • 7. drschweitzer  |  January 28, 2011 at 5:42 am

    @ Nick unfortunately, there are way more skipped words and glitches than that. I have trouble seeing text on screen and am too lazy to move comments to a word processor to cut and paste…

  • 8. gabrielrossman  |  January 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm


    not sure to what extent you’re arguing with me and to what extent you’re arguing with mike, but i completely agree with you about tournament models. in fact, when i lecture my undergrads about tournament models in pop culture i usually explicitly compare it to academia. however, my real point was that when people lose a tournament they should probably do something else and that many of them do not has some interesting consequences.

    also agree with you about the uselessness of the median RA. with the exception of people who do work that involves “inter-coder reliability coefficients” and that sort of thing, most of what we need done is surprisingly skilled labor and most grad students lack the theoretical or technical sophistication to do anything we need done. at the level of quality that’s expected in top soc journals statistics is hard and writing a lit review is even harder. memo to all first year grad students or undergrads considering going to grad school in the social sciences: spend a summer learning to use Perl or Python and you’ll never starve. programming for text processing and web scraping is a skill that’s fairly easy to pick up, most faculty (especially those with grants) need, and most faculty don’t have, so it’s perfect for somebody interested in being a useful RA.

    • 9. MishaTeplitskiy  |  February 15, 2011 at 1:05 am

      Gabriel, I’m glad you threw that bit about Perl and Python at the end. And I think that sort of advice extends beyond being a useful RA — it’s a solid, or at least part of a solid, Plan B.

      In fact, what if instead of campaigning for small cohort sizes or what have you, grad students took and were encouraged to take the occasional CS or GIS or whatever class, specifically in order to bolster a viable Plan B? I imagine you’d find fewer PhD’s adjuncting..

  • […] stirred up some trouble over at Code and Culture because I pushed back on Gabriel’s post on the problems faced by adjuncts. Rossman’s breakdown of the contemporary academy’s treatment of adjunct is pretty […]

  • 11. Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.  |  February 17, 2011 at 2:48 pm


    Although you did not want to go to FSU (if I understood correctly) I hope you enjoyed it when you worked there. Florida State University is an amazing university. I am a little biased because I received my BS and Ph.D. there but it was weird to see you classify it in such a manner.

    I know of no other FSU other than Fayetteville State University so please forgive me if you meant this uni or another one.

The Culture Geeks

%d bloggers like this: