Throughout the United States, children are told that the key to financial success is higher education and college. The assumption is that the more education you have, the more successful you will be. However, the growing horde of academics living in poverty points to the fact that Master's and PhD degrees are no savior from a lower class existence. While academia as a career often provided a solid middle class existence in the past, the current job market facing PhD graduates is insanely competitive and demoralizing, not to mention potentially impoverishing.
As an academic myself, it is always difficult to explain how the academic job market works to my friends and family, who believe that if you get your foot in the door at a job and work hard, eventually you will move up the ranks of your position. However, in academia, the job market is entirely different and based upon certain hierarchical "tracks", and once you are tracked into a lower position, it becomes very difficult to move up. Everyone attempting to become a professor at a university is dreaming of the tenure track position. These positions are full time, contain longevity, and have health insurance and retirement packages. Before the neoliberal restructuring of higher education began in the '80s, 70 percent of faculty-teaching students were full time and tenure track and 30 percent of faculty were part-time adjuncts or lecturers.
Today, that statistic is reversed and only 30 percent of new academic hires are in fact on the tenure track. That means 70 percent of new hires belong to some sort of subordinate class, with low job security and benefits. The mid-level track in the academic job market is comprised of Visiting Assistant Professors and Lecturers. These positions have an actual salary and many include health and retirement benefits. However, these positions are often yearly renewable contracts and no real job security exists for people on this job track. In addition, Lecturers in particular are expected to teach more classes than their tenure track peers, for a lower salary. Once tracked into lecturer positions, many people find it difficult to move up the ladder as they teach so many more students and often do not have the time to publish their research. The top tier of academic jobs requires ever increasing numbers of publications to even get an interview, let alone the job. Publishing a piece of research in academia is an arduous process; many journals take over a year to finally reject your article and you cannot submit it to any other journal during that time period.
While lecturers face many obstacles in moving their careers forward to more stable positions, the bottom rung of the academic tracks can barely afford to feed themselves. Large numbers of the people teaching students on colleges and universities are adjunct professors. Adjuncts have at least an MA degree, but many have PhDs and they are being paid slavery wages by most universities. Adjunct pay and conditions vary widely by state, but many adjuncts make only $2,500 to $3,000 for a three-credit course that is disbursed over an entire 15 week semester. When I was an adjunct for a semester during graduate school, I taught two college level courses and earned $600 biweekly. It is not terribly shocking that I had to take out student loans that semester. Yet, for adjuncts who have completed their degrees, loans are not an option and many earn less than people who only finished a high school diploma. Most adjuncts must teach a few classes at a number of different institutions to make a poverty level wages, well under $30,000 a year, and have to rely upon public assistance, such as food stamps.
In what appears to be a disturbing and shocking twist, pursuing the highest degree in your field can potentially mean earning less money than a high school graduate. Everyone assumes that following the course of increasing education will ultimately lead to higher incomes and better careers, but the plight of adjunct faculty demonstrate that this is not always the case. As universities are run increasingly under a corporate model, what can be done to provide decent wages to the large army of adjunct labor that teach many of our students? Surely, faculty that is overworked and living in poverty will not provide the best education experience for their students.
As more and more people are bringing the plight of adjunct faculty to the public's attention in the media, increasing numbers of adjuncts are beginning to organize for increased wages and benefits across the country. On February 25 of this year, a nationwide walk-out strike is planned in order to increase awareness on campuses about the important labor that adjuncts perform. The National Women's Studies Association has consistently demonstrated solidarity with movement to recognize contingent faculty's labor and this past November they passed a resolution to provide contingent faculty with travel funds and created a new interest group to address contingent faculty issues. I argue that we need to continue creating awareness of the exploitative situation going on currently at our universities and encourage them to organize.