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Are universities America’s most exploitative industry?

Written By | Apr 6, 2017

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2017 — Every university graduate program should have one of these mottos over its doors:

“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’ intrate.”

“Arbeit macht frei.”

The tension in my den is seeping into the kitchen, the living room, and every other corner of the house. My wife is on the search committee for a new historian at our university, and at this point is hostile toward our colleagues, the university, and the entire system of graduate education in America.

Soon she’ll have to start writing, “I’m sorry, but we just don’t love you as much as you deserve to be loved” messages to the unsuccessful applicants. And at this point there are almost 200.

The academic market is warped and insanely cruel. Dozens of the applicants for our opening are more qualified in terms of publications and experience than most of our current faculty. They are former fellows at impressive think tanks and former lecturers at great universities. They have dozens of publications and degrees from some of the best schools in the world.

They’re impressive, and they’re desperate. They’re working in temporary jobs, as visiting instructors or adjuncts, who are paid by the class. The possibility of a full-time, tenure-track job is so tantalizing that 200 of them are applying to a small, state university hours from the nearest major airport.

Some already know that they aren’t on our short list, and they have asked whether they can send more information or what they can do to make their applications elsewhere more competitive. My wife knows that about all you can really say is, “we have so many applicants that our decision is almost entirely arbitrary.

“Yes, you were a lecturer at Duke and a fellow at the Grand and Marvelous Institute for International Affairs at Yale-Harvard-Princeton, but another candidate speaks Arabic, Hittite and Mandarin, and single-handedly reconstructed proto-Indo-European in order to understand the family life in Central Asian tribes in 10,000 BC. You have 50 publications and she only has 40, but she has a book with Oxford Press. No, there’s really nothing we can tell you to help you make your application any better.”

(And yes, I know good academics use “BCE” (before common era) rather than “BC” (before Christ), and no, I don’t use “BCE” for reasons that include there being nothing common about an era that doesn’t include a zero in its timeline, hence is obviously a fig-leaf for the Dionysian era system. Yeah, right, “common.”)

The academic market is brutal, and universities have irresponsibly—their irresponsibility rising to the level of academic malpractice—encouraged too many students to pursue doctorates in fields that demand doctorates only for teaching. American universities are producing more and more doctorates every year, while the number of teaching jobs is stagnant.

The average time to completion of the PhD is seven to eight years, with doctorates in humanities taking longer than doctorates in the natural sciences. The average humanities student spends more time earning a PhD than it takes to earn an MD and complete an internship.

In that time, that student is cheap labor to teach undergraduate courses (no need to hire faculty with PhDs to teach them), do the grunt work of research (you think of it as an apprenticeship or collaboration with a mentor, but it’s mostly just grunt work), and do the grunt work of grading. About the only thing you don’t do is wash your prof’s car and pick up the dry cleaning.

And then you compete with a hundred or more other people, many of them more brilliantly qualified as you are, for every tenure-track job that comes along. You work as an adjunct—the academic version of the gig economy—try to do some research and writing, and apply for every tenure-track opening you can find. And every year, graduate school crank out another ten candidates for every opening that will appear that year.

The stress my wife feels on the search committee comes from multiple sources—committee members can’t even agree on which questions to ask candidates, let alone which candidates they want to interview—but a large part of it is the sheer misery of knowing she will have to tell a lot of highly qualified people, “we don’t love you as much as you deserve to be loved.”

We might add, “we know, you’re desperate, and there are no jobs, and this is just wrong. You should have been encouraged into another area, and to stop at an MA or MS. You’ve been used to pad enrollment numbers and get more funding for current faculty, all of whom intend to keep their jobs until they’re 70 and have no interest in making room for you. That really stinks for you, young scholars. But hey, doctoral programs justify keeping PhDs employed, so schools will keep cranking new PhDs out.”

Please, please, please. Unless that doctorate is in a subject you just love so much that your life won’t be complete until you’ve mastered and done research in it, and unless you’ve inherited or married into money, don’t do it. Do something else. Wait tables in Hollywood and hope to be discovered. Gamble your grandma’s Social Security check at the dog track. Open your own meth lab. Just don’t put yourself through the soul-crushing misery of the academic paper chase.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.