Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The simple economics of adjunct abuse

Let me start out by saying I can't imagine how much it would suck to work your butt off, go through grad school, get an advanced degree, and then end up teaching as an adjunct for $2000 / class with no benefits, no job security, and if the situation persists for more than a couple of years, little hope of getting a tenure track position.

But basic economics gives us a reason why the pay is so low and the benefits so miserly:


The real culprits here are indeed universities. Not the ones that hire adjuncts at low pay, rather the ones who continue to recruit students and turn out MAs and PhDs into a market with little demand for them.

Even though universities are seemingly hiring more adjuncts than ever, adjunct wages are not rising because the supply is expanding just as much.

If schools couldn't fill their teaching schedules at these low prices, then they would have to raise the offered wage.

The problem of adjunct abuse will only be resolved by reducing the excess supply of advanced degree holders.

People, if you expect to get an academic job out of grad school, investigate the job placement records of the programs you are considering. When you pick an advisor, investigate the job placement record of that faculty member.

Don't settle for anecdotes. Get the real, full, data. And be realistic. If they "always place their top students" realize that it might not be you (and that the definition of "top student" may simply be the one who got a job).

When you think about how to spend your time during your graduate program, think about what activities will make you more attractive to academic employers (hint, it's probably not your transcript).

In my field of economics, that means get some teaching experience and try to get at least one publication before you hit the job market. The less prestigious your school, the more important this self-certification of quality becomes.


James Oswald said...

One would expect prices to fall if oversupply were such an issue. I can see a few reasons why they may not:
1. Market power of universities. Universities might not be able to restrict quantity of teaching in general, they can limit their own acceptance rates and since reputation/prestige is limited perhaps universities in general may be able to act in oligopolistic ways.
2. The price of teachers relative to other costs a university faces are small. Administrators, class rooms, sports, etc are taking up larger parts of tuition.
3. University employment is a insider/outsider field. No matter how far adjunct wages fall, a university must still pay large amounts to already tenured professors, and so their total wage bill might not fall by much. The trend is for fewer tenured professors, but getting to equilibrium takes a long time.

Norman said...

I think the argument in the post is that the current adjunct wage is in equilibrium, and that increased demand doesn't create a shortage of adjuncts (leading to rising wages) because of the ever-expanding supply. I may be mistaken, though.

I do think there is something to be said for market power being part of the issue with adjuncts, especially since many colleges and universities hire adjuncts from a local labor market (I have never heard of a college paying moving costs for an adjunct). Adjuncts whose partners have established jobs may not be able/willing to move, which means there will generally be a very small number of potential academic employers.

Angus said...

Yes Norman, but if there wasn't so much supply, adjuncts could/would move and schools would compensate them.

Anonymous said...

Additional possibility - it's really hard to measure teacher quality (and there's little incentive to do so in detail) so there's no practical difference in hiring a great/terrible adjunct professor. Just need to find someone who's minimally qualified (PhD from somewhere or other in something vaguely relevant). This prevents adjunct wages from being pushed up by quality and experience; no tie between professor quality and what they make is another way to put this - adjuncts have no recourse because the only way out is to be great, but there's no real incentive for universities to reward greatness.

Unfortunately the group most likely to end up as permanent adjuncts are probably the low-end PhDs; the best grad-students on the margins of the tenure-track presumably have value in non-academic fields.

Jack PQ said...

Over time, as enrollments increase, the demand for teaching increases but the demand for research does not. Thus, the proportion of tenured or tenure track professors among all instructors falls over time.

Getting teaching experience and a publication will help, but overall in the short run the number of positions are fixed. We cannot all improve our chances by all getting teaching experience and publications. It's all about what field you're in. Humanities and non-econ social sciences: good luck!

Peter M said...

Well, my father is an adjunct prof of Economics and he doesn't mind it so much. However, he is late in his teaching career and really enjoys being able to control his work load and classes. It's all perspective I suppose.

Angus said...

If one is happy with their work, that is a very good thing. However the interwebs are full of Adjuncts bemoaning their fate and villainizing their employers.

John henry said...

I've been adjuncting since 1974 off and on and pretty regularly since 1982 (regular= 2-4 courses per year), mostly in Southern New Hampshire U's graduate business school but also in their school of education and in an engineering school.

I did my MBA in night school (Not SNHU) while working full time and most of my profs were adjuncts. My Collective Bargaining prof was a labor lawyer. My compensation Mgt prof was a compensation management consultant. One of my Operations Mgt professors was a plant manager and so on.

Seems like there are two kinds of adjuncts:

1) Those like myself who do it as a part time job for enjoyment, learning, experience or whatever. The money is nice but just lagniappe.

These are people teaching what they know and do in their real careers.

I would also put Obama in that category.

2) Those who think being in academia is a good thing and will do whatever they have to, suffer whatever kind of crap, to do it. They try to string together a bunch of adjunct classes to make a living.

I have very little sympathy for most of the second. Seems to me they should go out and get a real job.

Oh, their PhD in English lit doesn't qualify them to do anything? Well, drive a cab, work at McDonalds whatever. Just stop whining about how badly you are treated as an adjunct.

John Henry

John henry said...

Re Obama:

I put him in the first category because he was teaching what he actually did in his day job.

Doesn't necessarily mean he was any good at it.

It does allow his muppets to claim (falsely) that he was a Constitutional Law Professor.

It brightens the resume a bit.

John Henry

pkd said...

"The real culprits here are indeed universities". Anyone who can manage to get a PhD in a given field should be smart enough to check out the market in that field before they invest in the degree. Why just blame the universities for this oversupply? Aren't the PhD students in a better position to judge the job market?

Anonymous said...

"Anyone who can manage to get a PhD in a given field should be smart enough to check out the market in that field before they invest in the degree. Why just blame the universities for this oversupply? Aren't the PhD students in a better position to judge the job market?"

True but academic markets are fickle and can change rapidly.