The ivy sweat shop

Young PhDs are scrambling for a few tenure-track jobs, working as poorly paid adjuncts for years on end and getting very, very angry, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg.

Rebecca Schuman’s “naming and shaming” of UC Riverside’s interviewing process set off an angry online debate, including Job Market Rage Redux and How the Tenured Are to the Job Market as White People Are to Racism.

“Academia is now one of the most exploitative labor markets in the world,” writes McArdle.

It’s not quite up there with Hollywood and Broadway in taking kids with a dream and encouraging them to waste the formative decade(s) of their work life chasing after a brass ring that they’re vanishingly unlikely to get, then dumping them on the job market with fewer employment prospects than they had at 22. But it certainly seems to be trying to catch up.

. . .  it’s not surprising that so many academics believe that the American workplace is a desperately oppressive and exploitative environment in which employers can endlessly abuse workers without fear of reprisal, or of losing the workers. That’s a pretty accurate description of the job market for academic labor … until you have tenure.

The academic job market won’t improve until graduate programs admit fewer students, she writes. “A lot fewer.” Some PhD programs should “go out of existence.”

But of course, this is saying that universities, and tenured professors, should do something that is radically against their own self-interest. That constant flow of grad students allows professors to teach interesting graduate seminars while pushing the grunt work of grading and tutoring and teaching intro classes to students and adjuncts. It provides a massive oversupply of adjunct professors who can be induced to teach the lower-level classes for very little, thus freeing up tenured professors for research.

Only a third of university professors are tenured or on the tenure track and only 19 percent of non-tenure-track teaching jobs are full time.

Winter is coming to academia, writes Walter Russell Mead.

About Joanne


  1. I’m writing in defense of Broadway and Hollywood. Never thought I’d say that. Yes, the chance of the brass ring are vanishingly small. But that info is very transparent, even emphasized in every possible way! There is no equivalent to thousands of university admissions offices with RECRUITING budgets. Nobody recruits for actors to come to Broadway and Hollywood. They show up. There are for sure some ripoff training programs which will take dollars of would-be actors eager to shed them. Broadway does not use unemployed actors. It does not benefit from them. It does not want them. If you told Broadway producers “We have a plan to reduce 22 year olds with a dream showing up by 50%”, they’d say “Great!” What would universities say?

    • You have a point there. In Hollywood the pop culture movies and shows emphasize that show business is hard to break into. Characters in movies and TV shows joke about working at Starbucks while waiting for a break, and actors frankly mention their struggles when accepting their Oscars or Emmys. Hollywood is very transparent compared to academia.

  2. It’s not just adjunct faculty and grad students teaching basic courses, but undergrad TAs as well. A close family member was a TA in the business school of a large state flagship campus for 3 semesters; actually teaching one of the required core courses (and the others had TAs as well). The 32-34 undergrad TAs had a 3-hourweekly session with the course prof, in which he went over what they were to cover in the 3-hourweekly class which they each taught, and each TA had to have 6 office hours per week, posted in advance, in the department offices.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    There is also a certain amount of active dishonesty. Students are told that even if they don’t get a tenure track position, graduate school will have given them “transferable skills”–researching, writing, teaching–that they can use to get a good job outside academia.

    But the ability to do research in a specific discipline is pretty specialized, and academic prose is notorious for being difficult to read. Teaching in college is different from teaching in K-12 or in some company’s training program.

    I suspect most academics don’t deliberately lie about this. They are honestly clueless. They feel, as do lots of grad students, that if you’re good enough to get into grad school, of course you should be able to get a good job. But anyone who goes into a PhD program as an investment in a career is probably going to be disappointed.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    One would think that somebody working his way up the ladder might actually SEE what is going on. At some point, you have to ask what they were thinkiing.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      If you are a person who has always done well in school and has always liked school, it is easy to convince yourself that you can make a good life by staying in school, especially if teachers (and admissions committees) are telling you academia wants you.

      That dream is, to a significant extent, delusion, but delusion seems to be easy when belonging is involved. To take an extraordinarily common example, lots of otherwise clear-headed people believe at the beginning of a sports season that their team is “going to go deep into the play-offs” even though non-fans realize that is highly unlikely.

      One could argue that such delusion doesn’t have real world consequences but sports teams see it differently. Nobody markets to fans with honest predictions. “We were mediocre last year but we might be slightly better this year.” And bookies make a lot of their money from bets on the home team.

  5. Mark Roulo says:

    This does not seem to be new, however.


    Two articles transcripted from 1994:


    No PhD’s Need Apply:


    Today’s College Teachers: Cheap and Temporary:

  6. Jane the Grad Student says:

    STEM fields are pretty interesting in this regard. We know that it’s somewhat likely to get an industry job (new drugs, new bridges, etc. have to come from somewhere), but the prevailing attitude is that if you take one of these jobs, you probably can’t hack it in “real science.” If you do decide to hack it in “real science” (read: academia or its close government cousins), you will be expected to finish your PhD and take 1-2 subsequent post-doc positions which pay about as much as a decent receptionist job. Your worth, and likelihood of actually getting tenure, will then depend on your ability to bring in more money for the university (which most often comes from gov’t sources, and therefore, taxpayer dollars). This breeds an attitude where even those profs who *do* get tenure, don’t want to teach classes, because every hour spent teaching, grading, or preparing lessons, is another hour they are not in the lab or competing for more grant money. At our moderately-competitive university, there is a striking disconnect between teaching faculty and research faculty because of this. As an added bonus, it spills into undergrads having limited opportunity to work in actual labs, because the research faculty aren’t teaching classes and the teaching faculty aren’t doing research. *sigh*