Higher Education

On the Market IV: Paying for the Privilege

There are lots of articles out there about the hardships endured by early-career scholars, particularly those trapped in the precarious employment of the adjunct system. A shiny new PhD all too often amounts to little more than a ticket to several years of un(der)-employment, migrant work on the VAP* and post-doc circuit, and, more often than not, the burden of repaying the student loans that come due the moment one crosses the convocation stage in those snazzy rented robes.

Finishing the PhD is an important landmark, and one that many students rightly look forward to during the preceding years of hard work. Unfortunately, the end of student status also means the end of institutional support just at the time most young scholars will need it most: during the years-long academic job hunt.

Institutional support is not only an economic issue, although it is that, too. Any funding a PhD student might have been lucky enough to have during their degree will be gone. Furthermore, they will find themselves ineligible for the kinds of academic employment often reserved for graduate students, such as teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and even lecturer positions.

The end of student status also means the end of institutional travel funding for those who were lucky enough to have it, just at the time when attendance and participation at academic conferences is more important than ever.

And speaking of research:

Those seeking to cease their wanderings in the post-degree desert and cross over into the promised land of tenure are, of course, expected to continue producing and publishing high-quality research–even as their former institutions have taken away their library privileges and, therefore, their access to paywalled online resources and the indispensable services of inter-library loan.

All this is bad enough even without considering other, discipline-specific problems such as access to lab space or specialized equipment.

Granted, this is not a problem that is easily addressed. At the same time, however, it seems manifestly unjust that the current system essentially forces many new PhDs not only to work for free, but to pay for the very privilege.

Assuming that it is in institutions’ best interests for their recent graduates to remain competitive on the job market, it seems to me that the least they could do to further this goal is to ensure their continued access to certain resources in the years following graduation. One low-cost solution would be to provide new PhDs who do not immediately find post-docs or other academic employment with non-stipendiary research fellowships that come with library privileges. This would, at the very least, enable many to continue working on their research even if they must support themselves with work outside the academy.

A more expensive–but equally welcome–measure would be to provide travel grants earmarked specifically for recent graduates who lack other institutional affiliation. This would serve the dual purpose of bolstering the institution’s presence at important conferences while also improving their graduates’ prospects of employment.

In the meantime, hiring committees would do well to recognize the economic and institutional forces at play in the lives of early-career scholars and take this into account when evaluating candidates. The practice of conducting preliminary interviews at large disciplinary conferences seems especially liable to exclude candidates who find themselves unable to travel or to shoulder the associated expenses merely for the chance of interviewing for an open position. And while it’s unrealistic to expect committees to ignore the drops in research productivity that might accompany full-time adjunct work or other employment outside the academy, it might be worth keeping these realities in mind before tossing a candidate’s CV on the reject pile.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work. Let’s hope I get paid for it one day.

 

*Visiting Assistant Professor: usually a year-long leave replacement for tenured faculty on leave.

 

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Dan

Dan

Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

3 Comments

  1. September 27, 2015 at 8:26 am —

    Those seeking to cease their wanderings in the post-degree desert and cross over into the promised land of tenure are, of course, expected to continue producing and publishing high-quality research–even as their former institutions have taken away their library privileges and, therefore, their access to paywalled online resources and the indispensable services of inter-library loan.

    That’s fucked up
    Our library is called the “university and state library” and is open to the general public. Every resident of the state can get a library card and make full usage of the resources. You can also go to the department libraries and use their resources, though I’m not sure if you can use all of them like weekend loan*, but you can copy or scan relevant material.

    I think that stems from the idea that you want people to keep educating themselves, not only in the case of “interested laypeople” but also in the case of teachers, doctors, etc. I think the lawyers would ramp up the barricades if you tried to ban them from the library of the law department because they cannot practise without access to the recent literature and nobody can buy and store all of it themselves.

    *Stuff in the department libraries cannot be borrowed in general, only overnight and at the weekend when no other student might need it (or access it)

    • September 27, 2015 at 2:28 pm —

      Out of curiosity, do you know if your library also allows the public access to its electronic resources, particularly journal databases? For most academic libraries, licensing contracts restrict access to e-journals and databases to current users (faculty, staff, and students) of the institution — the costs are all based on FTEs. With medical libraries, this can get hairy because a doctor may have admitting privileges at a hospital but isn’t technically an employee, so she wouldn’t be considered a valid user under the license. A library can get in a stink load of trouble if it’s caught giving user privileges to people who don’t fall under the licensing agreement (think about the Aaron Swartz situation at MIT).

      As for the lawyer thing, yes, lawyers do get banned from the school of law resources. I think they my spouse had one semester after his last class before his access was cut off. Generally the idea is that your law firm will provide access to Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw, the two big law databases. However, if you’re a solo practitioner, you have to make do with publicly available resources (which is lacking compared to the for-profit resources thanks to the commercialization of public information), hope that your state or region has a law library available for your use, or hit up your friends who are at law firms.

      The same thing happens with medical providers who don’t have university or institutional access. For instance, some public health officials in my state don’t have access to their own professional literature after the state closed down regional health information centers due to budget cuts. They may have one or two journal subscriptions at the office, but if they need a recent article about, say, a new study on STD prevention programs, they may be SOL unless they have friends with database access or the article was published through the gray literature.

      • September 28, 2015 at 4:12 am —

        I haven’t been in the “not student” position so far, but I just looked it up and I couldn’t find anything that differentiated between “University User” and “General User”, so I think that the journal databases are open to everybody as well.
        I know for sure that the law faculty library is used by practicing lawyers a lot, since my BFF is one. They also have the longest opening hours of all, thanks to their lobby (in Germany, most politicians are former lawyers).
        What sucks is that there’s no inter-library loan for ebooks.

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