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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