Unfiltered Thoughts: The Academic Job Market

I can’t stop thinking about an article I read a couple days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Most History Ph.D.’s Have Jobs“* Maybe it’s just because I stand on the sidelines of My Better Half™’s (totally unsuccessful) job search (in another discipline) AND scores of close friends who *are* Ph.D.s in history looking for work unsucessfully, but the seemingly upbeat tone of the article strikes me as completely disassociative with what’s actually going on in the academic job market.

On the face of it, maybe this is good news, but even if that’s true, that belies part of the very problem: that the academic job market is so sh*tty as to merit a story that most people in a particular discipline have jobs. Note: not careers, not in their fields, not the highly desirable end goal that most History Ph.D.s have in mind, namely a tenure-track position in a college or university, just jobs. While there are corollaries outside academia that would merit such an article (“Most Journalists Have Jobs” immediately comes to mind), would we take note, for instance, at “Most Accountants Have Jobs” or “Most Dentists Have Jobs”?

But getting beyond the headline itself, as I read the article, I came across several points that were troubling. The article is about a study conducted by the American Historical Association that tracked the jobs of 2500 History Ph.D.s. One of the first points made is: “A Ph.D. in history can be more than just a gateway to a faculty appointment. Among the positions held by the group studied are: archivist, foreign-service officer, lawyer, nonprofit analyst, pastor, and schoolteacher.” So *after* achieving a Ph.D., many folks have had to go get additional credentials to gain employment (see: lawyer, pastor, schoolteacher) and we’re supposed to consider this good news?! They even cite the lead researcher for the study as saying “People are using their degrees” in these other careers. This wouldn’t be noteworthy, except that it has become so bad for folks in the humanities and social sciences that they are now in a position as to have to justify that such degrees actually get used. People who dedicate years of their lives diving into historical sources, analyzing, writing, and editing their narratives in order to graduate didn’t spend that much time accruing useless skills and aren’t going to toss aside their many skills and abilities that they gained in honing their craft.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the AHA study is that the latest data they have on any of these History Ph.D.s is 2009, which might not seem like all that long ago, but consider even this:

“Of the cohort who earned their Ph.D.’s from 1998 to 2001, about 14 percent worked in faculty jobs off the tenure track. That number grew to 25.6 percent among those who earned a Ph.D. between 2006 and 2009, a time period that included the after-effects of the recession.”

I would hazard a reasonably well informed guess that since 2009, things have gotten a lot worse for those on the academic market as the recession’s effects lag, especially, though by no means exclusively, in the humanities. Humanities degrees don’t tie directly into a career or line of work like nursing or business for example, so humanities folks find themselves in a defensive position lately. (Just google “humanities crisis,” if you’re curious). The study’s data show that 17.8 percent have landed a “non tenure-track faculty position” at either a 4 or 2 year institution. That’s pretty decent, actually (and even that 17.8% is decent should be telling). But what percentage of those 17.8% are adjunct-only? Can we at least get an over/under? While many colleges and universities have in recent years started offering non-tenure track full-time benefits eligible faculty positions, that doesn’t mean those positions are any more numerous than traditional tenure-track faculty jobs. I would bet (from personal experience) that even such “staff” positions have become highly coveted and unbelievably competitive, given the drawdown in the number of tenure-track faculty openings.

Finally, the article quotes from a former director of the American Historical Association, “Hopefully, the AHA can find out more about what choices people made that led them to take the jobs that they did.” I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here and presume that ‘choice’ was a poor, er, choice of words. Because, yes, people have agency to make choices about their lives, but I’m not sure ‘choice’ is an accurate description of what’s happening here. Unless you’re really characterizing the ‘choice’ between eking out an existence as an adjunct making a pittance per class with even more restrictions on income possibilities now due to the Affordable Care Act and the alternative: choosing a line of work instead that provides at least a reasonable amount of job security and/or benefits and/or income in order to pay bills. And here I just mean housing, transportation, food – I’m not even taking into consideration astronomical student loans and credit card debt incurred in pursuit of a History (or any other) Ph.D.

People are being forced into making the choices they do as a result of an imbalanced labor market. Unless you have an unbelievably patient partner and/or enormous cash reserves and/or a trust fund, you can’t really survive on an adjunct’s pay, where you may toil for years on end waiting in the wings for even the chance to compete for a teaching opening, whether that’s tenure-track or not. Case in point: My Better Half™ makes about $1500 a class. If we assume that both of his assigned classes make enrollment each semester (because now he’s limited to being offered only 2 classes per semester so they don’t have to provide him health benefits, and he’s not able to get any classes during summer sessions as those go only to full-time tenured faculty at his community college), he’s bringing in a maximum of $6000 a year as an adjunct. A year. And that’s zero benefits, zero job security, zero guarantees, zero job growth over time. Versus a choice to leave academia behind to make even a reasonable living (because it’s not like he can leverage his Ph.D. to make giant piles of cash working in his particular industry) that may be indirectly tied to his educational training, but which provides benefits, more predictability, less work-life imbalance, and the potential for growth & promotion over time in order to pay daycare, the mortgage, credit card bills, and even go out to eat once in a blue moon. Is it really a choice anymore? For the vast majority, I suspect the answer is no.

*The article is behind a paywall, so if you can’t access it, I guess that means that you may be one of the scores of history Ph.D.’s who has not landed a job and therefore has no access to a university’s library journal subscriptions. Ugh. Also, while the article title lacks an exclamation point at the end, you might as well mentally insert that yourself, because that’s how the article reads, although, again, that may be becuase I’m so cynical about the job market & just reading the article through that filter.

The Math’s the Same

Today is payday, but this week, my paycheck was slashed in half. Money’s been lean since my maternity leave, which, other than the 3 weeks paid at 60% by short-term disability, was unpaid. And then when I came back to work, I was only part-time for 2 weeks, so I was only making half of my salary. My previous paycheck was my first full paycheck, but as the first full paycheck in months, it only began to make a dent in our financial deficit. What with daycare, we’ve been on a tight budget. So we’ve really been looking forward to getting more of a foothold with a steady full paycheck from me.

Unfortunately, my employer’s incompetent HR didn’t cooperate with that plan. You see, we elected a flexible spending account for daycare – a pre-tax deduction. And when we filled out the form, which says “Enter your ANNUAL CALENDAR-YEAR contribution, not a per-pay-period amount,” we did just that. We multiplied the weekly daycare fees times 52 weeks a year, which came out to way more than the maximum you could withhold, so we elected the maximum – just under $5000. There are 26 paychecks in a year, so that works out to about $192 withheld from every paycheck. Except my HR department seems to have a different understanding. They take whatever you fill in as your annual amount, and divide it by the number of pay periods left in the year at the time you enroll. So, in my case, $5000 divided by 9, or more than $550 to be withheld from every paycheck.

Uh, WHAT?! I had even been contacted by HR when I submitted my form, and they had explained that they calculate whatever amount you elect and divide by the number of remaining paychecks, regardless of your intention for that $5000 to be spread out over the calendar year, as their own language implies. So they “fixed” it, and my last paycheck had only $192 withheld. But today’s paycheck? There’s $550 withheld. And though I lost my shit brought this to their attention, they were unable to correct it, and so they’re adjusting the amount withheld from the remaining 8 paychecks of 2011 to balance out the extra they took out of this single paycheck. Fine, except that doesn’t help me pay my bills for the next 2 weeks. Like daycare, for instance, which is now going to constitute half of my pay for the next 2 weeks. And since I’m the only full-time employee in my household, the next 2 weeks are going to be ramen filled.

Then I thought, oh! I can at least recoup alot of what’s missing from my paycheck by submitting my daycare receipts for reimbursement, something I haven’t done yet. A good plan, but when I logged on to my daycare FSA, it only shows the initial $192 contribution, not the extra $550 they also withheld this time.

I would say that I would work even less today than I normally would on a Friday to express my outrage that half of my net pay is gone because of someone else’s incomptence. But then again, 50% times zero is still zero.

I Think There’s One Too Many Digits

I just got an automated voicemail from the pharmacy that said “Your prescription is ready for pickup. It will cost $947.76.” Clearly I need my hearing checked because I thought you just said that my prescription would cost more than NINE HUNDRED dollars.

I just came down with bronchitis, and my doctor prescribed an inhaler, which I’ve never had before, so I thought, well, that must be the culprit. Well, that, and I had changed insurance with my new job in April so I thought they must not have my updated insurance information on file. That part was true. But the $900 prescription was not the inhaler, nor the antibiotics, but the stuff I routinely take for hypothyroidism. Once they input my insurance info, the total for four prescriptions came down to $54.

You might be asking “What in the WORLD is her hypothyroidism medication made of? Magical fairy dust?! Gold??” Nope. It’s all natural, actually. But it does make me even more grateful for health insurance. Unless I’m working for an employer that offers medical coverage, the only way I can get health insurance is through My Better Half. Because of pre-existing conditions, I don’t qualify for any private health insurance. Trust me. I’ve tried. Eleven times. And I’m not talking about cancer or something serious. I have pretty standard, chronic medical issues that millions of other folks have, and which are easily managed through medication. I’m lucky to have conditions that are so easily managed, and to have good overall health. And I’m fortunate to have a job that offers health insurance. In my experience, many, if not most, of those toiling in nonprofits in particular don’t get benefits with their jobs, and are left to fend for themselves on the “open market,” only to find they can’t get insured unless they have a spotless record of health. Which is why my blood boils over political debates that question the constitutionality of health care reform. Drives. Me. Crazy. Republicans and Tea Partiers Congress routinely makes it their business to block countless initiatives simply because they are introduced by and sponsored by the other party, and that practice especially drives me nuts with health care reform. Because, yes, let’s put the interests of your own party in front of the needs of millions of people. And, no, don’t offer any of your own alternatives to the reform to which you are so opposed. Just oppose, letting millions of people continue to flail around in a constantly shifting game of choosing which health concerns they can afford to treat.