The Commodification and Deprofessionalization of the PhD

Martin R. Mulford, February 2009

From the rest of us.

You see us in your departments. We look like you. We speak like you. We even teach many of the same courses you do. However, we garner less than half the pay for twice the work; take on the most onerous classes; get no health, unemployment, or retirement benefits; and go from term to term without assurance of continued employment or any employment at all. We are subject to intense financial pressure and instability. We have no ability to plan for or predict our future or that of our families or our (rental) homes. And, occasionally, just to remind us of our uncertain and ambiguous position, of which we are always fully cognizant, someone feels that they have to ‘put us in our place’ by emphasizing that we are not full-time, tenured, or even tenure-tracked professors. We are subject to the humiliation of the expendable.

We do get paid—poorly. We have to use ad hoc methods to hold office hours or confidential conferences with our students, if a place is available. We have no place to hang our hats, put our personal items or to use as a base for continuing research. I ask full-time faculty: how would you feel if you had to lug all your work with you all day, schlepping it back and forth from home every day, too?

We do get to say that we are gaining teaching experience. On our c.v.’s we get to mention that we are employees of a university. And, we learn to be grateful and quiet, because if we are not, we are in danger of losing what little work we have. That is also the reason we are unable to organize. Should we take the step of trying to organize, we can be sure we shall lose what little income we have, we can expect our brashness and lack of gratitude to follow us wherever we attempt to secure employment, and we can be confident that others will be prepared take our place, despite its shortcomings.

We hardly have time to write, let alone pursue research. Moreover, research grants are generally not forthcoming to those who are merely adjuncts, as if we did not also need to support our research in order to publish. Additionally, time off for this unfunded research is essentially impossible to acquire. This conundrum leads us to the dead-end of further years at this unyielding grindstone and the probability that a search committee, on seeing how long it has been since we earned our PhD and our length of time as an adjunct, will reject us out of hand as unemployable. We generally don’t even survive the initial cut in a job search, let alone expect to receive an invitation for an interview, which, by the way, will take place at the annual AHA meeting, the travel expenses for which we shall have to fund out of our own shallow pockets.

Shallow pockets are always a problem for adjuncts. I have a friend who, as an adjunct, has 35 contact hours per week and does not even gross $25,000 a year! In addition, this adjunct is considered to be a quarter-time employee by the university at which (s)he works! I don’t know about you, but, even though I’m in the humanities, my math is better than that. A candidate is expected to dedicate several thousand dollars to the job search, as Katherine Hume points out.1 Where does that kind of money come from? For most of us it simply means added debt. After all, adjuncts have the same student loans, built up as we pursued our PhDs, as full-time professors do. How do you pay back $75,000 or more in loans when you do not even gross a third of that per year?

Why is it so difficult for adjuncts? Perhaps it is a glut of PhDs on the market. Perhaps it is our insistence on having a job we love, despite the signs that tell us we could do much better in food service or retail. Perhaps it is the failings of those who are adjuncts; for we live with the niggling doubt that, maybe, we just do not measure up. Whatever the roots of the difficulty, the universities exploit it to the full.

For instance, one large state university ‘asks’ adjuncts to develop e-campus courses. It does not supply the adjunct with space in which to work nor a computer to use for this task nor does it the pay for the time and expertise required to create the course. The adjunct is compensated on a piece-work basis. That is, (s)he is paid per student enrolled when the course is presented. The university also seizes ownership of the course and its materials without compensation to the adjunct and without considering hiring them to a full-time position. In contrast, full-time professors at that same university can get recompense for developing e-courses and compensatory time off to do so. Undoubtedly using adjuncts for this purpose saves the university money and gives it an additional source of income. However, it dispossesses the adjunct professors of their intellectual property. It demeans the efforts that they expended to become credentialed. And, it creates a virtual university. How long will it be before the virtual university is the only university? Where will the full-time professorships be then? From whence will come the research and publications? From the Ivies only? Is this not a de-professionalization of the PhD through an aggressive application of business models?

This application of business models to universities is a key element of the problem. The idea is to churn out as many graduates, at whatever level, to improve the reputation of the school and to increase attendance figures (in both senses of the term). The goal is continual growth, with all the attendant problems that fosters. The first and foremost of which is the excessive number of credentialed graduates, more than can be reasonably absorbed by the academy or the economy. This leads directly to the overuse of adjuncts. If you cannot acquire a full-time job in your profession, a part-time, temporary job must serve until you are able to secure a full-time, permanent position. Most unfortunately for many of us, due to the time-sensitive nature of the hiring process, this expedient becomes the permanent condition. It is as though the PhD now has a ‘use by’ date, after which application for tenure-track positions is futile.

The academy needs to consider seriously if continual growth should be, as it now seems to be, its paramount goal. How many members can the profession accommodate, how is that number determined, who determines it, and how do you ensure that those who can contribute have the opportunity to do so? The answers to these questions must be weighed soberly and thoughtfully. Is restricting the number of candidates entering the profession, which would appear to be the logical solution, an option? If so, at what level do you intensify competition sufficiently to facilitate that restriction? Is it at admission, at orals, or is it, like today, after the PhD is conferred, when hopes of professional success have been raised? An important factor for consideration is the number of PhDs departments grant in a year. In 2006, 973 PhDs in history were awarded.2 Is this a sustainable number in terms of employment in the profession? Did all of these newly minted PhDs land a job, even one with a limited term or a post-doc? How many of the prior years’ PhDs, when jobs were scarcer, are still on the job market? How can a problem of this magnitude be addressed on the scale for which it calls? More pertinently, do you continue with the present method and force the graduates to confront the specter of marginal employment or no employment at all?

Another crucial part of the problem is, of course, budgetary. Funding, particularly at state schools, is funneled away from the humanities into areas that are ‘profitable’—the hard sciences, business, or entertainment activities (aka, athletics). As proponents of the humanities we must make our case to the budgetary powers-that-be more persuasively and with a more forceful emphasis on the benefits of stronger humanities programs and the support they require, in the hope that future funding will be more appropriately allocated. Currently, it is obvious that we are not presenting our arguments for the importance of the humanities strongly or convincingly enough. Contrarily, although unsurprisingly, funding generally relies on numbers of students. This again reinforces the present vicious circle in which too many people chase too few jobs and the profession struggles to find ways to accommodate them. The commodification of the PhD is unquestionably in evidence here.

When universities began increasing their reliance on adjuncts in the last century, 20 percent was projected as the maximum efficient and effective number of courses they should teach.3 However, as the possible savings became evident to administrators, bean counters, and cash-strapped departments, that proportion was ignored. Today you can go into many humanities departments (history does not have an exclusive on this problem) and see a roster in which the majority of professors are adjuncts. I am aware of at least two history departments at major western state universities where the faculty is over 50 percent adjuncts. Others contend that overall more than 70 percent of university faculty is contingent.4 This is not only bad news for the adjuncts, but for the full-time faculty as well: What happened to the full-time positions that this represents? If the university can hire qualified temporary professionals at less cost and with no obligation to provide benefits or job security, why should they continue to hire full-time professors? We must convince the universities and the funding groups (such as legislatures) that it is in the best interests of the school and its reputation to have a professional staff that is in keeping with the demands made upon it.

Currently it appears that the universities are moving quickly to a pattern in which they hold a skeleton full-time staff and use adjuncts to fill the rest of the requirements they have. This is a good business model. It is simply not a strategic model that transfers well to the academy. Outsourcing is a way of life at most U.S. corporations and is becoming one at the universities as well. That it is exploitative of the adjuncts is simply another fact of American life and its emphasis on unfettered, rampant, predatory capitalism. The almighty bottom line is to do more with less, no matter who gets hurt or how poor the results. Is this not commodification of the PhD?

The profession has recognized and is attempting to alleviate some of these problems. Teofilo Ruiz’s suggestion of summer seminars and mentoring assistance for new scholars is a wonderful start.5 Unfortunately, it goes neither far enough nor does it really address the root causes and the extent of the problem. It simply sets up another competition for a group that has been competing hard since applying to graduate school. And, although the motives and generosity behind this idea are admirable and wonderful, of what comprehensive benefit is a program that addresses the needs of hundreds of scholars with assistance for 20–25, even in the long term?

We do greatly appreciate those who are trying to address this problem, and their suggestions and efforts. However, the profession needs more inclusive and longer term solutions. The most immediate and pressing concern is to move away from the current exploitative business model. It produces a cadre of disenfranchised, disenchanted, and disheartened educators who are overburdened by work, insecurity, and discouragement.

Historians created the AHA and similar organizations to set, monitor, and further professional standards. Can historians now generate an alternative to the business model that will not merely preserve the profession, but enhance it?

As historians, you have committed yourselves to listening, respecting, and advancing the voice of the subaltern. It is time for you to realize that, through the application of the business model, subalterns, embodied in the adjuncts of your departments, have been created in your midst. Our plight needs to be recognized and remedied. Only you can do it. Or are we to become the subjects of a new labor history?

—After a more than 20-year career in business, Martin R. Mulford received his Masters degree from SUNY Brockport, where he studied under Robert Strayer, and, in 2005, his PhD from the University of Rochester, where he studied under Celia Applegate. Influenced by these two mentors, his work tends to the synthetic and integrative. In his dissertation “Changing Models: The Conflict between the Settlers and Government in German East Africa,” Mulford investigated the ways in which the concept of Selbstverwaltung inspired the German colonists to insist on self-rule. This study led naturally to his current project on the role of Selbstverwaltung in the construction of German national identity.

Notes

1. Kathryn Hume, Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhD’s. (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 4.

2. Data on PhD recipients from annual Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report, supplemented for last year by estimate based on the latest reportings to the annual Directory of History Departments, quoted in Robert B. Townsend, “Number of History PhDs Rising Again, but Job Openings Keep Pace.” Perspectives on History 46:1 (January 2008), 6.

3. Kenneth T. Henson, Writing for Publication: Road to Academic Advancement (Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005), p. 231.

4. Marc Bousquet blog at http://howthe universityworks.com/wordpress/archives/167.

5. Teofilo Ruiz, “Supporting Scholars Early in Their Careers What the AHA Can Do to Nurture New History PhDs,” Perspectives on History 46:5 (May 2008), 3.