Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More Discussion of Privilege in Academia

Quick blogging/life note: Yes, it's after January 1st ... and yes, I'm restarting my nonacademic job search. I'm currently writing/revising two different resumes (for two broad categories of jobs) so that I have templates to work from, and I've been reading job listings all week to get an idea of what's out there for me. Resume sending will start this weekend, as long as I don't hit any unforeseen roadblocks. I'll write more about it later this week or next week ... but in the meantime, rest assured that I am making progress ... even if it's starting out kinda slow. The mental process of figuring out "what comes next" and "how to sell myself as a good candidate without spending 200 hours on every application" really is pretty tough ... not to mention simply trying to find time and motivation to sit down and work on such things *in addition to* the full 40-hour workweek. But I've got time and I'm working at it every day ... and I do have a job for now, so I'm doing okay.


For another take on the question of privilege in academia, I turn to a couple of comments left on my last post about privilege and inequality in academia. This commenter has completed her Ph.D. and is now looking for work, and is finding that concerns about money, social class, and relative privilege are cropping up as she contemplates her career prospects after graduation.

Some excerpts from these excellent comments:

In my view, the class differences were not as big a deal in grad school as after. I went to grad school in an affordable city at a school that gave a stipend of around $20,000 each year. It was actually possible to go to grad school without taking on debt, which is one of the reasons I chose this school, despite getting into slightly more prestigious schools in much more expensive cities. (Which itself is a class issue, but that’s another story.)
Yes, that definitely is a class issue worth noting ... so let's talk about it for a minute.

In my earlier post, I mentioned that graduate stipends in my department (a top 10 program) were around $14,000 per year. This commenter describes a higher stipend at a slightly less prestigious school ... an offer that she took in favor of a more prestigious program due to economic concerns.

It's worth noting, of course, that if you come from a privileged background in which someone will be paying your rent, you are free to pay less attention to whether your stipend is sufficient, and more attention to the prestige/fit of a given program. If a top-5 program offers you a tiny stipend in a high cost of living area but a top-50 program offers you a sizable stipend in a livable city? A student whose parents will be paying their rent and helping them out financially is free to take the first offer ... and to reap the benefits of graduating from a top-5 program rather than a top-50 program. A student who has no such safety net will face two choices: take the second offer with its worse long-term job prospects but better financial security in the meantime, or take the first offer and start out their academic career with a load of debt.

In other words, the student who has help from their parents has better options right out of the gate, even though both students are being given the exact same opportunities. Privilege influences one's academic opportunities and academic career success, once again.

Moving on in Anonymous's comment...
After publishing four journal articles, including two in the top journals in my field, getting excellent teaching reviews, blah blah blah...I, like most people in my field, have no job next year. Unlike most graduate students, I got married while in school. This means I’m reluctant to take post-docs and VAPs, because my husband would have to constantly quit his job and since he’s now the only one with any semblance of a career, we can’t afford to do that. Adjuncting salaries in this affordable part of the country top out at around $2000 per course, so I’d have to teach at least ten courses a year to equal my grad stipend. This is impossible in part because it’s insane – but mostly because so many people are in this position here, I would be lucky to get one course per semester. 
This doesn't relate to privilege specifically, but it is worth noting. While having a spouse who is an academic can lead you down the nasty rabbit-hole of dual searches and spousal hires, having a nonacademic spouse can also be tough unless you happen to be married to someone who is able to work from anywhere or who otherwise has the type of job that they can haul around the country with them with no ill-effects on their career.

Now, in the days of a more stable academic job market where a candidate got one tenure-track job after graduation that they kept until retirement, this wasn't much of a concern. Your spouse would only be forced to change jobs once, when you moved to your new city. That's not unreasonable or abnormal at all.

In this new adjunct/VAP based market, though? You're facing a tough calculation. If you start adjuncting, you're basically asking your partner to be the sole breadwinner while you make almost nothing as an adjunct. This might work if someone else bought you a house or pays your car payment ... but for the rest of us, that's going to be an incredibly hard situation to deal with both financially and emotionally (since remember ... you'll be back on the academic job market while adjuncting as well ... working your rear off for no additional money).

But taking a short-term VAP post in another city probably won't work well either, since it might upend your spouse's career and your financial stability. What if you keep bouncing around from VAP post to VAP post, so your spouses's career implodes or stalls while they chase you around the country, while your salary varies every year and you have absolutely no job security?

Adults who have a parental safety net to fall back on can take low-paid adjuncting gigs while waiting for the next go-around on the job market. A VAP position probably still wouldn't be ideal if you had a nonacademic spouse, but if you and your spouse are aware that your family will always be there to financially support you, your spouse's career trajectory might be a little bit less of a concern than for someone who knows they will need that spouse's increasing income in order to keep making ends meet without going into debt.

For people who don't come from privilege, there are simply no good options if you graduate and don't land a tenure-track job immediately ... but want to stay in academia. Not in this job market. As Anonymous clearly explains:
My husband and I need two viable incomes, so I have the choice of 1) adjuncting and going into the debt that I managed to avoid 2) getting a non-academic job and surviving 3) moving around for years for a post-doc or VAP which will probably not lead to a permanent job and thereby destroying my husband’s career and our financial stability.

That’s my situation. It’s better than almost everyone I know, because I’m not borderline homeless or in massive debt. Almost every recent PhD I know is jobless this year. They are either 1) getting welfare, and WIC for those with kids 2) living off their parents 3) living with their parents 4) taking on an enormous amount of credit card debt 5) looking for a non-academic job and getting shit from their departments, who seem baffled that money could possibly be an issue.
And there, again, you see the same division I alluded to in my earlier post about privilege. You see two classes of people in the academic world after graduation as well as during the graduate school years: (1) those who are (at least reasonably) privileged, who can live with their families or have their families subsidize their living expenses until they find stable employment, and (2) those who have no such options and thus must rely on welfare, credit cards, or on any crappy nonacademic job they can get (with the resulting disdain from their department) in order to make ends meet.

Again, we see a system in which academia seems to be completely oblivious to the possibility that all of their students and graduates are not privileged, and that many of them do not have someone else paying their bills for them. And therefore, why the collapsing academic job market and the increase in adjuncting and VAP-ing might be putting some of their graduates in real financial and career jeopardy ... simply because not all of them can afford to wait out an additional 5-10 years of poverty and uncertainty (on top of the 8-10 years in grad school) before finally being financially self-sufficient.

Now, it's not the fault of today's faculty and graduate departments that the job market has collapsed. The decisions to replace retiring faculty with adjuncts or to slash budgets do not come from associate professors, and department chairs would likely love to keep their faculty's teaching loads low rather than ask them to take on additional classes taught by retiring professors. I don't blame them for what's happening.

I do blame them, though, for not realizing that adjuncting and VAPing are no longer temporary, stop-gap positions for a lot of people, and that therefore that they need to pay some attention to the fact that the academic world is changing. On one hand, I'd (obviously) like to see grad departments begin training students for nonacademic jobs. But barring that, I'd at least like to see grad departments beginning to understand that money is a real and valid concern for a lot of their students ... in other words, that every student they mentor doesn't have someone else behind the scenes, paying their bills and subsidizing them through grad school and adjuncthood.

Academics, in my experience, are unbelievably blinded to this reality. I don't know why this is - perhaps it's a simple unwillingness to see reality? Or perhaps faculty really are that clueless about how things work for people outside the upper-middle-class ivory tower world. After all, there are many faculty members who have not lived on a grad student salary in years if not decades, and who likely never tried to make ends meet on an adjunct salary (and certainly not in the late 2000s or today). You probably also have a lot of faculty who often came from privileged backgrounds themselves, and who cannot understand what it's like to not be able to ask Mom and Dad for help.

You may also be dealing with people who have lived in the academic bubble for so long that they have begun to view their own privileged status as "normal," and thus think that since they and almost everyone they know can help their own children out financially, your families must be able to as well. (Case in point: the professor in my department who said the following to a student who came to hir begging for a teaching position because she was about to be evicted from hir apartment: "Can't you just ask your parents to pay up your rent? I just did that for my son. It's no big deal; your parents are supposed to help you out." Of course, my friend's parents were in no position to help her out ... but that possibility wasn't even on Professor Snobby's radar).

But either way, as Anonymous points out, the problems of privilege in academia do not disappear once you graduate. As she writes (emphasis mine):
PhDs who can continue adjuncting and taking one-year positions after they graduate are the same ones whose parents are supplementing their grad school years. They can afford to "just keep applying" (as the litany goes) because they have no real worries about their financial future. They don't have to think long-term: they can live for the moment, which is all academia affords us.

There is no way to beat this system. I thought I had by being smart about where I went to school and getting good funding, but I can't contend with this sort of endemic privilege.
 This system is not a meritocracy, and it's not set up to help you. It's set up (probably not deliberately, but certainly in its outcomes) to perpetuate class inequality. Sure, there are always a few non-privileged students who will land great tenure-track jobs and thus give further credence to the meritocracy myth.

But do not misunderstand the situation. From decisions you have to make about which grad school offer to acccept, through which kind of graduate funding (or teaching work) you can accept, through what your options are after graduation? These things are all inherently affected by your preexisting social class position. And at every single step, the children of privilege will (on average) come out ahead. Their privilege buys them the time and freedom to work on their CVs rather than on teaching undergraduates, and in the end it buys them the time to ride out a few years of adjuncthood before their number finally comes up on the job market.

The rest of us are left with disappointment, debt, and an almost total lack of understanding from the people who are supposed to be "mentoring" us.

The system is broken.


  1. haha. Mentoring. What a joke. the only mentoring worth having these days is from people who aren't in academic jobs that they've had for decades.

  2. This is a great discussion.

    Here's something you could perhaps write a follow-up on: what do you think of graduate student coaching services like Karen Kelsky's "The Professor Is In"? ( Kelsky caters to PhDs on the market who have not received adequate career advice from their advisers. While this by definition constitutes everyone, her services are quite pricey, meaning that those who use them are either 1) wealthy 2) willing to acquire even more debt in their pursuit of an academic job. Once again, your monetary status may well shape your academic future.

    I can't blame Kelsky for offering this service -- she's blunt in her critique of academia and realizes she's got a huge market. I can't fault the students who use her services either. If you read Kelsky's blog, you can see that the decisions of hiring committees have less to do with the quality of the candidate's publications, work or teaching, but whether the candidate have been "socialized" properly into academic culture.

    This "socialization" is a class issue: students from lower class backgrounds, or who have had little contact with academics outside their graduate school career, are unlikely to grasp academia's unstated rules of self-presentation. Kelsky offers tips on how to do your hair, how to dress, how to talk, how to behave -- it is a PhD finishing school. Her blog is the GOOP of academia: tips on maintaining an expensive lifestyle that most of us can't afford. Only here, the revelation is that this luxe lifestyle is academia: the "life of the mind" that comes with a price tag.

    Again, I don't hold Kelsky or her clients responsible for this deplorable situation. Her services wouldn't exist if the system weren't already broken. Kelsky, unlike academic search committees, is making an honest living. But her site is a window into everything that is wrong with academia. It aptly reflects the issues of privilege that you discuss -- you should check it out.

  3. Upon visiting her site again, I noticed she has recently set up a fund to help "those who are struggling to find employment in the terrible economic conditions of the academy" pay for her services: should write a post about this.

  4. Thanks for the tip! I have looked at Kelsky's site before, but had never investigated how much she charges before. This is an interesting take on that ... on one hand, I have no problem with career advice for people on the academic job market. On the other hand, though ... it does raise some interesting class/privilege issues. Thanks...