Tuesday, November 16, 2010

32. The university is an economic engine.

Universities ostensibly exist to educate, but after their massive post-World War II expansion to accommodate tens of thousands of students apiece, they needed to hire thousands of employees. Some of these employees are hired to teach (faculty members and graduate students alike), but a growing proportion of university employees are there to do something else. They are janitors, gardeners, groundskeepers, librarians, plumbers, coaches, secretaries, accountants, electricians, programmers, engineers, nurses, cooks, scientists, and administrators. Those employed in offices devoted to various “student services” amount to an impressive number in themselves.

A modern university is a small (or not-so-small) city teeming with activity. In their host communities, universities are economic engines that attract a continual supply of paying customers (students) and millions of research dollars, while providing employment for thousands. The students come and go, so the real university stakeholders are those with permanent campus jobs.  As the Economist recently pointed out, most of the growth in American universities has been in administration; almost half of the full-time employees at Arizona State University are administrators. With so many stakeholders on campus who are not there to teach or to learn, the priorities of the modern university are naturally less and less attuned to the avowed purposes of higher education. At least until the bubble bursts (see Reason 27), one might do well to look for a permanent, salaried university job that does not require years of graduate school and the uncertainty that accompanies it.


  1. Engineers have to go to grad school for just as long as someone getting a PhD, and what do you even mean by "scientists?" Most people working in labs have a PhD or are currently studying for one, and many of them are faculty as well. There are many university librarians who have PhDs, and they have definitely all received at least a master's. Do you seriously think that administrators and accountants that have any kind of reasonable salary also have not done graduate work?

    You left off one of the most viable ways of working at a university in a career other than academic, which would be fundraising. Although most of the top fundraising people have master's degrees as well, you can get a pretty stable job finding creative ways to beg alumni for money. Please feel free to go ahead and do that if you really just want to live out your stable middle-class non-intellectual life, which from the sound of this blog seems to have been your dream all along.

    Also, are you seriously insinuating that becoming a janitor at a major university is a viable alternative to going for a PhD? Your complaining is becoming more and more delusional with each post.

    1. S/he probably isn't saying that - a permanent salaried university job is just as - if not more - likely to involve some kind of marketing or administration.

      Of course, either in admin or as a janitor, most of what you're really doing is pushing piles of paper around and dealing with the occasional unpleasant mess.

      Vive la difference!

  2. I see this blog as a list of very viable reasons why alternatives other than higher education (beyond bachelor's) have merit to them as well. I think some of us just think that getting the highest education we can is the surest way to financial success, but there are many reasons why people choose NOT to go grad school - and those are okay too.

  3. "At least until the bubble bursts, one might do well to look for a permanent, salaried university job that does not require years of graduate school and the uncertainty that accompanies it."

    True enough, but I'm looking to make a clean break. The system is broken. If I cannot do what I love (teaching and writing) in a position that offers something resembling job security and a living wage, I'm getting out.

    To Anonymous 9:10 and anyone else who would criticize the desire for a "stable middle-class non-intellectual life," I would say that having a stable, middle-class life need not be separable from having an intellectual life. You don't need to go to graduate school or work at a university to be able to read and write and think. You can have a day job that pays the bills and do what you love with your evenings and weekends. I'd rather teach, but, with student loans coming due and decreased enrollments where I teach that have led to a cut in my course load for this coming spring, I can no longer support myself on an adjunct's salary.

    Moreover, you don't have the right to criticize the very reasonable desire for job security and a living wage if you come from a background of privilege (or simply family support and/or some other form of financial security) and have never had to live paycheck to paycheck, year after year, on an adjunct's salary.

  4. So from the following posts and this one, we can see that this person wants the following things out of their career:

    1. A job that is intellectually fulfilling and allows them to exercise their full creative and mental ability without getting to bureaucratic (especially with "citations," oh the horror!)
    2. A job that provides them with social prestige among all socioeconomic groups from academia down to the "common man."
    3. A salary that allows them to live in a "nice" area, have kids in their 20s, afford a large enough living space to accommodate a spouse and children, and pay off student loans, extravagant rent/mortgage, and eventually their children's tuition
    4. A reasonable length of hours worked for this job so that said family can be created, while still maintaining criteria of high income/fulfillment/prestige
    5. A job that has a flexible location in case this person wants to follow a soulmate/spouse somewhere to start said family
    6. A job that is easy to get and does not require a great deal of competition to obtain

    Honestly, these do all sound reasonable requirements to me; especially since they are part of this idea of the "American Dream" that we are conditioned to strive for. However, please name ONE JOB in this entire country that actually fulfills ALL of these requirements. There are some that do have the first 5, but at the expense of being completely impossible to get. Yes, the educational system is definitely broken. But this does not mean that if it is what you really want to do, you should avoid it for security in some other more "stable" field. It's not just education, our entire country is broken and screwing over the middle class more and more each day. If you have the misfortune to have not been born into a wealthy family in this country, you are going to have to sacrifice at least one, if not a majority of those criteria, in order to gain at least one of the others. The only way any of this shit is going to change is if someone decides to fight for it, like many of the grad students who have decided to go out and protest rather than hiding behind their silly blog and telling people to give up on academia altogether.

    1. New Job that satisfies a lot of ideal requirements as mentioned above: Savvy Web-comics Artist!!! Long Live Jorge Cham and PhD Comics!!! Woohoohooo! Just be an independent internetologist who lives near by a university and therefore reaps all the benefits of a unviersity without having to deal with the 100 line items of bullshxt that goes along with being within the u... http://www.phdcomics.com.

  5. This "stable middle-class non-intellectual life" sentiment is one of the major illusions of grad students - that the only way to live an intellectual life is to work in academia. It's deluded self-aggrandizement.

    1. After having seen the attitudes of many grad students while pursuing an M.Sc., I have to whole-heartedly agree with this statement. Especially when one considers that many grad students have never known life outside of academia.

  6. Heh, somebody hasn't been on the market yet. The job market in academia is not a competition; it's a lottery. For eight of the nine years I was in grad school (until I went on the market my final year), I believed that a tenure-track job would indeed require "a great deal of competition to obtain," and I did everything I could to make myself a competitive candidate. But, the thing is, because of the ways in which the system is broken (specifically, an oversupply of PhDs and, related to that, the increasing reliance on -- and exploitation of -- contingent faculty), being competitive only gets you so far. When a search committee gets 500+ applications for a job, they can probably eliminate 400-450 candidates who are not competitive enough. That leaves them with 50 outstanding candidates for one job -- that is, 50 outstanding candidates in a field that very likely has fewer than 20 other openings in a given year. Their decision is ultimately going to be based on who they perceive to be the best "fit," and, as a job candidate, you have absolutely no control over this factor. Sure, finding a job doing something else is challenging, too, but not in the same ways or for the same reasons. Why should colleges and universities even bother to try to create more tt jobs when so many of those 500+ job seekers in field X are willing to work as adjuncts, holding out hope that they will eventually get to do "what they really want to do"?

    For most of the time I was a graduate student, I would have agreed with Anonymous 11:20 that "Yes, the educational system is definitely broken. But this does not mean that if it is what you really want to do, you should avoid it for security in some other more 'stable' field." I am on the market again this year, trying my luck again at the lottery, but I'm looking around at the situation more carefully now and seeing adjuncts who have been on the market for years. Five years from now, I don't want to be one of them. Academia is creating a system of faculty permatemps, and you know what? In that role, you don't get to do "what you really want to do." You teach too many classes at too many different institutions just to make ends meet, and you can't be fully committed to your students doing that. Moreover, you get your teaching assignments sometimes no more than a few weeks before the start of the semester, which means you don't have adequate time to prepare, especially if you're assigned a new course outside of your primary field. Given the amount of time you devote to teaching, you don't have much left over for research and writing, which is what you need to be doing if you ever want to get off the adjunct track. In spite of all of the time you put in, you can neither be a truly outstanding teacher nor a satisfactory scholar. So, in a sense, by sticking with it, you’re really selling out.

    Does looking for "security in some other 'stable' field" mean "giving up on academia altogether"? For me, no, it doesn't. I still believe in the value of a humanities education, but I no longer believe that the university system is serving either undergraduate or graduate students well. As an adjunct, I am acquiescing to a system that increasingly compromises the quality of education my students receive and leads to a dead-end career for me. I am complicit with this system right now, but I refuse to be complicit beyond this year. Even as I try my luck on the market again, I have begun to look elsewhere for work.

    The perspective this blog represents is far from “silly.” If you think it’s silly, why are you so defensive? The perspective represented here is crucial for graduate students and prospective graduate students to see. I wish I had been exposed to it before I started. I’m not sure it would have made me not go to graduate school, but it might have helped me make some different – and better – choices along the way.

  7. @Anonymous 11.20 -

    "However, please name ONE JOB in this entire country that actually fulfills ALL of these requirements."

    Going to grad school isn't a job though- it often takes longer than getting a job and moving up in that job, and it costs money rather than gives you money. And there is no guarantee of a job after it.

    The brilliance of this blog is that it lets you know what the deal is... at least if you then do decide to go into it, you will not be in for any nasty surprises after many years of study.

  8. But you get a stipend of about $20,000 (unless you make the choice to go for a PhD without funding, but that's your own fault). Think about it: if you are living in NYC on an entry-level salary of about $35,000-40,000, after rent you are probably going to have about as much money left over as you would have with your stipend anyway. Cheaper cities just have a way lower entry-level salary - it is usually less than 30,000 (I am talking about non-quantitative jobs where you work a set 40 hours a week, yes there are better entry-level jobs but they usually require MATH or computer science, which you never bothered to learn, or you just have to work 80+ hours a week). However, with grad school you at least get healthcare, which cannot be said for all entry-level jobs. Also, you probably aren't going to get a substantial raise until pretty close to when you would have gone on the job market anyway. And yes, at that point it is more "stable," (although not necessarily in this economy) but just try to picture what a job like this would entail. Sorry, but your parents and teachers have been telling you that you are a special and exceptional person for too long to put up with the kind of "grunt work" an administrative job would make you do.

  9. The thing about becoming a professor is that it is kind of like becoming a successful artist/actor/musician/writer. All of these people also risk poverty through their 20s in the hope of getting their "big break" and there are way more people trying than succeeding, even if they have more talent than those who are successful today. The problem is that the people who go into more "creative" professions seem to know what they are getting themselves into and are reckless enough to not care, while the PhD students are people with a more "conformist" middle-class background who don't seem to realize they are throwing themselves down the same type of path. The happiest PhD students I've met are the ones who are truly living out the bohemian lifestyle - they don't make life commitments, they aren't materialistic, they don't let themselves give a shit about post-grad finances. Yes, some obviously come from rich families and don't really need to care, but some are actually living the life of the starving artist. Not a very romantic life if you want to have kids, I guess.

  10. @Recent PhD -- amen to everything you're saying. Class is the thing no one talks about, and it's a major factor in how people see the economics of the university.

    Also, I'd change the title of this to "The University is a Corporation" with all the negatives that implies; that's why I, like Recent, want a clean break -- I don't want to support the institution, or its delusions of prestige, in any way.

  11. Thanks, WorstProfEver, and @Anonymous 4:00, yes, yes, yes to this: "The brilliance of this blog is that it lets you know what the deal is."

    Please, people. Educate yourselves. Most programs don't offer $20,000/year packages for humanities degrees. The place where I did my master's paid TAs $9,000/year. The place where I did my PhD, an R1 with a highly respected program in my field, offered all accepted PhD students a 4-year teaching assistantship that started at just over $12,000/year and went up to just over $15,000/year when you reached candidacy. Also, although PhD programs typically offer 4-5 year assistantships, it takes most people more than that to finish. You may also win a fellowship, as I did, for one of those additional years, but you're still going to have to adjunct and/or borrow to make it through to the end.

    Regarding the artist/musician comparison -- not a good comparison. Why? There are two reasons. The first is that as an artist or musician, your efforts (creative, promotional, etc.) go towards serving your own ends. As a TA/adjunct, your efforts go towards institutional ends. Yes, you get to be a graduate student and pursue your intellectual interests for a while, but by serving as a cheap source of labor for your institution, you are contributing to the very system that will prevent you from ever getting a permanent job.

    The second reason is that, unlike the musician who gigs evenings and weekends trying to build a career but works days in an office to make ends meet, graduate students, after spending a decade "in school," have no work history other than teaching to fall back on. I speak from experience on this one. I play in an indie band. Four of my bandmates have music degrees and are very dedicated to realizing creative goals, but ALL OF THEM have day jobs. One is a CPA. Two work administrative jobs. The fourth does web design.

    You don't hear of ANYBODY these days who comes out the other end of the grad school wormhole romanticizing how awesome their bohemian lifestyle was. The "happiest" grad students who "don't let themselves give a shit about post-grad finances" are the ones who, a decade later, are $100,000 in debt, unemployed, and still living on Ramen in roach-infested apartments. I'm fortunate not to be in that kind of debt, but I have friends who are. And, believe me, they are no longer happy people.

  12. Who would ever go into a program that only paid a 12,000 a year stipend? Anyone who accepts that package has no excuse to complain, but actually those are probably the rich people who don't complain and thus make it impossible for everyone else to get a stipend that you can actually live off.

  13. Whose numbers are you looking at? The Chronicle of Higher Education reports average TA stipends in biology, economics, English, history, mechanical engineering, and sociology for 111 U.S. institutions here:


    These numbers are for academic year 2008-2009. When my TA-ship ended in 2007, I had reached candidacy, which meant I was getting a little over $15,000/year, which is what the Chronicle survey lists as the average for my discipline at my institution in 2008-2009.

    At the top are a very few elite places like NYU ($22,000/year); at the bottom are places like Portland State ($5,860/year). According to this survey, TA stipends for English at most institutions averaged between $12,000 and $16,000/year for 2008-2009.

  14. @Anonymous I accepted an offer that ended up paying under $10k a year. Why? Well first because the %$#@! institution in question had counted the tuition it was 'paying' (i.e. not charging) me in the original figure it gave me, so it looked almost livable. It wasn't, though, and there's simply no excuse for paying anyone wages that low. Period. (The institution in question got a tax break from declaring it this way, though. So delighted for them.)

    As for 'no excuse to complain', is this one of those Econ-based arguments where people are rational and do things in their best interest? Not true in the slightest. People do irrational crap all the time. And it's not just the rich kids, it's anyone who's too young to understand the long-term costs, which aren't only financial. (That was why I stayed, too young/dumb to get out. But at least I'm not 100k in debt!)

    So yes, I agree, this blog does a fair job listing the true costs, and I for one wish someone had tried to list the problems in as much detail when I was thinking about grad school.

    @Recent right back at ya. Being a suffering artist is only fun until you need good health insurance...

  15. @worstprof: Are you saying that you actually didn't know that your stipend would be less than $10K before you enrolled in grad school? Just because the "original" figure was misleading doesn't mean that it wasn't eventually spelled out for you before you signed onto it.

    Also, if you were living off less than $10,000 a year for seven years and aren't in debt, you either had a job beforehand or were helped by your parents. Since you were "young and dumb," I am assuming you entered right after undergrad and thus you are indeed one of the "rich kids" making the system worse for everyone else.

    Also, teenagers are expected to do "irrational things" not "in their best interest." When you are 22 years old, there is no longer an excuse for not doing basic math to calculate how much money you need to live. And honestly, I am pretty sure you actually DID the math, because you factored in the monthly check from mommy and daddy, which is sad but not "irrational." (100K in debt for a PhD is irrational though, that is pretty nuts even for law school these days!)

  16. The real issue here is not whether you got a 10K/year package for 4 years or a 20K/year package for 5 years (and the amount is relative, too, often linked to region, more so than wealth and prestige of the institution -- it's as hard to live on 20K in some places as it is on 10K in others).

    The real issue is that university administrators figured out a long time ago that graduate students were a cheap and disposable source of labor.

    The beauty of the system for them is that 4-5 years, which sounds pretty good to you at the outset, is almost never enough time for you to finish. So, what do people do for those last 2-5 years of graduate school? They adjunct, which is even better for administrators. If you're an adjunct who has reached candidacy (ABD), which you most likely will have in 4-5 years, you can teach not only the intro courses you've been teaching as a TA but also courses for majors. Voila! You've progressed from a 4-5 year contract to semester-by-semester contracts, and whether you're getting 2K/course (at the low end) or 6K (at the high end), you're costing the administration far less than someone on a tenure-track line to teach exactly the same courses.

    Why have there been increasingly fewer tenure-track jobs over the years? Not because there isn't a need for faculty!! The system of cheap and disposable labor starts with graduate students and how they're recruited and retained. It doesn't matter how much you got in your "package." You're being used, and you don't realize to what degree. I think this is what WorstProf means about "young/dumb." Everybody has heard the advice, "Don't go to graduate school unless you have funding." It's good advice, except it's also a catch-22: When you accept that package, you're already contributing to a system that, in the end, will most likely deny you a permanent job.

  17. "The second reason is that, unlike the musician who gigs evenings and weekends trying to build a career but works days in an office to make ends meet, graduate students, after spending a decade 'in school,' have no work history other than teaching to fall back on. I speak from experience on this one. I play in an indie band. Four of my bandmates have music degrees and are very dedicated to realizing creative goals, but ALL OF THEM have day jobs. One is a CPA. Two work administrative jobs. The fourth does web design."

    Exactly. The very nature of most PhD programs prevents students from holding outside jobs, for various reasons:
    1. Many graduate assistantships or fellowships prohibit recipients from working. In order to receive full funding, therefore, you are required to give up any other paid work during the academic year. So if you do want to keep working as a CPA, administrator, etc. while earning a PhD, you won't get any academic funding--and trust me, that will look really bad on your academic job applications.
    2. PhD programs are intense and time-consuming. In addition to taking classes and passing quals, you will also be expected by your DGS to show up at department lectures and job talks, present at conferences, TA or teach multiple classes, hold office hours for your students, collaborate on research with professors, and generally be a team player. Unlike painting or practicing a musical instrument, it's not the sort of work that can be done on your own time. You're nothing like a solitary artist painting in his garret at night. Rather, you're part of an institution, and you need to display the correct social cues if you want institutional support like letters of recommendation for the job market, opportunities to co-author, etc. That doesn't leave much time for maintaining a non-academic resume.

  18. On this topic, you might find Dan Berrett's interview with Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins University interesting. Ginsberg is the author of the book, "The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters."

    Here is the interview at Inside Higher Ed:


    A sample:

    "The larger result, he argues, is that universities have shifted their resources and attention away from teaching and research in order to feed a cadre of administrators who, he says, do little to advance the central mission of universities and serve chiefly to inflate their own sense of importance by increasing the number of people who report to them."

  19. "...most of the growth in American universities has been in administration; almost half of the full-time employees at Arizona State University are administrators. With so many stakeholders on campus who are not there to teach or to learn, the priorities of the modern university are naturally less and less attuned to the avowed purposes of higher education."

    That last sentence is so very true of Arizona State University, one of the great scandal-ridden cesspools of "higher education."

  20. As an administrator in higher education, I'd emphasize that many of these jobs require masters degrees (or higher) as well. And the pay isn't great. But the vacation and job security are excellent, by American standards.

    Of course, if you can get a job at a university, you can often get free or discounted further study.

  21. One of the few success stories I know from academic graduate school is a guy who bailed out of Sociology without even getting an MA and went to work for the University. He now has one of those trumped up administrative job titles, something like "President of Customer Service". I'm sure this job has it's own sources of grief, like every job, but he didn't have to spend 10 years getting a PHD and then end up at Cornfield U teaching 5 classes a semester. He gets to stay at the elite campus in a nice city, and he has library privileges...

  22. "Napolitano is saying the University of California system needs a $220 million raise next year on top of the $3 billion in state funding it already receives. CA Gov. Brown has countered with a still-hefty $120 million raise, but with the qualification that tuition rates will not rise. Napolitano and the UC regents have moved for a 5% tuition hike in the 2015-16 school year and potentially 28% over the next five years.

    The protesting students interrupted a regents meeting in Mission Bay with their shouts of “UC regents! Put people over profits!” UC Police described by the Chronicle as dressed in riot gear, moved the protesters out of the meeting.

    “This is all what we have got left,” one student yelled before pulling the fake cash from her brassiere and throwing it, as seen in video of the event. Throwing off her dress, the woman revealed her “student debt”-labeled underwear.

    Napolitano was caught on a hot mic, reacting: “Let’s go. We don’t have to listen to this crap.” "

    There you have it, everyone, THAT is what ADMINISTRATORS think of YOU as students. You are cows to be milked and then led to slaughter. That is all you are to them.

    Also, for the politically-minded, this also is what the LIBERAL RULING CLASS thinks of you. You are just little disposable wallets to be looted and destroyed at will, in the service of government and the empire builders within it.