Research for credit, adjuncts and abuses in academia

May 04 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

A comment to a previous post said:

I did lots of research for credit, and always found it ironic that I was paying tuition to essentially volunteer. In some ways, research for credit is MORE problematic. Welcome to academia, where we vastly underpay people for their work (think adjuncts).

I responded that I think there are situations in which credit/no pay is appropriate: When there is teaching going on, when the student is doing a project that teaches how to do research, when it is not just washing bottles or cleaning animal cages. I think one diagnostic feature is that the teacher/prof is putting significant (more?) energy into teaching the student, than end product that comes out.

But the issue with adjuncts is more complex than this.

So to start:  I do not think that academics are particularly underpaid. I was just speaking with a physician friend, who view on academic physicians was quite nuanced. When I was in a clinical dept at MRU, there was quite schizoid views on the "job" of physicians. Many wanted to make significant amounts of money, which is by and large not compatible with doing  research. My friend said that she thought physicians needed to make a choice: to be academics, take the salary offered, and teach and do research and basically accept that you're not going to get all the perks of a private practice. And that if you did want to get "rich" you should eschew the academic route and just devote yourself to those private patients. The problem of course, is that people, physician people, wanted both.

The punch line from my friend was apt: I get paid plenty, and have what I need, as an academic physician. It is the psychological need or compulsion to have "More" that creates problems. Relative to private practice peers, academic physicians can/sometimes perceive they are not paid enough. I hear my readers laughing at "not enough" for people making > $100K/yr.

Which brings me to one of my favorite (attribution unknown) quotes: who is rich, and should be taxed more? Anyone who makes more money than I do.

Are adjuncts underpaid? If you asked my grandmother, who worked for pennies a day, less than minimum wage in today's dollars, she'd say you're crazy. You ask an adjunct who looks at tenure track people doing similar, if not the same, work for lots more, they would be adamant that yes, they are underpaid. It's relative.

But this comes to the question of why do positions  called "adjunct" exist? From the Administrator's perspective, adjuncts are cheap, very cheap, easy to justify to the bean counters  and make a difference to over all productivity. From an adjunct's point of view, it's a way to stay in the system and hope things get better. From an economist's point of view: adjuncts exist because there is a job offered at a particular wage, and there are people willing to do this work for this wage.

And so once again we return to the mouths at the trough problem. If there were a shortage of professors/teachers / people who could and would teach college courses (supply) relative to the number that need to be taught (demand), then wages would rise. But there is an oversupply of teachers. There is a supply of people who will do this job at this wage. They may get used up and quit, but right now there is a near endless supply of such people. Universities are churning out of PhDs who are willing to do that teaching at that price, so from the administrator's point of view why offer more money? (yes, there are arguments about quality, about commitment, about long term development, but they can be countered,  we are not trying to persuade administrators at this point, and this post is already too long). There is similar logic for postdoc salaries, but see previous parenthetical comment.

The solution seems obvious: stop training so many PhD students. Or be honest with the ones you do take in. Actually, it's more than being honest: think about exponential growth. If jobs for professors are in a "replacement" mode at best (ie no growth in positions), then within a lifetime, a prof should produce ONE replacement for themselves. If a prof produces even two, and those two produce two each, in 10 generations there will be a thousand (2 ^10 = 1024). And if all those people are writing one NIH grant a year, let alone one every cycle, then of course the number of submissions is going to go up exponentially.

So to come back to the beginning: are academics underpaid. If you want to make lots of money, academics is probably not for you. But everyone in the system now has a responsibility to understand the implications, the long term implications, of their actions.

18 responses so far

  • C.E. Petit says:

    As purely a thought-experiment, I suggest something in the middle to test both ends. And I haven't thought this through fully yet, so I don't know for sure what implications it really has, or how it would work in practice.

    The current academic environment offers only two choices: Full-life tenure (or at least a relatively short track toward it), or no security at all beyond the current academic year/term. And this applies to both instructional and research contexts.

    Consider a potential intermediate practice: The seven-year contract.* That at least allows the "adjunct" to potentially purchase a house (it's more than twice the national median for house sales), while conversely providing a potential sunset to the "unproductive." It's also extensive enough to justify appropriate terms offered on both ends of the transaction. One can even tailor the duties required for each contract term to those actually needed for the foreseeable future (e.g., "Professor X must now teach one junior-level mammalian development class every other academic terms because our recruiting for the past decade resulted in a faculty skewed to microbiology but we have to offer the class, so we'll write it into his next contract.")

    The real problem is that both "sides" — the academics themselves and the administrators — are convinced that they must have victory or death. "Deadwood" professors are probably the largest cohort that has convinced itself it can't negotiate on this (because it doesn't think it has any prospects elsewhere and is afraid of being turned out before self-selecte retirement). And in the social sciences and humanities, the not-so-insubstantial specter of political-acceptability review is there. But I think this worth at least a thought experiment.

    * I chose seven years because (a) in California, that's the legal limit on personal-services contracts, and tenure-for-educators is explicitly exempted, and (b) there's good data from both bankruptcy judges and federal magistrate judges, who are also appointed on seven-year terms, for how "professionals" adapt to this. It might not be the right number for scientific research; I'm throwing it out here for discussion.

    • potnia theron says:

      There are places that do this: many of the MRU Medical Schools have essentially ended tenure. It has had many intentional and unintentional effects. Post-worthy thoughts.

  • Rheophile says:

    I agree, up to a point, with your economist's view: "there are people willing to do this work for this wage." But I think some of the wage is being paid in false tender - the perception that this is a stepping stone to a faculty position. To a lesser extent, the same is true of postdocs (lesser, because both wages and odds of moving up are better).

    I don't think many faculty say this out loud, but I agree with you that we should!

    • potnia theron says:

      Do you really think that people don't know the chances of a real job, after all they didn't get one or they wouldn't be an adjunct. I think people think that *they* will win the lottery, that *they* will turn this around.

  • becca says:

    Postdocs are not underpaid, except inasmuch as PIs expect them to be able to do ridiculous things, like live near work, and have daycare coverage, and pay travel costs while waiting on the university to reimburse them.

    But adjuncts are abused. I mean not all of them (there are, after all, the classic business people adjuncting elective business classes for MBA programs for the ego boost). But trying to live on too may disparate part time jobs is appalling in impact to anyone with an ounce of compassion and common sense.

    The other day I brought up the idea deportations of parents of US citizens as immoral...I got a retort of "we should send em to orphanages, that's where they sent my grandparents"- this is bullpockey. I don't care what the heck your downtrodden grandparents went through. Everything isnt relative, some people's lot in life sucks, and trying to minimize that with family lore makes you a douchebag.

    I mean, there are plenty of people living who had grandparents in the Holocaust... that doesn't mean today's police brutality isn't appalling.

    What are adjuncts paid at your institution?

    • potnia theron says:

      At my institution, which is a medical school, adjuncts are like MBA types: they are physicians who make lots as physicians, who want to do something for teaching the next generation. They often are not paid at all, and are volunteering because they believe in it.

      We do hire some postdocs to do lab teaching, as needed, and they get a standard postdoc wage for the months they teach. Here, at almost-MRU, there is some effort to be reasonable about what is expected in those months. By and large, the folks doing that teaching get paid fulltime for the teaching, but really are working about 70-80% effort. If organized, other Stuff (publication) can get done.

      • xykademiqz says:

        Unrelated, but I am curious: what are the typical earnings of these MDs who volunteer as medical school faculty? I know it varies by specialty (e.g., neurosurgeon probably more than a vascular surgeon and both more than OBGYN or peds) but I figured you'd know a decent range...

  • Ola says:

    Adjuncts in most of the SLA colleges round here are paid ~$250o per 4 credit course per semester. Assuming 4 contact hours, plus a 2hr. lab', plus prep' time, grading, office hours, and travel to/from (rural) campus, most adjuncts are hard pressed to teach more than 2 such courses in a regular 40 hr. work week. So, all told $10k a year, pre-tax, no benefits, for a full time job. Notice I said job, not career!

    Regarding MDs, the struggle a lot of MRUs have is the gap between academic and non-academic faculty salaries has been closing. It used to be that people were willing to take a hit for being in academia, but now MDs at MRUs are demanding parity with their private brethren, and academic departments are having to pay more to lure people away from the private sector.

    This washes over into the non-clinical faculty side also. Being a regular faculty member at a MRU actually pays pretty well. The AAUP salary surveys (here... https://www.aaup.org/report/visualizing-change-annual-report-economic-status-profession-2016-17) show average nationwide full professor salary at about 130k, and this is always higher at medical schools and graduate degree awarding institutions. Given the tendency of academics to marry and cohabit, it's quite common for a non-MD academic couple to pull down a quarter-mil per year pre-tax, in a not-very-expensive town. Add in that many such people at the upper echelons (esp. boomers & gen-Xers) were educated at a time before student loans, and these folks are doing quite well indeed.

    • potnia theron says:

      As a boomer, I disagree with your "before student loans". Yes, tuition has risen faster than inflation, but many folks I know had loans, and worked to pay them off. Others, including me, worked an additional job (for me, as a statistician instead of teaching) that paid more than being a teaching/research assistant in grad school for the same number of hours.

  • Misha Koksharov says:

    It's interesting to compare with how it was implemented in the Soviet/Russian academic system. There labs were mostly composed of non-temporary staff scientists of various gradations (professor, groupleader, serior, regular, junior, etc).
    And even in this case there were usually just 1-2 PhD students at the same time.
    (And in many cases people were instead just hired as junior scientists after the M.Sc. if they were supposed to have some specific duties and don't do science just as an educational pursuit).

    In the US (and other places) one can easily see an Assistant Prof. having 10-15 PhD students. This is insane...

  • Misha Koksharov says:

    By the way, from the economic perspective it would have been useful to implement an overproduction of doctors and lawyers to make them cheaper (at least usually they are considered quite expensive in the US).

    Although, I've seen somewhere that there are even more unemployed lawyers than scientists. So the supply/demand doesn't seem to work here for some reason.

    It's also unclear why don't all these excess PhDs saturate the US school system (as teachers) making it the best in the world.

  • Anon says:

    "It's also unclear why don't all these excess PhDs saturate the US school system (as teachers) making it the best in the world."

    Gee, lemme take a wild guess: maybe because a lot of PhDs don't want to teach full time (especially younger kids). They want to do research, which is what they are trained to do in graduate programs.

    "Although, I've seen somewhere that there are even more unemployed lawyers than scientists."

    Where have you seen that?

    "So the supply/demand doesn't seem to work here for some reason."

    That's just silly! There are plenty of lawyers who don't make a fraction of what the "rich" lawyers at top firms do.

    You really don't know very much about these things, do you?

    • potnia theron says:

      Your "wild guess" is on the money. I always disliked the people who came and said: well, one great career for a PhD is .... teaching! high school! grade school!

      WTF? Few people go to get a PhD in science because they *want* to teach high school. I find people who promote that to be very arrogant.

      This was the source of great back and forth on Mama Isis's blog - but I can't find my post and the replies.

  • Microscientist says:

    The major professions that require graduate degrees (lawyers, doctors, dentists, veterinarians) all regulate the number of people gaining these degrees. This regulation is essentially to ensure that anyone who receives these degrees in the USA will be guaranteed a job in their field of training. This is the primary reason that their professions are competitive to gain entry to.
    It is true that the law profession has been hit in the last recession and even law graduates from some of the better law schools are now having trouble finding law associated jobs.
    As to why PhDs don't saturate education, there are two main reasons. One is that in many places PhDs do not have appropriate credentials in education to be eligible for these jobs. The other is the poor working conditions and career prospects for teachers in thsi country. Most PhDs would find it more lucrative and satisfying to find a job in indutry or another respected professional field. Teachers in the US as a whole are not respected as professionals unless you are teaching at the university level.

  • chall says:

    The idea about regulate number of people gaining the degrees, might have been correct back in the day. Today though, not as much. Have you seen the numbers of law school graduates and the ratio of them who are working in "their field" 5 years after graduating? Similar to post docing and STEM degrees and link with "earning money". Lawyers who work as public defenders or even "regular assistant DAs" aren't making even close to the same as lawyers working in a popular law firm or being associates to said law firms. And then there are plenty lawyers who won't get a lawyer job at all. Veterinarians open their own business, and may or may not succeed - or they go work as "slaughter house quality controllers" and there are quite another lot of work that isn't high paid, nor what "everyone foresees" when you say veterinarian.

    Overall I feel that this whole "comparison idea" is a little flawed since there are details in all of these areas where there are huge disparities between the ones "who has it all" and the "ones who is scarping by". And maybe most of all, the physician comparison is very different based on speciality&location, never mind "small or big practice".

    Back in my home country one of the main allure for universities and MRUs to hire physicians as researchers is that they can supplement some of the research money and stretch their time base don adding service and make money by "working as a physician on the side". A regular PhD (like myself) doesn't have that option and then becomes a little more of a risk, a little more expensive to the department....

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