My Beautiful Wickedness

Oh, poor poor administrators and their problems…
June 23, 2008, 12:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I don’t usually comment at Dean Dad’s place and I can see he’s feeling a little piled on, so I won’t jump in with both boots right now….but he’s made back-to-back posts speculating about the beneficial effects of offering “market clearing salaries” in humanities positions. To my mind, he is misunderstanding any number of things that make this a non-starter of an idea.

The first factor driving “overproduction” of PhDs — and really, how dumb, to characterize the creation of smart self-motivated people with a huge skill set as some kind of social liability — is the perverse way that some humans have of thinking that they should have something that they want out of life, despite “market” realities. Who really says “oh, let me do a careful market projection of salary levels and job availability in a variety of fields so that I can select the correct one, so that I can then invest ten years of my life living on rice and beans so that I might get a job in the humanities some day if my projections are correct?” A PhD isn’t an investment like stock; it’s a commitment of self. One takes a humanities degree despite the odds and often in total ignorance of the developing field because one LOVES THE WORK. It’s a passion for a particular subject that drives the work. No one goes into the professoriate for the money — they go into it for the type of work and life, a lure so seductive in my particular field that thirty years of declining wages and diminished job opportunities hasn’t dented the production of PhDs. We honestly really really like teaching and researching and reading books and thinking for a living. And sometimes we find satisfactions along the way that convince us that we’re well without the PhD and sometimes not…but that doesn’t have all that much to do with salary rates.

The second reason for “overproduction” is the way that research universities operate. There would be few to no introductory gen ed classes without MA and PhD candidates teaching them. In the fields where there are far more PhDs than jobs, US History and English being the two with which I’m most familiar, you can thank required courses in US survey and Freshman writing for that. Adjuncts provide for the SLAC and CC administrator what grad students do for the R1 — they provide low-cost, high-revenue return survey teaching. R1 administrators and department chairs habitually increase the size of their grad programs each year so that they can get more tuition-paying undergrad butts in the chairs without having to hire more tenure-track faculty. I fail to see how offering “market-clearing” salaries (which are what, exactly? I spent the first three years of my t-t job making so little money that my family qualified for government assistance and I was part of that “lucky third” of US historians who actually got a t-t job) would be a disincentive to R1s, whose humanities programs remain profitable only on the backs of their under-compensated and largely un-unionized graduate workforce.

It just strikes me as an exercise in blame-shifting. Oh, poor administrators, guys who makes three times what I do, hold the pursestrings, and are being compensated because they have to make the “tough decisions,” suggesting that it would be good if I took a paycut because it’s just so heartbreaking for them to have to pay adjuncts so little. Hmmm….let’s think outside the box for a minute. Whatever could be a potential solution to this? One less administrative position financed at $100k per year (plus benefits) could free up a whole lot of money to increase adjunct salaries. Or maybe dropping administrators’ salaries to “market clearing” levels?

Bet it wouldn’t sound so desirable if it was his salary and his family’s future on the line.


7 Comments so far
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I attended a meeting of our college Board of Trustees two weeks ago during which our college President gave a report spelling out budgetary concerns in light of the current State budget proposals, etc… The upshot was that if her most pessimistic assumptions were to come about we would be short a certain amount of money. My immediate thought was that about half of the amount she mentioned could be saved if we fired on particular administrator who DOESN’T DO ANYTHING except attend meetings and grandstand.

I remained silent.

Yep, anyone who goes into the humanities for the money is kidding themselves. I also have people in my life – especially relatives – who consider my time at Iowa as wasted because I didn’t finish the degree. I saw those experiences as valuable in their own right and even if I am in the minors, I get to play the game for a living. Despite my whining, I get to spend my days talking with smart people about things I find interesting and then try to get students interested in what I am interested in. I work in air conditioning and haven’t added to my collection of scars from chemical burns in about twenty years. The trade-off for that demanded by our culture seems to be that I make less than a skilled plumber. So be it. However, that kind of thinking is going to forever remain foreign to a lot, if not a majority, of people.

Unfortunately, the “Pareto Optimal” business-econ mind-set you are describing seems to be driving a lot of higher ed thinking these days.

Comment by Gerald

Yes, I understand the “you wasted so much time in grad school” response. Even those near and dear think that John and I were on some sort of extended Peter Pan trip (and his family still badgers him about “figuring out what he wants to be when he grows up”), honestly, I am so glad we did what we did and have had the time of our lives in Iowa City while we were young and on fire for learning in the company of a lot of other people similarly inclined. It will probably be the best decade of my life, all told (even given the joys of motherhood and all that comes with) and I regret nothing. I get to study what I want, teach pretty much what I want, hang out with smart people, and never once has anything unexpectedly dropped on me, exploded, or shifted weight so that I was pinned under it.

It’s all worth it to me.

Funny. That’s the second time today someone has applied Pareto Optimal analysis to an entirely inappropriate subject. (The first was Bob Wright trying to explain why the Constitution was actually a Pareto win-win for slaves and women….argh.)

Comment by bridgett

Supposedly the salaries in the business discipline are higher than the average PhD faculty member because schools are competing with organizations for them. In my experience, I haven’t seen that.

I talk with MBA students who say that they’re considering enrolling in a doctoral program and I strongly urge them to really think about why they want a doctorate. I tell them that if they don’t want it with every fiber in their being for their own reasons, don’t do it. It’s not another punch on the life card.

Comment by Angela Gordon


My younger, smarter, richer (but, ahem, not as good lookin’!) brother is in the midst of his dissertation and I think he’s realized that being a PhD is all well and good, but it prolly won’t increase his salary by enough to make it, financially, a good career move. Otoh, he does love being smart (and he is) so I think he just enjoys the exercise.

Comment by democommie

Angela, I don’t see it either. My brother-in-law is two years older than me, just as smart, and has a Sloan MBA. While I was in grad school and going for tenure, he spent that time being exceptionally good at his job, pursuing new opportunities as they arose, and being willing to jump companies and relocate his family to shake up his career. He easily makes twice what I do and probably hasn’t hit the peak of his earning curve. I know that he out-earns his own brother, who is a math professor. Likewise, John’s college roomate is a senior economist who works for the FTC; his Cornell PhD and experience makes him ridiculous money that would make it foolish for him to consider stepping into academia (even though he confesses that he feels sort of like a failure because he tried for an academic job and didn’t make it).

The trick is to find that something that makes you soul-satisfied.

Comment by bridgett

I’m about to start my Ph.D, and I find all of this… sort of darkly amusing. Everyone asks me what I want to do with it. “It” in this case being a Ph.D in “Communications,” where in this case “Communications” means “the internet…oh, and computer games.”

I know I’m a little odd, but the question always strikes me as hilarious because I don’t want to do anything with it. I have a job I love already, which I’m going to have to quit to go do this Ph.D thing. All of the things I like doing and am good at are things that don’t require much in the way of certification or education – Exec. Assisting, consulting, etc. I’m going for my Ph.D because I really, really, really like the subject. I’ve been researching it formally and informally since I was 15, and I’m going to continue researching it until I die or lose interest, whichever comes first.

Of course, due to the nature of the stuff I’m interested in – computer games being a bigger industry than the movies and all – I’d imagine the job market, should I choose to go into it when I’m done, won’t suck as badly as many of the other disciplines do. But even if it didn’t … even if my field was obscure and hard to get into, or so popular everyone and their grandaunt has a Ph.D in it… I’d still do it. Both because I have other interests that can support me and because it’s a consuming passion for me.

That said… I do think that it’s seriously broken that someone could invest so much of their life into acquiring knowledge and skills – knowledge and skills which we need to keep society functioning – and then don’t get compensated for it.

… gah, okay. Students and work intruding, so that thought will have to wait.

Comment by magniloquence

“The trick is to find that something that makes you soul-satisfied.”

Truer words have never been spoken. I could be working for a large corporation as a consultant or researcher, but my true love is teaching and that’s worth far more to me.

Comment by Angela Gordon

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