Happy 2015, friends. Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated… not by much, but exaggerated. Meanwhile, as I ponder the mysteries of coughs, sinus infections, hives masquerading as chicken pox, and other randomly striking disorders, some thoughts:
When I first considered doing a PhD, I believed that I’d find a place in academia somewhere, either supervising or conducting research, with maybe a little teaching thrown in. I had arrived at this vague notion of getting a PhD as a step towards teaching and mentoring others interested in academic pursuit.
I didn’t get into too many of the details as I was doing it but, years of toil later, as I was nearly finished and ready to start hunting for work as an academic, I learned that pretty much every academic slot would be taken either by someone 20 years my junior, or was already filled by someone who had already held the position for at least 20 years – there just weren’t places for fresh PhD’s. At that point, I could have gone on and done a post-doc (essentially, done research for which someone else would take credit, for very little pay), I could give up on the idea of Academia entirely, or I could teach part-time on the side and treat Academia as little more than a hobby.
I decided to take the latter option, this past year, and taught a few online classes. I have since decided that “Academia” isn’t to be found in online education – at least not with that particular institution – and have given up on the idea of Academia entirely. I could go on about students who can’t even be bothered to spell-check their assignments, or who somehow believe that writing a few sentences of their opinions down should magically grant them an A, but those are just the annoyances of teaching and could be remedied.
What cannot be remedied, though, is that by teaching “in my spare time” I was essentially depressing the wage scale. I didn’t need the money (for a given value of “need” – it’s always nice, but I did have another job that was paying the rent), so didn’t really have any incentive to negotiate a higher wage (what they were paying me amounted to less than $18 / hour). By agreeing to work for that rate, I was essentially pushing someone else out of the market. And it is a market: where I was teaching, each student paid something like $30,000 per year for the privilege of working through some online resources. The total cost in salaries to the university for the entire group of students was something on the order of $18,000, meaning that anything more than 1 student taking a course would be profitable for the university. To state it a bit differently: with a cohort of 20 students, the university’s take was something approaching $600,000, from which they’d subtract some $18,000 in teaching salary.
Yes, yes, there are other costs which have to come out – the servers which run the courseware must be paid for, email software must be maintained, etc. However: teaching salaries represented a cost of only 3% of the amount taken in by that university.
Working as an adjunct is a bit like working for a charity, I guess: you do it because it makes you feel good, and people donate money thinking that the money will go to help people, but the only good that gets done is by the volunteers and the money goes into the pockets of someone else. That’s adjunct teaching, and the university system in this country.
Which brings me to my conclusion – after five years away, and two years now back and trying to figure out what it all means: I don’t regret the PhD. But I will probably simply keep mentoring people in my community for free, rather than participate in the formal education system. Was it worth the travel? Undoubtedly, yes. The time? The debt? Well… an expensive lesson, if one can afford it. All to do what I’d already been doing – but with those three little letters behind my name (or, actually, eight, since the M. Litt was also earned during our time in Scotland), maybe my mentoring will mean more to someone.