It turns out that the same basic laws of economics apply for academics just as much as they apply for fast food workers. If an idiot Republican like me can figure out supply and demand, why is it that the self-styled most brilliant people on the planet can’t figure it out as well?
It is 2011 and I’m sitting in the Palais des Congres in Montreal, watching anthropologists talk about structural inequality.
Of course they’re talking about structural inequality. That’s all that anyone in the Humanities and Social Sciences talks about. Sure, English professors talk about structural inequality in the works of Edmund Spenser and anthropologists talk about structural inequality among members of the O’ny’ongo’go tribe post colonization, but everyone is more or less rehashing Marx, Foucault and Derrida. The only skill that these disciplines are teaching is the ability to shove anything through a Social Justice filter, which creates a totally interchangeable workforce. And these people wonder why jobs are scarce.
My friend is an adjunct. She has a PhD in anthropology and teaches at a university, where she is paid $2100 per course. While she is a professor, she is not a Professor. She is, like 67 per cent of American university faculty, a part-time employee on a contract that may or may not be renewed each semester. She receives no benefits or health care.
There are too many people with PhDs in anthropology and not enough people studying it, so the universities can hire faculty at lower wages. To make matters worse, the universities sold a bright future of stable employment and a cool job in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in debt. This generation of grad students simply wound up on the dumping end of a Ponzi scheme.
Why is my friend, a smart woman with no money, spending nearly $2000 to attend a conference she cannot afford? She is looking for a way out. In America, academic hiring is rigid and seasonal. Each discipline has a conference, usually held in the fall, where interviews take place. These interviews can be announced days or even hours in advance, so most people book beforehand, often to receive no interviews at all.
Welcome to the job market. You need them more than they need you. For perspective, in order to get the first of two in-person interviews at my current job, I had to go through a phone screening, a personality test and a thinly veiled IQ test. All that aside, I would have laughed at them if they charged me $2000 for the opportunity.
The American Anthropological Association tends to hold its meetings in America’s most expensive cities, although they do have one stipulation: “AAA staff responsible for negotiating and administering annual meeting contracts shall show preference to locales with living wage ordinances.” This rule does not apply, unfortunately, to those in attendance.
Who knew? Left wing professors are a bunch of pious hypocrites.
Academia is vaunted for being a meritocracy.
No it isn’t. It’s about networking and showing up in the right places.
Anthropologists are known for their attentiveness to social inequality, but few have acknowledged the plight of their peers. When I expressed doubt about the job market to one colleague, she advised me, with total seriousness, to “re-evaluate what work means” and to consider “post-work imaginaries”.
Translation: She got hers. Whatever happens to everyone else is just too bad. When confronted directly, bury the questioner in postmodern gobbledygook.
In May 2012, I received my PhD, but I still do not know what to do with it.
Do what a lot of people are doing and find a job in an unrelated field. Trust me, it ain’t that bad and you’ll probably make more money, which beats the hell out of starving to live the dream. Just don’t mention structural inequality during the interview. Business owners don’t like that kind of thing.
I struggle with the closed-off nature of academic work, which I think should be accessible to everyone, but most of all I struggle with the limited opportunities in academia for Americans like me, people for whom education was once a path out of poverty, and not a way into it.
The market spoke. You’re not as valuable as you would have been 50 years ago, and unless thousands of anthropology professors suddenly drop dead tomorrow, that will not likely change. It’s not personal. It’s not a conspiracy. There are simply too many people who want a job with lots of time off from which they cannot be fired.
The first step in recovery is admitting that there’s a problem.