Professors Making $10,000 a Year? Academia Becoming a Profession Only the Elite Can Afford
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It may be hard to summon sympathy for people who walk willingly into such working conditions. "Bart, don't make fun of grad students," Marge told her son on an oft-quoted episode of The Simpsons. "They just made a terrible life choice."
But all Americans should be concerned about adjuncts, and not only because adjuncts are the ones teaching our youth. The adjunct problem is emblematic of broader trends in American employment: the end of higher education as a means to prosperity, and the severing of opportunity to all but the most privileged.
In a searing commentary, political analyst Joshua Foust notes that the unpaid internships that were once limited to show business have now spread to nearly every industry. "It's almost impossible to get a job working on policy in this town without an unpaid internship," he writes from Washington DC, one of the most expensive cities in the country. Even law, once a safety net for American strivers, is now a profession where jobs pay as little as $10,000 a year - unfeasible for all but the wealthy, and devastating for those who have invested more than $100,000 into their degrees. One after another, the occupations that shape American society are becoming impossible for all but the most elite to enter.
The value of a degree
Academia is vaunted for being a meritocracy. Publications are judged on blind review, and good graduate programs offer free tuition and a decent stipend. But its reliance on adjuncts makes it no different than professions that cater to the elite through unpaid internships.
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". A popular video on post-graduate employment cuts to the chase: "Why don't you tap into your trust fund?"
In May 2012, I received my PhD, but I still do not know what to do with it. 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.
My father, the first person in his family to go to college, tries to tell me my degree has value. "Our family came here with nothing," he says of my great-grandparents, who fled Poland a century ago. "Do you know how incredible it is that you did this, how proud they would be?"
And my heart broke a little when he said that, because his illusion is so touching - so revealing of the values of his generation, and so alien to the experience of mine.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.