Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Scholars on Food Stamps

John Fea recently posted information about an NPR article that talks about PhD's on food stamps. It is, of course, depressing to read about the hardships of people who receive PhDs only to find that there is no full-time work for them. The article highlights one person who earned only $32,000 in his best year (vs. $10,000 in his worst year). I talked with a lecturer at UTC who confirmed that $30,000 is a typical salary for a lecturer. Such jobs will more than likely not turn into tenure-track positions. Analyzing his situation, this professor wondered if he should abandon scholarship and use personal time to work at a part-time job. If reading and researching has no monetary value, and if lecturers are called only to teach, why not put in a typical 20-hour work week at the university and then work somewhere else to supplement one's income? The fact that people are now asking these types of questions is a clear indicator that the university system in America is severely flawed.

Will people continue to pay thousands of dollars and spend years of study in higher education with the hope of becoming a professor when there is little chance of obtaining a full-time position and the salary is low enough to qualify one for food stamps? What then is the solution since the reality is that there is still an abundant number of qualified scholars who are out of work and looking for a job? Some would say that there needs to be a tightening effect on the number of schools that grant PhDs. This view holds that only the best should be allowed entrance into a doctoral program, and only elite universities should be the ones granting such degrees.

But this suggestion leads to further problems. What about teaching ability? Is everyone who earns a PhD at an Ivy-League school a good teacher? What about scholars who work their way through graduate programs, paying the entire bill with their own savings? Doesn't that suggest a certain level of motivation that may not be present among those who are granted scholarships and stipends? American history is full of stories about people who succeed from the sweat of their own brow, and against all odds. Such people often have an appreciation for work that is absent among those who haven't a clue about adversity (nor the sympathy to communicate effectively with common folk).

The solution at many institutions these days is to hire as many adjuncts (and lecturers if necessary) as possible in order to cut costs. Why hire tenure-track professors who cannot be fired once they gain tenure, and who are more expensive to pay? If there is an endless supply of applicants for lectureships, why not take advantage of the system?

As American continues to recover (albeit slowly) from the 2008 economic doldrums, my hope is that Congress will realize the importance of education, both at the elementary level and in higher education.

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