The adjunct anthropologist’s open thread

Dear all of you adjunct anthropologists out there,

Well, it looks like 2012 sure is your year, with all of the attention you and your academic kinfolk have been getting of late.  So tell me, how’s everything going?  Are you teaching 6 classes in three different colleges?  Debating whether or not to go on an all top ramen diet so you can afford to go to the AAAs this year?  Selling lemonade on the corner to get enough cash to print syllabi for class?  Are you too busy already with the madness of the semester to even think about posting a comment on a silly little blog?  Or, on the other hand, are you doin just fine, thanks and wondering what the hub-bub is all about?  So what’s your story?  Savage Minds would like to know.

That’s right anthro-adjuncts, this thread’s for you.  Use it to express your views about the wonderful (or not so wonderful) place known as adjunct-landia.  Please feel free to post anonymous comments if necessary.

Good night and good luck.  Ok now, don’t be shy, fire away.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

23 thoughts on “The adjunct anthropologist’s open thread

  1. I just took the GRE and killed it on the verbal section! I’ve had enough of adjuncting and have decided to get a MLIS and become an academic librarian (having a PhD will not get you out of the test if you want to go back to grad school). I think I might like to try being a professor again later in life, but tenure track is not going to happen any time soon so I’m setting myself up to switch gears in the fall of next year.

  2. Ryan, AAA staff are very helpful so if they can, I imagine they would try to answer your questions if you contacted them. For what it’s worth, I also worked as an underpaid and exploited adjunct for years early in my career, and I’m one of the very few professors from the working class still in academe. Of course I am concerned about the state of academia and the exploitation of adjuncts. I just don’t think the AAA annual meetings are a good target of rage, um, especially from graduates of elite universities. You need to look closer to home: it’s the fat departments that produced you that need scrutiny. Why are they accepting so many students when they know that only 20% or so of them will get jobs?

  3. Hi Matt- be careful! the job market for MLIS degrees is horrible. Of the jobs that are available many are part-time. Especially if you want to be an academic librarian you may find your self in a similar situation as now. Full time academic librarian jobs are scarce and very coveted. The pr put out by the American Library Association about “the graying of the profession” and lots of jobs opening up to fill vacancies created by retirees is total bulls**t. Many people who are eligible to retire don’t want to due to the economic climate and also positions that open up can be phased out or partitioned into several part time positions.

  4. Hi Laura, thanks for your comment.

    “I just don’t think the AAA annual meetings are a good target of rage, um, especially from graduates of elite universities. You need to look closer to home: it’s the fat departments that produced you that need scrutiny. Why are they accepting so many students when they know that only 20% or so of them will get jobs?”

    I think the AAA meetings are a good place to talk about these issues–a good meeting ground. I also think that looking at the economics of traveling to these meetings is a good idea, especially since so many grad students, adjuncts, and others are somewhat “encouraged” or compelled to go for the sake of their career. We’re all doing it, so we might as well look at what we’re doing and why. I don’t think the AAA meetings should be a target of “rage” by any means. I am not sure where you get that. The economics and costs of the meetings are just one part of larger issues facing academia and anthropology (departments and their practices being another key part). I think a lot of people focus on the annual meetings because the AAA is, according to its mission statement, an organization dedicated to the “interests” of anthropologists.

  5. Perhaps try to migrate to another country?!!! There are a lot of professors, adjunct professors, etc that have headed to the land of oz (That’s Australia if you are not familiar with it). It seems to be a good way of getting your course and your reputation set in stone, before heading back home again! 🙂

  6. Julie, a decade ago I would have offered people the same advice. Now, however, academics the world over are facing similar situations. The overproduction of unemployed graduates without marketable skills is story in China Daily News as well as the Japan Times The gossip I hear from friends in Australia paint an increasingly bleak picture there as well. And the current audit culture of UK academia sounds like absolute hell.

    That said, I don’t have a clue about possibilities in Africa, Latin America, South Asia or the Mideast. I wonder if anyone here can tell us what is going on in these parts of the world.

  7. If you’re having trouble, I would caution against going abroad unless it’s the only option. Of course, there are lots of jobs, and with the benefits they can be quite lucrative. The problem is getting another job back in the US, if you would like to return some day. If you do make it to the short list, you may be pricing yourself out of the range of many smaller institutions, which are unable to pay to fly job candidates from the other side of the world for the campus visit. They will often not tell you this. Be sure to ask.

    So, one thing to do is, when you do make all that coin working in Dubai, try to save up to pay your own ticket for a random weekend trip back to Nebraska or Pennsylvania in March to interview…

  8. @John McCreeny, I have just finished my Masters and I am looking to do a PhD. However, it is getting tough just to get into one with any type of funding. Education budgets have been cut drastically in Australia this year. However, the preference here is given to US and UK Professors, many advanced in their years (and I suppose experience).

    I am lucky that we are not reliant on my unpredictable teaching hours! I am currently going through the process of completing my Phd Proposal, and I have to say, that academics are not interested in taking you on board as a candidate if you express a preference for a post PhD career in the industry. I wonder why this is the case? There is no tenured positions in academia in Australia but the pay in Australia is easily comparable with the best institutions in the USA.

    I maybe wrong, but I see a trend that in the future (15-20 years) PhD’s in the industry will be required, just as Master’s level studies are a requirement for most high level positions due to the changing nature of work. 10-20 years ago a Master’s education was not required by most industries. I certainly don’t want to be pushed out of a job at 58 by a junior who has more energy than me and a higher level of education, and given the excuse that I don’t have the latter.

  9. I was an adjunct until just a few weeks ago, when I started a tenure-track job. After 10 years of doing it (most of them while in grad school; two after getting my PhD), I was worried about ever landing a “proper” job, thought that I might be past my “expiration date,” and thought that anthropology would end up being nothing more than my very expensive hobby. I’m glad I was wrong, but I recognize that I was incredibly lucky.

    It’s a very, very difficult job market right now. Every graduate student who asks me for advice gets the same spiel: if you think a PhD guarantees you a job, you are in the wrong profession. If you think adjuncting pays more than your current grad student stipend, you clearly haven’t looked into the job market post-graduation.

    Then again, it’s hard to look at the job market as a first-year grad student. Anthropology is different than, say, the hard sciences, where 5 years is still a reasonable time in which to get a PhD. With the anthro average hovering at 10 years, it’s really impossible to start a program knowing what the job market will look like when you get out.

    As Matt suggests, it’s important to have a Plan B (and C and D). Teaching (as an adjunct or full-timer) is just one aspect of being an anthropologist, and some of the other skills we learn have better job prospects at the moment. For my part, I applied for a bunch of social-media/science outreach type of jobs at museums and professional organizations. I applied to teach high school. I was re-taking introductory computer programming through a MOOC with the hope of landing a job at Google (search their job listings; they actually want to hire anthropologists!). I’m happy with my current position, but who knows what academia will look like in 5 or 10 or 20 years.

    Part of the training of anthropologists is being flexible, and we need to bring that training to the job market. (Of course, this is easier said than done!)

  10. @Kristina:

    Thanks for the comments. Lots of good advice for those of us who are getting close to finishing, but still on the outside looking in when it comes to getting jobs with an anthro degree.

    “As Matt suggests, it’s important to have a Plan B (and C and D)…”

    Agreed, and it might be time for this need to be reflected in the actual training of anthropologists, at least more of them. I think a lot of programs still gear their programs toward producing more people who go into academia. But the grads CAN’T all go there–so there are certain trends and habits in grad training that might need some rethinking. Working outside of academia should be less of an afterthought, IMO.

  11. @Kristina

    Lulzing at the idea of an “expiration date” for anthropologists. Some of us (me included) are getting downright moldy.

    As for moving abroad, I would recommend against the UK. Aside from the generally tight market, the changes being forced through by the coalition government do not bode well for the future of British social science. There’s a great deal of uncertainty there. I’m largely ignorant of the anthropological situation outside the US/UK, where I have concrete experience, but I suspect there is nowhere to hide with any degree of security from the neoliberal monster, and at any rate we’d just be shifting the problem geographically to places where scholars may already be struggling for a foothold in their own places. Our best chance is probably to unite and fight rather than duck and cover.

  12. Briefly, on the idea of going abroad to escape the market. My Al Jazeera article received over 150,000 unique views, was shared on Facebook 10,000 times, and triggered a mass response, including hundreds of emails sent to me directly. These emails came from all over the world. Some were from foreign students trying to escape their terrible job markets by coming to America. Some were from Americans wondering if they could escape our terrible job market by going overseas. Eliza is right that nowhere is safe.

  13. I imagine many people already know about the Association of American University Professors (AAUP), a group that has done much to compile data on academic conditions. They have a separate committee on Contingency and the Profession. The online reports are useful for finding out statistics on trends in hiring and work conditions. Perhaps someone might consider creating an anthropology Interest group on Contingency and the Profession? You need 225 members.

  14. You’re right, Ryan, that I am now outside looking in. But I think it’s good to have adjunct-allies in this conversation as well – if I am in a position to hire (or be on a hiring committee for) adjuncts, I still remember what it was like and I want to make things better for future adjuncts.

    The main reason I hated being an adjunct wasn’t the pay (which was ludicrously small, yes, but I was luckily in a position not to mind terribly), it was the lack of collegiality and respect. It was being treated like a temporary, expendable employee.

    Coming into a new adjunct position (i.e., not at your PhD institution) means getting up to speed incredibly fast in order to deliver the best course instruction to students that you can. It means not really knowing how to get things done (e.g., add students to the class), not knowing what your rights or benefits are (do you know if you’re eligible for any sort of retirement contributions?), and not knowing whom to turn to when a problem arises with a student, a TA, a supervisor, etc. That’s what troubled me the most about adjuncting – feeling like I didn’t have an ally in the department or the university. I think this was compounded in some cases by the fact that many potential colleagues didn’t get to know me because I was going to be gone in a semester or a year.

    Maybe we could start some sort of adjunct mentoring program? Adjunct conditions vary by university (and sometimes by department), but new adjuncts (and new-to-a-university adjuncts) could really benefit from a simple booklet or webpage that explains some of their rights and benefits, and perhaps lists a faculty mentor or ombudsman-for-adjuncts. This could easily exist within the AAA if it doesn’t already, at least as an outline. [For example, I found out that I was eligible to contribute to a 403(b) as an adjunct at UNC; but it took me a while to find that information and even HR was a little confused.]

    This wouldn’t change adjunct pay, but at least it would help bring decent working conditions to adjuncts in anthropology. It would also help faculty and departments hiring adjuncts to realize the ways they can and should support adjuncts that require very little of their time or effort. A little lunch invitation goes a long way toward making an adjunct feel welcome and appreciated.

  15. Hey Kristina,

    “You’re right, Ryan, that I am now outside looking in. But I think it’s good to have adjunct-allies in this conversation as well…”

    Hmmm. My wording may have been a little unclear: I mean to say that I am on the outside looking in! But I agree with you that having adjunct-allies in on the conversation is definitely a good thing.

    And I think you have a lot of good ideas here for trying to move things forward.

  16. One thing that I have not heard mentioned about adjunct labor is that a lot of it is performed by spouses of full time faculty members, in my observation.

    Speaking out about labor conditions in that circumstance may be seen to compromise the spouse’s position and might cause friction in other ways. Mitigating that is going to be difficult. But also the experience of being an adjunct spouse may be better in terms of respect and collegiality than for non-spouses.

    In my own case the worst thing about adjuncting is the lack of collegiality, you don’t really have colleagues when you are an adjunct, as Kristina pointed out. I have taught classes for a short term at a small SLAC where I didn’t meet any of the faculty until I basically started knocking on doors until I found someone to introduce myself to. I have yet to meet anyone there who hired me, and I’ve taught there four years now. Being an adjunct is exceptionally isolating.

    Another negative thing is negotiating HR, it is such a nightmare. What kind of job makes you look up all the contact information and contact everyone involved in the infrastructure of your employment? Usually before you are even on the payroll, no less. Its absurd there isn’t more of a welcoming procedure for adjuncts, in general.

    The lack of health insurance is also a problem, it drives me nuts that I can say “I graduated with a PhD, and that amounts to being fired and rehired without benefits” because the pay is identical to when I was a teaching fellow, but with no health insurance or opportunity to purchase health insurance under a group rate. Being able to access the same health insurance the grad students have would help a lot.

    I did have a plan B and C and D, but the market crash makes all of them look highly unrealistic. I am unwilling at this point to invest anymore into education, it seems like an expensive risky proposition. Applying for administrative jobs has gotten me no where though, so I may be driven to it.

  17. @Amanda, the partner angle is a worthy point. Schools exploit that situation because they know one has no choice but to take an adjunct slot if they want to live with the partner and stay in an academic circle. The only way out is when the extra scholar in the house is willing to take a job in another city. That was my situation years ago. However, on the issue of lack of collegiality, I have experienced everything you list in every academic job. You ask “what kind of job makes you look up all the contact information and contact everyone involved in the infrastructure of your employment?’ In my case, every new academic job, including tenure track and tenured, has been difficult for exactly these reasons. So, these features are perhaps just part of some university set-ups and are not always related to one’s status as an adjunct.

  18. Left teaching at my local CC. Miss the kids like crazy. Adjuncted for 5 years and realized that my lectures needed updating, textbooks were 2 editions beyond when I had originally planned the class, and that I no longer had the time to update the course materials. I was an “expried adjunct.”

    Went into private contracting. Still not making much money and have no bennies (I’m floated by my computer-progammer hubby), but I work only about 5 days per month for about the same pay as 2 courses while teaching. Considering I’ve got 2 kids, one of whom is still in diapers, it works. Still, I was sad when the back to school sales started.

  19. I just was diverted to Karen Kelskey’s post on adjuncting. In a way, it just perpetuates the notion that adjuncts are where they are because they have made strategically poor choices – in this case, putting too much into our teaching.

    This statement: “It’s like an urban legend among job-seekers. Teaching is everything! Your “teaching portfolio” is the Grail!” Really? I was never told that nor did I ever think teaching was valued; on the contrary.

    Adjuncts put a lot into teaching because there has been a structural separation between teaching and research, with the former being devalued (always with an eye to reducing costs per credit hour) and the latter being valued (particularly if it brings revenue to the university). But research budgets are also being cut, and tenured professors are also being squeezed. This is a far bigger transition – and it’s global – than any career advice can solve. While I blame nobody for jumping ship – fleeing academia – some of us will stay in it no matter what; we will have to have a different kind of conversation.

    As a union activist, I think this is a labor issue that should be approached as any other labor issue. The ideology of academia (be smart, work hard, succeed) hinders class consciousness; The fact that the path to a PhD might be filtered by socio-economic status might not be helping matters.

    I wish we had a really good handle on the economics of career development in anthropology. Since we don’t have a clue, career advice can easily become nothing more than rationalization for a seriously exploitative system that has emerged for a variety of very big structural reasons.

  20. It’s funny how anglocentric this blog is.
    Do you really believe it’d be easier to get jobs outside US/UK? Don’t you guys know job market for anthropologists is not good anywhere? Do you really think PhD programs in the US/UK are so superior to programs elsewhere that it would be automatically easier for an American to get a job abroad, since the candidates would be “local”?

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