The following info-graphic has popped up on lots of friend’s blogs, Facebook feeds, and Twitter feeds lately. It turns out I’m now one of those adjuncts in that info-graphic. I recently picked up a part-time gig teaching a class at the local State university.
David Fitch picked up on this graphic over at his blog and makes a smart recommendation:
“Do a Ph.D. only if it’s paid for, and if it’s part of a vocational goal that is not full time teaching.”
I (mostly) agree. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to pay for a PhD if it leads to an administrative career in business, education, or nonprofit work. But if you want to be a tenured-professor someday, you’ll have to distinguish yourself through a combination of your terminal degree along with real-world experience in a field that pays off for the University.
First, the graphic, then scroll down for some thoughts:
- Curiously, I didn’t need a PhD to get my teaching job. My M.A., when bundled alongside my professional experience as a local nonprofit executive, qualified me. This underscores something Fitch hints at: there’s a very strong bias toward instructors who have real-world experience. As terminal degrees become more common among younger people, practical experience has emerged as an even more valuable distinguishing characteristic than it once was.
- While I may be earning “poverty wages” for teaching, it’s a second job alongside a professional career, so my family is nowhere near the poverty line. The extra money is nice, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because I love it, and because it’s good professional development for my regular career. Anecdotally, this seems to be true for most of the other adjuncts I know. They’re not impoverished young, newly-minted PhD’s hoping to get a tenure-track position – they’re older local professionals having a blast as part-time faculty.
- An aside: as a 40%-time faculty member, I qualify for full benefits, which, because I’m in a massive State institution, are far better and far cheaper than what I get at my full-time job. It’s like doubling my teaching pay. That’s not why I took the job, but it has turned into one hell of an incentive to keep it.
- The points above play well into the strong profit-drive in all institutions. If schools can get local professionals to teach their classes, they can (the reasoning goes) get better and cheaper education (case in point). This reminds me of the “half-time” movement in churches a few years back, where bored, retired professionals would be brought on as administrative pastors, outreach pastors, etc. The idea being: full time worker for half-time pay. Everybody wins. Nonprofits do essentially the same thing with volunteers. There has been a palpable shift in the last 5 years towards a climate of even higher workloads and more frenzied productivity, yet stagnant or decreased spending on wages for line workers (which, is essentially what a teacher is). This is a societal phenomenon, not an academic one.
- Ironically, while having a PhD would be good for my teaching position, it would be great for my professional career. While schools are making the shift toward a bias for academics with marketplace experience, nonprofit organizations are making the shift toward a bias for executives with academic credentials. It’s not ubiquitous yet, but I’ve noticed a strong up-tick in the number of job descriptions in my area for nonprofit Directors, Vice Presidents, and Executive Directors, that list “PhD preferred” in their qualifications, and even if they don’t list it, the person they eventually hire often has one. As PhD’s have become more common, M.A.’s have become the new B.A.’s.
- Administrative jobs pay well, and high-level administrative jobs pay very well. That’s where all the money saved on teacher pay and higher tuition is being spent. I can’t tell you how many faculty I’ve met at various schools who have transitioned into administrative roles, often while holding onto a lighter teaching load. As systematic efficiencies create savings at the “production” level, money trickles-up to create a larger bureaucratic class to support an institution that can scale-up to exert leverage. That’s where the real money is made: brokering deals, creating efficiencies, and raising capital. Scale is very powerful, and it requires sophisticated administrative know-how to oversee. Increasingly, the highest of those jobs will require a PhD.
Bottom line: the info-graphic is highly misleading. It’s not the value of an education that has declined, it’s the value of front-line workers in our society, including college professors. The value of administrators, on the other hand, is sky-rocketing, and you’re going to need a high level of education to get those jobs in the future.
As an aside, all of this intersects with the Church after Christendom discussion in at least a couple ways:
- This whole phenomenon is a result of the hyper-modern drive for more, better, faster. If God is God and the Church is the Church then there’s a prophetic critique to be made. This is not a pietistic critique of individual sinfulness, it’s a critique of the systemic powers that dehumanize life.
- A strong cultural undercurrent here is the increasing requirement that knowledge be demonstratively effective in order to carry the weight of authority. If academy professors are being held to a more pragmatic epistemological standard (i.e., must have proven, real-world experience), and if institutional rewards are going to those whose work produces more tangible results (i.e., high-level administrators who create profit and raise capital), then this doesn’t bode well for the future of theology workers, whose claims historically don’t hold up so well to pragmatic standards.
- Whatever you do, don’t get a theology degree. Go to seminary if you must, but get a crossover degree. Something with practical application beyond the church.