This is not the academy you are looking for...
George asked us (tried to bait us? 😏) to see what we think about it in his Fb posting, and I am surprised (given the circle of people George and I follow) that no one else jumped into the discussion. I though I'd give it the old college try and write a blog post about it. It is something that's been on my mind in the past couple of years. Once the coursework component of my EdD was done people started asking me what I plan to do after I earn my EdD. I am still at the proposal stage (one of these days I'll write about it), but inching forward, so I guess the end will be near at some point - which makes the question quite salient: what's next? For the purposes of this piece a PhD and an EdD are the same (I've written elsewhere about the artificial distinction).
So, why a doctoral degree in the first place?
Any discussion about post-doctoral work (not PostDoc, but post-graduation employment) would have to start with the original motivation as to why one wants to pursue a doctoral degree in the first place. It's a very good question! Everyone answering this has a different answer, and I would say that if your answer is "I want to become a professor," then you better have a Plan B!
For me it's the convergence of a few factors:
(1) Many people in my immediate circles saw the number of masters degrees I had earned and asked me (some jokingly, some not) when I'll finally go get a doctorate. As if a college degree of any sort is something you can get (I'd say it's earned). Still, I suspect that they saw it as my natural progression. So one small reason to pursue it was to shush those (well meaning) folks up. However, there is always another follow up question from the crowds once you read that doctorate: what's next?
(2) I wanted the credential for my own purposes. For better or for worse, a doctoral degree does open up some doors that those without a doctorate can't open.
(3) I wanted to learn from people in my field (and the people at the university I applied to are world renowned for that).
(4) Finally, a tenure-track job was a minor consideration, but factors 2 and 3 were the bigger ones in my decision-making process. Having started my career in clerical-style work (could earn overtime, but had little autonomy) to holding down various professional jobs (lots of autonomy, no overtime), I thought that a potential jump to the professoriate could be a thing for me. After all, I did like research, I liked teaching, and from teaching I liked mentoring those who were just entering the instructional design field. So, #4 has a little bit of #2 in it. This rationale came before I really got entrenched in an academic department.
So, what do I think now?
I guess the questions never end, eh? Aren't you people happy? 😛 The same people who were asking me about when I would go get my doctoral degree are asking me what's next? Are you going to apply for faculty jobs?
The tl;dr answer is: No, I won't be applying for faculty jobs. If something comes my way - fine, maybe, but I won't pursue it.
Why? Well, I've had time to think about it, and like the article, what I thought the academy was 20 years ago turns out to not be true (I started working at my institution a little over 20 years ago too!). I've basically distilled it to a few key points (from my own views and data gathered over the years).
1) Tenure is its own type of oppression - I know what you are thinking now: AK! What are you smoking? Professors have a sweet deal! They only teach (x-many) classes, they hold their own office hours, come and go as they want, and they have the entire summer off! Jeez man! Who doesn't want that? -- Well when I was an hourly employee I thought this too. Even as a salaried employee who didn't have much contact with the ins and outs of tenure I thought so. But having seen behind the curtain, the path to tenure (or promotion) doesn't seem very rosy. The way that I would describe the tenure process is as one long probationary period. A probationary period where people should be mentored into the profession, but often seem not to be the case. In addition, there is the famous publish-or-perish aspect, which some institutions prescribe what and where is to be published (and how much), and some just look at the raw count of publications (and it's up to you to figure it all out, and hope that your eventual reviewers will approve of your choices). During this time period there is precarity in the profession, and you are royally screwed if you happen to be hired by a department (or university) with toxic personalities and non-supporting colleagues. In my professional life I have never had such a protracted probationary period. Furthermore, I have always been paid for my time [faculty often work summers, even though their contracts as September-May] and (generally) been asked to do things that I know how to do in order to prove my skills. This bring me to point #2:
2) Faculty are not (always) prepared for the work asked of them, and have no clear understanding of the system that they are a part of - This might range from teaching (although I think doctoral programs are getting better at preparing candidates for teaching) to meaningless committee work that doesn't match their skills, but that they nevertheless need in order to make it to tenure (or promotion). There are many examples of this: from faculty who are placed on marketing and recruitment committees (universities have staff for that!) or chairs and directors who reluctantly do the work because someone has to do it, and it has to be faculty. Now, I do acknowledge that some people have the knack for this sort of work, some have the knowledge, and some have been conscientious enough to attend workshops, get feedback, and be the best [insert management title here] that they can be; and I've been lucky enough to have met and worked with some of those folks. That said, the modern academy needs professionals in those positions; professionals who are not going to cycle through their term as [management title] and then a whole new group of younglings enter the [management title position] who ask the same questions of staff and need to be trained to do the work. Yes, we collectively complain of administrative bloat, but we need to realize that we need to have the right hire(s) for the right job(s) and we need to realize that in the modern academy someone who is trained as a doctor in engineering, sociology, linguistics, mathematics, computer science...etc won't necessarily be the best manager, marketer, director, or curriculum specialist. This brings me to point #3
3) The faculty system, as a whole, is classist and the power dynamics are messed up. - There are many examples of this, and when I say system, I do mean system as a whole. I've met many, many, fabulous faculty members who see staff (clerical, professional, librarian) and adjuncts (lecturers) as colleagues, and want to work together collaboratively for the benefit of the students. I've also met raging idiots (to put it mildly) who look down upon their colleagues, whether those colleagues are staff members, part time adjuncts, full time lecturers, or just "junior" faculty who have not obtained tenure yet. To be honest, any organization will have highs and lows, but as a system the tenure system both tacitly encourages such classist attitudes and at the same time provides the space and fertile ground for meaningless ego stroking. One example is point #2, where faculty are asked to do stuff they have no skills or preparation in doing [simply because they see it as their job], but at the same time some faculty think they are the bees knees at that topic even when what they do is meaningless and/or badly done.
There is also a level of tone-deafness to the faculty system. For example, my campus recently had major parking cost issues. The short version goes like this: is that management is supposed to negotiate with unions across campus if they want to raise prices. The faculty union on our campus broke away from the campus coalition of unions that negotiated this thing jointly in the hopes (?) that they would get a better deal than the rest of us. At the same time, on another front, the Faculty Council (you know, joint governance and all) issued a statement encouraging faculty [tenured track, that is] to not come to campus on the days that they don't teach since the costs of parking are prohibitive. However, in this resolution there was clearly no thought of the students (who might need to be here 3-5 days per week) or staff who usually have to be here all week. Such unintentional or international classism is what I dislike about this whole system. This brings me to point #4
4) There is more than enough fear to go around! - Now granted, there will be some idiots is any work environment (as I said above), however I have a sneaking suspicion that much of what motivates faculty is fear. Fear can make us do some pretty bad things, and make us be pretty crappy people. Fear is an awful way to live one's life! Now, what do I mean by fear? I've seen countless examples over the last 15 years. First, fear that if you don't publish enough, or of the type of work that people expect [but don't necessarily communicate to you] you will perish; but at the same time publishing requirements can be either opaque, so you don't know what you're being evaluated on; or they can be super specific and at a high bar making it hard to meet those requirements. For example, last semester I was conversing with a colleague from the Classics department. Some of the high ranking Classics journals have a 2-year wait time! That's easily half your tenure-trial period! In my field, one of the big name Open Access Journals has already met their quota for 2019 and they are not accepting any submissions past May 1st (so a month ago). That is pressure if you are a tenure track faculty member. Furthermore, lots of publishing guidelines include journals that are high impact and not Open Access. If your philosophical positioning is that you want to publish OA and create valuable OER, these things won't necessarily count for tenure. So, there is fear that you won't make tenure if you don't comply. There is also fear that you won't reach full faculty rank.
So, between pre-tenure, and promotion, that's easily 15 years where you might keep your head down, say yes to whatever service comes your way, and smile and try to not make enemies that might derail your tenure or promotion down the road. This fakeness and fake politeness is bad for the profession. When you are on a committee, and the committee's charge is to evaluate courses that are coming up as new offerings, and you as a subject expert detect bad pedagogical design and are afraid or reluctant to say anything because of academic freedom (or a mistaken notion thereof), or are afraid to offer constructive critique because the person receiving your critique might make your life difficult in the future...then my friend there is a problem! Don't get me wrong, working with others can be a challenge at times (this is undisputed), but we should all expect a professional demeanor and expect that we are all working toward the common goal of improved teaching and learning outcomes for our learners.
This leads me to my last point about tenure...
5) Tenure is a trap! - Perhaps I am being a bit dramatic...but maybe not. Tenure is a trap in my view. Once you get tenure, or even once you get promoted to full Professor, you don't want to leave - regardless of the on-ground conditions. You were successful in running the gauntlet. You got a permanent job at your institution and you're set for life [errmmm...maybe]. After 5 (or 15) years of keeping your nose down you've made it. Now you can do what you really want, right? Sure! Or you might be resigned and bitter because of all those years. But there are three caveats:
a) even tenure isn't a full-proof way of guaranteeing that you get to keep you job long term. If your institution folds (like many SLACs have in the New England area over the last two years), your job is on the chopping block. If your department shuts down or gets absorbed, your job is on the line. You say well sure AK, that only makes sense, right? True, and you could apply to other institutions for jobs. However, if you go to another institution chances are high that you will have to go through some tenure-track process again (argh!). Even if you do get hired with tenure, you might still not be at the same rank as before. And, I'd venture to say that most people don't get hired with tenure; unless you're some sort of Chomsky-type and the institution is actively courting you
b) Tenure is like the Hotel California, once you get it at your institution, you can't easily move elsewhere. Let's say life circumstances change and you need to move to another state for whatever reason - it's not like you can get hired again elsewhere with tenure - again, not unless you're some sort of Chomsky-type and the institution is actively courting you. If you aren't in the power position many people [appear to] treat you as if there is something wrong with you. What is it? Why did AK leave his tenured position at ___? Was it a personality conflict? Was AK a total jerk? Do we want a total jerk at our university? Oh man, what if he's an axe murderer??? - as you can see a total rational decision to move can devolve into something ludicrous due to speculation and how people view the field. It's just beyond the comprehension of many in the field as to why anyone would leave a tenured position! As an hourly or salaried employee I've never had to deal with this type of catch-22. I've always felt that if the job doesn't suit me anymore, or want to try my hand at something different, I can look for, and apply, for another job without fearing that my good standing at my current job will be twisted into some sort of what's wrong with him?
c) Finally, What if you don't get tenure? If you leave before you obtain tenure, or are flatly denied tenure (for whatever reason, a real deficiency or just campus politics), I get the sense that you just get a scarlet letter on you and other institutions don't want to take the a risk on you, especially with such an oversupply of doctoral graduates in the market. Same as part (b) above, but I think worse.
Tenure, as a system, was meant to incentivize honest opinions, feedback, and true academic freedom, but it's become a place where all those things go to die - because of...fear. This fear is perpetuated and amplified when one considers the precarity of adjuncts, not just how poorly pair they are for their academic labor, but also how far they are from actual job security. The tenure system, as it exists, pits person against person in this academic fight club. This is plainly wrong.
The wrap: Pay & Job Security
So... where does this leave me personally? Well, I tend to think practically and pragmatically about job decisions. After all, there are bills to pay. At the moment I think I have a fair amount of job security, broadly speaking, because I've done a variety of jobs in the past, and I have the skills to go to a variety of places and fill a variety of positions if need be. I personally don't want to join the tenure track system where there is a loss of nominal job security until you get tenure, and I certainly don't want to join the precarity of adjuncthood. But...what if there were a monetary incentive to do so? What if they pay was high enough as to defray the costs of such precarity and fear? That's where I needed some data. So...I headed to the 2019 AAUP faculty compensation survey which game me some data.
According to the above data, the average pay public university Assistant Professor Salary is $84,062 [tenure track position] while the average pay for a public university Lecturer is $57,079. Hmmm... The Professor salary may do it... the lecturer definitely does not. What does the report say about my university specifically? Well, according to the report the average pay for an Assistant Professor at my current university is: $91,400, while the average pay for a Lecturer is $73,400. These are numbers that made me question reality for a moment. I know that we hired new faculty recently and none of them go anywhere near $91,000, or even $84,000 as assistant professors. Hmmm... So, I looked at the faculty union's contract, and lo and behold there are salary floors for the various ranks. The floor for a Lecturer (the starting rank for that position, there are two higher ranks that you can be elevated to through a tenure-like-review) is $52,000. The floor for Assistant Professor is: $64,000. I know that the people who were hired as new assistant professors got a little better than the $64,000 floor, but there is a big chasm in my mind between the floor and the average reported institutionally in AAUP. I think that the reality is that most new incoming faculty (tenure track) are paid around $70,000 around here.
Considering that faculty often work unpaid over the summer (if you want to make tenure, you use your summer to research and publish!), and also considering the classist attitudes of the tenure system - i.e., why isn't 1 FTE [lecturer] not the same in terms of pay as 1 FTE [tenure]? They are both 1 FTE and both have terminal degrees! - My answer is a hard pass on pursuing tenure. Mostly on points 1, 3, and 4 above. So, from a practical perspective, I'd venture to say that the pay provided does not defray the costs (monetary, mental, emotional, physical) of pursuing the tenure track. I think I would be better paid, and more impactful in student's lives as a staff member (as I am now), and not as a tenure-track faculty member.
Ultimately my big takeaway from the article was this:
I have no answers to these questions, yet. But I know this. I do not want to further the culture of precarity by relocating for a temporary position. I do not want to prop up the current academic publishing model, in which publishers take all of the profit and bear none of the risk. I do not want to teach so many hours that I cannot pursue my intellectual curiosity and creativity: the things that got me here in the first place. I do not want to nurture that nascent competitive twitch over my collaborative sensibilities. And I do not want to sacrifice my work-life balance and, it follows, my mental and physical health.
I couldn't agree more!
What do you think?