The Dangers of Victimizing PhDs — Rachael’s Take

This brief article, a response to Patrick Iber’s touching “(Probably) Refusing to Quit,” articulates an important position, one which I think bears repeating. Elizabeth Segran’s thesis is, in fact, one which I recently found myself articulating to my sister-in-law after she (the sister-in-law) asked me about the “adjunct problem,” as we see so often articulated in articles from a variety of news outlets as of late.

When it comes to characterizing the life of a humanities PhD, I feel like we need to embrace something of a Hegelian dialectic. Whereas popular conceptions of PhDs several decades ago entailed a tenure-track life in an ivory tower, current accounts seem to relentlessly characterize the profession as completely hopeless, relegating a person to a life on food stamps (with such accounts arguably reaching their apotheosis with the viral stories of the tragic death of octogenarian adjunct Mary Margaret Vojko at Duquesne University). Popular rhetoric paints this picture so frequently that many people (including fellow humanities PhDs) seem to blindly accept the notion that humanities PhDs have no other options but to die penniless and alone.

While I wholeheartedly concur that the migration to adjunct-based model of education is problematic (and tragic) on many levels, I have to laud Segran for her assertion that PhDs are, in fact, choosing this line of work. Of course, it follows logically that when “adjuncts continue accepting temporary work with no benefits, they perpetuate the very system that is taking advantage of them.” She goes on to explain how simple economic laws of supply and demand dictate that this outdated notion that PhDs must teach in a college, no matter what the personal or financial cost, is a large part of what is keeping so many people chained to the adjunct model.

Segran’s article not only articulates a relatively novel position, but it goes beyond simply noting that alt-ac positions exist and almost chides PhDs for accepting adjunct positions. While this comes off as insensitive to many commenters, I think that it is something that needs to be said if we have any hope of changing the academy. Despite what many apparently consider a harsh tone, I think that Segran’s message is ultimately optimistic. Perhaps the most important part of the entire article comes in the middle, when she says that “PhD’s have the power to resist. They can choose to reject academe altogether and find satisfying work elsewhere.

Perhaps one more concrete reason why this narrative appeals to me so much is because, as someone who entered a doctoral program in English in 2010, I am a person who was and is fully aware of the dire straits of the academy, and yet I decided to pursue this course anyway. I decided to fully embrace doctoral study with the stipulation that I would continue to work as an editor (which is what I did full-time before I began work on my doctorate) as I completed my education. This has led to what many people would consider an insane amount of work on my work, but I think that it speaks to my love for and dedication to the profession, something which Segran herself ultimately supports as well.


One thought on “The Dangers of Victimizing PhDs — Rachael’s Take

  1. This is such a complicated, emotional topic for many. I definitely agree with your takeaway…. Truth is, adjuncts in other fields typically make more than in the humanities, simply because universities cannot find qualified instructors at the lower cost. Refusing to work for a pittance, choosing to do something else (even if only temporarily), and not having someone in line behind you to take your place at the low cost is the only way that salaries/wages go up.


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