Anyone following the news in academia probably saw this article last week about the increasing number of people with graduate degrees on welfare. A kind reader sent it to me with a note: “This should be required reading for anyone pondering an MLIS degree.”
Those of you who don’t work in higher might not be familiar with the genre this article belongs to. It’s the “look how awful it is that people who spent 5-10 years in graduate school studying subjects they knew weren’t marketable and now work for peanuts so they can call themselves ‘professors’” genre, and it’s pretty darned popular.
The genre seems to appeal mostly to people who have more education than money, job security, or sometimes just plain common sense.
Outside that group, I’m not sure who would be sympathetic about the situation of a 43-year-old single mother with a PhD in medieval history making $900 a month adjunct teaching two courses who blames the “”systematic defunding of higher education” for her plight. People always have to blame others for their problems.
“I’m not irresponsible. I’m highly educated,” she says, as if those two were mutually exclusive.
Ordinary people might read that and think maybe this woman should go out and get herself a full time job. Since she has a PhD, we can assume she can type, organize files, and plan projects. With those skills, there are probably plenty of administrative assistant jobs where she’d be a very attractive candidate.
The article even hints of this: “Some adjuncts make less money than custodians and campus support staff who may not have college degrees.”
But, I can almost hear the howls of protest from her, “I have a PhD!” Yes, you have PhD in medieval history. That and some good typing and organizing skills have qualified you to be an administrative assistant who can spend her weekends reading sophisticated books about medieval history. Congratulations!
Alas, people with PhDs and no job prospects often feel very entitled, and are willing to work for a pittance just to keep their foot in the academic game. The easy solution – that if you don’t make enough money teaching go find a job outside academia that will pay you more – isn’t considered a solution. The problem isn’t their unwillingness to do nonacademic work; it’s “the system.”
One professor who has been very critical of the adjunct situation in higher education gets to the root of the problem. “A big part of what we do in graduate education is foster this sense of vocation and teaching for love and passion for what you do,” says Mr. Bousquet…. “We socialize people into accepting the coin of reputation as status capital. Some people are so deeply socialized into the regime of payment by way of status that they are essentially trapped in it for life.”
Fortunately, librarians are generally immune to that particular disease. Professors have status. Librarians just have jobs, except when they don’t. Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between the way PhDs who work outside academia are viewed by their peers as opposed to people with library degrees who don’t work in libraries.
Spend ten years working on a PhD in history and you work a mundane job outside academia? Loser! Spend a year or two getting an MLS and end up working some mundane job outside a library? You’re just like librarians, except your mundane job is outside a library!
While the article highlights PhDs on food stamps, they are only a small percentage of the people with graduate degrees on food stamps: 33,655 of a total of 359,403.
The largest number are the people with master’s degrees, but no PhD or professional degree. 293,029 of those people are on food stamps. Only one of those is profiled in the article, someone with a master’s degree in English, as if being black and a single mother wasn’t enough of a hardship already.
Those with professional degrees (that would be us librarians, I think), account for only 32,719 of the graduate-degreed on food stamps. How many of those have library degrees we can’t say, but presumably some do. However, it could be that most of the professionally degreed on food stamps have degrees in acupuncture, forestry, or naturopathy.
Nevertheless, the kind reader’s advice that everyone entering graduate school should read the article, because even though the Chronicle doesn’t care about people with library degrees, we librarians do.
Library students are usually less naive than humanities PhD students, especially because a lot of them are humanities PhD students who have wised up and realized that being a librarian, while not as exalted and highly respected a job as being an adjunct professor at a community college, has better pay and benefits.
However, for a number of reasons, library jobs are harder to come by than they used to be. Public libraries seem to be doing their best to deprofessionalize their staffs to the point where they won’t need to hire librarians, and academic libraries tend to hire people who already have one or more graduate degrees in addition to the MLS.
We can learn two things from this. First, getting a degree in anything doesn’t mean you’ll get a job. Second, since no one is entitled to a job based on their degree, whining about not having one annoys people, especially those people who are working tedious normal jobs for low pay anyway.
Or we can end with the belief so many people seem to muddle through grad school clinging on to: don’t worry about the pathetic job market. That’s just for other people to worry about, not you. You’ll be the one to get that perfect job, despite the ridiculous odds. You’re a winner!