Monday, December 26, 2011

75. You can make more money as a schoolteacher.

Imagine that you and your friend Sally graduate from college this year on equal footing. You decide to enter a PhD program in English, and Sally decides to become an English teacher in Mississippi. It will take your friend one year to complete the requirements necessary for her to qualify for a teaching license, during which time she will teach under supervision and be paid based on her “bachelor’s degree status as a first year teacher.” According to the National Education Association, the average starting salary for a teacher in Mississippi is $30,090. Meanwhile, you will be one of the lucky graduate students to be given a teaching assistantship with an annual stipend of $15,000. Unlike your stipend, Sally’s salary will likely rise significantly over time; the average teacher salary in Mississippi is $44,498. However, for the sake of simplicity, let us assume that both your stipend and her salary are frozen at their starting levels and that you (miraculously) receive ten years of funding as a teaching assistant at Generic State University (see Reason 17). After ten years, Sally will have earned $150,000 more than you have. She will also have a decade of seniority in her profession and a secure job.

At the same time—assuming that you are in the 49 percent of those who manage to finish a PhD in the humanities within ten years (see Reason 46)—you will have just been cut loose from your program and set adrift on the bleak academic job market. Chances are that you won’t land a tenure-track position straight out of grad school but will have to spend a year (or two or five) teaching as an adjunct (see Reason 12). In that capacity, you might be paid as much as $4000 per class, which would amount to $24,000 if you teach six classes in a year. (Of course, you may be paying for your own health insurance.) If, somehow, you do eventually beat out the formidable competition for a tenure-track job in English, you will then have a job with an average starting salary of $51,204 (see Reason 23). At long last, you might have a bigger paycheck than your friend in Mississippi, but, unlike Sally, you won’t know if you’ll still have your job in five years because you’re now on the brutal tenure track (see Reason 71). In any event, it will be years before you catch up with her in earnings. Now imagine that Sally works in California, where the average starting salary for teachers is $41,181 and the average teacher salary is $68,093...

Monday, December 12, 2011

74. Academic conferences.

The largest academic conferences can be highly depressing affairs involving thousands of participants and hundreds of desperate job seekers nervously waiting to be interviewed in hotel rooms (see Reason 55). Other conferences can be pleasant and collegial gatherings. In fact, the opportunity to attend regular professional meetings might be regarded as one of the “perks” of an academic career. Conferences offer an excuse to travel (and to cancel class), and a few departments still provide funding for their faculty members (and sometimes graduate students) to attend them. The ostensible purpose of an academic conference is to provide a forum in which scholars present and critique research. Rarely, however, is the emptiness of academe put on more public display than in the context of an academic conference.

To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern rituals. At various sessions, speakers present their own research by reading aloud to an audience. Someone who has attended a full day of sessions will have listened to people reading for five or six hours. How well do you suppose the audience members are listening? They sit politely and at least pretend to listen, because when their own turn comes to stand up and read aloud, they would like others to extend the same courtesy to them. Sparks fly occasionally during question time, which can be mean-spirited or (less often) enlightening, but decorous boredom is typically the order of the day. The real purpose of the conference is to provide speakers with another line for their CVs, to which they all must add lines constantly (see Reason 38). Before you go to graduate school, attend an academic conference in the field that interests you, sit through a few sessions, and then ask yourself if it still interests you. While you’re there, get a sense of the anxiety among the attendees looking for work. For them, every conference is a gathering of competitors (see Reason 2).