An academic economy fueled by unrealistic optimism

Really enjoyed this Noah Smith column on the excess of woefully underpaid adjunct instructors in academia.  And why are there so many woefully underpaid adjuncts?  Because far too many PhD’s are willing to work for horrible wages (hey, supply and demand!) in the totally unrealistic hope that they will go from being an adjunct to a full time tenure-track faculty member.  Plenty of faculty members scramble for a year or two after PhD (though, in my experience, the long-term successful ones typically do so in full-time non-tenure track positions), but if its much more than that, clearly time to think about putting one’s intellect and education into a different line of work.  Of course, that’s hard, because being a tenured professor is the the greatest job in the world, but even without it, most people will still be plenty happy.  Anyway, Smith’s take:

Why would a highly educated, skilled worker in a rich country such as the U.S. condemn herself to a life in the poorhouse? Surely, someone with the intellectual firepower to teach college students could get a job in digital-media marketing, or as a paralegal, or in any of the other middle-class occupations available to educated, hard-working Americans.

One answer is that adjuncts are making such sacrifices for the chance to pursue the academic dream. That would put academia in roughly the same class of occupations as acting and professional sports, where large numbers of unsuccessful lower-level aspirants struggle for years in the hopes of landing a coveted chance at a glamorous, high-status position.

But how many adjuncts really achieve that moonshot? I couldn’t find data on the likelihood of making that leap, but anecdotally it’s said to be unusual. And there are certainly several huge barriers in place. The first is simply long odds — with the number of tenure-track positions barely growing and adjunct numbers exploding, the chance of going from the latter to the former keeps getting worse. Second, tenure-track jobs often the result of publishing research — unlike grad students, adjuncts often hold other jobs and don’t have a lot of extra time to work on papers. Third, in order to interview for tenure-track jobs, adjuncts typically have to pay their own travel costs and conference-registration fees (unlike other candidates). And fourth, there’s the chance that a long career as an adjunct simply makes a candidate look less promising, even before age discrimination is taken into account.

There are other reasons to be a poor adjunct, of course. Some people undoubtedly love teaching college kids, and are willing to endure poverty in order to do it. Others are retired and need something to do. But it’s possible that many adjuncts are desperately chasing an academic illusion that, realistically, they will never catch. Overoptimism is one of the most consistent findings in the psychology literature on behavioral biases…

The only solution is for fewer people to go into the non-tenure-track college lecturing profession. Lower the supply of overoptimistic quasi-academics willing to endure relentless poverty to cling to the fading light of the university fantasy, and the wages of adjuncts should rise. [emphasis mine]


Polarized America

Pew released an awesome new study today chock full of great charts and analysis on the increasingly polarized America.  A few of my favorite charts…

From their first-page summary of key findings:

Pretty amazing to see just how much the parties have polarized on these in two decades.  And a more comprehensive set of issues:

And, these are about the best charts demonstrating polarization that I have seen:

No wonder we hate each other:

And only hang out with our own kind:

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