Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Ph.D. Student Life (A Major Rant)  §

It is a hot day in New York. And I have been out walking around in it. This is a rant.

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Let me start by warning prospective students about attending fancy-schmansy “small private schools” that are “legendary” for their particular “unique characteristics.” Aside from the unique characteristic of offering pitiful levels of graduate student assistance, another unique characteristic may be their conception of “study space.”

What you see above is the actual study lounge in the graduate building at the New School for Social Research. Notice what’s missing in this gorgeously coiffured space in which lounge chairs and coffee tables form the entirety of the furniture? Let’s see:

  • Anything resembling a work surface
  • Any place to sit a laptop where you can actually type on it
  • Any place to put a stack of books
  • Proximity to a library
  • Oh, snap—a library at all!
  • Any way to isolate yourself from other room occupants, visually or aurally
  • In short, anything resembling study space

Compare this to the study space that litters the New York University campus.

Oh, how ugly! How un-boutique! But wait, maybe that space is useful. Let’s see… no blinding white and/or brightly colored flashing lights and walls… tons of desk surface at a height appropriate for laptops and (dare I say it) a stack of books, without having to lean down over your knees for how many hours you plan to study as if you’re about to eat an hors d’oeuvre at a laid-back party… partitions in between study spaces to give some measure of privacy and focus… and actual chairs that foster a study-supportive posture!

Not only that, but all of the fabulous study spaces at the New School—for that is what they are, just fabulous like so many New York night spots—are full of empty floor space. That’s right, they’re light and airy. Not only must you lounge in a group setting, laying back like Cleopatra while your laptop rests on a coffee table at your ankles, but a room that could hold 80 study cubicles offers a total of perhaps 20 lounge chairs and three coffee tables. Not only can you not study, you can’t even find a spot in which to not do it.

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But that’s not really what I want to rant about. What I want to rant about now is the dreary adjunct life, which is how every Ph.D. student has to support him or herself for several years, as the part of the job in which you “gain teaching experience” for your CV. I’ve held appointments at at least five other major campuses in New York as an adjunct, and what I’m about to say is par for the course in adjunct life.

Let me start with the wages. As an adjunct you are generally limited to a 2+2 year (two courses in fall, two in spring). Most of the schools also forbid someone doing a 2+2 from taking jobs anywhere else; it’s considered full-time. This “full time” gig in New York, which does actually take more or less all of your time during a semester, pays anywhere from $10,000 per year to $20,000 per year for this full teaching load. This is how much American kids’ college instructors are trying to live on in a major city.

And I do mean “American kids” as in most of them, since the vast majority of the undergraduate courses in the U.S. are taught by adjuncts. And this is what we live on, for full-time work. Somehow.

But let’s not stop there. Let’s talk about our status. The fact is that we don’t actually have any.

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After teaching at my current school for three semesters (a year and a half), I am currently on summer break. I just did a 2+2 teaching year (full adjunct load) that finished less than a month ago and in a few short weeks when fall semester begins, I will again be teaching two courses. In fact, I’m grateful for the work, since there are a lot of people in my position that can’t find it.

I need to build my syllabi for next semester. That means things like doing research, finding readings, assembling course packets, etc. It’s going to take weeks. All unpaid; it’s part of the job to have this stuff ready when fall rolls around and the semester starts, but not part of the job to get paid for it.

So today I came downtown to go to my institution’s library to build the syllabus. Only my ID card no longer got me into the building. Security there wouldn’t let me in, and sent me instead to the ID card office to get it “fixed.”

I walked to the ID card office in the heat (quite a walk) and they promptly confiscated my card since I’m not teaching during the summer. They said I’d need to go to the university Human Resources office to get a form approving summer access in order to get the card back and have it updated for library access.

I walked to campus Human Resources (all the way in the other direction) and waited at the intercom (there is no receptionist) for someone to come out and assist me. After telling me to have a seat, they disappeared behind a door for some time until finally they came back out and told me that they couldn’t send their form to the ID card office until I got a form from the Human Resources department of my division. They didn’t know where this was.

Happily, Google Maps on my iPhone told me where it was and off I set again on foot—even a longer walk this time. Sweat is, by now, pouring off of me. Nobody is out walking today. The heat is sweltering.

My division’s human resources office again told me to have a seat. Then, the receptionist called across the room asking why I needed my card updated for library access. I stood up and went over and told her the reason. She returned to the phone to discuss my reason and I went back and had a seat. At length she called out that they couldn’t give library access to just anybody and since I don’t have a summer class that is apparently what I am. I need, she said, to go and visit my department’s administrator to get them to send a form to divisional Human Resources, so that they can send a form to campus Human Resources, so that they can send a form to the ID office, so that I can get my ID card back and get into the library to assemble my syllabus for fall.

So I went to my department—another long walk in the heat. By now I’ve burned more than two hours. When I get there, the department administrator is not in. It’s summer, after all. What kind of academic is on campus during summer?

Adjuncts, that’s who. Trying to build a syllabus.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m at the high end of the adjunct scale in pay and I’m happy to have the work. I could just as easily not have it. But at the same time, this is adjunct life—paid a fraction of what professors are paid but doing most of the actual teaching, wandering around in the heat burning multiple afternoons (since I will have to come back and do this again, once I can schedule a time when everyone is in) just to be able to get into the library to do the unpaid summer-long work of assembling course materials for fall.

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And, by extension, that’s Ph.D. student life, particularly at a boutique private school.

I’m supposed to be working on a dissertation through all of this. Because I have a private life—a baby, in fact, which is unheard of for people with my career aspirations—I have very little time in which to do it.

Because I am at a “legendary” boutique private school, I don’t have a full stipend and free housing, but instead have to pay my own way for living expenses in New York, and just must adjunct-teach.

And because I am an adjunct, I spend days walking around in the heat, getting my exercise and making my clothes smelly.

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And all so that the people I know that aren’t in academics can elbow me about my “cushy” job teaching “at college” which (they presume) must pay a fortune and offers me wonderful, really unfairly cushy things like a summer break.

— § —

This is why all of the books warn you that unless you are hyper-dedicated, you will not finish your Ph.D. Because the entire machinery of academics and of society at large is working very hard to make sure you don’t—just so that if you manage to survive it all and finish, you can compete in a jobs market in which 75 percent of graduates will go unemployed and eventually give up on using the Ph.D. they worked so hard to obtain, eventually settling in a garden center or a coffee shop or doing interior design or catering or whatever else they can put together once the Ph.D. thing doesn’t work out.

I think for those of us that do continue, one thing that holds us in the game is the determination to grind our teeth and dominate these obstacles, to demonstrate to them, with a kind of triumph, that they will not be allowed to win.

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