Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Academic Monkey Gives Solicited Advice!

This post's letter comes from a community member. I'm sure we'll all have good advice for her. My apologies to her for having edited the question for length. Hopefully the edited version contains the same spirit of her original letter. Have your own question? Feel free to email the mods and they'll send it my way. Ideally let's keep it under 300 words.
~Academic Monkey

Proposed Question:

Currently, I am a postdoc in STEM, and my husband has a bachelors in a humanities field from an R1.  He works a low-paying job that he hates. His plan is to wait until I get a TT job and then to seek an MA so that he can be an adjunct. He is passionate about his subject and he does enjoy teaching.  We can live on my salary alone so his adjuncting money would just be a bonus. 

The thing is, I don't think this would be a good move.  It's not that he's not smart enough to get the degree; he is tremendously smart and was recognized by his professors as having great potential. But he was a terrible student. He often flaked out early and stopped showing up entirely to classes. This got so bad that some of his financial aid was revoked, and we had to max out our credit cards for him to be able to graduate. I know that he could probably get admitted to a masters program, but I imagine the chances of him getting funding would be zero. 
The idea of taking out more loans, when we are already well into the tens of thousands for his B.A., literally makes me sick to my stomach.  When he brings it up I say as little as possible and try to change the subject.  But eventually we'll have to make some real decisions.  I want to support my husband on the career he thinks he wants, but at the same time, this just seems like a terrible idea given his academic history.  But who knows, maybe he really would step up his game in a masters program at a school he likes (to say he despises the place where he got his bachelors would be an understatement).

Thanks in advance for any thoughts or advice!

Penelope from Parsippany

UnSolicited Advice:

Penelope, you sound like you have your shit together and I applaud you for being so frank about the pros and cons of your partner's plan. Your letter closed with a list of questions, but I'd like to address the broader implications of your situation. Your last question asked about how to find jobs in the adjunct world and I think that this is a very important question so I intend to address that at the end for anyone seeking new teaching opportunities.

It sounds like your husband realizes that he cannot start any part of this plan until you have been offered a TT job. This gives you time, but you can't keep avoiding this conversation. You need to talk this out and get on the same page before this creates a sitcom-style misunderstanding that leads to hilarious results. Those hilarious results are less funny in real life. So go out to dinner and hammer out a plan that is acceptable to both of you -- not just in end goal, but in terms of financial considerations and personal achievement.

The time frame for this plan goes: you get a TT job offer. During your first year, he researches schools and applies to cheap or fully-funded programs. He gets in during your second or third year. This gives you time to stabilize financially before he begins the program. He graduates and starts teaching as you get tenure. Since his goal is adjunct teaching, he doesn't need a fancy top-tier Master's degree. Any MA works, even from some of the better online schools. Community colleges with MA programs -- even bull shit ones -- will pass muster with an adjunct position. So he'll need to choose cheap rather than big name. His goal is to find an affordable path to the MA.

This gives him something to look forward to as he continues to slog through his miserable job now. He can spend his evenings studying for the GRE -- and showing you that he can follow through with a multi-year plan. The biggest challenge here is the disappearance factor. I wonder if that might improve with age? When you sit down to agree on the plan, it is crucial that you both agree on milestones that he must meet before you sink thousands more into a new degree. (that part is delicate: at no point should this sound like you don't believe in him, or else you'll just get stuck in a defensive conversation)

(Another option you might consider: high school. If he loves teaching, he could seek an MA in an education program in your future TT job's state. He could get a teaching license and seek work teaching teenagers. The money is better than adjunct teaching and there would be more job security. Finally, many states have public school debt forgiveness programs, where a handful of years of teaching in the public school system can lead to a bonus in the amount of your MA degree. Perhaps BA in Humanities and MA in Education could lead him to a satisfying job at the high school level.)

Should high school not be an option, though, you'll want some adjuncting advice. And so:
Here is some general advice on adjunct jobs:

  • Identify any and all community colleges, universities, and professional institutions in the area. Make a bookmark folder of their employment websites on your browser, which you should check exactly twice per month (any more and you'll go crazy with despair). 
  • Send the Chair of the relevant departments an updated CV and a short letter of interest after earning the MA. This guarantees nothing, but should a job pop up they will already have the info on file. Renew this information in March for Fall semester and October for Spring semester, or send a new email in those two months to renew your interest if nothing on the CV has changed.
  • Check and the various Adjunct advice websites throughout the web about twice a month.
  • To pad the CV, also apply for tutoring jobs at local universities. These can sometimes lead to new positions by tutoring or advising students. Honors colleges can be a gold mine for small opportunities that lead to new classroom assignments. 
  • ONLINE TEACHING. I know people can feel resistance to online teaching, but it can be done well. My experience is that it takes 6 months to find an online teaching job. If no one hires you after 6 months of searching, then go ahead and apply to University of Phoenix. They hire everybody and provide training, but they are also terrible employers who treat their employees like cattle and only pay about $900 for 5 weeks of work once every few months. Phoenix should only be used as a foot in the door for online teaching elsewhere. Other for-profit online colleges can also be bad experiences, but some of them can be great experiences and all of it can lead to future jobs inside real classrooms.
  • Check the Adjunct Salary Project for an idea of how other adjuncts work and what local universities offer in terms of benefits and reliability. 
  • Do NOT take any face to face (F2F) adjunct position that pays less than $2000 per semester. Such universities will string the adjunct along and make them beg for new appointments. Rather than feel joy at teaching, the adjunct will slowly die under the weight of being a slave. Better to work online for more money than in person and get stressed out and overwhelmed.
  • The goal of the successful adjunct is to have no more than three face to face classes at once with between 2-5 online classes. In general, the F2F will pay you in emotional satisfaction more than money, and the online classes will pay you in money rather than emotional satisfaction. With the online supplemental, an adjunct can make a good $35,000 (or more) per year. (One year I actually earned $55,000 in adjunct work). Of that, only about $8k-15k will be from F2F classes, but if you try to take on more physical classroom assignments, you'll quickly burn out, especially if each class is with a different physical campus. In your husband's case, this could lead to that sinking feeling that leads to flakiness, skipping out, and getting fired. 

Penelope, the plan could work. The biggest wildcard will be your husband's ability to determine how to get to the MA and into the market. It takes persistence and reliability. Many of us are flaky as undergrads. By grad school, we have to abandon the flakiness. In the end, your question hinges on his ability to achieve his goal. That's a wildcard we cannot answer, but we can diminish his chances of failure by talking out a plan now and creating milestones to step along the way.

Also: congrats on the post-doc. That kicks ass.


  1. I think the determining factors are the number of years since his BA and the change in his maturity level since then. My husband was very similar as an undergrad, but waited 10 years before going to grad school, where it was a completely different story. If he'd gone on right away, however, I think it would have ended in disaster.

  2. Penelope's TT institution may offer tuition discounts for family members. In that case, the flakiness of the husband or cost of the MA program is unimportant.

    1. That is a fantastic point that I had failed to consider. I have a friend with 3 grad degrees because he has been married to a tenured prof for 40 years and just takes one program at a time. So much of this hinges on Penelope's future TT job. I hope she has good chances.

    2. And this can be a very easy negotiating point at the time of hiring, given that the real cost of letting an extra bottom in the class is zero. A guy friend of mine got his wife for free into a moderately fancy MBA program (a Big Ten school) when he went to that university for a postdoc, never mind a TT job. And she didn´t have glorious grades either.

    3. For him to go to a non-local graduate program while Penelope starts TT can be a REALLY BAD idea in terms of survival of their marriage.

  3. I like the suggestions above, especially the idea of finding a way to get the degree free, or at least on a pay-as-you-go basis. Some employers (larger firms, perhaps governments) also pay for, or at least subsidize, employees' continuing education.

    One more thing to keep in mind: given the prevalence of "credential creep" in pretty much every field, the continuing glut of new and existing Ph.D.s (which, even if people become more leery about going to grad school as the economy improves and more promising opportunities open up, is going to continue for some time), and the preference of everybody from accrediting agencies to magazines that do rankings for terminal degrees: it may be that in 10 or 20 years, an M.A. will no longer be sufficient to get an adjunct job, or at least will make one significantly less competitive. In the present climate, at least in my field, having an M.A. would certainly make him less competitive for full-time contingent work, which I'm still not sure really qualifies as a 'career," but is definitely better than part-time adjuncting (which I would never call a career, though it might be a stage in one -- preferably a very brief stage).

    This does not mean I'm suggesting he get a Ph.D. If he thinks he'd like teaching, I'd suggest the high school route -- either public or independent (or, these days, in many parts of the country, charter). If you don't need his salary, perhaps he could try a year of teaching with an organization like Teach for America? There's justifiable controversy over the role of such programs in perpetuating the anybody can teach/have an opinion about how school systems should be run myth, but he might do some good, the pay for some programs is actually quite good (but they're competitive), and he'd learn whether he really does want to teach (especially teach the sort of student body that he's also likely to encounter at a community college).