The War on Higher Education: Faculty on Food Stamps

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I thought my employment situation was solely due to some mysterious and horrible flaw that is obvious to everyone except me, but here is a man who has the same complaints and problems, almost word-for-word as I have, except he actually managed to get tenure -- after ten years of living in poverty in the academic system. However, I doubt I will be so lucky as to get a tenure-track position (provided that I manage to survive that long)! [5:17]

Like this guy, I was also told not to take money from the public coffers (in the form of food stamps, public assistance -- neither of which I have qualified for -- nor in the form of medicaid) because there are "other people [who] really need it" -- not me, obviously. So of course, I was and am ashamed about trying to get these forms of aid, even while being desperate much of the time.

Like this guy, I also worked for a few years as an adjunct under a one semester contract, although I received my teaching assignments only 48 hours prior to the moment when I would be standing in front of the classroom, so I never knew what subject I would be teaching from one semester to the next, or if I would be teaching at all -- talk about stressful! And while I was teaching, my tenured colleagues treated me as if I was worthless, invisible, or worse, instead of appreciating me since my presence on campus made it so much easier for them to teach only the most desirable courses and to pursue their research.

I will say that I am extremely surprised that the guy in the video actually got a tenure-track position, especially after ten years of working as an adjunct. I haven't worked as an adjunct for ten years, but I have been told on numerous occasions and to my face either during or after interviews, that I cannot possibly be as good as I look on paper because if I was, I would never have had to work as an adjunct professor in the first place. Given my all-too-common experiences, I would imagine that ten years of adjunct work would be the kiss of death when it comes to a tenured position. So, like many PhDs, I have been trapped into either working as an adjunct or being homeless, yet being told by academe that I am not "worthy" of tenure because I worked as an adjunct professor.

Unfortunately, due to my credit being destroyed by numerous lawsuits for unpaid medical bills, I am no longer able to get a "real job" because I have to pass a credit check to be considered "employable", nevermind that I am not applying for jobs where I would work with other people's precious money. So how do I get by? Since I have no family to rely on, I survive by pet sitting and dog walking when I can find the work, getting food from food banks and homeless shelters (Since it takes at least one year of persistent battling to get them, I still don't have food stamps), writing my blog in exchange for a few hundred dollars per month, donations from my blog readers, medicaid (thank the spaghetti monster that I FINALLY qualified for medicaid, after one year of rejections, of paperwork, of threats and lawsuits upon lawsuits), tutoring when I can find the work (which is rare since I am not affiliated with any institutions now), and (while I was in undergrad and graduate school), breeding and hand-rearing parrots for zoos, private parrot breeders and pet owners.

Yet, despite everything, I still love parrots, I still love birds, and I still love science. But I do wonder about my sanity on a daily basis.

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The credit check is one of the most egregious fronts to personal liberty. Private companies should not be able to use this information for anything other than processing loans, which apparently the one thing they don't use it for.

It is mad, especially as students may already have large student loans from their pre-graduate time at University.

It's a lot of years ago now, but even when I graduated the idea of going on to do post-graduate work never even crossed my mind, after I found out how poorly it would be paid (though I don't recollect it being as poor in the UK, taking how long ago it was).

If you make it, then it can be OK in Engineering (my lecturers earned more as consultants to industry than the University paid them) but even so only a small number of post-grads become full professors and most of those don't have external consultancy earnings.

If you love the subject and are willing to suffer (I really liked/enjoyed it but wasn't about to suffer) then it is almost a compulsion and you've no choice. Sadly, the powers that be abuse this committment.

Something does need to be done, otherwise we won't get the advances in Science that we need or the knowledge will be owned by corporations.

No more blue sky research, from which most great advances come. A sad indictment on the lip service paid to the value of Science.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 08 Jan 2008 #permalink

based on the available evidence, employers, even when they are institutions of higher education, use credit checks as a prequalifier for distribution of paychecks.

Your story is mine, except that I don't have any $$ - well, twelve to be exact. No Medicaid, no blog money, but the same, almost exact experience in hunting for a job. I am homeless - temporarily staying in the home of a political fund-raiser where I clean her sink full of her teenage son's dirty dishes, and occasionally clean her closets or fold her clothes.

I won't darken the door of any healthcare provider, ergo broken teeth, dystonia that has taken the use of my dominant hand, and dejenerative arthritis that makes every moment painful. Can't afford any more over the counter naproxyn.

The US looks and feels very much like Dickens' London.

And lastly, I agree with you about the comments minimizing and denying your experience or in ridiculing and humiliating you - often to your face. One person who infomred me she was helping me gave me a telephone number to a homeless shelter in another city - somewhere without any connections for me or even a way to get there. I guess she assumed that I should be grateful for what, I don't know.

The only way to get a job and to be self-sustaining is via professional networking and someone with hiring power and authority to be able to acknowledge the credit check nonsense and hire you directly. Good luck in finding a patron to do that. But netowrking is useless - no one wants to be associated with "losers", lest they assume the same taint by osmosis. Playground politics is the way of the world.

Hey, and let me tell ya, even if you've got the perfect set of networking patrons -- my PhD advisor was Tom Soifer, director of the Spitzer Space Telescope, and my post-doc advisor was Saul Perlmutter, likely future Nobel Prize winner for the discovery of Dark Energy -- and yet being in academia can *still* be soul-killing, and you can still not make it. Yeah, I was never in the straits anything like what you guys are, and I now have another job that pays me a decent middle class income. But tenure wasn't going to happen despite the pedigree.

You need the pedgiree and a lot of luck. Or, anyway, you need *something* that I haven't figured out.

and people tell me that all i need to do is change my attitude .. to think positively and i will get a job. hey, i thought positively for FOUR LONG YEARS and all i got were a few interviews, mostly overseas, for positions that i would never get anyway, all merely so i be a necessary statistic tlo fill out employment requirements to interview a certain number of women and minorities for each position before the employer went ahead and hired the person they had already chosen before writing the ad in the first place.

in short, i have given up the fantasy life and have accepted reality. the biggest mistake i ever made was thinking i could get paid a living wage to do what i love.

Or, anyway, you need *something* that I haven't figured out.

I found out that photos of the Dean with his "personal assistant" can be quite useful. What's more the, uh, bill doesn't turn up in my credit rating.


....I am no longer able to get a "real job" because I have to pass a credit check....

I'd never heard that before, and I find it...insane. I guess the rationale is that an employee who is massively in debt, or has a history of imputed financial irresponsibility, is considered a risk to steal from the company (granted, there are precedents). But still, talk about trapping people in a hopeless situation.

I wonder if they do that up here?

I'm sorry for your troubles, GrrlScientist, and that you feel hopeless about obtaining a tenure-track position. I think that it's shameful that academia is considered a low status vocation in the US, worthy only of low wages and the attitude that "if you were truly good at anything, you certainly wouldn't choose to stay in academia". It's not as if most academicians expect 6-figure salaries and cushy perks; like the man in the video, I think many are just asking for a living wage, on which a family can be supported reasonably.

I have a tenure-track position (and hopefully will get tenure this spring), but getting that position required a switch in my research interests and projects, a federally-funded research grant, and the ability and willingness to teach anatomic disciplines (gross anatomy, embryology, and neuroscience). Since taking the job, I've gradually discovered that I hate managing people as the PI of a lab, and that I love teaching those dreaded anatomic disciplines. I love benchwork, I was thrilled that my first senior author paper was published in a decent journal (Mutation Research) last year, and I'm currently involved in productive collaborations with 2 colleagues. But, alas, I cannot escape the fact that I despise managing people (research technicians specifically), and so I will not be getting promoted any time soon (though tenure, which is dependent on different qualities and accomplishments, is likely)...not enough papers, not enough grant money.

I'd have to say I'm pretty happy with my job in academia (I'll be even happier when I have tenure), and my only complaints are that 1) we have way too many overpaid and underworked administrators, and we add new sub-deans and VPs for Whatever Crap every month, it seems, and 2) there is no way to increase one's salary, as a faculty member who has predominantly teaching responsibilities. But then, I'm fortunate to have the freedom to continue to collaborate with other researchers, I have great healthcare coverage, and I can even work to address social injustice issues (specifically, healthcare disparity problems and disabled rights/access issues) through my job, albeit indirectly.

Unfortunately, due to my credit being destroyed by numerous lawsuits for unpaid medical bills, I am no longer able to get a "real job" because I have to pass a credit check to be considered "employable" wife, who does mortgage loans for a living and is pretty familiar with finances and such, says she's never heard anything like this, and wonders if this isn't something that's limited to jobs centered around finances -- she's never heard of someone being declined for a job because of poor credit (declined for a loan, yes; a job, no). Personally, I don't even know if my employer did a credit check on me before I was hired; they certainly never told me if they did. But I'm curious what are the data that substantiate the statement:

I have to pass a credit check to be considered "employable"

Not that I don't believe you, or believe that this actually has never happened -- I'm just curious if there's anything available that substantiates that institutions of higher education are actually doing this...?

every blue-collar "survival" job i've applied for (lots and lots these past four-plus years) requires that i "pass" a credit check and a background check before i am hired. what "passing" means, i don't know. i suspect that it is a fancy excuse for "we are too chicken to tell you that we really don't like you and don't want to hire you even though you are clearly capable of doing this job, so we instead tell you that you didn't pass the credit/background checks."

the reasons for a credit check are only speculation from others like me, but i've been told that employers perceive people who cannot make reasonable and realistic decisions that affect their personal finances as being incapable of making reasonable decisions while on the job. how that impinges on teaching as an adjunct, i have no idea. so i have developed my own hypothesis.

in my experience, credit checks are not limited blue-collar "survival" jobs. i also had to pass background and credit checks to teach one 2-hour science course at a certain university in NYC that shall remain nameless. when confronted with filling out all those paperworks yet AGAIN, i declined the honor of being embarrassed AGAIN for a part-time temporary job that required a two-hour each way commute and would not even pay enough to cover my rent each month. i have not managed to get another interview for an adjunct position since then.

if i had the necessary intellect, talent, personality, mental health and stability, i would not be having these problems.

I, too, disagree with credit checks being used as pre-employment screenings. There was actually some talk of doing them on the volunteers at my museum. I spoke up against it, pointing out that we have a hard enough time getting them as it is and that if I was in their shoes, I would tell the museum to go fuck itself and volunteer my time somewhere less intrusive. The majority of people who file bankruptcy do so because of medical bills. People who have a history of irresponsibility and bad decision-making will have it show up elsewhere in their lives, not just on their credit report, and employers should be able to figure that out if they get off their asses and do a little research.

I hope that this practice will become outlawed soon.

It would appear that the universe is telling you no. Walk away. Get certified in a medical job like phlebotomy or Rad Tech or nursing or something else and use that certification to get into a field where you will be able to make some money.

You might be happier doing something else.

Sorry to tell you the truth, but apparently, your 20+ years of education didn't teach you the basics of economics:

supply and demand.

In case you hadn't noticed, grad schools like having as many grad students as possible. They are dirt cheap labor. And universities don't like having tenured faculty with big pensions--they aren't as cheap. So voila, universities solved their expensive faculty problem by not hiring any more faculty, not replacing the ones who retire, and using grad students and adjuncts instead.

There is a glut of grad students. Big in supply. Re: demand: there just isn't that much demand for the glut. Your skills simply aren't that rare. There are hundreds of people applying for the same positions you are.

I was there. I heard the same lies about how all of these old profs would be retiring and dying out, and there'd be SO MANY places for women like us. Lies. All lies. Whatever. Get over it. Go work for a living. Working is a lot better for your than the academic rat race anyway.

Go get a real job. Not every company has a credit check, not every company requires a security clearance. Go work at Google. They only care about pedigree and brains.

Have to love the "academia is not a real job" vitriol. Not. *rolls eyes*

I don't think that a tenure-track position requires any special talent or intellect, but it does require persistence and adaptability, as well as a good understanding and acceptance of delayed gratification. Both teaching and research can be physically demanding at times (5 to 6-hour anatomy labs with 200+ students, preparing and traveling for study section sessions, etc.), so stamina is often important. Part of the problem here may be that the SciBlog "world" is deceptive (as is much of cyberspace, IMO), and if expectations are based on career paths as portrayed or desired by the science bloggers, then I suspect that they're largely unrealistic. Most universities are not going to consider hiring you as tenure-track faculty (much less actually giving you tenure and promotion), if you don't have sufficient peer-reviewed publications that indicate your chances of obtaining extramural research funding. If the position is primarily or exclusively teaching, then you'd better have a solid record of contact hours with students, curriculum development, textbook authorship, and/or development of innovative teaching methods.

Writing a blog just isn't going to hack it for either of those considerations, research or teaching. It's a peripheral activity, benefits only the blogger and not the institution, and I suspect that most search committees would frown even upon blogging about peer-reviewed journal articles on university time.


I hope this hasn't been covered before, but how geographically flexible are you? Also, have you considered working at a Community College

i am very flexible, geographically (and in fact, prefer to move overseas), but i refuse to move anywhere if i am going to remain on the adjunct professor hamster wheel of semester-by-semester-only wages, since i am financially unable to support myself doing that at this time. i also would need relocation expenses paid since i am obviously unable to pay them myself.

i prefer a position where i am involved in research either as the main priority or as an equivalent priority to teaching. i would not move for a teaching-only position because i'd prefer to stay here (or move overseas) and write for a living, instead.

I come from the research end of things, where the question
that should be asked is "How much does tenure cost here?"

For researchers, one writes grant applications, one gets
grants, and after bringing in say $1.5 million or so, one
is granted tenure.

Gotta pull your weight ya know. :)

Employment? How 'bout the Bronx Zoo? Lots of birds,
many rare types that are not on display, a union workforce,
and the folks there seem to be happy in their jobs and
lives. E-mail me (see URL for e-mail) if you'd like an
introduction to the lady who runs "The World Of Birds"
at the Bronx Zoo, and her boss, also a lady.

Without the need for "introductions", you can check out job openings with the NYC-based Wildlife Conservation Society here:

Some of the jobs are overseas, and some in NYC...though the salaries posted don't look sufficient to support living in Manhattan. (But then, I know tenured faculty at research institutions based in Manhattan, who bring in millions of $$$ in extramural research funding and who *still* can't afford to live in Manhattan.) Anyway, I thought the education coordinator position looked pretty attractive, but then my standards and expectations may be lower than the typical SciBlog frequenter and author.

Most of the positions listed with the WCS site (and with many similar organizations) require experience, but I don't think that necessarily means paid experience. Much of the experience that I have, which would be applicable to some of the WCS jobs, comes from my volunteer particular, experience with public education in animal sciences and zoology, basic horticulture, photography, web design, and fundraising. If you have the time and the energy, then volunteer work is a great way to gain experience, any of which might be useful in a job application.

---I don't think that a tenure-track position requires any special talent or intellect, but it does require persistence and adaptability, as well as a good understanding and acceptance of delayed gratification. Both teaching and research can be physically demanding at times (5 to 6-hour anatomy labs with 200+ students, preparing and traveling for study section sessions, etc.), so stamina is often important.

But it requires winning a lottery. In the sciences, every SINGLE hiring position in the US in the top 50 schools in a given subfield receives HUNDREDS of applications. At some point, all of the most qualified candidates are equivalent, and you're just trying to win low probability coin tosses.

It's not going to happen if you aren't one of the most qualified of candidates at all.

So, yes, get a REAL job. One where you aren't playing a game stacked against you. Google NYC exists and is hiring. Its perks are better than those of the academic world, and it has the same social feel.