This Exists

From PrecariCorps. This made my day.




As one of my Facebook friends remarked, If PhD grads aren’t qualified to the point of being responsible for their labor mistakes, who is?” 

Even if we accept for the sake of argument that most winners in the academic job market win by pure luck, the losers don’t become long-term adjuncts because of bad luck. They become long-term adjuncts because of their choices. They could quit any year and get any number of excellent jobs, such as working at GEICO. (I keep harping on GEICO because I worked there for a while. It’s an excellent company with a far more moral culture than any university I know of.) Though whoever made this is not good GEICO material. Perhaps Allstate.

Imagine in downtown Falls Church there’s a restaurant called Bob’s Steak or Poopburgers. Bob is a wonderful cook, but also a corrupt and nasty jerk. When you order a sandwich, there’s a 20% chance you’ll get a delicious steakburger, or an 80% chance you’ll get a foul poopburger. Now, if such a restaurant existed, I’d say Bob’s a real jerk. Still, I wouldn’t feel bad for the 80% of his customers who get the poopburger. They could just get up and walk away, and go to any of the other fine restaurants in Falls Church, such as Pizzeria Orso. No one’s making them eat the poopburger. If they eat the poopburger, that’s their fault. I can say that even if I think poopburger restaurants are bad and should be outlawed.


Let’s be clear what my position is with regard to what’s happening at universities.

1. I think Ginsberg’s public choice account of what happened at universities is basically right. Universities have been captured by administrators, and they tend to run things in ways that benefit themselves and those to whom they answer more than faculty or students. Universities suffer from all sorts of Niskanen-type problems and are in many ways highly corrupt. I’m not joking when I say that GEICO is the most moral organization I worked for, and that both universities I’ve worked for have far worse problems.

2. Most people who end up professional adjuncts chose to be victims. They either knew, or should have known A) that universities suffer from the corruption described in 1, and B) that their job prospects would be quite poor. Also, C) most professional adjuncts both could have taken a better paying job doing something else, and could get a better paying job now.

Notice that 1 and 2 are compatible. 1 is not evidence that not-2 and vice versa. So, yes, adjuncts, you are being fed a poop sandwich by a corrupt system. But for most of you, it’s your fault you’re eating it. They are wrong (blameworthy) for offering it to you, and you are wrong (blameworthy) for eating it.

Keep in mind, too, that if the Social Justice for Adjuncts movement succeeds, *most* current professional adjuncts will not get TT or other higher paying, more secure jobs in academy. The reason is that adjuncts are cheap and secure jobs are expensive. Instead, a small minority of them will get good jobs, and the overwhelming majority will be kicked out of academia altogether.

Anyways, I’ll let Tommy Victor have the last word (around 42 seconds in):

  • PassTheHemlock

    Nice rejoinder: “Just, like, oh my gosh. Wow! Really?”

    Aren’t you pretty lucky to be an adjunct? Isn’t it difficult to get to that point even? And, at what point do you give up and decide it’s not worth the trouble? You’re absolutely correct, and it real damn melancholic.

    Hard out here for a PhD.

  • Kevin_Carson

    Like much right-libertarian commentary, you frame all this as a matter of bad personal choices rather than systemic or structural issues. Like other such framing, it falls prey to the fallacy of composition.

    You suggest that there’s an 80% chance of ending up as a poorly paid precarious laborer in academia because the system is corrupt, and has been captured by administrators.

    You neglect the fact that most other sectors of the economy are, to some extent, similarly corrupted by corporate-state collusion, managerial capture and the systematic shift of bargaining power away from labor.

    Further, these people chose academia out of a love of scholarship and teaching, and are not only better at those things but more honorable than many presently tenured faculty who were better at playing politics and kissing ass.

    Why should people in a system characterized by thoroughgoing structural corruption simply accept it as “the way things are” and look for a momentarily less corrupt private garden to cultivate — especially given that, to repeat the matter of fallacy of composition, what is a viable out for adjuncts as individuals is not viable for them as a class? Some small fraction of people in a theater may be able to see better by standing up, but if all of them stand up they’re worse off than before.

    There’s a glut of long-term unemployed new graduates as it is, ever since the 2008 crash, so how is the economy supposed to absorb 75% of all university faculty? They’ll just wind up competing for other precarious jobs and drive wages down even further in other industries.

    So it makes a lot more sense to stay where they are, make a stand, organize, and fight the corrupt college administration to make things better for everybody, rather than trying to be one of the lucky few who manage to get out first and cut a deal with somebody else. After all, if the 75% of faculty who are adjuncts leave, they’ll have to be replaced. So why not stay in their jobs instead, engage in direct action like strikes, walkouts, sick-ins, and open-mouth sabotage right where they are?

    If you think it makes more sense to accept a corrupt system and cut the best deal you can, rather than fight for what’s right, why do you even call yourself a libertarian? The Koch Brothers and other billionaires and corporate interests (who in fact got rich the same way college administrators do, by being part of the corrupt system — but never mind that for now) knew what the United States was and what they were getting into when they went into business, and yet they’re lobbying for changes in the system. Why don’t you tell them to stop whining because they knew what they were getting into, and to go to a different country they like better instead?

    Like most victim-blamers, you like to punch down.

    • DST

      “Koch Brothers”
      “punch down”

      You’ve managed to use this year’s vocab words in complete sentences. Congrats!

      “There’s a glut of long-term unemployed new graduates as it is, ever since the 2008 crash, so how is the economy supposed to absorb 75% of all university faculty?”

      It sucks that the overproduction of graduate degrees had to be revealed in such a sharp manner, but that overproduction has existed for a while now. The sooner everyone confronts that fact, the better-functioning the labor market will be going forward.

      “They’ll just wind up competing for other precarious jobs and drive wages down even further in other industries.”

      And raise salaries in academia, right? In other words, resolving the misallocation of human resources will bring salaries in line with the value produced.

      “So why not stay in their jobs instead, engage in direct action like strikes, walkouts, sick-ins, and open-mouth sabotage right where they are?”

      Throw yourself on the gears, dear comrade! The revolution will always remember your sacrifice!

    • Jason Brennan

      Kevin, you seem (as usual) to be more concerned with establishing your leftist bona fides through rhetorical huff and puff than with carefully reasoning through this. Even if your premises about the best way to fight the corruption is to stay and do walk outs, the people who do this are there by choice. If they are victims, they are victims by choice. Yes, the overwhelming majority of them could easily get better jobs in other, less corrupt segments of the economy. Further, even if they couldn’t now, because they’re over-credentialed, they should have known that academia is a low percent gamble, and should have and could have made better choices before taking the risk. The kinds of people who can get a Ph.D. are the kinds of people who would win in other sectors of the economy.

      It’s a common left-wing trope to deny agency and focus on systems. But, oops, sometimes people are agents who make culpably bad choices.

      By the way, calling me an authoritarian on Twitter and a right-libertarian here is a bullshit rhetorical move.

      • Kurt H

        While strongly worded, Kevin’s critique is basically correct. I don’t think we can rightly pin responsibility on the adjuncts themselves when there are so many complex reasons why the adjunct/TT pay gap is as acute as it is. Moreover, since many of those reasons involve problems with administrators, wouldn’t it be better for TT instructors to unite with adjuncts against a common foe?

        • Jason Brennan

          Kevin’s argument doesn’t address mine. He’s push on how bad Bob for offering poopburgers, but doesn’t stop to think maybe the customers shouldn’t eat them.

    • Daniel McNally

      I don’t think the fallacy of composition applies here. If a substantial number of adjuncts quit and find other ways to make a living, the remaining adjuncts would become a much hotter commodity and be in a stronger bargaining position. Universities still need people to teach classes, which requires specialized skilled labor. As it is, it seems to me that universities are able to offer adjuncts crappy compensation because they have little trouble finding qualified people to accept their offers.

      • RBrownfield

        The remaining adjuncts would remain adjuncts, because they would be bypassed by new graduates, and sometimes undergraduates, who can be the next grist for the mill, or as Brennan would say, losers who should have known this was the game.


      The system of higher education is “corrupt,” but it is not clear to me that it is so in a way that harms the interests of adjuncts. But for the massive federal student loan/grant programs that encourage many students to enroll in college, there would be substantially less demand for instructors, and adjuncts would fare worse then they do now.

      Even we accept for purposes of argument that our system of higher education is institutionally arrayed against adjuncts, this by itself is not a reason for us to feel sorry for those who suffer financially due to their voluntary participation. A casino is also “corrupt” in that if you play against the house long enough you are virtually assured of losing. But those who elect to play have no grounds for complaint.

      Of course, this analogy fails if casinos have a monopoly on entertainment, so that adjuncts are metaphorically forced to gamble. But this is not the case, as there are hundreds of honorable, better paying jobs, open to them. If the answer is that most adjuncts just can’t somehow muster up the skill set to obtain work as (say) an attorney, skilled machinist, or small business owner, then they should be thankful for obtaining the employment they have.

      • RBrownfield

        “But this is not the case, as there are hundreds of honorable, better paying jobs, open to them.”

        And hundreds vying for each of the hundreds of jobs open. When was the last time you tried for a job with a livable income and benefits. If you got any of them, could being white and male have been your ticket in? Were you ever a woman of childbearing age? Did you ever have to apply for a job while obviously pregnant? Did you have children as an undergraduate? Have you applied for a job while black or Hispanic?


          Um, if you’re an adjunct professor, I really don’t think you would be competing for minimum wage jobs if you had pursued an alternate career path. And, right, there are no minority attorneys, nurses, machinists, small business owners, other than the many dozens I have somehow known, worked with, or patronized. News flash, the employment rate is around 95% for people in the workforce, so somehow, some way, people are getting jobs.

  • Gabriel Conroy

    How do you reconcile academia’s corruptness with your decision to remain in academia? I don’t know if you’re in a department that recruits grad students, but how do you judge those who are in such departments and who do actively recruit grad students?

    I realize that’s a personal question, but I promise I don’t mean it as a personal attack. I myself exist on the outskirts of academia–in a contingent but a well-paying position for which I’m grateful–and I too wonder how I must reconcile myself to working for an organization whose operation does not in practice easily conform to my sense of what’s moral or right.

    For the record, I really have no problem with anything you actually say in your OP or in your update. And I do believe you when you say GEICO is more “moral” than academia.

    • Jason Brennan


      That’s a good question. Here’s how I reconcile it:

      1. I give lots of talks to prospective grad students making sure they know what they’re getting into.
      2. I push my grad students hard to professionalize, publish, etc., so that they’ll beat the odds.
      3. Internally, I push for reform.

      • Gabriel Conroy

        Fair enough.

        • Jason Brennan

          Also, I’ve used my influence and time to help create and fill good post-doc positions, and then used that to get post-docs good permanent gigs. So, despite how “mean” I seem to adjuncts here, I’ve done more to help them than the InsecuriCorps or whatever they call themselves have. They huff, puff, and engage in self-righteous moral masturbation. I actually help people instead.

          • Gabriel Conroy

            Good for you and your students (I mean that non-sarcastically). I really don’t like raising the “well, you’re in it, therefore you’re wrong” trope.

            I think I might have a harder time if I were a professor in a grad program, because I don’t know if I’d be comfortable with it all. Heck, when I was a TA and (briefly) an adjunct, I wasn’t comfortable with what the undergrads were paying for the quality of education I was providing. But I still took my paycheck, and if I were a professor in a grad program, I’d take the paycheck, too.

            Also, I don’t think you’re being “mean.” I have actually written elsewhere about how the type of argument you raise here seems to some people “glib,” but I don’t think it’s actually glib. (It’s not the best post I’ve ever written, but here it is: http://hitcoffee.com/file/8142/ . It probably sounds there like I’m attacking your position, but that’s not my intention. I’m focusing more on atmospherics.)

            Again, thanks for answering my question.

      • Please write about the reform in a blog post, Jason. It will be very helpful to learn how you frame these problems inside the university.

  • N1Academy

    Let’s try something different. Let’s not Tenuresplain the Adjuncts and let’s not get caught up in a free market divisive conversations. Neither Professor Brennan nor the anonymous adjunct who created the meme attempt to get the bottom of the problem. (Ever.) Let’s also refrain from reinforcing the kind of labor and class antagonism that informs the Geico “endorsement.”

    Instead, what solutions do libertarian thinkers offer to let’s just say liberal perhaps progressive colleagues? In fact, at what point will you, Professor Brennan, step up as a colleague rather than a deeply entrenched status quo thinker whose position of privilege is elevated by stepping on the backs of the very people you claims to want to “help” with your snarky endlessly snarky blog bits. I thought you were a philosopher . . . doesn’t this all strike you as embarrassing, both your adjunct bullying and the “meme”-driven response?

    • Brandon T.

      Oh god.

    • Mengeritis

      How many books contracted with Oxford or Cambridge do you/the modal adjunct have?

      • N1Academy

        Talking chicken and eggs here, brother. Tenure track book proposals are part of the support expected. I wrote successful book contracts for both presses in the 90s and 00s. All ten were completed as some kind of graduate assistantship attached to junior faculty. You question, therefore, is irrelevant. As for me, I personally prefer smaller presses, mostly because I’m not seeking tenure. Until 2003, I was incredibly supported university fellow holding prestigious degrees and other credentials. I also prefer some of the perks and rapid pace of professional production.

      • I have 2 contracted with Oxford, 1 with Cambridge, 2 with Princeton, 2 with Routledge, and 1 with Wiley-Blackwell. The modal adjunct has 0.

  • autolukos

    The confusing bit to me is that the maker of this thing presumably agrees that the academic job market is stacked against job-seekers, which would seem to make “beat the house” an apt description of landing a tenure track position.

  • N1Academy

    //How do you reconcile academia’s corruptness with your decision to remain in academia?//

    This is the heart of the matter.
    Professor Brennan “beat the house”; yet others are fools for trying.
    Here’s the thing about the house.
    No one wins but the house.
    Professor Brennan didn’t beat it.
    I didn’t beat it.
    But, I think together we understand something about how it functions and how it can be circumvented . . . if not taken down in an Oceans 11 styled bit of political imagining.

    • commiiiiie

      You assume that he had no good reason to believe he had a solid shot.

      • N1Academy

        His rationale I hazzard to guess was no different than mine and countless others in the 90s and 00s, understanding the risks and low successrate. But, we were already defying odds with advanced degrees, “tracked” appointments, and other indicators that shortly (3-5 years) we would be at least no longer “at will.”

        Here’s what happened and why this topic is so hotly debated: no one in my circle counted on ALL tiers of higher education embracing crony capitalist and government nanny structures — the grand outsourcing of all jobs. This made the tenure track more competative but ironically less relevant as temporary fixes and “service” was defined as “customer service.”

        As Professor Brennan knows, the intense amount of duties expected of an assistant professor help to keep the higher education ship sailing: advising, curriculum development, service to department and university, professional conferences publishing, etc. All of this helps students. It also advances careers, as it should. Bu the direct benefit is clearer than the at-will model thats replacing tenure track appointments as well as pushing out great teachers and thinkers who happen to be in the adjunct situation.

        I’ll just cut to the chase: I’m tired of the fighting. I see a workforce situated inside higher education that can without Pakistani or automated outsourcing tend to the many duties we need to run the SSH.E. The way to take down a system that’s perpetuation the casino capitalist system is”return to mission” which is service. To each other; to our professions; and most importantly, to our students.

        I’m hopeless like that! :){

    • Mengeritis

      “Others are fools for trying.”

      I mean, if your chance of succeeding at something is incredibly low, then yes, I think there’s a point where we can say “you are a fool for trying this.” There are lots of things to mitigate this risk. If you don’t get into a good graduate program, that’s telling you something about your profile and chances of success relative to other academics. Academia is not a pure meritocracy, and it is foolish to think so, but good work will still get recognized.

      “Betting the house” and “beating the house” are two different things. You can still win the academic game–you just have to recognize it’s hard as hell to do so.

    • The house may have won, but it’s sure nice to me.

  • Mengeritis

    How are they being taken advantage of, though? If you are smart enough to complete an advanced degree, it us likely you could succeed at other things, including those more likely to pay you for your time. It is unfortunate that most of us cannot earn a living doing the things we want, but if your best alternative to academia isn’t really that bad at all, I find the “exploitation” argument a bit hard to accept. If anything, Jason saying “Hey, academia is rough and a lot of people have made some bad decisions and you should think about that before you ruin your life” sounds like a favor being done to those who may be interested.

    • RBrownfield

      Have you worked as an adjunct?

      • Jason Brennan

        How is that relevant? I would haven’t eaten Bob’s Poopburger either. A person doesn’t need to eat one to know it’s better to go to a different restaurant.

    • julian francisco

      “if you are smart enough” is nonsense. Competence in a field doesn’t give one the knowledge or skills needed in another.

  • Mengeritis

    Also, ad hominems are poor form, bro.

    • Jason Brennan

      It’s not even an accurate ad hominem, so it doesn’t sting. Julian, you should try making fun of how much I stink at basketball instead.

    • julian francisco

      It’s not an ad hominem. Don’t say things if you don’t know what they mean

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  • David Johnson

    I’m not an academic, but it seems to me that there are still many opportunities for doctorates who want to teach. Junior colleges and high schools for one. Not the greatest pay in the world, but from what I hear better than what many adjuncts get. And definitely better stability. But at some point one has to realize that there simply not enough professorships for everyone with a PhD.

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  • JoshInca

    So your position is “you’re being taken advantage of and I don’t care.” Just say that and quit pretending you’re anything other than a self serving douche.

    Why should anyone give a shit if you are being taken advantage of, when you refuse to do something about it yourself.

    Your comment demonstrates the infantilization of the modern left.

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  • Fish Fast

    I love how in your analogy, you yourself have walked with eyes wide open into a restaurant called Bob’s Steak or Poop Burgers. Knowing you had an 80% chance of getting the poop, you ordered, and now you’re enjoying your delicious steak sandwich while yelling at everyone else in the joint to pipe down about all the bullshit they’re being fed.

    I mean, it doesn’t put you in a very good position to be lecturing people about making rational choices, does it?

    • Jason Brennan

      I love this counterargument. According to my critics, I am myself a winner of an irrational lottery.

      This doesn’t exonerate the madjuncts. Instead, at best it shows that both they and I are stupidly imprudent, but in my case my stupid imprudence fortuitously resulted in me making over $200K a year, living in a $750K house, and driving a new BMW, while in their case, it results in them scraping by on food stamps and living in their old cars.

      If academia is just a lottery, then, like other lotteries, it’s stupid to play.

      Of course, the claim that academia is just a lottery is absurd, and even offensive. Yes, there is significant luck involved. But it’s not mere luck. It’s not like the people who get jobs at Princeton, Harvard, Brown, or Georgetown look like people selected at random. Instead, they just *happen* to be people who went to the best grad programs and just *happen* to graduate with significant publication records in the best journals, while the professional adjuncts just happen to the be people who frequently lack a terminal degree (the minimal qualification for a TT job) and who happen to lack publication records in the good journals.

      • Fish Fast

        Well the counterargument wasn’t meant to exonerate the madjuncts, only to point out the poverty of your thought experiment by observing that the very terms of its proposition would undermine your credibility to instruct people about rational decision making, which is the purpose of the thought experiment. So, it’s a poor analogy, but that’s okay, because, as I suspected, it doesn’t represent your actual reasoning for why adjuncts deserve to be where they are anyway.

        At least now we’re up front that your lack of sympathy isn’t coming from the perspective of someone who thinks they won a long bet, but from the perspective of someone who thinks they rose to the top of a meritocracy. I can see why you’d want to couch the argument in the first perspective–it allows a position of considerably more humility–but it’s also directly at odds with the actual perspective.

        And that actual perspective, of course, is rife with egregious error, from the claim that there aren’t substantial numbers of adjuncts with PhDs and solid research records (there are) to the assumption that the grad programs to which we would colloquially refer as “the best” in fact offer a substantially different quality of education or training to those we would colloquially refer as “second-tier” (they don’t). In fact, academia is neither a crapshoot nor a meritocracy, it operates according to predictable and structurally coherent rules; the rules just aren’t aimed at rewarding quality work. Academia is a system that reproduces existing economic and social hierarchy.

        That still doesn’t exonerate the madjuncts, of course, it only raises serious issues for a number of your claims and perspectives. One could still ask why they would willingly join a system that reproduces economic and social hierarchy when they aren’t from a high economic and social echelon. They are actually exonerable, but that’s another line of argument.

        • Jason Brennan

          The Bob’s Poopburger store story wasn’t meant to be an analogy portraying my view of things. It was meant to take for granted *their* view that it’s just a matter of luck, but then explain why even if so, they would be blameworthy for their dumb choices.

          • Fish Fast

            Right, and IF you except that for the sake of argument, you’ve lost the argument simply by accepting it, because you’ve cast yourself as the hapless beneficiary of an irrational system, who thus has no credibility to criticize the choices of people who did the same thing you did.

            That’s an odd argumentative tactic, given that you aren’t even putting forward your actual view, though I guess it makes a certain rhetorical sense when your actual view is so arrogantly out-of-touch and factually challenged. “Bleeding heart,” indeed.

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  • Kate Herrick

    But who gets to be upset at the unfair system?

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