Hippo Reads is proud to be partnering with Three Rivers Press to feature an adaption from THE PROFESSOR IS IN: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job © 2015 by Karen Kelsky. Published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Higher education critic Josh Boldt has called adjuncting an addiction. Borrowing from Alcoholics Anonymous, he asks adjuncts to recognize that they are in an “abusive relationship,” and that living as a full-time adjunct “is a lot like living as a drug-addled tweaker.”

If you’re an adjunct you may well be caught in a delusional belief system that on the one hand you will get one of the tenure track jobs to which you apply (some possibility), and on the other hand that your excellent teaching, selfless service, and continued loyalty to the institution at which you adjunct will be rewarded with permanent employment at that institution (virtually zero possibility). You pour your heart into adjunct teaching because this teaching is your only concrete connection to the academic career. You also pour your heart into adjunct teaching because you do, in fact, love to teach and believe in its redemptive power. But universities cold-bloodedly exploit this passion and desperation, knowing that adjuncts will keep showing up to teach, and teach well, no matter how little they are paid. You teach more and harder in a desperate effort to impress the (indifferent) institution, make ends meet, and prop up your belief that you and your work matter. But at what cost to physical and mental health?

Adjunct exploitation will stop only when Ph.D.’s stop sacrificing themselves up to exploitative conditions.Unionization is essential. It’s also OK to quit and do something else. What started out as an inspired graduate school quest for new knowledge and social impact can devolve into endless days in an airless room, broke, in debt, staring at a computer, exploited by departments, dismissed by professors, ignored by colleagues, disrespected by students. It is OK to decide that’s not what you want. There is life outside of academia.

But academia is a kind of cult, and deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted within its walls. If you decide to leave, make no mistake: You will be judged harshly by others and, yes, you will lose some of your academic friends, who can’t tolerate the threat you represent to their most cherished values. To the extent you’ve been properly socialized into the cult during graduate school, you will also judge yourself. Making the decision to leave involves confronting that judgment, working through it, and coming out the other side. It is long and hard and involves profound shame. You will get through it.

Yes, the students are underserved by the corporatized university as it is currently constituted. Yes, it is heartbreaking to watch the steady capitulation of an institution we all love to values we abhor. However, saving the students is not your job; indeed, if you are an adjunct you cannot save them from the depredations of the university-cum-business dedicated to cost cutting and the abandonment of the educational mission.

Further Reading

About The Author


Karen Kelsky, aka, The Professor, is a former tenured professor and Department Head with 15 years of experience teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her Ph.D. is in Cultural Anthropology, with a focus on Japan, from the University of Hawai’i. Her B.A. is from the University of Michigan. Her book, Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams, was published in 2001 by Duke University Press. She has trained 5 of her own Ph.D. students who have gone on to successful careers in academia and related fields. She has worked as a committee member with numerous Ph.D.s and Masters students, and hundreds of undergraduate students.