Dr. Brent Harger On Academia As A Middle Class “Star Career”

brentBrent Harger is an assistant professor of sociology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Dr. Harger (which rhymes with charger) teaches in the areas of methods, family, youth, and education.  His research examines the ways in which students and teachers create and maintain culture in elementary schools.

Below, Dr. Harger reflects on the depressing reality that few prospective graduate students will conclude their graduate training with a tenure-track faculty job.  Academic careers may be becoming a privilege afforded primarily to middle-class and wealthy people.

Academia as a Middle Class “Star Career”

The academic job market is horrible. So is academia as a whole. It is nearly impossible to obtain a tenure-track job and even tenure itself is no guarantee that one will be able to keep one’s job. Surveying the landscape of higher education, Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory says not to go to graduate school. So does Rebecca Schuman at Slate. As academics, we know that going to graduate school is not a good idea, especially if you must go into debt to do so. Nevertheless, when students ask us to write letters of recommendation for graduate programs, we tell them to think carefully about their decision to dedicate years of their lives to something that is unlikely to result in full-time paid employment and then we write the letters. After all, who are we (especially those of us with tenure-track jobs ourselves) to tell people not to follow their dreams? Thus, academia becomes a middle class “star career.”

In Living the Drama, David Harding examines the influence of cultural heterogeneity on the lives of African American boys growing up in Boston, MA. Harding argues that the presence of both mainstream and alternative cultural models in poor neighborhoods leads adolescents to switch among competing models because numerous models are available and supported (“I can go to college or become a rapper or become an NBA player”). Cultural heterogeneity also dilutes the information that adolescents need to construct effective pathways toward goals like getting into college and leads to the unsuccessful mixing of various cultural models (“Playing basketball will make up for my low GPA when applying for college; I can make it to the NBA by playing for a community college”).

In a poor neighborhood, then, the idea of a “star career” like becoming a famous athlete or rapper coexists with the idea of getting good grades, graduating from high school, and enrolling in college. Adolescents in wealthier areas were aware of star careers but saw music or sports as hobbies rather than legitimate career options. Many of the parents of poor adolescents could see that a focus on potential star careers might distract their sons from academic pursuits but were also hesitant to tell their sons that their dreams were unrealistic. A focus on a career as a professional basketball player, however unlikely, could also serve to keep students in school and away from danger.

Aside from the income differences between the boys who wanted to become famous in Harding’s study and middle-class undergraduates who want to become professors, there are a number of parallels. Consider the NBA. Over half a million adolescent boys play high school basketball. Of these, an estimated 17,500 (3.2%) will play basketball in college and 48 (48!) (1.2% of college players, .03% of high school players) are drafted annually by the NBA.

If we consider high school basketball to be analogous to obtaining an undergraduate degree, a small number of successful undergraduates will be offered the opportunity to “play” in graduate school. Some of these students will be offered scholarships, others will pay for the costs themselves, but for both college basketball players and graduate students, the likelihood that their training will pay off at the next level is low. Both also have the potential to be incredibly lucrative for their universities, with high-profile college basketball programs bringing in millions of dollars in TV revenues and graduate students providing universities with cheap labor. In the end, some college basketball players and graduate students will have degrees to show for their time as low-paid (or paying!) employees while others will drop out along the way. A few will go on to successful careers as NBA players or college professors, inspiring others to attempt to follow in their footsteps.

As professors who encourage students to follow their dreams of academic lives because we warned them and there is always a chance, we also contribute to the reproduction of inequality in academia. As a graduate degree becomes an increasingly expensive career goal for students to pursue, it becomes more likely that students who will do so will be privileged in other ways. Whether this is white skin and academic parents or a spouse who can support them while they scrape together an income as an adjunct, the risks associated with an advanced degree make it more likely that those who undertake the endeavor will have external support. Because of this, it may be middle or upper class students who are most likely to experience cultural heterogeneity when considering what to do after graduating from college. Those from less privileged backgrounds may be more likely to see academic interests as a hobby that they experience by reading blogs and academic works after their jobs in the “real world.”

Like attempting to make it from high school to college to the NBA, the problems with academia are structural. Budget concerns lead schools to accept more graduate students than will be able to find tenure-track jobs because they provide cheap labor. Students who receive advanced degrees but do not find tenure-track jobs provide further cheap labor as adjuncts. In an individualistic society like the U.S., it is difficult to dissuade students with structural arguments because there is always a chance that they, like Victor Oladipo, will be the exception.

If a student plays college basketball for four years and does not have the opportunity to play professionally, that student at least has a college degree that provides some job prospects. Graduate programs, though, are like allowing students to major in basketball, leaving them with few options if they do not get “drafted” into academia. In an ideal world, graduate programs would accept fewer students and provide those students with better resources, removing the need for outside support and reducing the number of job candidates after graduation. Fewer excess Ph.D.s would also reduce the number of available adjuncts, causing colleges and universities to rely less on contingent faculty.

All of this places those of us who have been drafted into academia after graduate school in a difficult position. Even from this privileged position, the dangers for others who want to do the same are clear. When a student asks me for a grad school letter of recommendation, then, I will say “no,” detailing the structural dangers and encouraging the student to think carefully about accepting academia as a hobby rather than a career goal. When the student insists that he or she has thought carefully and is willing to accept the risks, I will have no choice but to write the letter. I will add, however, that if accepted, there is no shame in quitting.