It is possible to somewhat make fun of these Yale graduate students who are on hunger strike over the terms and conditions of their work. As indeed some other Yale students have, by setting up a barbeque just next to their hunger striking station. The strike itself seems a little weak too, there are reports that anyone who feels really hungry can leave, eat, then come back. It is not eating while hunger striking publicly, rather than not eating apparently.
However, they're right, they have identified something of a major problem:
Unfortunately, this describes little of today’s reality. I knew this going into graduate school, but I went for it anyway, because I wanted to do nothing more than teach English in college the way it was taught to me.
This means two things for people like me, who are graduate teachers. First, it means that universities like Yale depend on us to teach their students but don’t give us any of the job security that the professors have. Second, although Yale says I’m in training to become a professor one day, it’s likely I’ll never have the chance.
Instead, if you check back with me in five or ten years, you’ll probably find me among the many thousands of people who have a PhD but can barely hang on to a place in the middle class. I may not have health insurance through my job, much less paid vacation, an office or any control over my schedule. In fact, it’s likely I won’t even know where my paycheck will come from further out than four months. In academia, you’re now less secure the more experience you accumulate.
Out here in the real world we're really pretty sure that when an occupation leaves you with a paltry income this is the world's way of saying that you should go and do something else. This is true of the business making a loss, the farmer unable to survive without subsidies and yes, the would be worker facing derisory pay as a result of too many other people clamouring to do the same job.
We're even really certain that a professor or two over in the economics department will be able to explain this to people. This is just what happens with an over supply of labour.
But the important, and unsaid, point is why is there such an over supply of said labour? The answer being that there are simply too many graduate students in American universities.
It's worth noting that a PhD over there is not, as it is here, the production of a thesis, the addition to the sum of human knowledge by some small amount. It takes rather longer, up to 7 years, and includes a certain amount of learning how to be a professor. Thus these teaching duties which they undertake. It's not entirely true but it is largely so that an American PhD is the training program to be a university professor in the fullness of time.
Which is where the problem is. The universities are training many more such professors manque than they will ever be able to employ as actual professors. Not just many more but many times more. And thus this problem of those who have this very expensive training but who are unable to grasp the brass ring at the end of it.
The answer is for those graduate programs to shrink considerably. Perhaps some subjects more than others - there's not really a use for advanced degrees in critical studies, gender studies perhaps, outside future employment in academia. And if the training courses are producing more than can be absorbed by the universities then it's the training courses that should be cut, no?
But back to our basic economics. The bad pay and conditions of these people is a symptom of an over supply of people with this training. The conditions themselves should thus dissuade people from following this non-career path. But at root the diagnosis is simple. There is an over supply, people should be going and doing something else.
Don't forget, absolutely everyone else on the planet has also had to face the idea that there's something they'd love to be doing but there's a woeful shortage of people willing to pay them to do it. Odd that a university system is able to teach that point to its students really.