Culinary School vs. Graduate School

I listen to NPR most days as I commute, and I found yesterday’s story about the difficult job prospects and debt facing culinary school graduates very familiar. The similarity between the circumstances of those training to be chefs and those training to be faculty members was so striking that I couldn’t resist writing NPR and commenting on the story. Since I know the chances of Robert Siegel mellifluously reading portions of my comment on the air are about the same as getting a tenure-track job in 20th-century American literature (read, 1 in 500—at least the last year that I was applying for jobs), I’ve decided to just post my thoughts here as well:

I enjoyed the March 15 story about the problems facing graduates of culinary schools. The problem of spending years of training and thousands of dollars on an education only to be faced with a minimum paying job prospects is daunting. And unfortunately it is familiar for many of us who have pursued PhDs. After six years of schooling and $48,000 of debt, I graduated with a PhD in English literature. I applied to every job in North America for three years in a row–all 150 of them. At most of these jobs, I was told that I was one of 300-500 applicants, and naturally all of us had PhDs, publications, and teaching experience. In those three years, I received a total of three first round interviews, none of which led to second rounds. My first year after graduate school, I taught at my graduate institution for $32,500/year, less than half of what a regular faculty member earns. I was only allowed to have that job for one year, and the following year saw me driving 120 miles one way to get to my job where I earned $27,000/year. Again, I earned half of what regular faculty earned and taught twice as many courses per semester. That being said, I’m still one of the lucky ones. “Adjunct faculty” often have to cobble together courses from many different institutions to make ends meet, earning in the neighborhood of $2,000 per course for an entire semester. Teaching full time (4 or 5 courses per semester) nets you an annual income of $20,000.

I’m sympathetic to the culinary graduates, whose debt rivals that of most PhD students. But the time that they invest in their studies falls far short of what a PhD program requires. NPR’s shedding some light on the subject of post-graduate school employment and the casualization of the faculty in higher education will help bring to light labor issues in higher education that differ from but parallel the recent troubles in Wisconsin.

Perhaps the most interesting detail in the story is that culinary school graduates can expect to earn $12-15/hour as a line chef when they finish culinary school. If they work 40 hours/week and 50 weeks per year, that’s an annual income of $24,000…just about the same as what an adjunct might earn. Teaching college and working as a line cook are very different jobs (as my time working in a high-end restaurant taught me), but neither appears to be a very safe investment.


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