Following up on the article From Graduate School to Welfare in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I am featuring stories of Ph.D. poverty here on the blog, contributed by readers. I believe that one of the most important tasks before us is to publicize the poverty associated with graduate school and adjuncting for so many, to break through the denial of Ph.D. programs, and to expose the conditions of labor in the academy to the public at large and in particular to tuition-paying parents.
Currently my daughter and I live with my parents. I am trying to finish my dissertation. I taught one class at a private university in the fall but, due to workplace harassment (and the time/profit ratio, earning me about $5 per hour—which would not have covered child care had I needed it), decided to get a part-time hourly job instead—with the hope that I would have more time to write, and the idea that I should make my state’s legal minimum wage!
I have applied to over 40 companies, mostly retail, and have had 3 interviews, but remain unemployed after 5 months. I can only guess that employers are reluctant to hire me because they do not believe I would stay long. (I have to wonder, though, if turnover in retail is high anyway, doesn’t my CV reflect perseverance and dedication? good work ethic?) I even looked into selling my eggs—but I am too old (and, even more offensive, too short).
I have made more progress than ever on my dissertation; however, it has come with the great cost of anxiety due to financial instability. I have a new adjunct position lined up for the fall (albeit one class that will pay $2800 for the semester), but have never been in such dire financial position as I am now.
I am very, very blessed to have a generous and patient father who is providing food and shelter and loaning me money to cover my car payments, medical bills, school tuition, and basic necessities. I am 32 and find it is the most humiliating thing in the world to ask my dad for another loan every time I get a bill I cannot pay. Equally humiliating is seeing younger family members and friends who have been in the workforce for years and have bought their own homes and cars. Though I feel successful when I read my CV, day-to-day living appears the ultimate failure. I have over $180,000 in federal student loans. I had a tuition waiver and assistantship during my 10 years of graduate school, and had no loans from my undergrad years. How did I get to this point?
One of the most significant factors is that in AY 10-11, I was adjuncting and working at a museum—making a living wage but not making dissertation progress, as I was a single mother working essentially full time. My primary advisor took a new position at a different university and told me if my progress (lifestyle/situation) did not change—that if I did not produce chapters—she could no longer advise me. This was presented as a choice between finishing my degree or earning a living wage. I chose the former and moved where I would not have to pay rent. I loved both of my jobs, especially teaching, and am still not sure if I regret my choice.
I was not on the tenure-track market this year because not being done with the dissertation does not make me competitive enough. I did apply to a few one-year sabbatical replacement positions and landed one interview, but was not selected. When I inquired as to how I might have better luck next time, the search committee chairs explained that they had applicants who had already finished postdocs and had books published. At least I was assured that it wasn’t a glaring typo on my CV (which Karen would have caught anyway!)
Another factor leading to my current situation is health problems, requiring occasional hospitalizations for both myself and my daughter. Fortunately she has been eligible for Medicaid her whole life; I have student insurance through my university (without prescription coverage).
I have a deep desire to work not only for the pay but for my own dignity and mental health; being unemployed has stripped me of self-worth and made me severely depressed (leading to more bills from necessary therapy and medications…and frequent suicidal ideation). I don’t regret pursuing a PhD, even in the humanities, because I find research and teaching in my field to be deeply fulfilling, and a career that all my life experiences feed into. To their credit, my grad school profs always emphasized how difficult it is to land a TT job in our field—but also assured me that my overzealousness reflected strongly on my CV, so I shouldn’t worry. Graduates from my program have fared relatively well in the past decade, but the market in the past year has never been so bleak.
I am not sure how to change the situation, but know that federal budget cuts to education typically affect the arts and humanities first. For this reason my ire is usually directed at the current toxic political atmosphere that recognizes no value in the arts and humanities, cuts public assistance programs, and promotes the idea that everything would be wonderful if everyone was an engineer.