Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post I

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.

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Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post I — 30 Comments

  1. While it’s not the focus of this post, it does a good job of illustrating one of the most toxic aspects of the current academic climate in the United States: the belief that it will (indeed, should) take nearly a decade to get a Ph.D. While it’s perhaps almost understandable in some disciplines where substantial fieldwork is a de facto requirement (I’m thinking of Anthropology, but obviously Karen knows a lot more about that than myself), there’s no reason for students in most of the Humanities and Social Sciences to be putting that amount of time into doctorates. It just isn’t necessary. (Yes, there is always more to read, but much of it is duplicative and what isn’t can be read later when it’s relevant to your actual projects). Whether it’s advisors thinking it should take their grad students at least as long as it took them or just a constant arms race that makes the process longer-and-longer, it’s a huge problem that needs to be dealt with.

    • I agree, though I would say it’s not just the ‘current academic climate.’ There have always been people who took ten years, even 30 and 40 years ago, and it was as much a mistake then as it is now. I doubt if it’s the ‘current toxic political atmosphere.’ It is indeed toxic, but it wasn’t easy to get a tenure-track job in the 70s or 80s either. Nevertheless, some people do get hired, even if (as in the case of some of my younger colleagues) it takes a few years to get a position. But there comes a point when common sense says to face the realities. With due respect and sympathy to the author of the post, I’d say that there appears not to be a good match between the person and the profession. Given all the financial and medical problems mentioned in the post, as well as the failure to get hired, it seems unwise to continue in the academic world at such a cost.

      • Good points, Janet–I didn’t think about the direct correlation between poverty/health problems and natural talents/drive to succeed. If only FDR, John Nash, Stephen Hawking, and others with health issues had given up earlier. And of course, the academic ladder is best left to those with wealth.

        • I think that Janet Gold has an important point, though. While I really feel for this student, and am outraged at the adjunctification of the profession, etc, at some point, don’t graduate students need to be practical and think about whether they are making a good investment, and whether they can afford the degree? For me, this article made me think that PhD students need not only more professional support, but also some financial advising.

          • (btw- I say this as a sympathetic and broke PhD student in humanities myself! I personally am willing to give up 7 or 8 years on my life and risk having to start over again on my career in my 30s if I don’t get a job- but to do so while taking on the same kind of debt as med students just seems kind of unrealistic to me).

          • Unfortunately the point at which “wise investment” turns into “sunk costs” is often only visible after it’s been reached.

        • So, is there an effective way to proceed? With a freshly minted PhD in hand, no job, a skimpy CV, and a dark cloud of emotional instability looming over my reference writers, I find this post (and others) to be sobering.

          I was fortunate to have access to a program emphasizing professionalization; I was unable to keep pace with its five year plan to R1. I have confidence in the publishing potential of my research, but developing my research base as sound while attempting to maintain even the faintest grasp on my sanity as I endured the unmitigating effects of the grinding poverty (a euphemism, from my vantage point) of the economic recession as a young, independent, and rootlessly insecure female consumed all of my economic and psychic resources. I appreciate the notion of “jettisoning ‘myself'” that Dr. K discusses elsewhere, but I’m admittedly intimidated by what I assess as a realistic prospect: my inability to maintain conference participation, networking, and deadlines as I became ABD has seriously jeopardized my ability to successfully attain TT—ever. While *perhaps* my dissertation research may be innovative, competitive, and publishable in even high ranking journals, at this point I have no institutional resource base. I am trepidation about my next steps.

          My question, in short, is whether one can develop something like a 5-year plan to move from adjunct to TT?

        • Not to mention that those student loans have to be paid. It really doesn’t feel responsible to quit after getting in that deep. It is a rock and hard place situation.

  2. sounds familiar for me. incredible debt. i’m in the bay area where even adjunct teaching is extremely competitive to secure. i’ve gone to teaching interviews before committees with a line of applicants waiting outside, all for part-time work. i did a stint at a for-profit institution. that’s really the bottom of the barrel. i also did some part-time weekend temp work, and i would’ve easily given up teaching at an extremely exploitative institution for just temping. however, the temping market isnt what it used to be. i used to temp here and there between semesters, and it was a fair $14 per hour or so. thats no longer the case 3 or 4 years later. even temp positions in government offices were extremely exploitative, and I dont just mean the paltry $10 per hour that was the new going rate in a recession. i did the government office job for about 4 days, then wrote like crazy the rest of that month. i graduate soon, and i’m horrified about what may come. i try to focus just on finishing, while putting in a teaching application here or there. there is indeed that mental anguish aspect too.

  3. Are we to gather that the $180k in federal loans came when the writer decided to stop working 2 jobs and focus on writing? Were these loans for living expenses? Over how many years? It’s not hugely relevant to the story, but a big hole nonetheless. I think it speaks to how much we’re willing to sacrifice (or borrow) to finish the process. I was also fortunate enough to leave college with no loans and start graduate school with a 5-year fellowship. The idea of taking out a loan to live on is painful, especially when the prospect of repayment is fuzzy…
    I second Charles’ reply. The average time in my program in 7-8 years. Many a professor has scoffed when I outline my plan to finish in 5.5. They have told me it can’t be done immediately after chiding students who aren’t ABD by year 3. So, what gives? Granted, I’ve decided to forgo a great deal of academic professionalization (publications, large conferences, etc), but it was never my goal to get a TT job in academia. Instead, I did internships with the government, took research positions and networked at regional conferences, lectures and think tanks. All this brings about smirks from my professors…

  4. blackberri, many details had to be left out for brevity. My advisors directed me to pursue as much career development as possible while completing coursework, exams, and the diss in order to make me competitive on the job market. The majority of the loans were taken out to support me and my daughter while I participated in very prestigious opportunities in a large city. The flip side of this massive debt is that I have publications, internships, work experience, and LOTS of conference participation.

  5. It is indeed disheartening to read of the misfortunes of other Ph.D.s but it gives me a more realistic perspective that I was not alone in making poor choices throughout my academic career. I was tired of being poor my whole life and somehow got the crazy idea that being educated would be insurance against unemployment. I could not have been more wrong. I received my doctorate in 2005 and have been unemployed 5 out of the last 7 years. ( I teach adjunct which, as most of you know, is one step above unemployment.) Now I am at an age when others are retired, with a worthless string of degrees (including a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology), no savings, no retirement, and school loans I won’t live long enough to pay off. After hundreds of job applications for which I was well qualified with nary a boo, I just don’t know what the answer is, what to do, or where to turn.

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  7. Blackberri, consider the high probability that upwards of 25%, maybe even half, of that $180k is capitalized interest. I got my first student loan in 1984, and have been locked into a 7.5% interest rate ever since. The couple of years I deferred (no longer being qualified for forbearance) resulted in capitalized interest; now that I am on the income contingent repayment program, my payment of 14% of my salary doesn’t even cover my monthly interest charge. What’s left is then capitalized at the end of each year. In other words, every year I actually owe MORE rather than less. I haven’t done the math (too depressing) but I have almost certainly paid off the original loan amount and then some. Hopefully the Obama plan to forgive my remaining debt after ten years of working in non-profit/education will last long enough to work for me. If only they’d grandfather it in, I’ve already easily made 10+ years of payments and worked in non-profits for 10+ years. Alas.

    Hoffman, some of us took a long time to finish the dissertation because we were busily working 40+ hours a week so that we could pay the bills without borrowing money. This, because some people do need to take time to eat and sleep, slows down the progress. Those of us without family money get hit with criticism no matter what we do: either we take too long (because we have to work) or we borrow too much money (because we focus on our education). I did both, actually – borrowed through BA, MA, and then PhD coursework, then worked full-time while dissertating. Both options get a lot of criticism from the peanut gallery.

    It’s almost like academia is still thought to be a reserve for people who have the means and resources to focus on a life of the mind without concern for material things…. oh, wait.

    • FWIW, I didn’t mean to suggest that it was a failure on the candidate’s part to take longer to finish a PhD – there are many legitimate reasons why it might take a given individual longer than average, including those you mention. My beef is with the slow creep, whereby it takes longer for everyone, including very bright candidates focused solely on their doctorates. That is, it was a complaint about the faculty side of things, rather than the student side.

      • (I should note that this is not a complaint about my own situation, but rather a comment on behalf of all of friends in other disciplines who started grad school years before me and have not yet finished.)

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  9. everyone who’s saying that a person made a poor choice or bad investment because they picked the field they really wanted to pursue, is wrong. It’s not the person who’s messed up, it’s the society we live in. We live in a world that does not reward education, lovers of knowledge, or idealism, no matter how right those ideals may be. To make money enough to be financially independent and not a slave, you have to do whatever society says will make money. Becoming an accomplished intellectual is rewarding and will make you a better person, but it won’t necessarily generate the cash you’d like.

    • Exactly. I don’t say, ‘don’t go,’ I say, remember that the decision to go has real world financial consequences in our current economy that you can’t wish away.

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  13. I think that the most devastating aspect of possessing a “useless” humanities PhD (mine is in French literature) is the feeling that you have chosen a path in life that does not allow you to provide for your family. This could mean aged or dependent adults, but when it means your own children, the feeling that you are a failure is most acute. To me, it makes no difference that my wife has a job – as a new assistant professor at a third-tier university – that is good enough for our family of four to scrape by. We have just moved for the third time in less than two years, as we chase her career prospects around, and although I have defended my thesis at an Ivy League school and have a publication in a top-level journal, I have failed to land a job offer at any of the six institutions where I’ve interviewed. I have spent the last two years working as an adjunct and private elementary school teacher because my wife’s post-doc didn’t pay enough to support our family. This has led me to a point where I live every day with the insanity of simultaneously envying and detesting the academics whose ranks it appears increasingly likely I will never be able to join, hoping my PhD will somehow one day not seem like the biggest mistake of my life and despairing that this will ever occur. I feel unqualified to give even the most basic advice about education and the working world to my children. I taught MCAT courses for years to students who asked me how I could be so crazy as to not go to medical school when I possessed all the prerequisites for entry; I believed that because I excelled in humanities research and writing just as clearly as I had in pre-medical training, I needn’t worry about the opportunity costs of choosing a humanities degree over a professional one. Every single friend and family member I’ve known who didn’t choose to pursue a graduate degree (I’m not counting professional degrees like law and medicine) is now comfortably well-off, many of them quite wealthy.
    You feel ashamed to depend on your father, and I feel ashamed to depend financially on my wife. I will finally file for the diploma in a few weeks, and I’m marking the occasion by interviewing with a temp agency to see whether they might be able to provide me with some kind of low-level employment that could eventually become permanent. I write this in order to vent, obviously, but also to tell you that you are NOT alone in your frustration. Grad school has eaten our young selves, you see, and maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that we now find ourselves…in the toilet.

  14. I have worked at for-profit colleges since 2003. I worked hard for my Ph.D. and got hired a year out of graduating. Let me describe my experience, I have applied for full-time jobs; however, the offer often goes like this: The full-time job is filled and a part-time one is available. For several years, I worked to patch-work quilt jobs together to make a living. I also looked for research opportunities. I actually managed to write up a research proposal, but no one would serve has my host agency. Wouldn’t you think the university that I worked for would be happy to do that? Then, as enrollments dropped, I got fewer assignments. Some schools never even bothered to call me back. The worst has been harassment from students. While the issues were addressed eventually, one was so bad that I had to go back into counseling. The manager (in the Psychology Department no less) told me that I brought it on myself. Yes, blaming the victim. My education loan is outrageously high has I have struggled with unemployment and underemployment. Now, some managers treat the Ph.D. as if it means nothing. I worked hard and none of the work was easy. I managed to write and publish two books on my own. I went to go in on research endeavor with someone else and they did not follow through. I love research. My love of research was integral to me obtaining my Ph.D. My intention is to encourage us to look for solutions and employment that is meaningful with managers that care about academics and students and faculty.

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  16. Karen, it has been four years since you wrote this. Has anything changed?
    I can relate to your health problems. I think they are exacerbated by your constant stress.
    I finished my PhD within the funding period, so I don’t have any debt; I published a monograph with a top-tier publisher a year after graduating from my doctoral program and started worked as Adjunct. So at first it seemed like I was on the right track and was mentally prepared to work for a few years as a sessional instructor/Adjunct hoping to land a TT job eventually, preferably somewhere in Canada, where I live.

    But I quickly noticed that work began to dry up. Each year I saw fewer and fewer sessional job postings. I went from two full-year courses to just one half-year course. I am now unemployed. History departments in Canada are downsizing their programs because students figured out that a Bachelor’s degree in history will lead them to nowhere.
    Since I lost my job, my health has deteriorated to the point that I often wonder if I would ever be able to work again (should I be so lucky to find a position.) I used to have migraines once a month or less; now, I have them 2-3 times a week. I suffer from chronic insomnia and anxiety.

    I know that my PhD was not completely in vain. It was my ‘ticket’ to Canada so to speak (I came as a student and became a resident and then a citizen). Considering that the war is raging in my native Ukraine, it was ultimately a good decision. But it was not the only reason I entered a PhD program. I like teaching and research.
    I am trying to keep up with my research plan, but now that I don’t have full library privileges it’s become increasingly difficult and sometimes my submissions are not taken seriously just because I no longer have institutional affiliation.

    Someone here said that it is often difficult to know when your ““wise investment” turns into “sunk costs””. I completely agree. I often feel the same way about life in general: when you finally realize that life has no meaning, it is too late to commit suicide because you have other people in your life dependent on you.

    • Julia, thanks for writing; i’m so sorry to hear of your struggles. This post is a guest post, so it wasn’t written by me. I don’t have an update from the author, but in general many people are having a similar experience to yours– are seeing work dry up. I encourage everyone in this situation to move on to another career track after approximately 3-4 years; it isn’t worth trying beyond that. I wish you good luck. If you want to send me your cover letter for a quick skim to check for major problems, send it to

  17. While there is some comfort in knowing I am not alone in being an unemployed Ph.D., there is still a lot of resentment and frustration simmering. I have spent thousands of dollars on getting my resume critiqued, and going to job search strategy and interviewing seminars. I have been to career fairs and state employment offices. And still, I have been basically unemployed for the past two years. I have sent out hundreds of applications (each taking me a good two days to complete)for very diverse positions resulting in only two interviews in the last year. I am angry at the lack of mentoring from professors and the worthless program I received my Ph.D in (Educational Psychology). I am on food stamps and was living in my car because I could not rent a room without proof of sufficient income. I owe more now on my student loans than I did ten years ago when I graduated. I have no health insurance. I have no family and alienated the few friends I had because I am so depressed. I am 60 years old. So what is the point of putting one foot in front of the other?

  18. Hi Karen.

    I also have a useless D. Sc. in Nanotechnology from Mexico (where I am from). Can’t apply either to jobs abroad or in Mexico, since companies won’t hire me for obvious reasons in the US and Europe, and almost no companies invest in science and development here in Mexico.
    I’m 42 and counting. Depend on my parents to pay bills, food, and school. I was supposed to be the pillar, the milestone. Left my family for two postdoc stays, one in Brazil and one in the US. I have lost precious years that could have been spent with my beautiful wife.
    I’m nothing. I feel extremely angry towards this society, but it was my fault to choose chemistry and graduate studies. And partly my professors’ fault (both undergrad and graduate school) no to tell the truth about the job market. I often feel depressed as well, but consider psychologists and therapists a waste of time and money, useful only for weak-mind bearers(sorry, no offense meant!)

    I see my old highschool classmates, they own a house, maybe two cars, excercise often, and live a cozy life (yes, it is possible to live well in Mexico if you have followed a career that pays such as economist, or general manager in a company, or a high position at government). A few of them have no worries but to carry on their daily job and take care of their families.

    I wish I could roll back my timeline, and select electrical engineering or computer engineering, then a master degree in the US on technology administration or a MBA. Or carried out grad school in the US in geochemistry, that may offer more especially at NASA (exoplanets!). Another caveat are the connections you have: friends, relatives. They’re so important to land a very good offer here in Mexico. No matter if you had scored high or low at undergrad school, connections are rather more important stuff.

    The only jobs I can apply for are under 10,000 MXN per month – under 500 USD, some around 200 USD per month – which I see as an offense to me.

    I feel so frustrated, useless, and humiliated. Miss also my mountain bike – and the sense of liberty when riding – and, need a good reflex camera. Can’t afford that either, not even brakes for my bike.

    Please don’t come up with cheer phrases, don’t need them. Sorry for the mess.

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