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.
I have a Ph.D. in musicology (“music history & culture”), taught 31 sections of 22 different courses at seven institutions, co-edited and contributed three chapters to a book related to the subject of my dissertation, published an additional book chapter and journal articles/reviews, presented 27 conference papers and invited talks, and so on. However, I am presently unemployed and living on welfare.
As an undergraduate, I incurred about $18,000 in student-loan debt. As a graduate student at a major research university, I did not want to get into much additional debt or to put financial strain on my rural, single-income, lower-middle-class parents. (I am the first person in my family to attend university.) During my early grad school period (M.A., plus preliminary Ph.D. work), I only incurred a little additional debt (around $3000), because I lived modestly, worked as a TA, did several part-time RA and similar jobs, did “external” part-time work (choral singing), and even did a utility-company office temp job for a few months—for only slightly more than minimum wage.
My field of musicology eventually hit a crossroads, with some people getting into such areas as critical theory, cultural studies, gender issues, and popular culture. It seemed like the best place to be, so I started over at another major research institution, in one the most significant programs for what was then being called “new musicology.” Over the five-year period of my “residency,” I had quite good financial support, but almost all of it involved doing something other than my own work. At one point, too, I had to arrange to borrow $8000 from one of my grandparents just to cover an unexpected fee. I also needed an additional student loan (about $6000) and additionally incurred about $10,000 in loan and credit-card debt (for moves, computers, transportation, books, conferences, and so on).
In my immediate ABD period, I borrowed $30,000 from another of my grandparents in order to move back to my place of origin and get settled, pay off certain costs related to the move (including my vehicle), and have enough to live on for perhaps a year or so. While also working on my dissertation, I taught part-time at one or another of two universities, worked part-time at a music festival, and did more choral singing. I also moved most of the way across the country for a temporary, full-time teaching job at another large university. After that, I moved all the way back again. (Since starting university, I have moved an average of four times every three years!) Around the time that I defended and filed my dissertation, I began teaching part-time closer to home at a community college (which I did for two years), added more choral singing, switched to a different one-off course at another university, then moved temporarily the other direction halfway across the country for a five-month teaching position at yet another university. In the meantime, I had phone interviews for tenure-track academic jobs (and the occasional fly-out), presented, and published. Over seven years, though, my credit card and loan debt piled up by about another $20,000.
Then, I had a one-year full-time gig back at my Ph.D. school, but I had no money to get there (or back) or to live there for the first ten weeks, so I took out an $8,000 loan. During that academic year, I had several more phone interviews (plus two fly-outs), plus more papers, talks, and publications. Then, I moved back to yet more places, including several months in my parents’ camper-trailer. I initially had enough money to live on from the previous year’s job, but eventually did part-time reference writing again (for roughly minimum wage) and also went approximately another $3000 into credit card debt. By early 2008, my accumulated, “short-term” debt of about $114,000 started to catch up with me, including the nasty surprise of the government claiming I owed back-taxes of more than $8,000. (I should clarify that in my field, there are very few post-doctoral fellowships.)
I have always used computers quite a lot, so an old friend convinced me to apply for a government-funded program for “second careers.” However, after starting an 12-month program in software development (in September of 2009), I found out that I was not eligible for the funding. I thus had to borrow $16,000 more from my family in order to stay in the program, cover my tuition and living expenses, and so on. I did very well in the program (GPA of 3.97) and had a successful paid internship in the summer of 2010 that counted as part of my studies and which actually brought together aspects of musicology and information technology. However, because of my extreme level of education and experience in musicology, I have not been able to get much additional experience in IT or to find further, paid, full-time work in it (or in anything else). I’ve been independently developing a project in an area I call “Digital Public Music History & Culture,” but I have no idea if I’ll ever make any money from it.
Two-thirds of my things are now in a storage locker (paid for by my father), and I also no longer have a vehicle. I went through bankruptcy in 2009-10, but I still owe around $72,000, of which I owe $54,000 to my family. I have been on welfare since April of 2011. Since completing my Ph.D. almost nine years ago, I have only lived above the poverty line for 22 months, and I currently live well below it.