This post is by Honey Smith (pseudonym), a staff writer for the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly.
By the time I finished my PhD program in rhetoric and composition, I was geographically bound by my partner’s job — as an attorney, he made much more than an English professor ever would. None of the institutions of higher ed in the area where he was working happened to be hiring a tenure-track position in my subspecialty the first year I looked. I compromised by getting an alt-ac position managing graduate programs at a large state university in the town where my partner was working, and taking a year to revise my already-defended dissertation.
The thinking was that I wouldn’t have to deal with the uncertainty of life as an adjunct while attempting the job market again. Not only would I be guaranteed a steady paycheck, I’d have the same retirement benefits and health insurance as faculty at the university where I was working. I’d be underpaid of course (but aren’t many faculty, also?), but I’d be going on the market not just ABD, but having already successfully defended. Unfortunately, I was hired to manage those graduate programs in July 2008. Can you guess what happened next?
If you guessed the Great Recession, you guessed right. Mere weeks after I was hired, the university where I worked implemented a hiring freeze. Tenure-track searches around the country dried up, turning my academic job search into an exercise in futility. Next came furlough (read: a 10% pay cut). I had over $15,000 in credit card debt and just over $100,000 in student loan debt, and I was making less than $40,000 per year. Sometimes I cried at the grocery store because I didn’t know how I’d pay for food, and once I didn’t wash my hair for a month because I couldn’t afford shampoo. In desperation, I turned to personal finance blogs to help me gain some traction over my situation.
As a result of what I learned on those blogs, my partner and I moved from a three-bedroom house in the suburbs to a two-bedroom condo less than five miles from my job. I became a whiz with the slow-cooker and brought my lunch to work every day. I started couponing (though I never quite became an extreme couponer!) and buying generics. I put my student loans in forbearance for a year to focus on my credit card debt.
Four years later, my partner and I were married and my credit card debt was gone, though the needle on my student loan debt hadn’t really budged. There was that year of forbearance, and in addition I am on an extended graduated payment plan (I believe they stopped offering these around the time IBR plans became popular). This meant that while my payments would rise every two years over the course of a 25-year repayment, in the early years I was paying about $350 per month. This was not even enough to cover interest.
Just before my wedding, a favorite PF blog of mine called Get Rich Slowly announced that one of its writers was leaving the site. I emailed the blogger who ran it and asked if they were looking for a replacement. He allowed me to audition, and I was eventually offered the gig: two blog posts a month with an in-the-trenches, newbie-learning-the-ropes perspective. He told me I’d need to have a thick skin, and boy howdy was he right.
My post on how I accumulated my student loan debt got over 300 comments. Some comments from other student loan debtors commiserated with my situation or lauded my bravery in blogging about such a topic. However, the vast majority of The Interwebs seemed to agree that I was stupid, irresponsible, and selfish. While the blogging didn’t allow me to close the door on my debt, it did open a window into the world of side gigs. I started hustling, and between my day job and my expanding nights-and-weekends work writing web content, soon I was earning enough to give myself some breathing room.
By that time, however, I’d gone stale on the tenure-track job market. I’d let my research slide while focusing on writing that paid, and I hadn’t taught a class in years. That was fine with me, though. I had an alt-ac career I loved in a city that I no longer wanted to leave. Furlough was a thing of the past, and eventually I even got a modest raise.
Slowly, however, I realized that alt-ac life wasn’t a bed of roses. Despite a more than 30% increase in responsibilities, I only received two raises in seven years (and honestly one of them could barely be called a raise at just over $800/year!). The graduate students I worked with found my help invaluable, but I felt like the faculty in my department didn’t respect my expertise even though I was just as credentialed as they were. I applied for other positions on campus and used my performance evaluation to advocate for a promotion, but was getting nowhere.
So I started applying for jobs in the “real world” (not MTV). I was eventually offered a position editing search-engine optimized (SEO) content for professionals and small businesses. It paid almost 30% more than I had been making and I’d always thought of myself as a writer at heart, so I leapt at the chance. I’m still in the early stages of my new post-ac life, but not only is my compensation more aligned with my abilities, I’m part of a team and no longer ruled by the academic year. This means there are people who can cover for me if I go on vacation, and I’m no longer bound by things like application season, recruitment season, or fall welcome.
Now that I’m in the non-academic world, I find it interesting that I was intimidated by it for so long. Having spent years cultivating an inferiority complex, I’m now surrounded by people who find my academic credential rare and impressive. My skill set is considered unique and valuable — and when I say valuable, I mean there’s an appropriate dollar amount associated with it! I’m finally starting to make rapid headway on my debt and I couldn’t be more excited for life as a post-ac.