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 will post them on Thursdays over the next month or so. 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.
Although not on welfare, I empathize and have said on more than one occasion, “I would rather be unemployed than work here.” I am contemplating quitting my job in the middle of nowhere, moving somewhere I want to live and looking for work when I get there. But the “always prepare” part of me prevents me from taking such drastic measures.
I got my PhD Renaissance Literature in 2006 from a “red brick” research university in the U.K. I received no job market training or advice throughout my studies. When I finished I was awarded a part-time post doctoral fellowship (9,000 pounds per year) and taught classes at two universities to make enough to live on. Every few months I had to ask my generous grandfather to lend me some money – that I promised to pay back when I got a full time job. This was embarrassing – I knew he would always say yes but I hated asking and always waited until the back account was in the overdraft allowance. I was lucky to have his support. I also received 35 British pounds per week from the government to supplement my income (called income support). He passed away shortly after I received my tt job offer after 2 ½ years on the job market. During those years the university where I worked hired a young academic eager to help people in my position. She helped me to edit my cover letter, and my C.V. and when I landed interviews she and her partner gave me mock interviews. I had seven interviews offered and I went to five of them. Two I cancelled because I was offered a tt job that I accepted (those two were for 2 year non-renewable positions).
My cohort has done terribly – I would say. One person has a great job at University-we-all-want-to-work-at; one went into community college teaching English as a second language; one works at a less-than-desirable-University; one went into university admin; one opted out and went into a fun art career; one became a stay-at-home mother; I work somewhere I hate with every fiber of my being; one married me and as a result is an adjunct in the middle of nowhere without any colleges nearby.
I always said I would get the PhD and I doubt that I would not do it if I was given the chance to go back in time. What I wish was in place – and should be in place – for every single PhD program is some career workshops that show us what we should be doing for that academic job AND what we can do for non-academic jobs. Whenever I decide “this is it, I am leaving academia,” I look at job adverts and begin to write cover letters for jobs I have no idea how to apply for. Universities should not have PhD programs to attract more students or to bring in more revenue. They should not be profitable in the way they are – there should be a component to the degree that is aimed at employability. There should be a Dr. Karen on every PhD program – or at least at every university that offers a PhD program. Candidates should be required to attend a workshop and meet with such a person to fulfill the requirements of the degree. Universities that aren’t willing to offer such support should not grant the degree.
My hope is that as a new generation of academics begins employment as full-time faculty, we will bring with us the wisdom learned from our experiences on the job market. I always hoped that one day I could give back to a graduate student in the way the young academic who helped me had but I have not been given that opportunity yet and I am not sure I will stick it out long enough to have that chance.