Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post III

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.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post III — 73 Comments

  1. I have been reading this blog for the better part of the past academic year, and I am of course grateful for all of the extremely useful advice I’ve gleaned here. I truly appreciate your efforts to shed light on the economic struggles that many graduate students face in the current economy.

    However, something about these blogs strikes a sour note with me. They remind me of the New York Times articles bemoaning the recession by focusing on the [oh-so-tragic] plight of formerly upper/middle class white folks. It just seems like everyone you have writing identifies as lower/middle class, and yet somehow, mysteriously, has family members who can loan them enormous sums of money. I’m sure this rankles their pride, but for someone who has struggled to support herself as well as aging family members, who can — at best — lend emotional capital, it’s a bit difficult for me to relate to this. Are people like me less relatable, because we maybe grew up on welfare? So it’s not that surprising? Is anyone else annoyed by this?

    • Two of my grandparents (one a former, rural carpenter who never went to high school and one the wife of a former farmer, neither of whom went to high school) did have some money they could loan me, but those amounts are included in what I now still owe my parents ($54,000). As for whether I myself grew up working-class, I know that my parents’ combined annual income in 1995 was only $35,000, and that amount would not have increased much in the following fifteen years, after which my father became semi-retired from the parts desk of the farm implement dealership where he worked for forty years.

  2. I agree with J. This seems like people who have means making bad decisions. Unlike this poster, I have no financial safety net (my entire family is financially unstable and my extended family does not have extra money to give anyone), so I wouldn’t dream of racking up debt. I took time off from school and waited tables while living as simply as possible to save money. I only went to grad school because I got into an excellent program with great funding (as my undergraduate professors advised me). What sort of illusions do people have about getting a Ph.D.? Why would anyone in such an unsure career path rely on any form of loans or credit? Even if people don’t know how horrible the academic job market is, I don’t think that anyone has great enough expectations that they would take out the same amount of money as someone does to go through law school or med school (obviously we won’t make enough money to compensate!). It’s such a huge risk! Just type “Simpsons graduate students youtube” into Google and you will find plenty of mockery of academics as a career path. I don’t think anyone considers academics a secure financial path, and poverty in academia is at this point an old story.

    I think these conversations have the adverse effect because they do not highlight the important issue, the problem of the institutions behind these stories, and so they simply look like people are complaining about bad decisions that they make (which is obviously not the entire story). People with education need to be compensated properly. Adjuncts need higher pay and benefits. Universities should feel a responsibility for their educators and their well-being, not simply the students paying tuition or the researchers bringing in grants.

  3. I agree with the commenters above that the decisions made were not the best, but I think these stories serve a valuable purpose. I am one of the many PhDs who refuse to take on debt and as a result I now have to leave the profession, because I can’t afford to move around for post-docs or VAPs or adjunct jobs. (I also cannot fathom having a relative with $30,000 to spare!) These stories remind me that despite the cult-like protests of my department — who insist I must sacrifice and soldier on — I am making the right move by leaving. In a pay-to-play system, you pay to lose.

    • Thank you for explaining. I am sorry that you have to make such a difficult decision – one that I might be making a year or two down the road. I hope that if I have to make that decision too, I can say that this time now has been well-spent because I got to do something amazing. I got to study what I love. I got to pursue interesting ideas and be a part of worth-while dialogues. Maybe that is what makes people in academia pursue it even when it doesn’t make sense financially – but, then the rhetoric behind the Ph.D. Poverty series doesn’t really account for this. I am interested in hearing more about people’s attitudes who have left academia. Do they regret their time spent pursuing a degree that they do not use in terms of a career? Was it worthwhile anyways?

      An added note: I did not intend to start an I-have-it-worse conversation, because I think I am in a great position and that not having a safety net has forced me to make wise decisions. I do not think I have it worse at all.

  4. i dont know that the out-trumping of hardship route is fruitful. everyone is prepared to produce a litany of hardships in this (GLOBAL) economy. im thankful i live in a country where minimal food access is even temporarily subsidizable. i talk to people who have been homeless, and apparently, it isnt the worst thing. we also live in a country where water that is not infected with cholera is publicly available. the nation is in debt; i dont see why northern/western-country citizens shouldnt become very comfortable with acknowledging the fact that WE are in the red and working their best to *TRY TRY TRY* to be a worthwhile investment. i love these blog posts because i love not-feeling-alone, and id hate to be annoyed by *ANYONE’S* expression of frustration/sadness/difficulty as that person honestly admits a personal experience of struggle. have-nots can be embroiled with envy at what they do not have access to, or *we* can be unified in a greater commitment, which is far more difficult, to the evolving ethos of *resisting despair* as we *honestly* acknowledge our own personal struggles. i am thankful that there is this place on the internet where people can discuss their disillusionment with how their efforts and expectations have circumstantially failed.

  5. I feel really conflicted about this. I agree with the first two posts. I certainly didn’t have relatives that could help me out with $100, let alone $30,000 and I too grew up on welfare. That said, I don’t think it’s fair to get into a “my plight was worse than yours” conversation. I had to work several jobs during grad school–in addition to the funding my department gave me, but I was fortunate that the field I am in made me more marketable in the non-academic field. I recognize that and won’t tell others “well just get a job!” Plus, I think an important point of these posts go back to the fact that programs are accepting too many students and producing too many PhDs while at the same time, failing to prepare them adequately to get a tenure-track position. In addition, most mentors are not clear enough about how difficult it is to get a job. I know when I started grad school I was very naive and, given that I was a first generation college student, I figured education = job…right?

    I feel conflicted with these feelings because I also think that the old argument of “this is what grad school/academia is like…deal with it” is unfair. The bottom line is that academics are often not paid for the work they are doing. That is not ok and I don’t care if it is the norm.

  6. I agree and disagree with the commentators. Agree that the original poster made bad financial decisions in incurring so much graduate school debt, only to compound the bad decisions by incurring more debt chasing one part-time job after the next, then leaving academia altogether and making yet more bad financial decisions by paying for a job training program that didn’t lead to a job. If she had taken a bottom-level job at Starbucks after leaving her Ph.D. institution, she would have earned enough in three or so years to pay off the $45,000 in debt incurred through paragraph 3 and by now would have worked her way up to manager, found a position in her field, or found satisfying work in another field altogether. That she is so far in debt and living on welfare is tragic.

    I disagree with S. that “People with education need to be compensated properly,” because what constitutes relevant education and properly compensation is totally subjective and arbitrary. The job is what it is and if the pay isn’t sufficient, you’re free to find another line of work. The problem here seems to be that the poster lacked credible information as to what sort of prospects she could expect in her field of choice. Universities continue to enroll students in Ph.D. programs well in excess of the number of available positions and professors are totally oblivious to the financial concerns of those who don’t get a TT position since they are in the privileged few who have. I say give people the information. If they still make bad decisions, then it’s on them.

    • What Starbucks do you go to? I’d love to know. Not one single Starbucks employee I have ever met has been able to save up $45,000 on three years.

    • My field notoriously keeps no records whatsoever of employment success, because almost no-one wants to know. I am one of the few people who has crunched the numbers, using a dissertation web database that I redesigned in 2010, info from a relevant wiki, and Google searches into where people have ended up. (I mainly researched Ph.D.s from the year 2006.) Even though my own advisor insists that pretty much everyone in my program (around the time I was in it) has gotten a tenure-track position, that is just patently absurd. The TT employment rate may be somewhat higher from my program (which was/is near the top in the US) than the average, but the reality for my field as a whole is more like 20-30%. No-one prepared me for anything other than an academic career (everything else was always part-time, and at best it has remained so for me) or even once suggested that a non-academic career was a possible–let alone necessary–outcome. So, it’s not “on me.” It’s on them!

    • I’m the original poster. I have tried to find another line of work, even leveraging my earlier extensive use of computers by studying software development in 2009-10, getting a GPA in that program of 3.97, and lining up a follow-up paid internship developing web-related materials at the office of a musicology society.

      Yes, I’ve taken temporary and part-time jobs in my field (as well as vaguely related part-time things in reference-entry writing, admin assistance, and performing), but that’s because that’s all there was. It’s very difficult for anyone outside of academia to believe that we would find it acceptable to stick with any other kind of job. I’ve compounded that, though, by continuing to publish articles and book chapters, present conference papers and invited talks, and so on (i.e., usually without a full-time job), and I have also recently worked on a project to combine my academic background with my upgraded IT knowledge.

      In retrospect, it’s perfectly obvious that my program never gave me (or anyone) anything even approaching a reasonable amount of information about how likely it really is to get a job in my field. I’ve crunched the numbers for 2006 for the field as a whole, and really only around 20-30% of its Ph.D.s ever get tenure-track positions.

    • Wait, let’s take a moment to explore our implicit gender biases here. Why are we assuming this person is a “she”? Are we assuming the author is a woman because our society conditions us to believe that women don’t know how to handle money, and therefore make “bad” decisions?

      (Did I miss a pronoun or something? Didn’t the author reveal himself as male in the comments? I’m still going to try to stick with gender-neutral pronouns below, since I haven’t had the chance to read all comments yet.)

      Also, please give me the address and phone number of this Starbucks, so that I can contact them about job openings. Though I’m not sure how a managerial position there will help me (another musicologist) or the author get a TT job teaching a survey on Renaissance music or the late Romantic symphony. And please, please, fellow commentators, let’s stop lecturing this poor author, who has mustered the courage to share their story, about their so-called bad decisions. Unless of course we’ve received our PhDs from the School of Hard Knocks. While I am always wary of people who erroneously claim working-class or poor status, I have to concede that stuff is complex, and I know virtually nothing about the finances of this author’s immediate or extended family. It is quite possible that, although I too grew up on welfare, etc. etc., I have relatives who make considerable sums of money, but who are unwilling or reluctant to lend it to me. We don’t know what this author went through to convince their family to lend them money, or about any hardship their family might have endured to procure this money. At least we should be thankful that, in the midst of this sad tale, the author had a support system that they could count on in a crisis. And as for the “bad” decision-making, let us all remember that one thing poor and working-class people don’t always have the luxury of learning is financial planning, or how to truly escape the the financial instability of their youth. If you’ve grown up living pay-check to pay-check, moving from apartment to apartment, town to town, how to save, let alone invest? Also, I know from personal experience that it’s also hard to accept that you deserve better than the life you grew up with, and are so used to accepting hardship that you never question authority, never protest, never stand up for yourself in the way that middle class/affluent people are often taught to. In short, we should consider how much this thinking may have (unconsciously?) informed the author’s decisions. But I will let the author speak for themselves on this point.

      Finally, sh%t happens. People lose their jobs. People have to have to make split-second decisions that help them survive today, but hurt them tomorrow. I must confess that I’ve only revisited this page now, after my company unexpectedly laid off most of its employees last Friday evening and told us not to return to work on Monday (they couldn’t afford to keep us because of dwindling sales and health issues). I’m glad these posts exist, so that we may share our experiences, and hopefully, problem-solve. They are depressing, yes, but empowering, too, because they unite us, and inspire us to take public action.

  7. Yeah- I don’t think that the “my worst is worse than yours” helps anything. One thing that this series does do is highlight that there often isn’t good advising about the fact that a lot of us won’t get jobs. Often our advisors eschew jobs outside of the Academe, so we aren’t prepared to do anything else with our shiny PhDs. This would be a travesty alone, but many students took on loan debt because they thought they would have a job in the end. That the debt was “an investment in your future.”. The best thing advisors can do is help their students acquire skills that are useful outside of the Ivory Tower. You can take the skills learned in a quantitative PHD and put them to use consulting, or in NGOs or government. Either that or dramatically cut back on how many are admitted every year.

  8. This last guest post just seems like a series of poor choices. Why  o external funding during their graduate/ABD career? It has been made abundantly clear to me by my advisers that securing good external funding (Fulbright, Fulbright-Hays, Mellon ACLS, Kress, etc.) while in grad school is essential for the job hunt because it shows your dedication to research and your ability to get grants. Teaching doesn’t get you jobs, research and publishing in peer-reviewed journals and good academic presses does. It seems this writer kept taking small teaching jobs to pay immediate costs, but did not consider the long term implications of those decisions. Short term need trumped long term goals. Teaching eats up a lot of time and energy, so does applying for external big money funding but getting funding has a better payoff – on multiple levels. Strategy is also important, which from the details of this blog entry (borrowing lots of money from family, moving constantly for temp jobs, and then changing career directions) suggests there was no strategy behind getting a job which lead to their current situation.

    I wouldn’t blame a middle class financial safety net. I would blame poor advising and a lack of strategic planning.

    • I’m the original poster. There are incredibly few external funding sources in my field, both for completing one’s Ph.D. and then for post-docs. Almost no-one gets a post-doc. I actually had very good doctoral funding: TAships and RAships, fee waivers, a prestigious teaching fellowship and a dissertation fellowship in my last year there, etc.). Most of my debt was accrued after my doctoral studies, because I tried to stay “in the game,” but without a continuing, full-time job.

  9. J and S – this issue is important because the people who are privileged enough to make mistakes are supposed to be the people teaching and doing research – the jobs that make a modern democracy possible.

    I understand resentment. I came from a working-class background, with a machinist/carpenter father and a secretary mother. Nothing makes me more resentful than the stories of people who make foolish decisions on someone else’s money and then complain. But that’s not what these stories of PhD poverty are about. These stories ARE about a dysfunctional system full of dysfunctional institutions that make it impossible to survive. Everybody makes mistakes, but getting a higher education shouldn’t be one of them.

  10. I agree with the first two posts- I felt a similar mix of sympathy and annoyance. I don’t read their respective comments as saying “I have it worse than you!” but instead as pointing out that many graduate students seem to live in a bubble, perhaps due to their economic privilege. I guess these stories make me bristle a bit because they air our collective dirty laundry. While I was getting my PhD, I constantly felt like I had to prove to people in my community that I was an adult, and that what I do is “work”. As a very practically-minded person from a working class background, I was very sensitive about the stereotypes about people that go into academia: that we are privileged, impractical and naive about the real world. I hate to say it, but part of me thinks these same judgmental thoughts about “academic elites” when I read these stories.

    That said, I think these stories are important for the public record. They remind me, in some way, of the stories we were hearing a few years ago in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis. On the one hand, the clear culprit was the financial industry and their predatory lending, and the victims were homeowners that were sold a false promise about their future. Of course, some of the individual stories made you want to slap yourself in the forehead and say “what were you THINKING taking on that mortgage!?” For me, the point of telling these stories is not to make the victims into heroes, nor to put the blame entirely on them, but to see all the misunderstandings and misinformation that leads people into such terrible circumstances.

  11. To clarify, I was not attempting to dismiss the experiences of others or say that I have it worse than anyone in particular. My point, simply, is that I feel that when a certain kind of person (and it is always a certain kind of person) gets to monopolize the conversation about economic hardship, it means that other stories aren’t being told. Again, I take extreme umbrage at the original Chronicle of Higher Ed story that prompted this series, which begins with a blonde, white woman proclaiming (without any type of critical analysis, whatsoever) “I am not a welfare queen.”

    I understand the systemic issues that have created this reality. I have had no choice but to understand them. I never assumed that “the system”, or any system, was designed for my success and thus have been hustling double-time since I made it into undergrad. I know that there is a structural issue here.

    Quite simply, I just wish that those of us who are always already assumed to be “welfare queens” got to speak about this structural issue in any kind of mainstream forum.

  12. I think there is certainly something to what many of the commenters are saying, but I would cast it in a different light. Academia self-selects those who have resources like this from which they can draw financially, and often self-eliminates those who can’t. For example, unlike the original writer, I don’t have anybody in my family who could even begin to loan me that much cash, which means that if staying in academia required that kind of outlay, I’d have to leave. (That said, I’m sitting on more credit card debt than I’m comfortable with, much of which is tied to moving expenses from one move and other costs associated with the relatively well-paying adjunct position I now hold.) We need to think more broadly about what it means that staying in this career often requires the kind of financial resources that most people don’t have. (Here I’m thinking along the lines of William Pannapacker’s famous columns in which he says only independently wealthy people should go to grad school.) An academy that is virtually impenetrable to working class/lower middle class students can’t be a good thing.

    Moreover, I think if we shift focus away from the money this person had to borrow, something else shifts into view: academia is structured in such a way that we are encouraged (indeed virtually coerced) to move from low-paying gig to low-paying gig while we wait for the all-important tenure-track position to materialize. If we aren’t willing to make these sacrifices, we’re told we aren’t serious enough. We don’t love it enough. If we leave, we have to be prepared to never come back. (Even practicalities like a few years with no JSTOR access can be detrimental to research competitiveness.) So while I would probably not make the choices this person has made, I think that these choices were possible (and somewhat common?) is a problem, one that would force people in similar circumstances but with fewer financial resources to draw on out of the profession.

    • thefrogprincess–what an excellent comment. There are huge structural disadvantages that those who are not already priviledged face in academia. Few of the graduate students I have known have not had some degree of familial financial support. And, as you touched upon, the system also favors those who are geographically mobile–such as those who are childless, spouseless, or partnered to someone without particular career ambitions of their own. Also, the added years of unstable work conditions post-degree (adjuncting or even post-docs) mean that this is an especially difficult career path for women who want to have children or anyone with any sort of dependents.

      I think the issue isn’t debt or poverty among PhDs per se, since taking on debt is going to be a personal choice that varies by circumstances, and even those who do not take on debt face the opportunity cost of lost years of potentially climbing the ladder in another industry. It’s that the shifting job structure has made it difficult for those without means to obtain a foothold in academia (without debt, especially). Further, even those with means are expected to make sacrifices in their personal lives that few other professions require so ubiquitously. I agree with thefrogprincess that the entry cost to academia is probably forcing out a lot of talented people (without necessarily preparing them for private sector employment!), and that’s a shame.

    • I’m the original poster: I still owe that $54,000 to my family (and I’m on welfare), so I’m not sure if it’s completely obvious that I had “resources,” exactly. Temporary resources, I guess.

  13. I am also in the musical field. This field needs a lot of discipline and effort (daily practice) and almost requires that you start your preparation by middle school. By the time you are good enough to be in grad school, you are already in the field for the majority of your life. It’s hard for people outside of the performing arts to know how much the discipline intertwines with one’s identity. It’s true that musicology is a major that people later choose AFTER they have been a musician for some time. I need to point out that musicology is arguably the most employable major in music. Every single university and college offers multiple courses in music history and music appreciation, whether it has a music department or not. The problem is that many institutions choose to hire temp or adjunct instructors instead of hiring tenure-track professors. This is the reality.

    Oh, and in case you are mistaken, there are very few “external grants” in music. There might be some project-oriented small grants that are extremely competitive, but one should never expect the same kind of academic culture as what you see in science. Nope, not in music.

    • I’m the original poster: It was someone else who suggested the possibility of external grants, etc. (such as post-docs), and I have already replied to that person that in musicology there are incredibly few such things.

  14. In regards to what KLB said, there is a LOT of bad advising that goes on, even at R1 institutions. There are a LOT of PhDs coming out of our program that were never advised to try to get external funding before we graduate. By the time I realized that I really needed it to be competitive, I was well into dissertating and my advisor didn’t think it a worthwhile path.

    Further, some PhD programs (such as the one I did) largely fund their grad students with teaching money. Which means heavy teaching assistant duties for graduate students-often multiple classes during most of their time as graduate students.

    So these departments chug along, enrolling cohorts that are largely funded with teaching assistantships and turning out PhDs who aren’t competitive, because their vitas are full of teaching experience and teaching isn’t valued like research is. So then these PhDs take the only jobs they can get, doing, yeah, you guessed it, teaching, which dont pay as well.

  15. Come on folks. Many of these comments are suffering from a massive case of the . Because this person’s family had been able to get ahead enough to afford to loan them money, they must deserve what they get on the academic job market? Because this person didn’t apply for enough external funding and instead worked teaching jobs to make ends meet, they must deserve what they get? That kind of judgement shows a lack of understanding of how structural factors compound the disadvantages faced by folks with limited economic resources. How do we know that this person didn’t apply for external funding? Some commentators have claimed this person borrowed too much, while others claim this person worked to support themselves too much. The reality is, the stress of constant financial uncertainty can make planning and following through on those plans difficult or impossible. Many times I have heard people argue that successful grant writers need to spend months carefully crafting each grant application. But if you are working two jobs to support yourself/your family, it is unlikely that you will have sufficient time to craft those applications in the way you would like. Even if you start graduate school with no intention of going into further debt, unexpected things may happen. The illness of a parent, child, or spouse could mean a sudden loss of free time and income. In principle, if such things happen, maybe you should quit graduate school. But in the recent economic climate, quitting might equal a long period of unemployment. Joe commented that this person should have simply applied for jobs at Starbucks. Maybe other people have had more luck, but I have tried applying for “unskilled” jobs. In my experience, employers are unlikely to take a risk on someone an advanced degree because they know that this person will be looking for something better. I guess one could try to fabricate a false resume with lots of food service work experience? Covering up my degrees leaves a conspicuous gap in my resume, unless I fabricate. It is easy in hindsight to say well ‘I would have done this’ or ‘I would have done that’, but in the moment, the best path forward is usually not so clear.

    • I’m the original poster: My welfare case worker is forcing me to take a five-day workshop next week for me to try and figure out precisely how I’m going to be able to land unskilled job in a short amount of time and get off of welfare. I have no idea how that’s going to work, because my part-time jobs, etc. have almost always still been music-related (though sometimes more admin assistant, IT-related, or performing oriented than academic). I’ve tried to get full-time office jobs, IT jobs, etc., but no-one believes that I would stick with it long enough for them to bother hiring me in the first place.

  16. It seems to me we’re missing the forest for the trees. In any setting, not just academia, we can find people who’ve made questionable financial decisions. But putting together all the academics who’ve made such decisions doesn’t take us to where we are now: a job market in which 7 out of 10 jobs pay little and offer no job security–and that’s after we’ve suffered through years of lost wages while we’re in grad school.

    As one commenter noted, we can graduate without enough money to accept a higher paying job, as taking that job would require us to make an expensive move to another part of the country. Some jobs even want you to pay to fly out for the interview—maybe they’ll reimburse you, but you’d better have money set aside to pay the bills while you wait. Even if we got good career advice while in grad school, how many of us were told we’d graduate too poor to take a job? My fixed-term job required a move out of the country, and even with a generous moving allowance, I still had to borrow money to make the move. And while I’m here, I have to save or else I’ll never be able to pay for the return trip home.

    In hindsight, we would all do things differently, but let’s remember that the rules changed on us a few years ago. Suddenly, the market shifted, forcing applicants to have many more publications and research awards than in previous years if they were to have any hope of their applications rising to near the top of the sky-high pile. Tenure-track jobs pretty much vanished in many fields, leaving a lot of people wondering what to do.

    We need to be smarter about our finances, but if we were really so profit-oriented, would we really get a PhD in the humanities or social sciences in the first place?

    I’m growing increasingly pessimistic that academia in the US has any future at all. If we don’t fund it and instead we force future scholars to either have sugar daddies or go deep in debt, then we’re screwed. I feel like when I got my diploma, I really bought a ticket on the Titanic.

    This reminds me of Vicki Smith’s research on unemployed workers who, despite knowing that their unemployment was caused by bigger economic forces, still blame themselves for being out of work. We look for work individually, and so when we can’t find it, we blame ourselves.

    • An excellent point – daily I blame my own stupidity and incompetence for my underemployment, then turn around and blame the broken system. Nothing is done to change the broken system because our culture, for the most part, is fixated on the idea of personal responsibility – if you’re unsuccessful, it’s your fault. But whatever my mistakes have been, my personal mistakes do not account for the failures of the institutions to provide living wages and fair treatment.

      • I’m not sure that it is unfair treatment as much as it is a lack of education. At least while I’ve been in grad school I’ve made enough money to keep fed and sheltered. Most stipends attached to assistantships are enough to handle that. And many graduate schools provide or subsidize health care (as a group grad students are cheap…). And the model would work well enough if it was as advertised (Work your butt off now for peanuts and then when you graduate slide into a lucrative salary scale which will become a six figure income after 10-15 years or so.) But nobody tells you that most PhD’s end up as adjunct professors (or worse) and making less than they did in graduate school on assistantship.

        In a large sense, I think that the problem is the professors. Especially those at the big R1’s. Seriously, nobody outside your department cares about your research. And your students are furious that you can pull down that much money and be such a lousy teacher. Sure, being a leader in your field is great. Prestige is cool too. But when my son starts looking at colleges, I’m going to steer him to a SLAC or a MC, where they actually teach their students.

  17. Reading these posts is very humbling for me, and makes me feel like I’m one of the lucky ones, even though I feel like I mortaged my soul. I truly feel that academia is meant for the very privileged, and I think about how I’ve struggled to survive, even with the privilege of coming from a lower-middle class background. I accrued $30K in debt from undergrad, then went another $70K in grad school. I’ve moved 3 times in the past 4 years (for a postdoc, then a visiting position, and finally now for a tenure track job (yes!), which is one of the main reasons why I have about $20K in credit card debt. I finally have a tenure track job at a small public college in New England. Although I don’t like the small town that I live in, I feel fortunate to have job security, a paycheck, and relatively close proximity (a few hours away) from major northeastern cities. I didn’t imagine this would be my path when I entered grad school (at a very prestigious program at an R1), and I had no idea of the kinds of sacrifices I would have to make. I wish that I had been better prepared by my advisors.

  18. At first when I read this post I thought of the author as something of a poor planner and fiscally irresponsible. However, reflecting on my own situation, the reason I am not in so deep a hole is because (1) I have competed and received funding each year (it has been good funding even though it hasn’t been guaranteed) and (2) my wife works full time at a good (and fulfilling) job with fairly decent pay. Though we don’t live an extravagant life, and the budget is very tight, we aren’t on the brink of financial destruction. If I didn’t have my talented and accomplished wife (who earned her own impressive degrees snd credentials while working full time) keeping us secure, I’m not sure how I’d be able to survive in grad school. If we thought of it as a “lending” sort of situation, I “owe” my wife far more than this poster owes her (?) family members. Of course, I do hope that some day I might find a position that reduces the pressure on my wife to produce income at least a little bit . . . and in that way start to repay my very significant debt to her. So, without guaranteed funding and relying on a family member to survive (my wife), am I any better or just profoundly lucky?

    • P, profoundly lucky, and disarmingly grateful. I understand your feeling of debt to your wife. For my part, I promised my wife our struggle would only be short-term. That’s over five years ago. Every day I regret making those promises.

    • You shed light on an important issue here-basically academia is a two person job. The musicologist seems to be doing this all by herself and that makes a BIG difference.

    • I’m the original poster. The stable relationship factor is huge, and I’m glad that someone has admitted its existence. I am indeed trying to cope with all of this (debt, bankruptcy, welfare, etc.) completely on my own. Perhaps graduate departments should offer dating seminars!

  19. I am lately preoccupied with this thought: My parents grew up in the Depression. They went to college only because they got scholarships (my dad got the GI Bill), and both gave up on career dreams to get jobs after college that paid the bills, fast. When I think about later, postwar generations that grew up in relative abundance, many of us in the middle class grew up feeling entitled to “follow our dreams,” regardless of the cost. That was a choice underwritten/sponsored/subsidized by the general economic abundance of our society not to mention the sacrifices of our parents (my parents could not fathom that I got a BA in Japanese cultural studies let alone a Ph.D., but grudgingly funded the first, and skeptically contemplated the second when it was fully funded by mysterious –to them–sources). Now that the abundance has been stolen by the 1%, the people who followed the dream of scholarly inquiry and the Ph.D., who don’t have access to other capital through family or personal relationships, are in the structural equivalent to my parents’ position in the Depression, but with massive debt fueled by the expectations of the intervening historical era. It’s hard to articulate this–it’s mostly inchoate thoughts—but it’s like we have gone back in time to the Robber Barons, with the young people and their debt symbolizing the lost prosperity and promises of the postwar middle class.

    • I feel like the “abundance” is more about a differing philosophy about life and money, especially debt. People used to buy cars with cash. People used to own their houses rather than having a mortgage. If they couldn’t pay for it now, they would wait until they had saved up. They did this because in the Depression, if they had debt, they were at the mercy of their debtors. The things that they owned, they got to keep when the going got bad. I think that as parents, we tend to shelter our children from the hardships that we had in an effort to give them a “better” life. An unfortunate consequence of this is that we can often forget the lessons of the previous generation(s). I think that we forget that our identities and our abilities are often forged by our struggles. It is too easy to blame other people or a nameless 1%, rather than our own lack of direction, focus, or discipline.

  20. I want to attempt to clarify my point just one more time, since the subsequent responses have, I feel, not addressed my critique.

    I am not demonizing any individual for the choices that they make or the resources that they have. What I am instead doing is calling attention to the fact that the chosen representatives of the experience of poverty in academia simply reinforce tacit assumptions about who has what kind of birthright to what kind of class identity and experience. Poverty is shocking for people who, as Karen just mentioned in her comment, have particular, historically-constructed expectations for better. My grandfather, too, served during World War II, but as most of you know, the GI Bill was administered in an extremely racist way. Not all who served received equal benefits, and the middle class that the GI Bill created had very particular racial dynamics.

    Karen, I agree with your broad generational perspective, but I think that it speaks to a particular, largely white experience.

    My irritation with these posts (and, as I mentioned, the Chronicle article that prompted them and the similar sorts of articles in the New York Times) is that structural issues *only* seem to matter when they impact those who have previously benefited greatly from structural inequities. I am not a unicorn, but I can’t help but feel that these narratives render me — and many others who come from similar backgrounds — invisible.

    • J, I’ve observed that those who are struggling the most are not the ones who started out with privilege (except perhaps insofar as whiteness itself is a privilege), but the ones who were seeking it. People I grew up with who were privileged (in the sense of middle or higher-class whites) did not go into higher education – they went into finance, or medicine, or law, and they’re doing fine. The people I know who were fools enough to go into education were people like me – lower and working-class white people with overdeveloped sense of civic and personal responsibility, who believed they had a duty to make some positive mark in the world, and who were taught and believed (from parents who worked jobs that wore out their bodies or treated them as insignificant) that education was the path to a better life. And we’re the ones who are easy to take advantage of with cynical pleas to our love for our discipline or responsibility to our students – easy enough to take sub-minimum-wage pay for work that we believe in.

      Maybe I’m naive, or unique, but my personal experience is the reason I take exception to your comments. White privilege is real, but it ain’t nothing compared to class privilege.

      • Gabe: It’s not one or the other, clearly. Some have both, some have just one, and some — like me — have neither. There’s no denying that the phenomenon Karen mentioned about the GI Bill and intergenerational class mobility in the U.S. is largely a white history. That doesn’t mean *only* whites, and it doesn’t mean *all* whites, obviously.

        Did you read the original Chronicle article? The woman said, explicitly, “I am not a welfare queen.” You know what she meant, I know what she meant, we all know what she meant. I hate the fact that people who look like me get to be the unquestioned absent referent in all of these stories. It’s like when people make comments about some place “looking like a third world country” without stopping to interrogate all of the assumptions in there.

        I feel you on the relationship between class background and a sense of civic responsibility. My point, again, is that when all of the people who get to speak for the experience of poverty in academia also get to draw from substantial family resources, it makes those of us (including, it seems, you) who do not have this particular privilege invisible. This is the first problem: our invisibility. But if you, like me, are not white, you get to be both invisible and the boogeyman (“welfare queen”). Does that make sense?

        • It absolutely makes sense. Thank you for tackling the whole line of thinking in this story. I grow tired of doing so. But I could not agree more. The very expectation that one’s degree would be rewarded on the labor market is, to me, a form a privilege that I have never had. Unfortunately my entire lived experience is one marked by structural limitations of my aspirations no matter how credentialed or qualified I am. And then to have the stories about the structural changes in the labor and education markets simultaneously erase my history of just such structural limitations while simultaneously wanting to challenge those changes is both frustrating and odd.


          • Would it be fair to summarize this feeling as, “yeah, welcome to the party (white middle class people)”?

          • by the way, this is genuine, not snarky. not sure if it might look snarky in writing.

          • Not to speak for anyone but myself, Karen, but I don’t feel this way. That’s the kind of glib line that you often see in representations of Black culture written by white folks, I think. I don’t have a sense that we ever are or will be at the same “party,” given the multi-generational differences in wealthy and mobility between us. For all of the hand-wringing about having to move back in with parents, for myself and others like me, it seems a virtually unimaginable privilege to know that your folks have secure housing. For some of us,the help we can send back home is all that stands between parents and eviction. These are very real differences, and while I apologize those who feel that me giving voice to this is divisive, I just feel like it is a perspective that gets silenced the more these middle-class tales of woe are highlighted.

          • I totally hear you. My question though, is, what is stopping you from contributing your own story so that your experience is better represented? I am still sincere and not snarky, but I want to know why you stop at critiquing the white narrative for not representing your own/taking up too much space, rather than mobilizing your story to reveal just how race and class-privileged the white middle class tales of woe are. This forum is open to any story that shows up in my inbox at; i haven’t solicited these from any particular person or group. I know for myself, I would greatly value hearing what the Ph.D. debt/poverty experience looks like from your standpoint and think the entire discourse/debate would be altered by its inclusion.

        • Totally with you, J. My wife and I complained when we read the Chronicle story that it was going to go a long way toward distracting readers from the real issues – that it was likely to hurt any argument about adjunct rights or the structural failings of higher ed. It manages to reinforce every stereotype about underemployed PhDs while also reinforcing every stereotype about people “living on the system.” That’s why we need to get the conversation out of who’s worse off and into how to combat the system that makes you an invisible bogeyman. Me too – when was the last time you saw poor white rednecks depicted positively in the media? No matter how much education I have, my perpetual inability to pronounce “library” marks me.

      • people with overdeveloped sense of civic and personal responsibility, who believed they had a duty to make some positive mark in the world

        Are you suggesting that everything outside of academia does not make “some positive mark in the world?” Because I would rather not live in a world where there are no doctors or lawyers or engineers or coffee shops or clothing designers or construction workers or advertisers.

    • J, thanks for these comments and reminders. I offered my ‘inchoate thoughts’ knowing that they were not really ready for prime time, and the racial blind spot is obviously one of the reasons why. I do actually want to tell the story of how the white middle class got a sense that they could do all these things, and make a critique about where that sense came from, and why those dreams are being foreclosed on and where the responsibility for that lies. And I also want to get exactly AT the point that this “crisis” is now being treated as a “crisis” because it’s the white middle class that is having its dreams and beliefs shattered. Which is not to say that those not from the white middle class are not also seeing their dreams and beliefs shattered. But the narratives read differently, and so do the critiques and the complaints and in particular, the responses (ie, the FB and Chronicle and blog comment threads).

      NBC Nightly News is calling me to get info on the adjunct crisis because this is WHITE people we’re talking about, people! OMG, white people are on welfare! Something has gone horribly wrong! That construction of crisis needs to be critiqued. And then the other stories of all those who do not start out with racial or class privilege clearly articulated and counterposed (is that a word?) to see how this mass destruction of opportunity plays out for different people who have supposedlyl equivalent educational attainments.

  21. One of the things I’ve found as a black graduate student from an immigrant/poor background is that while many of my white upper-middle class (often from academic families) colleagues understood that graduate school didn’t translate into economic stability—and indeed had the family resources to withstand any instability (and often fetishized poverty as a sign of their worth)—I was still very tied to the “education as a way out and up” narrative. One of the hardest things about graduate school was realizing this wasn’t the case, and then I grew angry at the way the field recruits. I still think that the academy trades, however unconsciously, on an upwardly mobile narrative, at least for those who aren’t in the know. And there’s no way to be in the know unless you’re from an academic family, b/c universities are brilliant at hiding from undergrads what the profession that surrounds them actually does.

    • This echoes something I’ve been thinking about as I read adjunct narratives here and elsewhere on the web, which is how often, as you say, the most devastated Ph.D.s are the ones who say, “I can’t believe I ended up here; I thought that the Ph.D. was the route to financial stability and success.”

      Everyone who is “in the know” understands that this is not the case, and is in fact the opposite of the case… but that understanding is simply never articulated or admitted to. It’s all part of the refusal of the members of the academic cult to talk openly about money at all, or to admit to being salaried workers/laborers whose labor has a valuation that is determined on a market, and not by some ineffable higher good.

      • Well, you’ve hit upon my other big shock: that unbeknownst to me, I’d signed up for the priesthood and could from the moment of entry into graduate school, no longer discuss issues of money: sunk opportunity costs, fair salaries, refusal to take on low-paying adjunct work. This all came as a shock to me, because I just assumed we all understood that our work had monetary value. I still don’t get the “doing this solely for the love” meme, which to me seems to validate the systematic devaluing of our work.

        • Without that “priesthood” model of academia as a vocation rather than a job, it’s hard to imagine institutions (the university, academic journals, grant and fellowship programs) supporting our commitment to researching things with little or no practical use and writing/publishing things nobody would pay to read.

          • And my response would be that those who are willing to accept academia as priesthood—with the requisite acceptance of embarrassing salaries (both adjunct and in many cases, tt) and the culture of silence around required to sustain these salaries and to keep this information from leaking out to prospective graduate students—are welcome to stay. But I see nothing gained from accepting the current priesthood status quo, which also incidentally contributes to the false ideas, as documented by Dr. Karen, about that academia is some noble escape from the viciousness of the real world.

            What I also always find is that whenever I specify to nonacademics what typical adjunct and asst prof salaries are, they are always flabbergasted and a little stunned that we put up with it. My approach, if it comes down to it, will be to vote with my feet. Things may not change, but I won’t be taken down financially by a misguided sense of loyalty to a profession that would leave me on the side of the road if a cheaper alternative walked past.

      • All through the grad school process — deciding to apply, choosing a program, doing coursework, writing a dissertation — I heard the refrain “A PhD in music history? that and $1.50 will get you coffee!” (This was 1990-96) I learned to anticipate it and add it as a tagline when anybody asked me “What do you do?” “I’m getting a PhD in music history. That and $1.50 will get me a cup of coffee!”

        I don’t know if grad school in the humanities was ever a linear path with a guaranteed well-paid and secure job at the end – but it hasn’t been that for decades.

        • You’re missing my point, Heather, which is that despite the realities of academic life, the closed nature of the academy, its general refusal to engage in meaningful discussion about money (which is tied to the priesthood model), and the fact that many/most (?) graduate students were taught in undergrad by professors at the higher end of the pay scale all mean that to outsiders, academia looks like a steady path. I repeat: I have yet to meet anyone not in academia who truly understands what an adjunct is (and who isn’t utterly stunned and horrified by the idea that universities are paying people 2-3k per course) or how dire the market is. These truths are hidden, purposely so (I’d argue).

          • Perhaps it is a question of when the graduate student goes from “outsider” to “insider” in her/his understanding of academic hierarchies and market realities.

  22. On the flip side, advisers and professors have no idea about sacrifices that graduate students have had to make, or even how much they make on their stipends. And this takes them back to the 1970s/1980s when they went to graduate school, when things were done very differently.

    I’m in a field that is fairly dependent on outside donors. Many faculty are in endowed positions. From my perspective as a graduate student, I just think, “They seem so comfortable.” I rightfully assumed that they were used to being privileged and not understand their graduate students’ lives.

    Yet, when I did talk about graduate funding with the senior female scholars, I saw the other side of their “cozy” lives and realized how, because of them, privileged I am today. Their experiences allowed me to understand how they advise graduate students on funding and money.

    In my particular field, women were not allowed to receive any kind of funding to study at the time. It was quite unheard of in the larger community for women to seriously study these topics. If it was any other topic or discipline, no big deal. So these senior scholars broke the “glass-ceiling.”

    Fortunately, like many other women at the time, they married young. Their husbands paid for their education. Some managed to get teaching work. Others inherited family money. From that standpoint, they accepted that kind of reality and expressed gratitude to their supportive spouses and families. The idea of women gaining any kind of funding to study these topics was so far-fetched. (to put in comparative picture, my undergraduate adviser in the same discipline was in a “high-demand” field so her graduate education was readily paid for by her department.)

    Fast forward to 2012. When I discussed my highly competitive funding packages with them (while weighing my decisions), they were absolutely shocked. TWO years of fellowships?! FIVE years of support?! They knew things had changed- female graduate students were now being funded, there’s greater equality. It was difficult for them to absorb the fact that they had to endure unequal treatment so that the next generation of female scholars like me could receive equal funding. Perhaps, it was our level of friendship that elicited their moments of epiphany and emotional reactions.

    Given what they had and looking at today’s seemingly wealthy graduate students, how can they best advise? What’s considered “good” investment? If able to find resources (so to speak), which conferences are worth it? Research trips? Where is the limit before one should “consider” leaving academia, simply because resources were drained and there was no additional productivity to be happening? And, oh, not to mention that student debt didn’t exist then and so there’s another layer of mystery there for them, if they’re aware that student debt DOES exist,- are their advisees in debt from previous degree(s)?

    With student loans these days, it will soon become increasingly difficult for graduate students to maintain above-poverty lifestyle, if they do choose to continue paying down while enrolled. Advisers need to be more cognizant of this possibility and work harder to find additional funding to help reduce the risk of the advisee going further into debt in the name of professionalization and job searches. I have just told my (new, mid-career) adviser, “No additional support, no research” while evaluating a potential grant source. Most young people, unfortunately, aren’t financially savvy and can’t see the long view the way that their advisers has the ability to do for them.

  23. I am grateful for this post. I am a graduate student in the same field as the guest poster. I also suspect that I have been working with some of the same professors/advisors. (Who make ~100k per year more than I do and could not possibly be further removed from my immediate financial concerns.)

    I have a relatively small amount of student debt (less than 12k, all subsidized), mostly from paying for books, housing fees, and insurance not covered by scholarships and too expensive to pay off with $8/hr work-study wages. None of the debt is from my PhD. I currently have a pretty small amount of savings, but I am working closely with a financial planner to try to grow this before I graduate.

    After reading this post, I am glad that I saw the writing on the wall early. While I am not exactly in a luxurious position (I’ve gotten used to not having cable, Starbucks lattes, or home internet access), I am a lot less screwed than other students in my program. Some of them will have easily six times the debt I will have and no savings whatsoever to work with. It makes me sick to think about the devastating situations some of them will be in even if they find a decent job. PhD poverty is real even for people who generally make good life choices.

    Something else that occurs to me as I think about this post is that financial benchmarks need to be a part of my five-year plan (which I recently spelled out in detail thanks to the advice of this blog). If I want to be applying for postdocs, well, then I also need to be ready to cover moving expenses in a responsible way at the time that I get one. I am also thinking toward how I might survive multiple years on the job market. I know I can’t possibly save enough to live off of during a long job search–my stipend barely covers my expenses now–but I can save enough to help supplement an even lower income if I get stuck in adjunct land.

    Dr. Karen’s advice has helped me to realize that I need to focus my time on “big ticket” CV items, but this apparently goes for money as well. No matter what my advisors tell me, I am henceforth DONE with sending abstracts to low-profile conferences that are not worth the $$ as a CV line item. This story, and the others like it, gives me some backup for when I need to be able to say “no.” I can’t expect sound financial advice from my academic advisors, but I can expect them to respect the decisions I make based on finances.

    • Elle, this all sounds wise to me. Looking back on grad school from with the perspective of 10 years (and having tenure, thanks to a lot of good fortune), I remember how angry I was that my professors were so out of touch with financial realities, at a school that funded only three years of Ph.D. work (you might know the one I’m speaking of). One advised me strongly against adjunct teaching because of the time it took away from my dissertation. I remember saying, “well, it’s true that it pays only slightly more per hour than McDonald’s, but would you prefer that I actually work at McDonald’s instead? You guys aren’t exactly funding me.”

  24. then I also need to be ready to cover moving expenses in a responsible way
    When you receive a job offer, you can always include moving expenses as part of your negotiation, before you accept the offer. Read the posts on negotiating an offer.

  25. It seems to me there are three issues being touched on here.
    (1) People are making important decisions about whether to get a Ph.D. based on inaccurate information, or a lack of information. This blog seems to be one of the few sources of good information about job prospects, and how much debt is sensible.
    (2) There is a two-tier class system in academia. Resources, prestige, and security go to the tenured. The nontenured mostly get the shaft. The chances of ending up stuck in the lower class are high. Tenured faculty tend not to be informed about what it is like not to make it to a tenured position, nor do they have a good sense of how likely such an outcome is.
    (3) Some postings emphasize the unfairness of the system and ask whether something could be done to change it.

    It seems to me that the misunderstanding of prospects for making a good living (point 1) are the same among prospective Ph.D.’s as among the population of the U.S. in general. We all need to find something that the economy will pay us to do, and we look for something that is a good fit with our interests, talents, and values. Often there are trade-offs. Do something that is less fun but pays better. Sadly, many/most of us in the U.S. are unaware of the possibilities and likelihoods. One bit of reading that I found thought-provoking on this topic was Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad/Poor Dad. His poor dad was a highly educated academic. His rich dad was a businessman who did not graduate from high school. I’m not saying his perspective is right, but rather, it is likely to be very different from that of most academics, and I thought it was worth reading. (Warning: There are parts of it that are likely to be very annoying. Nothing’s perfect.)

  26. I am a visual artist and have taught art in academia for 16 years. I have paid heavy dues to do this work because it is what I am and I must do it. Choice has nothing to do with it.

    I am often irked by the assumed entitlement among my colleagues in academia. I have seen committees hire candidates precisely because these colleagues are second generation professors. Somebody somewhere said it is supposed to be their birthright and presto-it was!

    Coming from my perspective, and I too have done food stamps, it is a little off putting that people are so scandalized to be in a situation that I have had to tolerate for my entire career.

    Art has always been a bear in or out of academia. Positions are few and far between and R1 institutions that pay a starting salary of 70K for an engineering position sometimes will only pony up $40 for art faculty.

    Welcome to the party. Buddy can you spare a dime?

    • a starting salary of 70K for an engineering position sometimes will only pony up $40 for art faculty.

      That’s because an engineer can find a job in the private sector that pays a lot more than $40,000 a year.

  27. “(1) People are making important decisions about whether to get a Ph.D. based on inaccurate information, or a lack of information. This blog seems to be one of the few sources of good information about job prospects, and how much debt is sensible.”

    There it is. I’ve got a Ph.D. in musicology. I’m six figures in debt too, after decent graduate funding, master’s degree, Ph.D. with lots of awards, and wife’s master’s degree. At no point in my education from a prestigious (but not Ivy) R1 did any faculty member ever remotely suggest that getting a job would be such a climb up a mountain. I went into excessive debt to “keep up.” The debt allowed me to study and write full time, do archival research, present at conferences, win some fairly major awards, and build a glorious CV. My peers, who went into less debt because they didn’t play the game as well, have much more pithy CVs than me. In the end, I think they win.

    With my great CV, my game-changing dissertation, my rack of honors/grants/awards, and my mountain of debt, I haven’t gotten a job. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. But at no time during my training were my advisors critical of my decisions. They assured me that I’d easily get a job, be able to repay my loans, and carve out a comfortable living for myself and my family. If your advisors are telling you these things, and your field does a bad job with placement-tracking, then you’re flying blind.

    The fact of the matter is that there are too many tenured professors out there whose CVs wouldn’t land them an interview in their own institutional search committees. They are out of touch with the market demands, with the financial cost of playing the game, and with the sheer amount of luck that it takes to be successful in academia. Bad advising put me where I am. Thank God I married someone outside the profession who has a real job.

  28. To DB
    I wonder if you are working with Karen on your CV, cover letters, an interviewing skills.
    I borrowed the money and it was the best investment I ever made.

  29. Pingback: Poverty in the Ivory Tower | Tenure, She Wrote

  30. I think more and more people realize that higher education in most cases is a government scheme to hide unemployment. Sadly, many people who enter a P.HD-program still don’t understand that they are part of it. Academically sound students are hired for P.HD-program for cheap labor, government funds and because they are required to. Only a few of them, the most brilliant or connected ones are heading for a permanent position after dissertation. It may be difference in United States but this is how it works in most western European countries. I have a double major BA and a MA degree in Public Policy – all from an “elite” university. When I graduated I had two impressive internships within my field, recommendation letters from very high government officials and a few fairly good administrative jobs in private industry on my resume.

    I looked for work for over a year. I applied for around 1000 positions and was able to be called for a few interviews if I don’t count a few telephone interviews. I did everything by the book: Talked to all my connections, visit seminaries for students and unemployed, joined non-profit organizations, cold called hundred of local, regional and government agencies, stretch my hand towards the private industry, applied for retail and fast-food jobs and used pretty much every strategy in the book. They all told me one thing: You lack experience or if it was something which not demanded a degree – you will not stay. One manager at a local government, which I called, was one of the few which were straight with me. He told me that if I had been a top student, no gaps in my resume (unemployment), had been a ranking member of a student union or major student organization (paid or not) and writing a thesis about what something close what he was doing and had other good merits (including the internships – which he was impressed by) on my resume I would at least be called to a last interview if they were hiring or hire me for a few months. He told me that around twenty to fifty unemployed college graduates call him every week just to “chat” – meaning they looks for a job. He told me that about half of them had better credentials than me and I was a so called “average seeker with a gold star”.

    I turned to the government service agency (which I had avoided because they take your pride away from you and you risk being trapped in their programs) and they told me I had to apply for a Mc-Job. I told them that I have already applied for all kind of fast-food jobs and low-key jobs within in retail but they wouldn’t hire me because of “little experience” of standing behind a cash registrar or just told me that I wouldn’t stay. I told them my story and of course – they did get to certain degree (even these people are socialized into believing the liberal myth of education is a tool for a employment) and told me that my chances of ever finding a job were pretty slim having a growing gap (around two years) in my resume and told me that I should leave the country. Many academics in my country (in northern Europe) are moving to Norway, Denmark and Australia which is still have opportunities for people with a college degree. The sad part is that the many governments (including US government) will continue to expand higher education and devaluate its value into nothing. It is the sad reality of what is going on here.

    Sad history, anyway..

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