My Graduate School Debt and Post-Ac Life (A Guest Post)

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.

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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.


My Graduate School Debt and Post-Ac Life (A Guest Post) — 11 Comments

  1. Nice to see you posting on TPII, Honey. When I see people on GRS and other PF sites posting about grad school and post-grad school issues I always try to refer them here –there is indeed life after the Ph.D. and it doesn’t have to be limited to adjuncting and low-pay work. Glad your sideline work has developed so well for you — good luck with that and with paying off the debt!

  2. Oh, another poor soul victimized by 2008. I feel with you so much it hurts. I holed up in my place to write my thesis in early october 2008, by my defense in december, I emerged to a job market that could only be described as a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The only people that were being hired were people to fire other people! And it cost me years of academic “pseudo jobs”.

    I was lucky to get outside academia. Some of my friends are still locked in the endless 1-2 year position purgatory. Courtesy of 2008.

    But… no debt. I’m old school. If I cannot pay for it from my pocket, I don’t spend money on it. It’s just sad that students in the US are forced to take loans for their university studies.

  3. I really feel like the bigger problem is that there is no training or mentoring in graduate school on life after the thesis/dissertation. The traditional route has always been HS to undergrad to grad school and then to faculty position. Those that go through this route have no life/work experiences outside of school. Just like we don’t teach incoming undergrads how to be college students (i.e. successful students), we don’t teach grad students how to be working adults.

    I graduated from my masters program with no debt, worked for a year before starting a PhD program. My doctorate program had little funding for students, so I pounded the campus to find TA/RA positions and ended up working in many different departments unrelated to my doctorate. I got a TT position ABD and graduated once again with no debt. The difference might be because I worked for a significant number of years between my undergrad and graduate degrees. I had the street smarts to know how to network and find opportunities. I didn’t expect anyone to hand me anything. I also refused to take out loans for my degrees.

    While some of this comes from experience, I think much of what I did could be taught to new graduate students before they finish. Some of them might not be willing to work 7 days a week like I did during my masters, but it was a temporary situation. Now I am free to do pretty much whatever I want, where ever I choose to go. That is the real payoff.

  4. Dear Karen, to look at this more positively, what is the best way for an unemployed new humanities PhD to focus time and energy to boost job opportunities when and if they do arise? Is there a case for taking part-time non-academic work in preference to full time adjunct teaching or similar, if that leaves time and energy to submit journal articles, conference papers and prepare a book proposal? TT jobs in my field are unlikely to be available, now, until Sept 2016. Do I need academic affiliation?

  5. I have often come across stories of individuals who were compelled to seek alternative sources of earning in order to pay off student loans. Your story is no less inspiring!

  6. Hi karen,

    A very good post on the way people learn the truth about pursuing an academic path. However, there is one thing that I fail to understand. The author says that he was hired at a $40000 per yer but still is unable to pay the debt payments. How can this be? If his partner was also working he must be saving a lot of this portion of the paycheck.

    • $40K per year translates to about $32K after taxes, which is not sustainable for anyone residing in a major American city, or with dependents, or with a health issue in the United States.

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