Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reason I'm Leaving #5: I'm Tired of Begging

One thing that I didn't realize when I was applying to graduate school was that I was signing myself up for a once- or twice-a-year battle in which I would be begging multiple faculty, departments, and funding agencies to allow me to continue doing my job for another semester or year.

When I was accepted into graduate school, I (like most others in my department) was told that we had guaranteed funding for X years. This was an unusually generous funding offer for sure (guaranteed funding for multiple years is definitely NOT the norm in many grad programs), and I immediately settled into the program.

Within a few months, two things became obvious from observing others in my department: (1) competitive fellowships were seen as far superior to regular departmental assistantships, since you didn't have to do as much work for other people, and (2) as long as you were willing to teach, the department would fund you for longer than X years to compensate you for your labor.

I was thrilled about this. See, I first and foremost wanted to be a college teacher. So from observing older graduate students in my department, I deduced that once I finished with coursework and started my dissertation, I would be able to teach and teach to my heart's content until I finished my dissertation. In other words, from watching other graduate students, it seemed obvious that the department would "hire" me to teach when I was ABD, and that I could continue that for several years if need be. I very distinctly remember one of my grad student colleagues teaching two courses per semester during her last year. "Well, obviously there are plenty of classes available and I'll always be able to teach," I thought.

Well, not exactly. Not by the time I advanced in the program 4-5 years later.

I applied to a fellowship in my second year and won it, but to my surprise found that my X years of departmental funding was reduced by the number of years I was on the fellowship, rather than being added on at the end (so that my funding period was X+2 years). At the same time, the department began admitting more graduate students and reducing the number of classes that were offered to undergrads, which meant that more students were competing for fewer teaching slots. Thus, the #2 condition mentioned above was no longer available - I couldn't teach the same class year after year to pay my way through school anymore.

So rather than making a low but livable wage teaching in my department while I finished writing, I spent the last several years of my program begging - literally begging - for a teaching assignment. I was an excellent teacher with excellent evaluations who regularly taught overenrolled class. But the department had apparently decided that while my older advanced colleagues had been dedicated and skilled teachers who were an asset to the department by teaching full classes to enthusiastic evaluations, me being in the same situation 3 years later meant I was a lazy freeloader who was unworthy of a teaching assignment.

I've heard similar stories from multiple people in various departments across disciplines. As states cut higher education budgets departments have been cutting their course offerings accordingly - but for some reason, they do not cut down the size of their incoming graduate cohorts. At the same time, outside funding agencies are cutting back on the amount of money they have available for fellowships and scholarships due to the economic downturn.

What this means is that more students are fighting for fewer fellowship dollars and teaching slots. And what this means for you, future grad student, is that you will be begging to keep your job year after year (or even semester after semester). More people will be applying for fellowships, so you'll have to spend hours crafting your applications to make them perfect - and you likely won't get the award. Meanwhile, the new graduate students with guaranteed funding packages will need to be given the teaching slots to meet the funding guarantee.

However, as an adult with living expenses, these structural issues are irrelevant. You have to find some way to make money. So you will likely find yourself coming to your department, asking if there are any classes that need to be taught ... or walking from office to office, asking if any faculty members have any research projects they need help on for which they'll agree to pay you. You'll keep scouring the web for new fellowships, and perhaps will put your application in at local community colleges to teach a class. As I said - you're an adult, and you have to find some way to make money while doing the job you've been doing (for pay, and satisfactorily) for the past few years.

(Keep in mind, too, that this kind of thing will likely take place in the late spring, since fellowship winners and teaching assignments for the following academic year aren't usually announced until late spring. Since your academic pay will likely run out in June or July, this will often leave you with just a few short months to find some way to guarantee you won't be homeless by the time the new schoolyear starts).

And unless you are lucky enough to win a coveted multi-year fellowship, this cycle will play out again and again, every year. I wound up working half-time for faculty as a research assistant twice (topping out at $8k annually from academic work), while for two years I wound up teaching on semester-long contracts four times, teaching brand new classes each time. Meanwhile, I was spending hours applying for fellowships I never received. It got to the point where I was spending more time finding funding for the following semester/year than actually working on my own projects.*

And all along, I was receiving annual reviews telling me I was making satisfactory process through the department. I had glowing teaching recommendations, had published a few papers, and was completing departmental requirements on time.

Now, this is par for the course for an academic career ... and if you love what you do, perhaps it's worth it. But I need to ask - in what other career do you have to beg for someone to pay you for doing your job, even when you're making satisfactory progress? Sure, you might have to work hard to get the initial job or to get a raise - but scrambling and begging once or twice a year just to have your employer continue to pay you the same rate for doing the same job you've been doing for years? 

It's ridiculous, and for me it isn't worth it anymore.

* This is when I got a part-time job, by the way. The situation described in this post is why I often recommend that grad students at least consider finding part-time work outside the academy. Grad school is stressful enough without having to worry that you won't be able to pay your rent.


  1. I deeply appreciate your blog. You have provide me with so much insight--without making me feel stupid or weak for entertaining doubts and criticisms about the venture I have gotten myself into over the last decade! Thank you, and best wishes for a joyful life.

    --Another sociology Ph.D. student

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting. It's very gratifying to learn that other people are gaining something valuable from this. I know how alone I felt whenever I'd contemplate leaving - if I can help even one person feel better about their choice, I'm happy.

    No matter how crazy and doubtful your department or academic types in general make you feel about your doubts, you are not alone and you are not crazy or weak. Good luck!!

  3. This resonates with my experience in a small humanities PhD department, before I moved to a bigger dept in Education. There was this understanding that, "Well, you're only funded for five years but by then you'll have connections and teaching spots" bla bla bla. My friends who stayed in Am Studies competed for very few assistantships, and many had to work outside the dept in different schools or jobs to get by. And your point about the mismatch between your EXPERIENCE as a grad student and your program's perception of your "progress" is right on: one of the more maddening and confusing aspects of grad school. I was lucky enough to stumble into an endlessly renewable position, but that meant I had to stay in it no matter what (because if I left there were NO guarantees) so I didn't get to cultivate much diversity on my teaching resume. But that doesn't matter now.