Thursday, May 24, 2012

Workin' and Schoolin' Together ... A Good Idea?

In the comments at one of her terrific recent posts about the economics of graduate school, Lauren and I got into a bit of a discussion about money and academia. Lauren's post was about the tendency among grad students (including the two of us!) to take on more and more student loan debt as they progress through school, simply to help pay for life's necessities. In her post, she notes that this seems to be an accepted part of grad school for many students ... and she thinks this is a really big problem.

I agree on both counts. Taking on additional debt isn't seen as an irresponsible thing to do among most grad students, and there is little concern about how much we're accruing or how we're actually going to pay all of it back. That's ridiculous. And this is all done with the full blessing of our advisors and departments, who are either deluded about or deliberately ignoring the bleak academic job market that lies ahead for us. That's bordering on criminal. (I'm exaggerating, but only slightly).

So in the end (as I've alluded to in my series on privilege in academia) you wind up with a bunch of students who graduate with massive piles of debt ... many of whom will be unable to find jobs that will pay enough to allow them to pay off the debt before they retire. In other words, a whole lot of graduating Ph.D. students are starting their careers off in dire financial straits and saddling themselves with debt loads in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, with no idea of what job prospects await them (hint: not good ones).

So this is a problem that requires a solution, because this system is unsustainable. With the collapsing job market, students cannot keep taking on more and more debt as their job prospects become more and more bleak. Something needs to change.

The best solution, of course, would be for graduate departments to start paying their grad students a living wage. ........... Hang on, I'll give you a few minutes to quit guffawing with laughter at the likelihood of this ever happening.

So given that we know that will never happen, we need a different solution. If people are going to keep going to grad school, they should not be forced to take on massive debt in order to do so.

I suppose we could limit grad school admission to only people who are independently wealthy. But somehow I don't think that I can support that proposal. I doubt I'm the only one who feels that way.

So as I mentioned in comments over there ... I think that that more students should consider working part-time jobs while in grad school. Lauren pushed back at this idea a bit by saying that grad students are too busy to do that. I definitely agree that some grad students might be too busy, or that some part-time jobs might be too demanding to add to a graduate student's workload. But I know from personal experience that those conditions don't apply to everyone.

I worked part time for the last four years I was in grad school. There are a few different reasons why I started working, all of which are kind of boring and not worth going into. Let's just say that (1) I was anxious and depressed with only the isolation of academic work to occupy my time, (2) I needed the money, and (3) my department was making it more and more difficult for advanced students to find funding.

So I got a job. And in the long run, now that I've left and have moved onto a managerial position at the same company? That looks like a damned good decision, in hindsight.

But, of course, my situation was unique, and what I did wouldn't work for everyone else. Nor would a part-time job in grad school typically wind up turning into a full-time job with career prospects. I really lucked out in that regard.

But as I've thought more deeply about grad school and read about my fellow postacademic bloggers' experiences after leaving academia, I've begun to think that grad students shouldn't just be allowed to, but should be be encouraged to consider finding part-time work outside of the university (or at least their departments) while in grad school.

They probably shouldn't do this right away, of course ... but once they are past the coursework phase and are getting to the age where their life expenses get a bit larger? Once you start thinking that you might want kids, or your friends are starting to get married, or you want to buy a house? You will probably need some extra income. So you could take out a student loan ... or you could try to find a way to get some extra income that you won't have to pay back later, since you no longer have to deal with coursework and therefore have a much more open-ended academic work schedule.

Now obviously, not everyone will do this, and that's fine. Some people can make ends meet without extra income, and some people truly want to devote 24/7 to their academic work. Some people already have kids or other life demands, and simply don't have the extra time to devote to an outside job. Some people may simply decide that taking out additional student loans is the right solution for them.

And that's fine. If people weigh their options and decide to stick solely with academia and student loans, then that's great. But why do many departments explicitly forbid (or subtly discourage) their students from having outside jobs? And why do so many students think that such a thing would be unreasonable under any circumstances? At what point are grad students allowed to start thinking about their own financial and emotional well-being and to stop putting all of their available energy into producing unending piles of academic work to impress advisors who probably aren't going to be impressed anyway???

I worked 20-25 hours for the last four years I was in grad school. And while that extra work definitely affected the quantity of work that I was able to produce during that time, it definitely didn't harm me significantly. During the time I was working, I wrote and published two papers, presented at six conferences, contributed work to three different papers being written by faculty members, passed my qualifying exams, taught six different classes, defended my dissertation proposal, and made quite a bit of progress on my dissertation. Had I graduated as planned last spring, I would have graduated with 2/3 of my cohort. And once I went on the market, I had six academic interviews (including three fly-outs).

In short ... my part-time job might have kept me from being a total rockstar in academia, but it most definitely did not render me an unsuccessful academic. And while some people would find the workload overwhelming, I found it pretty manageable most of the time. In fact, in a lot of ways I think it helped me become more efficient at managing my schedule - after all, if I had to work from 9-3 and had a meeting with my advisor at 3:30, I knew that I had to complete my work for that meeting by the time I went to bed the night before. No further procrastination was possible.

And I don't think I'm some extreme outlier. I truly believe that there are a lot of grad students out there (particularly those without kids and without teaching responsibilities) who would be able to balance the demands of working 20 hours per week and completing their academic work in a timely fashion. So at least being allowed to consider that path seems to be a decent idea ... especially in these bleak economic times.

A part-time job can mean the difference between earning $10,000 in a year or taking out another $10,000 in student loans. It can mean the difference between being able to pay your rent if your funding gets cut off or having to move back in with your parents. It can allow you to say "no" to that one-year VAP with a 4/4 course load three hours away from your house, and to instead spend the year building up your CV for next year's market. And it can mean the difference between building up a nest egg to buy a house and have a baby or pushing those things off for yet another year or two or ten.

And if you wind up having to leave academia at the end of your grad school journey? Not only will you have a financial safety net that you can fall back on while you write a resume and start job-hunting, but you will have evidence on your resume that you can work in a nonacademic setting.


And finally - as to the question that Lauren (and many other people) have raised about whether the average grad student can "find the time" to take on a part-time job?

I'll just ask this ... how many hours per week does the average grad student lose to procrastination?? How about Facebook surfing while you're supposed to be writing? Meandering shopping trips and long lunches when you're supposed to be in the library, working?

Oh, and how many extra little side projects have you taken on as a favor to your advisor or your department or a fellow grad student? Extra projects that don't pay you anything or do anything for your CV, but that add to your overall workload?

Yeah ... that's what I thought. :)

Look, I'm not saying we should all be crazed robots who work 80 hour weeks at six different jobs. But I view the whole "I don't have the time to work 15 hours per week in an office, I'm so busy!" as nothing more than an extension of the same old academic mindset that tells us that "we must work 24/7 on academic work and nothing but academic work!!"

And just like I have a million times on this blog, I call bullsh*t on that mentality. No job truly requires a 24/7 committment, especially not for tasks (like writing your fifteenth chapter for a non-peer-reviewed book or editing your advisor's paper for the 200th time) that won't help us advance in our careers. And very few of us are really, truly working that much ... if we're honest with ourselves.

And in the end, regardless of how much you love the work ... if there are no jobs out there when you finish, what's the point of all of this endless work? Why not try to get yourself in a more stable financial situation so that you can contend with whatever's coming down the line for you?

A stable future is no longer guaranteed in academia (if it ever was). I see no reason why students shouldn't at least consider supplementing their income while in grad school with a part time job.

Stepping down off of my soapbox now ... feel free to let me know what you think. :)


  1. In hindsight, I wish I'd thrown caution to the wind, re-prioritized, and taken on some other PT work. Yet I always lived in fear that my department would find out, I'd be seen in violation of my contract, and I'd lose my stipend and tuition remission. Fear definitely prevented me from seeking work outside the U.

    Also, in hindsight, I might have spent less time doing all the CV building I did while in grad school. I really *was* someone who worked every day, at least 8 am-9pm, weekends too. I really *was* insanely obsessed with doing more academic work in any available moment of any available day. I've seen that that hasn't really afforded me much NOW, but didn't know that then :(

    1. Yeah, I was pretty afraid that the department would find out too, at least at first. (In the last year or so, I didn't give a f*ck anymore. :)

      But my job was in an office where no one ever "just dropped by," and the hours were flexible enough that I was able to make it to most mandatory meetings and a lot of departmental events.

      And when I finally told them about the job in my last year (so they'd quit offering me last-minute teaching jobs and leave me alone when I needed to THINK, dammit!!), the collective reaction seemed to be one of relief. At least there was one fewer student they had to fund!

      Hindsight's 20/20, of course. Don't feel bad about what you were doing. You're a type 2 leaver ... in a perfect world, you'd have a dream academic job because you loved the work.

      But current grad students need to do better than we did, you know? If they don't love academia anymore they need to figure out a way to branch out. PT work can help them do that. And if they love the work but are in the humanities, they need to find something else to fall back on, because the academic world can't be their safety net.

      If every social sciences and humanities student had a PT job and wasn't going into massive debt while finishing their degree programs, I think I'd feel a lot more positive about academia. At least people wouldn't be financially ruining themselves for nothing, you know?

  2. I did part-time work during our pre-kid school years -- it was tough, but it could work. I think it would be easiest for single people without kids, honestly: we found it very difficult to maintain a strong connection when we were both working or writing all the time. But, I think if a student worked even part of the time WITHOUT taking out loans, it would be a smarter move than just loaning it up all through grad school, which is what I did, which was dumb.

  3. I love your points about procrastination.. I think the nature of academic work is that you can't really be 'on' all the time, produce great quality written work every day etc. facebook, too long lunches, etc.. I laughed because you are describing my life, even though I do get some shit done.

    The attitude towards outside work, as you argue well here, doesn't seem to be grounded in reality (for many students).. it reminds me of snotty characters out of 19th century novels, where anybody below the landed gentry isn't worthy of a golden ticket to the ball. class and privilege, all the way.

    think I'll write about a post about this later!

  4. The whole university loan system going on over there is some crazy mind-f*ck. We just don't have it here - you cannot borrow money from any kind of financial instituion for your education. At most, you can opt to "defer" your university fees until such a time as you are earning an income. At which point the government takes an extra percentage of your income (on a sliding scale) on top of your income tax and health care tax to pay off your debt. In some cases, this may mean that until you pay off that "loan" you might be paying over 50% of your income in taxes. But at that rate you should pay it off more quickly than someone earning less...

    Anyway, I digress. I find it astonishing, coming from the system I do, that you even have to have this conversation about working and studying. Everyone I know here has had to work their way through undergraduate and postgraduate studies. If you're lucky you have cheap expenses (ie live with a spouse/relative/flatmate in a hovel) and you can just make ends meet by working part-time and studying full-time. While you're polishing glasses and having your arse grabbed you day dream about the day when your thesis is finished and you can finally get "a real job". The depression only kicks in when you find yourself heading for the unemployment office instead... But at least you're heading there debt free. I can't imagine how much more stressful all those student loans would make my life. How awful!

  5. At the institution where I received my doctorate, funding and teaching were inextricably linked. In exchange for 30 hrs / week of classroom time, mandatory office hours, advising, and department "service," we had *most* of our tuition and attendant fees waived, plus received a small paycheck (starting about $900 / mo and gradually working up). Every year, I told myself I would reorganize my schedule so that I could take on 10-15 hrs / week at a second job, but ran into scheduling snafus time and time again. Since my schedule shifted every quarter, employers were not keen on shifting my work schedule from MWF afternoon, say, to Tues-Thurs morning, to accommodate my teaching job. The department WAS flexible in helping with teaching schedules, but only for the mothers on staff amongst the graduate students / adjuncts. This was completely understandable, of course, but it meant that anyone else who came in with a scheduling request was told simply to "take it or leave it." As a result, nearly all of my cohort, save those with partners / spouses with good jobs, are finishing with debt in the range of $70-120K (depending on whether you were fortunate enough to snag ANY funding for the first year, which made a difference of about $25-30K right off the bat).

    JC, as you indicate in your post here, being able to make enough money to pay down those debts and possibly reach moderate financial stability is quickly becoming my primary motivating factor. I left a job in an industry that was killing my soul to follow my dreams in grad school...and guess which sector I'm getting the most interest in from resume websites? I know how that road looks, I've been down it before, but when I'm getting requests for interviews (imagine! REQUESTS for interviews! almost as if they WANT to hire me!) from jobs back in that industry offering to start paying me at 40-50% more than I could possibly make teaching over the next year, there's a little voice in the back of my head telling me to swallow my pride, take a deep breath, and follow up on these leads, just in the hope of being able to get enough on top of my debts in 5-10 years that I can start thinking about a career path that I *want* to pursue. And hey, some of those jobs are in some pretty cool parts of the country.

    Apologies for turning this into a bit of a rant, but I do want to say that I appreciate you and other folks who are opening up these conversations. Thanks for shining some light into the darkness!

  6. I suspect that people my department had part-time jobs but it was never articulated since it was a no-no. Some of us were lucky in that we got a TAship, others had funding from outside sources but some of us had nothing. What struck me at the time was that those of us who had TAships and funding from outside sources looked down on those who unfunded who were taking out loans and those who had part-time jobs in order to be in the programme! What I find striking now is that those who were funded or had TAships generally got tenure track jobs. The lack of funding was dire. One person wrote and defended her thesis in 3 months flat because she was running out of funding. I've no idea of whether it was good or not. The whole status thing in the department didn't have any correlation to whether you might have rock star status or not based on your work but it was related to your access to money.