Recently, I was talking to a graduate student at a land-grant university. Because this person works at a land-grant, the salary of everyone who works there is public information and available online with some minimal searching. This person, a second-year PhD student, was shocked to discover that all of the faculty in their department make six figures a year.

For the past decade or so, most online academic writing has been in a self-hating death spiral about how horrible academia is. That isn’t to say there aren’t legitimate criticisms. Indeed, if there weren’t legitimate criticisms this site wouldn’t exist. However, in the flurry of pieces on how happy our alt-ac colleagues are, scathing quit lit, and adjunctification it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is still possible to make a good living in academia. There are reasons why tenure-track jobs are referred to as “golden tickets” and their increasing rarity is only one of them.

Academic conversations about money get weird very quickly. We are prone to the deeply flawed “do what you love” narrative which tells us that talking about money is gauche. Then there’s this weird idea that academics are somehow separate from the labor economy? Then there’s the idea that academic work just isn’t valued which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is by design. None of this, however, is what I want to talk about today.

Today I want to talk about the vast financial chasm between graduate students and faculty. Sure, we all know it’s there, but we all work to keep from seeing how immense it really is.

My MA program hosted a number of professionalization seminars throughout the year which was a wonderful thing.

In the two years I was there I went to exactly one (which is a mistake I’ve posted about here). As a first-gen, working-class student I had deeply internalized the meritocracy myth and I thought going to professionalization seminars was a luxury I could only afford if all my work was done which, since the work is unending, it never was. It wasn’t until my second year that my friends in the PhD program convinced me that regular attendance at the pro-sems was one of the intangible factors used to assess how serious MA students were about becoming PhDs.

So, I paused the work and went to a seminar where a group of graduate students was told by a faculty member that she fondly looked back on her graduate school days and all of the free-time she had then. As a faculty member, she assured us, we would have less free time than we currently did and we had best be committed and prepared.

I almost broke down crying on the spot. I was already feeling overwhelmed due to 12 hour days on campus, every weekday and couldn’t reconcile the degree I had always wanted to get with working even more. (To be fair, my undiagnosed anxiety disorder probably played a part too.) Deep inside, I felt that there was a problem with what we had been told but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

It took me years, literal years, to identify what was wrong with that meeting.

In fact, it wasn’t until a series of odd life events had led me to work at a for-profit “college” that it finally clicked.


Money makes things easier. In the capitalist system, we live in money makes life easier. Working late? That’s okay–I’ll just order some carry-out from that Italian place with surprisingly good gluten-free options on my way home. So busy you forgot to order that very particular set of shoes the bride wants her wedding party to wear? That’s okay–just pay for rush delivery. Would that new book really help define the article you’re working on? Order it on Amazon instead of requesting the library buy it and then waiting.

This list, drawn exclusively from personal examples, is just a partial list of one-off things that money helps with. At my current campus it costs somewhere between $250-300 to park on campus. It is free to take the bus. Although there are exceptions both ways, graduate students generally bus and faculty generally drive and park. From my house to campus it takes a solid half hour to get to campus by bus. It takes seven minutes by car and about fifteen to drive and park. This means that, on an average day, an hour of my time is taken up in transport just because of money. I don’t mind taking the bus–thanks to Resist Bot I use it as my built in time to contact my congress people–but the material point isn’t whether or not I like it. The material point is that I have an hour less time in my day than the faculty who are paid a living wage and can afford to get a parking permit.

But there’s an even larger issue at work here. New research has shown that being poor takes up brain space constantly and being poor during childhood changes your brain permanently. The human brain can only handle working on so many problems at once and when your brain is constantly engaged in the arithmetic of survival you concretely and unalterably have less to give to teaching, research, and writing. (See here, here, here, and here for starters.)

While faculty may have more work responsibilities (a proposition I’m still not convinced of–fight me) they also have more brain space to devote to those responsibilities and money to make little problems go away before they turn into big problems.

These financial differences are almost always present between grad students and faculty, but are exacerbated between faculty and working-class PhD students. There is so much work to be done here. Faculty and administrators need to reckon with their continued use of the apprenticeship model of academia to exploit graduate students. They also need to do more work on supporting first-gen and working-class PhDs *after* they’ve been accepted into programs. Graduate students need unions to help them create these reforms.

All of that is a lot of work that will require a lot of people and, probably, a lot of time.

Until then, know that you’re not crazy if you think that faculty might be a little out of touch with the realities of graduate student life. Know that you’re not crazy if you think that being poor is making your scholarly work harder than it needs to be in a million little ways that sometimes turn into big ways. Know that money–coming from it and having it–make a huge difference on how you move through this system. Know that you are worth more than  you’re paying paid. Know that it’s not fair. And know that we see you working your a** off and being awesome.





I don’t remember how old I was when I started my first “job.” I wanted to save money for something but I wasn’t earning any money so I couldn’t save any. To remedy this my mom got my aunt to “hire” me to clean her house on Saturdays. I was paid $3/hr and tipped $1. The “cleaning” I did took about one hour. I think I vacuumed and dusted, but what I most remember is being so happy and proud to earn my own money.

I got a job shortly after turning sixteen.

My first semester at college was the only semester I didn’t have a job. After that, I usually had more than one. The last quarter I had three and a full load of classes.

By the time I got to graduate school, I wasn’t just used to working. I was used to working hard and a lot. The idea of just doing one job, even if that one job paid more than I had ever made (and, yes, my graduate stipend was the most I had ever earned up to that point) was uncomfortable.

I know a lot of first-gen and working-class PhD students who have picked up second jobs.  Some folks work part-time gigs at local coffee shops. Some folks turn their artistic outlet into a side hustle via Etsy or other online selling platforms. Some folks finish up their prospectus defense and get a real job, effectively turning their dissertation into their side hustle.

If you’re a first-gen, working-class student debating the merits of picking up an extra job during the semester you should know it is definitely possible.

One of the things that is too often overlooked in the advice given to graduate students is the most obvious thing: To get through graduate school, you need to actually survive. You need to physically and intellectually survive which, under capitalism, is inextricably bound up with economic survival. I’m not going to tell you to not get a side hustle or two. If you need it to survive–because your grad school stipend doesn’t pay enough or because you just need something that feels fucking normal to you or any other reason–then you should do it.

Before you do it, though, you should think about a few things.

Thing 1: Do you really need it? A lot of the impetus I felt to get a second job came from a combination of imposter syndrome and the need to not feel like I was letting my family down with this weird career choice. Getting a second job probably would have made me feel better. Hell, just searching for other jobs made me feel better. But it would have been a band-aid over the real issues and may have ultimately exacerbated them. Remember, you deserve to be here. Give yourself permission to do this thing, to enjoy it, and then see what happens.

If you really, really do need that second job then here are some other things to consider.

Thing 2: Is your committee/department going to be weird about it? Listen, unless and until your committee is going to start paying your bills I don’t think they should have any right to comment on any legal activities you engage in to pay said bills.

Unfortunately, most actual committees I know don’t agree with this basic concept of personal autonomy. A lot of committees and chairs are skittish about second-jobs because they view it as a distraction from your dissertation. Is this a privileged POV? Absolutely. Do you still have to deal with it? Yes.

To the extent that you can, try and gauge your committee (or even your department)’s position on second jobs.

Knowing that they disapprove, if they do, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a second job. It just means you should be strategic about it. Try and get a job where it’s unlikely you will run into the folks who disapprove. Don’t talk about it at departmental events or other spaces where it may get back to your committee. If, god forbid, you share a calendar try and block out work time as either “writing” or “working out.” I have yet to meet a faculty member that would criticize excessive writing or work out time.

Thing 3: Are you going part-time or full-time?

I know people who have done both and have been happy with it. This isn’t a question with a right or wrong answer. It’s a question that depends on you, your needs, and the structure of your program. My MA program scheduled most seminars from 2-5 p.m.–prime hours for a regular job. My PhD program scheduled most seminars from 5-8 or 6-9 p.m.–easier to accommodate an office schedule.

As long as you are in coursework or teaching for your tuition waiver, your schedule will change every semester. This can also be hard for a forty-hour job to accommodate. If you are on fellowship and done with exams you may have a lot more flexibility.

Again, there are no right or wrong answers here, there is only the answer that is right for you. Part of that answer is also about what your end goal is.

If you don’t want to work in academia then getting a full-time job after your exams can be a strategic move to help you build skills and connections in your chosen job market.

If you do want to be a career academic and just need some extra money to live then a part-time job which allows you to invest time into academic professionalization is probably best.

Most importantly, do whatever you need to do to survive and, maybe even, thrive.

If you are a grad student who has worked part-time or full-time outside of your graduate funding feel free to share your experiences and best practices in the comment section!

Weekly Roundup!

Get ready, y’all!

First, we’ve got a series of graphs looking at first-generation PhD students compiled by the NSF. The information isn’t exactly cheery but it is necessary.

Five years ago Inside Higher Ed did a series on first-gen grad students. We think it’s worth revisiting some of their articles below:

Imposter Syndrome–I particularly appreciate tip #2 in this list. Because academia often bills itself as a meritocracy I spent my entire MA program working long days and late nights. I didn’t make time for departmental events because I thought it was more important people see the quality of my work than see me. I was wrong and I didn’t realize I was wrong until it was too late to salvage my reputation.

Transitioning from first-gen college student to first-gen grad student–Pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Just some great advice–That is all. (Also, maybe bookmark Conditionally Accepted.)

My all-time favorite–This piece is about first-gen and working-class undergrads, but it’s just so damn thorough I can’t help but love it. It’s also easy to see how a lot of the things talked about translate to graduate school challenges.

Finally, check out the Working-Class Studies Association. They have a CFP open until the end of the month!


Reading for Prelims

So far this month we’ve covered what prelims arewhat work prelims are supposed to do, and how to prepare the first draft of your list. Today, we are covering how to read for prelims.

The first thing to know, of course, is how your program does prelims. I recently heard of a philosophy program in which the maximum number of books for a prelims reading list was ten because that program wants an in-depth analysis of a few arguments. However, for programs that require a lengthier prelim list, including those upwards of 100 books, there is a definite way to read for prelims.

Reading for prelims is different than reading for course-work and it’s not just volume. I was never particularly good at the graduate-student-skim because my anxiety disorder convinced me there would be a high-stakes quiz on whatever portion of that week’s reading I didn’t get to. However, even if you are the most gifted skimmer that has ever lived I would caution against using the graduate-student-skim to get through prelims reading. The reason is because part of the purpose of prelims is to train you, albeit quickly and brutally, to discern what arguments are important to your field and may be relevant to your future work.

The graduate-student-skim is the equivalent of a Monet–it gives you a quick, broad view of a book but lacks specific detail. In contrast, reading for prelims is the equivalent of an M.C. Escher print–it doesn’t need to create a conventional image but it needs detail and subtlety.

An important part of the process is to determine which authors and arguments deserve the majority of your focus and effort. The graphic below is how I conceptualize prelim reading.

Prelim Reading

Tier 1 is where you start with every text on your list. When I was preparing for prelims I spent about 3 days searching for book reviews of every text on my list, finding a good review, printing it, and putting it in a three-ring binder. The key to executing this step successfully is to remember that not all book reviews are created equally. Book reviews by actual faculty are the gold-standard. Grad students, as a rule, don’t critique the arguments or sources of a book in a review because to do so would mean critiquing a more senior scholar in your field which could affect conference, publication, or job prospects. If at all possible, find a book review by an actual faculty member. If this is not possible, and sometimes it isn’t, go for two book reviews by grad students. These will, at the very least, give you a good sense of the arguments and sources used in the book. This exercise is relatively quick and painless but will give you a broad sense of the conversations happening your field. It will also help you decide which books make it to Tier 2.

Tier 2 is where you read the Introduction and Conclusion of a given book. Not all books will or should make the leap from Tier 1 to Tier 2. Tier 2 is for books whose arguments, as described in the book reviews you read in Tier 1, seemed intriguing enough to warrant a deeper analysis. “Intriguing” here isn’t simply a synonym for interesting. It all seems interesting, that’s why you’re in f*ing grad school. “Intriguing” here means that it seems it will be useful, either as support or foil, for the arguments you think you might make in your dissertation. “Intriguing” here means the book made a big enough splash that you might reasonably expect it to come up years later when you’re on a campus interview. Most books won’t and shouldn’t make it past Tier 2. A decent Intro and Conclusion will outline the major arguments of the book, the sources being used, and, depending on discipline, the theoretical framework or methods. In rare cases, the Intro or Conclusion may mention a chapter that sounds relevant to your work which you think it would be helpful to know more about. In this case, the book will make it to Tier 3.

Tier 3 is where you read a significant portion of the book. You’ve already read the Intro and Conclusion for Tier 2. The book review(s) in Tier 1 gave you a sense of the arguments and their reception. Tier 3 is for those books where you really need or want to know more. In this case, you may read a chapter particularly relevant to your own coalescing research questions or the whole book.

There are, as always, a couple of exceptions to the plan outlined above. This plan is based on my own experience and the experiences of most grad students I know and that experience is one of overwhelm. This is for the student who is preparing for prelims while finishing up coursework and the graduate student teaching a class who has to figure out how to shoehorn prelims into the course schedule you’re creating for your students. The obvious exception to this is if you’re on fellowship and have the time; then read all the books and enjoy it!


Most people I know started prelims with the intention to read all the things. Then real life happened and they found themselves reading Intros, Conclusions, and book reviews and were *shocked* to find out that there was no qualitative difference between the books they read in total and the books they read reviews for. For the majority of the books on your list this will likely hold true, but every field has its classics which you will be expected to know in depth and should probably read anyway.

Because everyone in the process is deeply wedded to the fiction that grad students read all the books it is difficult to simply ask your committee “What books do I have to read and what books can I get away with reading just the Intro?” There are several ways to get to this question without actually asking it. If your department has archived past reading lists look at them and see what texts keep popping up. If your department has an introductory “welcome to the discipline” type course for first-year students revisit the syllabus for that course or ask to meet with the person who teaches that course and ask what books they’re adding and why. If you feel comfortable doing so, ask one of your committee members what books they expect to be able to converse with an incoming colleague about. Finally, if your program offers methods or theory courses at the undergraduate level get a hold of those syllabi. Likely, the undergrads will be assigned excerpts rather than the full text, but it will tell you what you’ll be expected to know and teach in the future. These are the books you should automatically elevate to Tier 3, but don’t skip Tiers 1 and 2. Going into reading these books with an idea of how they were received by the field when they were published (Tier 1) and understanding how the author views the intervention in the field (Tier 2) provides a helpful framework to evaluate the book as a whole.

Our next post will be about how to prepare yourself and your home or office for prelims.