April Showers; PhD Flowers

This is a different sort of post.

I’m getting email alerts every day that someone has “liked” a post or, even more exciting, followed the site. To all of you who are checking out the site, liking it, or even following it; I just have to say

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You are the real MVP and I am so grateful you are finding our content valuable.

Now for the weird part:

April is going to be a low-content month here at abd2phd. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a real PhD student (TM) in the humanities. My committee and I are honing in on a defense date for this dissertation sometime between May 31st and June 4th. That means I need to have my manuscript ready to give to my committee by April 31st, just a few weeks from now.

This final round of revisions just happens to overlap with end of semester grading, doing taxes, and maybe selling my house–because real life does not have the decency to pause when graduate school gets busy.

As delighted as I am that this site is serving a broader audience, I need to take a step back to do the thing. After all, why would anyone take advice from me on how to move from ABD to PhD if I don’t get the PhD?

I won’t be taking a full hiatus because I just couldn’t do that. However, this month I’ll be focusing on the future of abd2phd, along with my own future. Instead of posting the normal monthly thematic content or the weekly roundup, I’ll be dropping by every week to update all of you about the future of abd2phd.

After I defend my dissertation,  I’ll be focusing full time on building abd2phd to serve you better. I have so many ideas and things I’d like to do, but the entire purpose of this site is to serve you. Therefore, I’d love to get some feedback from you over the month of April about what you want to see. As I post my updated vision and goals for the site over the month of April I hope that you’ll take time to comment to let me know what you love and what you don’t. Feel free to tell me what type of content we’ve had in the past that you’d like to see more of. If there’s a type of content you’d like to see but haven’t yet let me know that too.

And, of course, thank you for helping build this community.

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Money

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.

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.