Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Price of Scholarship: A Reality Check

I love what I do. I love teaching. I love researching. I love reading student papers. I love tutoring. I love literature. I am an English major-- heart, soul, and brain. There isn't much I wouldn't do to stay in this field forever.

This career path has cost me quite a bit though, and on my long commute yesterday, I began to think about just how much I have paid for my profession. Aside from the thousands spent on my education over the past eight years, the costs really add up. People tell you that grad school is expensive and that becoming an academic is no guarantee for success, but I don't think I took a moment to consider what that would really mean when I started out on this journey. I'm sure we all remember this delightful clip:

I think it's important that those of us in academic continue to talk about the reality of it. Politicians would have you believe that every college professor in America lives in a mansion and drives a Jaguar as a weekend car while corrupting the impressionable undergrads that worship the ground we walk on (and then we "poison" them with our "liberal mindedness" of course). You would also think that graduate students are living in the lap of luxury, that all they have to do is go to school and party, that they are breezing through life while others work hard in "the real world." Oh how I wish that was the truth! It's important that these images are shattered if we are to continue to push for positive changes in education and in the profession.

The Truth Is... I Work Three Jobs and Still Have No Money

During my week, without major traffic incidents, I spend an average of 11 hours commuting to my jobs at two universities. I also work a third non-academic job doing nightlife photography, which requires another 2 hours of commuting late at night. 

Though my trusty Subaru Forester has decent gas mileage, I still spend about $100 and just under $60 in tolls a week just to get to my jobs. You can throw in an additional $24 for parking and $15 for food a week while you're at it.

For those of us who are not Math-minded, that breaks down to $200 and 13 hours a week spent on simply going to work. This does not include conferences, which are costly yet nearly mandatory if you hope to have a future in academia.

As an adjunct, I make less money to teach one class than it would cost me to take one class at the graduate level at the same university where I teach. As a part-time employee, I receive no benefits from either job.

And that's really just the tip of the iceberg.

The Truth Is... Being in School During Your Post-College-Aged Adult Life is Frustrating

Aside from the obvious lack of financial incentive for becoming a lifelong academic, being a college student when you're at a point in your life when all of your friends are moving up can be a painful experience. I constantly feel like I'm missing milestones. While my friends are starting their careers and getting promotions at work, I am still studying for exams and working part-time jobs just to get by. While they are buying new cars and houses, I am paying for classes and books, driving a 2002 hand-me-down, and had to move back home after two years on my own. While they are getting married and having babies, well, you get the point... 

It can extremely disheartening, even depressing at times. In American terms of success, it can begin to feel like I have achieved nothing. There are days when I really feel stuck, when I'd like to quit. I would like to have the stability (or at least the appearance of it) that many people my own age have acquired. I'd like to know where I'll be spending the next 10 years of my life, but for the graduate student, the future is all but clear.

The Truth Is... I Choose This, But That Doesn't Give You the Right to Exploit That Choice

Yes, it's true. I chose this lifestyle. I have a B.A. in English and Communications with a minor in Photography, an M.A. in English, and experiencing working a different capacities. I'm charismatic, organized, and have a strong sense of personal integrity. I take pride in my work. I act morally even if punishment is not being dangled before me. I live within commuting distance of New York City and have connections to people in the business world. With some effort, probably less than it takes me to do what I do now, I could find a corporate job if I wanted one, and I could have the stability that I crave.

It makes me angry, however, that people will say "you chose this" or "gosh, I wish I were still in school instead of working full time" as if it were an easier path. It isn't.

On the other hand, it makes me equally angry when people say, "if it were easy, everyone would do it." Yes, I realize that I chose a tough path and the obstacles that make this lifestyle so difficult to maintain are part of the reason why professors are considered elite scholars. But these are also the reasons why brilliant people who enjoy school end up in jobs that they hate instead of academia. They are the reason why universities feel the need to hire adjuncts with little training at nominal costs (because who else but the struggling academic would accept those terms), why they overload courses to the detriment of students and teachers, and why they demand teachers publish more while teaching a full course load. It is the reason why graduate students are expected to work (sometimes full time), teach, go to class, publish, be actively involved in everything possible, have a social life, and still maintain a 4.0 GPA.

Walk a mile in my shoes, please, Mr. Politician, or you, Ms. CEO. I assure you, you would not find them very comfortable.

The Truth Is... I Must Be A Glutton for Punishment

Broke, exhausted, and occasionally depressed, I would still choose this path any and every day of my life. I believe that I have chosen a career than enables me to change lives and to seek truth, and that, to me, is more valuable than all of the things that I am missing. I know that someday, I will get to enjoy the stability that my friends have achieved, and along my journey, I will have had the opportunity to do more good than most.

1 comment:

Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD said...

Opportunity costs. At least, that's the fancy economist term for what you're talking about here. It's not just about the money spent on grad school, it's the money you forgo by putting off entering the job market for so many years. It's one thing to be broke when all your friends who didn't go to grad school are also broke in their starter jobs. It's another thing 10 years later when they've paid off student loans, are buying houses, getting raises and promotions while you're still broke.

Hey, look at that, I wrote a blog post about it! ;-)