There are lots of posts on the Interwebs telling you not to go to grad school. In fact, I believe the Internet groans under the weight of these posts. I've written a couple myself:
I decided to pursue my PhD because after my Mom died in 2011, I wanted a change. I spent a year applying to community colleges to see if I could get hired there with my two Master's degrees. I could not. Since I wanted to expand my options, I applied for grad schools to get my PhD.
Blogs were very helpful for me in making an informed decision.
But I also think that a break down of what to expect, and expenses, are still hard to find.
So I offer here my experiences.
Please know that this is not presented as a model or example. I do not have a spouse or children to work around. So there's no one to consider except Nehi when I work six or seven days a week, twelve hour days.
I do not have family support. There is no income but my income.
I worked ridiculously hard, and insane hours, to finish in three years.
That being said, I still think that there are things here that might be helpful to others. So here's my experience.
Applying for Schools
My parents did not go to college. I did not have any models for how to deal with higher ed. It was an issue when I was in undergrad, and my low-class status continued to make sure it was an issue. For example, I did not know there were fee waivers for grad school, so I only applied to four schools because that's all I could afford:
- Incredibly prestigious school #1
- Incredibly prestigious medieval program #2
- Incredibly prestigious other program for my various interests #3
- University where I knew I'd like the area and knew a professor #4
- I was rejected by #1.
- I was rejected by #2 (with the weirdest mad-lib rejection letter ever!)
- I was accepted into #3, but they didn't offer funding
- I was waitlisted into #4
I initially accepted #3, figuring I would take on the student loan debt the first year, and reapply the second year for a TAship.
At this time, I had paid off my undergraduate student loan, and I had roughly $14,000 in student loan debt from my second Master's degree (my first was covered through Teach for NYC/AmeriCorp), and while I took work study for the second Master's (working in the computer lab), it took me 4 summers to complete it, so I roughly had $3,500 of student loan debt each summer. Not a huge amount, but still. I would have had to take out over $30,000 that first year to cover tuition, rent, and living expenses to attend #3.
Then in April, I received an email that #4 might be in a position to offer me admission with funding.
Later that week I received the official offer.
I asked a trusted professor about the protocol for rescinding from the first school to accept this offer (I was worried there was some black balling thing in higher ed). I was assured it would not matter. I asked some people about it. My dad said that it was funded, and I already knew I liked the area (three out of my four summers working on my second Master's were spent in Santa Fe). He said it seemed like a no brainer.
I accepted the next day. And rescinded the other acceptance.
The response was "that is the fastest accept I have seen without you seeing the offer first."
I thought I'd won the lottery.
Many of the arguments for/against grad school and about the job market tell you that the prestige of your grad school determines your chances. That the pedigree of the professors/mentors you'll have will determine your future. And I get that.
But a lot of us don't have a choice. We go where we're accepted. We go without having any idea about the professors. Because even if you know the professor(s) once you get there they may not mentor you.
I would say that it's okay if you accept at a school that's not a big name, and without knowing the professors. I think it would be more important to find out (if you can) how many of their PhDs graduate, and how many get jobs. I think it's more important to answer honestly the questions I put at the end of this post.
My TAship paid a $15,632 stipend, health insurance, and covered 12 hour of tuition per semester, not counting summer.
- Part of the reason why I was able to finish my coursework in three semesters is because I took advantage of this 12 credits the first year and because I transferred in credits from my Master's.
Be sure your program at least covers this. This is the bare minimum.
- And I'll tell you, even this will not cut it.
- Albuquerque is a relatively cheap place to live. I was constrained in housing by needing a place with a yard because of Nehi. I had a truck, so commuting was not an issue.
- Also, at my age, I was happy not to live near campus and was not going to have a roommate.
- My first year I taught online, so I was not worried about paying bills or extra expenses. I'd also cashed out my teaching pension as a safety net.
- I cashed out my pension because I knew I'd need a safety net. I also figured that I'd graduate with my PhD at 40 (ish) and whatever job I got, I'd still put 25 years in, so was not worried. I also don't have a spouse, or dependents, so really, who was I leaving money to?
- This was a mistake.
Your program, your department, or your graduate student association, probably has grants you can apply for to help cover your travel to conferences. I've received travel grants from $500 up to $1000. Every little bit helps.
- This will differ by discipline, but you should present at the major conferences in your field. This is probably two per year. Conferences are at least $1000 each.
- I do not think regional conferences are worth your time. I think these are INCREDIBLY valuable if you have a job and are creating a network of local scholars. As a grad student I think they're not where you should be focused.
- Do not attend conferences where you're not presenting.
- I was taught that you test out ideas at a conference, then go home and take the input you received, and turn that conference paper into an article/chapter and then send it off.
- I have not always been able to do this, but I've aimed for this. Which is why I have seven publications from 2013 to now. I think this approach is valuable because it helps you clarify and focus on YOUR argument, but also because it makes you get in the habit of ALWAYS WRITING. Establishing these habits early will serve you very well in the future
This can be tricky. Grad school is hard. There's a lot of work between coursework and writing, and you'll have a hard time balancing it. But I wish I had picked up a part time job my first year and kept it. This would have accomplished a couple of things:
- I'd have some extra income, no matter how small
- I would have a back up plan come graduation. Not a career, but maybe a stop gap to pay bills after May when my TAship runs out
- Having an outside job also helps fill resume lines if you haven't held a lot of jobs. It's a reference and it explains what you've been doing with your time
- An outside job would have/could have filled some gaps in job skills
- I know one friend who worked in the archives on a fellowship. This library/archive experience makes her more marketable.
Books are expensive. I would always buy used on Amazon. I would prioritizing buying books based on whether or not they're in your field, will be reused, and work towards your dissertation.
After the first year, I was eligible to teach courses that paid extra (first year communities, stretch, and summer). I put in to teach a first year community course, which paired my ENGL 110 with an Intro to Acting class. We had shared assignments, and did activities outside of class together, and there was an extra layer of support- checking in about how they were doing, answering questions. We acted as advisors in a lot of ways. This paid $1000 over the summer for the extra time put in planning out the course and extra time put in throughout the semester, and roughly $100 extra each month during fall semester. I taught this class my second year and this (my third) year.
I was very grateful for these opportunities because it was extra money but also because it was additional teaching experience.
- Teaching the stretch classes required taking another class to be eligible, and since I've been on such a tight timeline, I couldn't spare the time.
- I put in to teach summer school last summer but was not selected.
- Other opportunities to earn extra money (intersession courses or portfolio assessment) have often been held during MLA before spring semester, so I've not been able to take advantage of those.
Your program probably has similar programs to earn extra money. Ask about them the first semester, and make sure you have all your ducks in a row so you can teach them as soon as you're eligible.
I would also pay attention to all departmental emails- they often contain opportunities to make extra money, either departments that are hiring, some summer opportunities, etc. It's worth reading all those emails and asking questions.
- All this time, I was helping to support my dad. I was paying a mortgage on my house in NC.
- I had to sell my house in NC because the renters my dad chose moved in, didn't pay rent, and then I had to not only cover the part of the mortgage their rent was supposed to cover, but also had to pay court costs to evict them.
- So last winter, I put the house on the market before I was upside down on the mortgage. The renters only paid rent one month (September), then squatted. So I had to pay the $1381/month mortgage October-March (that's almost $7000 right there).
- This was all spring of my second year. And by the end, my savings were gone. $25,000 of my teacher's pension. The $14,000 I got from selling my house went to paying the down payment, initial rent, and moving expenses for my dad.
I should also note that this second year I was not able to go home at all, Christmas or otherwise, as with Nehi I need to drive, and it's 1,951 miles, so it's three days drive. With gas, hotels, food, there and back is roughly $1000.
That's a conference.
I presented at three conferences my second year. I also applied for and got a scholarship for students the year before they go on the job market to attend MLA to see what it's like.
Once I passed comps (last spring) there was a small pay jump (but even though I passed comps in February, the pay raise did not take effect until this fall (2015). It took me up to roughly $16,600/year.I dedicated the summer after my second year to writing the first complete draft of my dissertation. This meant twelve hour writing days, seven days a week.
This meant I had a complete (although turns out crappy) working draft to send my director in August. But it also means I traded that for having a job, and income. I had budgeted for this, but it was a lean summer.
This year (my third) I had to take out $15,000 in student loans. My 2002 truck needed $3000 worth of work over the summer, and I knew there would be extra expenses because I was on the job market, hence the extra money.
The summer before my third year I attended a job seeker's workshop which helped me prep the best job market materials possible. This was really helpful because I knew I had good documents, and just needed to tailor them for each specific job.
There were still some things though that I wasn't aware of, that would have helped:
- Set up Interfolio (they will store your documents like CV, cover letters, teaching statements, diversity statements, research statements, and recommendation letters)
- But be sure to set it up through MLA so you're not charged. I didn't know this, so paid for Interfolio for the year.
- Likewise, if you apply for jobs from the MLA Job List, you won't be charged for sending your recommendation letters out. Again, I did not know this, so paid for a lot of letters I did not have to (they're $2 a pop. So that's $6 per application, and trust me, that adds up)
- A lot of applications will ask for the reference name and contact information and some will want the actual letters.
- In Interfolio, if you click on the recommendation letter, it gives you an email address jobs can email for Interfolio to send the letter.
- Again, I didn't know this, and thus need to apologize to all of my recommenders for bothering them unnecessarily.
- I originally decided to say NO to all things not the dissertation this year
- I failed miserably at this. I'm presenting at three conferences. I put in for (but thankfully was not accepted for, three chapters in edited collections). Don't get me wrong, I am excited about the presentations I'll make, and the people I'll meet. But that's over $3000 I don't have, and could have used elsewhere.
- I spent this week applying to travel funding, but at best, I'll get one conference completely paid for and the other two maybe half. Which is better than nothing. But that's still a lot of out of pocket.
- My advice: unless you're attending a conference for an interview, clear the decks your final year. Don't present. Don't write anything not the dissertation.
- Exception to this- do keep in mind or be thinking about, sections of the dissertation you can tailor/tweak to submit to journals as an article.
- Check the MLA Joblist the day it opens, and after. Most will cross-post to Higher Ed, but some won't. You don't want to miss a job you might be perfect for.
- Set up job agents at Higher Ed jobs so you get daily email digests of jobs.
- However not all jobs post here (most do) so make sure you check Chronicle and other field specific job lists
- My PhD is in English literature. But I do a lot of work in folklore, and popular culture. So I'm starting to expand from just English jobs to one that are tailored towards that.
- If you're in MLA, and get an interview, plan to pay out of pocket. Not just for the conference, but you'll need at least a couple of suits, a decent bag, and shoes. Goodwill's a good choice. So are places like Macy's. If you can, buy in spring/summer when they're clearing their stock and lower prices
- I booked MLA hotel and airline ticket early in case I got interviews so I wouldn't pay extra or be scrambling.
- I did not get any. However, I paid attention to the deadlines so far as cancelling, wasn't charged for the hotel, and booked my ticket through Southwest so I was able to refund the money for use later. It paid for my PCA/ACA flight to Seattle.
- MLA requires a hard copy letter, and return of your badge to get a refund on your $55 conference fee. And they charge a $20 fee. So I'll only get $35 back. Which is cray-cray. But at this point, I'll take anything.
- Don't agree to any campus interview that won't cover the expenses.
That means there are still thirty jobs I am still in the running for.
- TIP: USA Jobs lists government jobs such as teaching on Indian Reservations and teaching at any of the military colleges- USAF Academy, West Point, USNA, the Citadel. These jobs often do not post through regular higher ed channels, so be sure to check those.
- Federal Jobs such as the National Park Service or education type jobs at the DOD are also on USA Jobs. A PhD puts you at a GS17 pay grade. Which is nice, and worth checking into.
There are even jobs just being released now, as budgets get approved or faculty lines open up with resignations, moves, and retirements.
I applied for a UNM satellite campus job this week. As with all things trying not to be jopeful, but man would that be nice...
It looks like I am not going to be a unicorn in this year's job market.
I am a certified high school teacher. So I got fingerprinted this week, filled out the application, and paid the $125 to switch my teaching license from NC to NM.
I also put in my application for Albuquerque Public Schools, both as a regular (classified) teacher, and as a substitute. I figure if I could pick up some substitute work this semester it would be some extra money. Not a lot but some, and it might get me in the door with APS.
Here, I am fighting my education. While a teacher with a PhD might be a coup for some schools it also blows their economic line. I am more expensive that a teacher with a BA. So there's that.
But I LOVE teaching. It's one of the reasons why I've been excited this week applying to community college jobs, because that's a focus.
And for those of you looking at alternate plans, I recommend your last year getting certified to teach high school. Because most states have teacher shortages. And if you're willing to move, Teach for America is a great program that puts teachers into the classrooms and schools that need them the most.
- I applied, and put New Orleans schools as my first choice.
- Then the Southwest, then Washington
- You will have a lot of contact with parents. This can be great. It can cause you to bite your tongue a lot.
- I recommend you apply at places you want to live. Don't choose a small, conservative town if living long term in such a place will impact your quality of life.
- High school teaching is great. And rewarding. But it's also standards, and given curriculum, and state testing. Make your peace with that.
- There's a lot of required out of the classroom work. Tutoring, but also working gates at games, committees, PLCs, deparment meetings, faculty meetings. On average, I spent three days a week minimum, every week, staying after school for these duties.
I've applied to the National Park Service.
I've applied for some jobs under Instructional Design/Learning Management.
I've applied for high school teaching jobs on Indian Reservations.
And here's the thing I've been debating on Twitter most of the week.
I will be 40 in a couple of weeks, on 3 February. YEAH ME!
And I am tired. I know what it's like to have a steady, salaried job and benefits. To not worry about money. I am no longer 22. I would kind of like to go back to being an adult.
Between the expense, not having any publications the next nine months that would move my CV one way or the other, and the stress, I just don't know if I have it in me to do another round on the job market.
People have said I've "wasted" the past three years. Um, no. Education is never a waste. And I knew what I was getting into.
Depending on my situation I may do a second round. But I just don't know. Too much is uncertain at this point and "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."
Today, one of the presentations at #MLA16 stated that adjuncts, all adjuncts, needed to just stop. Quit. Stop feeding the system and watch it all come to a halting, grinding stop.
And I certainly see that argument.
My job market approach and perspective has been guided by several principles:
- Don't apply anywhere I wouldn't want to live
- Don't apply to schools that given recent news have systematic issues
- Don't apply for jobs that state they won't pay for interview expenses (sign of much larger systematic issues)
- While my experience means I can fill a lot of needs (theatre, popular culture, literature, composition, developmental English) there are some jobs I've not applied for because I would not be happy teaching those courses or in those environments for five, ten, fifteen years
- I am looking for a long term situation. While I would happily take a one or three year position, and applied for some, I prefer a long term place. Which I know is the minority these days.
There's also the very practical case of student loans. My payments will start to be due in January 2017. My monthly payments will be roughly $350/month. If I have a higher ed job, and make regular payments, they should eventually be forgiven (after ten year mark). But if I don't, that's a lot of money every month. And was one of the main reasons why I need to finish this year. I still have years of funding available to me. I could've stayed here, stretched out the dissertation. But a) that means I'm another year on the job market, with nothing changed from this year and b) that's another $15,000 in student loan debt. And I just can't afford that.
There's also the idea of loyalty. I believe in it. If I am lucky enough to be hired by a high school or community college or university to teach, I've made a commitment to them. To my students. To my parents. To my community. And I would have ethical issues with betraying that.
I will take the bird in the hand and make my life good around a steady job.
No matter what. Unless I just stop working I am graduating this year.
I completed the second round of revisions on my dissertation 31 December.
So here is my ideal, proposed, schedule for the rest of the semester:
- CH 1-3 of this round (round 3) revisions to director by the end of January, and CH 4-6, as well as drafted intro and conclusion, by 11 March.
- Which puts round 4 (final) round of revisions in the month of April.
- So by the first week in May (2-6) I should have final drafts/revisions to my director
- That means that I should get the complete drafts to all of my committee members by 3 June so they have the month to read it.
- This would also be the time to lock down the defense date.
- I need to double check how this works with all committee members and their schedules as they're "off" in the summer
- Sunday 10 July is the summer defense deadline, but it is a Sunday, so my actual defense should be sometime the week before (4-8 July).
- If possible, to avoid any issues with filing with OGS, I’d prefer earlier in the week if possible.
Blink and you miss it.
And I guess these are the questions I'd put to you before accepting that PhD offer, many of which I'm trying to answer.
- What kind of life do I want?
- I don't want to worry about money. Not rich. Pay rent. Maybe afford to see my family once a year money. Put some savings aside money so I'm not working until I drop dead money.
- What does this look like?
- A house with a yard.
- Time with Nehi.
- Steady, solid employment.
- Benefits. Being able to afford the gum surgery I've put off for a year because I can't afford it.
- I love teaching. There are things I really miss about teaching high school and community college. So I'd like something that lets me do that.
- I'd like to not feel guilty about buying a book. Or renting a movie. I'd like for these things to be budgeted in, and not something I have to save for. The same for a baseball game or the occasional dinner out.
- I'd like to go back to reading things I like. Regularly.
So what does that mean I don't want?
- I don't want to work at four or five places to scrape together below poverty line wages.
- I don't want to worry if I can pay rent next month or if I'll be evicted. Or if I'm going to default on my student loans.
- I don't want to sacrifice my health because I don't have money or benefits.
Let me say that again because it's really important: THERE'S NO REASON TO TAKE ON DEBT AND NOT WORK FULL TIME TO GET A MASTER'S DEGREE.
If college teaching and scholarship is really the only thing you can image doing (and all that entails, and please don't tell me it's because you like literature, because I'll throw up) then apply. Accept that offer.
But hopefully this helps you see some of the realities.
Graduating this year, these are the realities post-graduation. This is what awaits me:
- the looming issues of this semester, and the summer, which are all things you need to consider how you'll address.