When you start getting serious about turning your desperation into inspiration (which has pretty much been my process over the last year or so), you start thinking about what’s holding you back from all different kinds of things. As always, the things that hold us back in life are usually ourselves. Money, for me, is tangled up with a whole lot of other emotionally charged things, including love and food
People often ask me for advice about transitioning out of academic and into self-employment. My best and biggest piece of advice to newly “alt-ac” people entering into the world of small business is this:
Academics hate talking about money. Lots of academics don’t want to think of themselves as cogs in capitalist systems because they produce lofty things like ideas and knowledge. People who produce ideas for a living often believe that they are qualitatively different from people who produce any other type of commodity. Some academics would have us believe that producing ideas doesn’t cost time and money and have economic value, as if the academic “life of the mind” is somehow exempt from larger market forces. Assuming that academic work is exempt from economic realities leads to further magical thinking where nothing costs money.
(Usual caveat: #notallacademics but #manyacademics.)
Back in reality, the dirty grease of labor exploitation keeps our academic machinery running smoothly. In this model, incredibly underpaid and underemployed people such as graduate students and contingent faculty perform the bulk of teaching labor to support the bloated salaries of upper-level administrators and the productivity of senior faculty. In addition to performing their poorly compensated part-time jobs with minimal health insurance, graduate students and adjunct faculty are also expected to render an enormous amount of entirely unpaid labor. The problem of exploitative unpaid labor, of course, becomes compounded by gendered and racial expectations that make unpaid work the domain of women and particularly women of color.
Most academics work a massive number of uncompensated hours, including meeting with students, grading, syllabus planning, assisting with other people's research, and answering email on the weekend. Academics also perform free labor when they agree to write book reviews, organize conference panels, and write book chapters for edited volumes. Academics justify asking each other for unpaid labor by dangling the promise of “another CV line,” regardless of the value of that line. A book review, for example, is nearly worthless as a CV line apart from its function as padding in order to make a thin CV appear more serious. Academics living on the edge of precarity, such as PhD students and adjuncts, do these things to get “experience” in order to procure an ever shrinking pool of available and reasonably compensated stable academic jobs.
The idea that free labor is the expected norm makes transitioning out of academia challenging in terms of money. When you’ve been providing free labor for years without question, the concept of getting paid in the form of money and not in “experience” seems foreign. If you’re making the transition out of academia, keep in mind that your now former academic colleagues likely will not understand that you now work for money. If you decide, for example, to start a small business and offer your writing expertise for money, people will continue to contact you to request free labor. People will ask you to write book chapters, to peer review journal articles, to review (generally awful) books, comment on conference panels, or to provide them with your service for free or well below the rate you’ve decided to charge.
People will promise you things that make it seem like they’re paying you, like lines on your CV or that mythical currency of “exposure” and “experience.” Here’s the thing: none of those things are money.
You may want to try the following thought experiments to test this theory. Try:
- Paying for your rent or mortgage with the last conference panel you commented.
- Paying for a tank of gas with an academic book review you agreed to write.
- Paying for your bar tab with all of the “experience” you’ve gotten lately.
When you’ve completed these thought experiments and find that your free labor or CV lines are not accepted as payment for anything, your choices get a lot clearer. Once you’ve gone off the academic grid and you’re working for money, the only thing that you should accept as payment is cash that goes in your checking account.
Your services and expertise are worth money. When people ask what you charge, you tell them your rate. If they don’t want to pay it, you can say no.
Saying no is hard. Saying no to a paying opportunity while you’re trying to earn enough money to avoid starving is even harder. When you’re feeling desperate, you might find yourself thinking about caving to a job that pays below your rate. When you start wavering on getting paid what you’re worth, try the following. Go to your nearest Costco or large grocery store. Fill up your cart with lots of things. Get in the checkout line. Explain to the clerk that you would like to purchase all the things in your cart, but you don’t want to pay what they’re worth. Instead, you’d like to pay about half of their value. See if the clerk will let you take the groceries home without paying full price for them. When you discover that you can’t purchase groceries this way, come back and keep reading.
Your work, whatever it is (academic or not) is not fundamentally different that selling any other thing for money. (Yes, academics, I can hear that your work is so different because it's about producing ideas, not widgets. I have bad news for you: We’re all living in the same economy.) You provide a service or make something. You charge money for it. People pay you for it. End of story.
If you’re just starting out, you may be tempted to trade your expertise and skill in exchange for a below market rate in order to get some experience. The internet is full of shady corners where freelance hacks of all stripes engage in cut-throat competition to provide substandard services for rock-bottom rates. If you haven’t lately, look at Fiverr or sites like Upwork and see what people are paying and charging. I just looked at Upwork for academic editing jobs. One person would like to pay a dissertation editor $200 to review at 114 page dissertation. By comparison, I would charge $700-$950. Another person is offering $100 to someone in exchange for editing three chapters of a dissertation. In my world, (assuming 25 page chapters), that’s $400-$600. All of these jobs have 10-15 people bidding ferociously for the wonderful opportunity to get paid pennies.
I have a PhD. I’m expert in my field. I’m a good writer and careful editor. I spend a lot of time on client materials because I care about the quality of my work. I care about helping people produce great writing. I take a lot of pride in what I do. I love helping people turn kind of meh writing into something that shines.
But I can’t do it for free. I have to work for money.
Sometimes people get roped into providing free labor because they love what they do. It sounds like this: if you love to do something, you should be willing to do it for free. As I tweeted recently, just because you love to do something doesn’t mean that you have to perform free labor for anyone.
This doesn’t mean that I have not sometimes donated my time to causes I care deeply about. I recently wrote a piece (for free, on my own time) about my alt-ac experience for some friends who were putting together a book about this. I believe in sharing my experiences and knowledges with others and I believed in their project. But I thought a lot about it. I thought about what it would mean to say yes to that particular opportunity. I thought about what I’d gain. I also thought about what I’d be saying no to if I said yes to writing for free. If I wrote for free, I’d be using my time to work for free that I could devote to paying work instead. In the end, I decided to say yes because I believed in the project and made a conscious decision to donate my time and skill to it.
It sucks that our current neoliberal system reduces everything to a monetary transaction and that our greatest freedom is essentially the freedom to sell our labor to the highest bidder. But that’s our reality right now. And charging money for my expertise is how I keep the lights on at my house and buy groceries.
I still can’t afford to work for free. But thanks for asking.
Hi, my name is Lisa. I have a PhD in history. I’m currently $XXX,XXX in PhDebt. I'm too ashamed to share the actual dollar amount, but rest assured that it is definitely six figures. And it fucking sucks.
This is my personal story about accumulating a ridiculous amount of debt to pay for an education.
But first, why am I (and everyone else I know who has pursued at PhD recently) in this much debt?
The Nature and Scope of the Problem
PhDebt is a term I’ve coined (or at least I think I’ve coined it) to describe the particular awfulness of accruing insane amounts of debt to pay for a PhD.
Although we hear a lot in the news these days about student debt, news stories usually report on undergraduate debt. Don’t get me wrong: undergraduate debt is serious. Using some 2017 statistics for overall student debt from Student Loan Hero (with whom I am not affiliated in any way), we find:
$1.26 trillion in total U.S. student loan debt
44.2 million Americans with student loan debt
Student loan delinquency rate of 11.1%
Average monthly student loan payment (for borrower aged 20 to 30 years): $351
Median monthly student loan payment (for borrower aged 20 to 30 years): $203
(Data via newyorkfed.org and clevelandfed.org)
Any way you look at these statistics, they look bad.
If undergraduate student debt is bad, PhDebt, I think, is worse. PhD students are in school longer (depending, of course, on their course of student), usually later in life. Graduate loans also (depending on their kind) often carry higher interest rates. In other words, we’re borrowing huge sums of money at high interest rates when we’re in our 30s and 40s in the pursuit of dwindling numbers of jobs.
Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In (with who I am also not affiliated), invited readers to share their debt struggles on a Google spreadsheet. Turns out, the number of people who responded to share their debt information (and shame) was overwhelming. There are now two spreadsheets worth of PhDebt information. As far as I’m aware, this is the only real data available about the scope and nature of the PhDebt problem.
Drawing on Karen Kelsky’s data, The Atlantic published an article about PhDdebt in 2014. It is, as the headline implies, the dirty secret about academia. We might look like success stories on the outside, but we'll making massive student debt payments for years.
In the end, some writers argued that a PhD might not be worth it.
Unfortunately, they were too late for me. The already anemic academic history job market collapsed in 2008. As of this writing, it hasn't recovered. I couldn't get an interview for an academic job, much less actually land one.
It is now my personal responsibility to pay off my debt without the job that I assumed was waiting for me at the end of the PhD tunnel.
How I Ended Up in PhDebt
My personal PhDebt story started in August of 2007. I’d come back from my Peace Corps service in Guatemala the year before, burning to study Latin American history. I was a brand new master’s student.
I came out of my undergraduate degree at a small state college without any debt, thanks to family help and a lot of scholarships.
I wasn’t offered any financial aid at the beginning of my program, but assumed I’d receive funding eventually.
I took out a bunch of loans to cover my tuition, housing, and living expenses. I got a job and worked ten hours a week for extra money. The job didn’t pay much, but I reasoned that if I “worked my way through school,” I wouldn’t be saddled with crippling student loan debt when I graduated.
My degree program eventually gave me a teaching assistant ship, known as “full funding.” As I would learn much later, full funding means nothing of the sort. My department gave me a tuition waiver and paid me for teaching, but costs continued to rack up. I didn't worry about it too much. Student debt was "good debt," I reasoned. Plus, everyone else I knew was doing the same thing.
Funding for graduate students kept shrinking. Although the dismal funding situation for history students became a routine talking point, we did not talk about how many students were accruing debt at alarming rates. I don’t know any of my graduate cohort who lived in expensive apartments or drove fancy cars. Nevertheless, I think many of us found that even affording groceries on our $1200 a month salaries as teaching assistants was difficult.
Through some weird circumstances beyond my control, I lost my small part time job. In truth, I was relieved, as the sheer volume of coursework overwhelmed and exhausted me. I didn’t want to take six credits a semester; I wanted to take nine. I reasoned that I would “finish faster” and have less debt. Without the small extra paycheck, I turned to student loan money to make up the difference. I took out a small Graduate PLUS loan at one point, which had carried a ridiculous interest rate of 8.6%.
Costs increased as I went through my program. I funded necessary research trips and conferences with my student loans. I expected to receive some fantastic fellowship to fund my dissertation research. I had my heart set of the Fulbright-Hays. Incredibly, the year I submitted my proposal, the competition was canceled. I wrote grants for Inter-American Foundation, Boren Foundation, School of American Research, and a bunch of smaller grants. I received rejection letters for all the major grants I applied to. I won a few smaller grants, but nothing that would cover the year I planned to spend abroad completing my research. Without external funding, I decided that I’d just have to suck it up, take out more loans, and self-fund my research.
My final semester of graduate school, my department did not offer me any funding. I had no tuition waiver and no teaching assistantship. I faced the prospect of paying full out-of-state tuition, housing, and living costs. So close to finishing and panicking at the prospect of not finishing, I applied for a final round of loans. I finished writing my dissertation as quickly as I could. I finished in December of 2014. I defended and completed my revisions before the start of the 2015 spring semester. I refused to pay for one credit for another semester. I graduated with a PhD in history and six figure debt.
(The horror of the academic job market and my failure on it are for another post.)
I don’t wish to blame anyone for my debt situation. My department offered me the funding it could. The job market, already on a downhill slide because of neoliberalism and corporatization of higher education, happened to bottom out in 2008. Bad timing. Above all, I know that my debt was, and is, my fault and responsibility. Education is an investment. Like any investment, it sometimes doesn't work out. I gambled that getting a PhD would lead to a well paying job. It didn't. Some people have mortgages. I have a PhD.
My alumni association calls me occasionally to ask for money. It often uses bubbly and enthusiastic sophomores to makes these calls.
"SO TELL ME ALL ABOUT YOUR AMAZING UNIVERSITY EXPERIENCE!" one will say.
"It was real expensive," I explain.