Personal Precarity

As a graduate student, what I found most striking about the initial round of responses to this forum was their silence on the matter of poverty. The fear and anxiety I have felt around the shortage of tenure-track positions was well articulated, as was my tendency to internalize the rejections that have come my way, but none of the responses discussed the limitations that financial insecurity can place on academic job searches.

I write this post from a very specific vantage point: that of someone about to have the PhD conferred who has started a full-time position off the sanctioned path of postdocs or visiting faculty positions. I am still technically employed in academia, but as a senior research support specialist for a primary care–focused institute at my university’s medical school. While I am not a medical anthropologist, my skills in qualitative research, communication, writing, and the navigation of institutional review boards earned me the job. However, it was my ability to translate these skills into a business-style resume that earned me an interview. This work of translation is not something I learned in an anthropology course, but rather at a one-off workshop outside of my department on applying to jobs outside academia.

My entire career in higher education was structured by the assumption that I would be a professor one day. I chose anthropology for love, but I also started down this path at a point when a tenured professorship seemed within reach. My classmates expected the baby boomers to retire soon and open up all kinds of positions. This was the early 2000s, when universities were not yet relying on adjuncts quite as heavily as they do today, and before the recession of 2008. I earned a bachelor’s degree in a four-field anthropology department, joined the Peace Corps, and returned home two years later to start a joint master’s/PhD program in a three-field department. I expected that by the time I finished, the economy would be growing again and my academic strengths and teaching skills would land me a job. All I wanted was a tenure-track position where I could conduct research, publish, teach, and mentor a new generation students. My passion for cultural anthropology kept me going through all of the challenges, complications, and anxieties of writing a dissertation.

As I reached the end of my doctoral program, I began to look around for full-time positions. The realization sank in that, although I had tried to locate my narrow dissertation topic within broader research areas, my specializations fit very few job postings. Departments were searching for candidates who fit other, currently trendy niches, or who could bring a daunting cornucopia of specialties. Many departments had to wait years for permission to hire someone, and now they wanted one candidate who could fill multiple needs. Or, increasingly, one tenure-track hire who can be supported by a cadre of adjuncts.

Still, I applied to every position that I could justify to my recommenders, and I struggled not to internalize the lack of interview requests. Then, a close friend of mine landed a nine-month visiting assistant professorship just after finishing her PhD. During the interview process, she was told that it was likely her position would be extended for a second year. The job was across the country, so my friend paid to move herself, hoping that the second year would justify the expense. As soon as she arrived, though, the department chair informed her that the university would not, in fact, have the funds to retain her past her nine-month contract. That left her teaching a 4/4 courseload while applying for jobs and trying to publish. When I last saw her at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, she was exhausted and worried for her future.

This situation, alongside the experiences of other colleagues who had graduated and were adjuncting at multiple institutions or jumping desperately from postdoc to postdoc or working at a hardware store while applying for academic positions, gave me pause. These were all smart, dedicated academics who were struggling to make ends meet. And my own financial position was more precarious than what I knew of theirs. These colleagues were either single or had partners who worked full-time outside academia. Meanwhile, my husband is a fellow graduate student who started his PhD after me and is now in the midst of writing up.

While we have landed grants and fellowships over our years in graduate school, worked an array of part-time jobs, and juggled teaching with our own research, neither of us has much of a savings account. We have both had to supplement research funding with our own money, draining what reserves we had saved. Separately, we each have student loan debt in the triple digits; together, our debts are mountainous. Some of this debt comes from my husband’s undergraduate loans, which are in deferral but accruing interest while he is in school. Some is from the interest that our individual Stafford loans have been accruing since Congress ended subsidized Stafford loans for graduate students. The rest is the principal of loans we have taken out year after year to make ends meet while working part-time jobs and being full-time students.

It is in this respect that I feel most precarious. When I graduate in May, I will have spent nine years in graduate school. Nine years of taking out loans—usually without room in my sparse budget to make interest payments. In marrying my husband, I have more than doubled my debts. We are now in our thirties, and while old friends have spent the past decade building careers, investing, and saving for retirement, we are worse off financially than when we graduated from college. In a few months, I will begin to make payments on my loans. The consolidated ones come up for repayment starting in June, while my Stafford loans come with a six-month grace period. Yes, I can sign up for income-based repayment plans or try to qualify for economic forbearance, but these loans will be with me for decades.

My husband and I also want to start a family before we hit our forties, when reproduction can become more complicated, risky, and expensive. These are the thoughts, taken together, that have led me to reevaluate my career path at the eleventh hour. Three months before my defense, as my advisor read the final draft of my dissertation, I chose stability, financial security, and a career path over my passion for teaching anthropology. The result, four months later? I am less anxious and more confident than I have been for a decade.