Friday, August 24, 2007

Will Work For No Food

Currently, I am actually sitting by my mailbox. Ok, it's on the outside of the house and I'm on the inside, but it's right there outside this window, and I'm watching it. I'm waiting for the financial aid check that feels like it is well overdue. It's the check that will cover the bills and rent until the semester's first paycheck and then supplement my meager earnings until January, when another check will arrive to take its place for the spring semester.

Today, I resent the hell out of this check. I need it so badly. I've spent weeks now trying to be creative with my meals and playing games with which checks get sent in when, hoping to avoid anything bouncing or losing electricity and sitting in the dark. I don't mind, so much, in the summers, when I work a little and wait a little and have big blocks of time that belong only to me. But when I look out into the great expanse of fall, look into weeks that will be warm with frenzied activity and cold with the coming winter, I start to get extremely frustrated about the financial sacrifices graduate school entails.

In the fall, I do not choose to make money stretch and hope that the warm summer mornings without an office to drag towards are worth what they quite literally cost me. But when the first semester of the new school year begins, I work my ass off. Average teaching load at this university for a TA is four sections of twenty students each. That's 80 students who I teach in class, talk to in office hours, coax through assignments and prod through excuses and lies and plain old absence. I grade their papers, know their names, listen to their academic problems and take their criticism seriously. It's my job and it's a good job and I'm grateful for it. But I often feel as if the university is taking advantage of my passion for the work and my need for a job compatible with this education to get highly skilled labor for very substandard prices. They use me, and I'm grateful for it. And that pisses me off.

This semester, I'm lecturing a course. I'm excited about the time in the classroom, the freedom to create the syllabus and the plain fun I'll have with the students. But I don't actually get paid as much to do this job as I do as a Teaching Assistant. Like my work as a TA, my work as a lecturer makes it possible for the university to charge an undergraduate an obscene amount of tuition to come and take this course. If graduate students and recent PhDs weren't willing to work for far, far less than professors who do the same job, the university would be screwed. They know it. They have to know it. But they count on a brutal, long educational process and a vicious job market to keep us in our place.

It's not that I didn't know, coming to graduate school, that very little money would end up in my account. I very consciously decided that work as a TA was the best on-the-job training I could ask for and that I was willing to see that education as a compensation in and of itself. What I didn't realize was that the material compensation I would receive would not even begin to cover the costs of living in this town. I've had funding almost every semester I've been here. I've had loans almost every semester, as well. And I don't know a single other graduate student who has escaped that fate here. Apparently, graduate work now requires not just a short-term financial sacrifice and a willingness to become very familiar with very cheap foodstuffs. It also requires that I make a sacrifice of my long-term financial health. Professors don't get paid enough to compensate for these loans.

Thank god, I suppose, that I'm fairly good with money and careful with bills. I manage to get by without credit cards and to stash quarters and dollars away to help pay for the research trips that make graduate work in history that much more expensive. Mostly, though, I'm thankful that I have no doubts that this is the profession for me. If I did, I wouldn't be able to justify the debt and financial worry. I would, like other graduate students I have known, have to abandon the project for something more stable. But I still wish I'd taken the financial aspects of graduate study into greater consideration when I chose my university. I might not have chosen this one, and I'm not the only one who feels this way. Graduate programs in general have to start making graduate work financially realistic, or their ability to recruit and keep the best students to teach the university's undergrads is going to tank, and with it the university's reputation. This place is only as good as the students who come here and the students who teach them.

The postman just walked past my house with nothing for my box. The check did not come today. It'll be another 24 hours of hoping that no checks will bounce or no fees will be deducted while I sit here and work on my syllabus for the fall. I've got to get this formalized so I can put together the copy packet and start writing lectures. I'm not on the clock, though, for another week. They'll get this weekend's work for free.


Blogger Emily said...

Delurking to say that you've beautifully captured what I've thought for four long years. I'm a graduate student teaching my own class for the first time this semester (I'm usually a TA or a Grader). I'll be doing several times the work of a grader, but getting paid the same amount. All of which is to say, I feel your pain and I'm so sorry!

5:48 PM  
Blogger Ancrene Wiseass said...


/nodding head/

I so know what you mean. I'm taking out more gigantic loans this year than ever, and resenting the hell out of just about everyone/thing involved with the process. The "it's an investment in me!" rationale doesn't really seem to cut it when you can't get adequate treatment for crushing migraines because you can't afford it, but are simultaneously taking out loans in the six figures.

I'd say more, but I'm so exhausted by it all that I really can't muster much of anything else.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Acre said...

Emily, thanks for delurking! And I do think that one of the things that makes it survivable is knowing that every other grad student is in the same boat. Or most of us, anyway.

Ancrene, the investment thing really doesn't hold, does it? Because if this is a financial investment in our future, it's the worst investment EVER. I was making more before I went to grad school than I will as an assistant professor.

And it is exhausting. It's just one more thing that drains me of the ability to focus and actually get the job done. There's a presumption, I think, of wealth or at least outside income, among grad students that's left over from days when a girl from the middle of nowhere with an already substantial number of undergrad loans would never go to grad school. And it sucks.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Frog Princess said...

Delurking like Emily to wholeheartedly agree and thank you for this post, Acre. My institution gives a lot of funding for which I am hugely grateful (i am too young for massive loans and my family was so wrecked by loans that I am unusually averse to them) but the financial people are still so lax about finances, making mistakes every month that affect distribution or that simply mean we are not paid when we are supposed to be. It's become so clear to me that graduate schools have no idea and do not care about the huge financial sacrifices that graduate school entails, sacrifices that make us question whether we've chosen the right path.

And, like ancrene wiseass, I too have gone to the pharmacy for migraine medication just to find out that I can't afford the copay. How exactly do I write the "brilliant" research they pay me to do if I cannot see straight.

2:56 AM  
Blogger Geeka said...

I totally hear you.

Something that makes it worse for me is that my husband is self employed, which means he doesn't have health insurance. After we got married, I added him to our health insurance at a cost of $300 a month. He got hurt last year (crushed 3 vertebrate in his neck) so now, there has to be the insurance.

We get a stipend, which, I have heard from others is pretty good. We are also getting a $200 a month raise in September. This will probably mean that I get to go shopping the last week of the month (we get paid once a month).

The thing that really makes me laugh is that if your boss decides that you get to go to a conference, you should pay for everything up front, and get reinbursed later. I don't know how the hell they think paying for hotel, food, and a $1100 registration fee is in the budget of a grad student.

6:29 AM  
Blogger RunningRedLettered said...

Geeka, I hear the pre-pay conference. It's great to submit receipts afterwards, but seriously, I always am thinking, "how much is going on my credit card that may not get reimbursed for 4-6 weeks?"

10:47 AM  
Blogger Breena Ronan said...

OMG your post sounds so familiar. My husband is an undergrad at the moment. I have seriously thought about taking a break from school to make some extra cash for us, but then I would likely be without health insurance for a while and would have to start paying back my student loans. So instead I work more than the officially approved amount on campus. Getting a TA and RA at the same time so that we can make ends meet. No wonder I'm not getting my research done.

10:04 PM  

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