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Getting Through Graduate School with a Day-to-Day Job

On temporarily stepping outside academia for employment in order to finish my degree.

May 16, 2018
 
 

Heather VanMouwerik is a candidate in the history department at the University of California, Riverside. She is also the Managing Editor for GradHacker, a blog for Inside Higher Ed. You can follow her @HVanMouwerik or check out her website.

About three years ago, my now-husband took his dream job and moved across the country. After spending a year separated by an entire continent, I quit my TA-ship, filed for in absentia, and moved to be with him. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one.

Once I was settled in my new state, it was time to get working! However, after a few months, my savings account was running low, I was lonely and isolated, and I wasn’t making much progress on my dissertation. Honestly, I was pretty low. But after discussing it with my partner and doing a lot of thinking, I decided to get a job. Not a career, adjunct position, or anything inside academia, but an easy, clock in/clock out, workaday job. As opposed to a career (the thing I went to graduate school for, interned for, and dream about), I define a day-to-day job as something that does not require a lot of experience, something that does not require you to give it much thought on your days off. It is often fun, but also temporary.

If you are in a position where your funding has run out or a major life change requires a readjustment to your schedule, then getting this sort of job might just be the answer. Here are a few things to think about, though, before you make your decision:

Are you sure you have applied for all the grants/fellowships/awards you can?

Before moving, I applied for every grant or fellowship that I could in hopes of staying in academia. However, it just wasn’t my funding cycle. I was intense about it, too—spreadsheets, schedules, courses through Grad Division. Although I was interviewed for a couple and made it to the second or third round on a few more, nothing came through. Being so far removed geographically from my home campus (and my *cough* seniority within my program) meant these methods of funding my education dried up quickly. I didn’t have to like it, but I did need to reconcile with it.

What would the benefits be if you got a day-to-day job?

I fully recognize that I came at this question from a position of privilege. I had a TA position, which I chose to leave. This means that money was tight, but my partner and I were not starving. In addition, neither of us had any dependents to worry about. I don’t think I would have chosen to get a job if money had been the only concern; however, it wasn’t. I discovered in those first few months that I did not handle unemployment well. The hours of the day would spread out in front of me, paralyzing me with fear and loneliness. I would start each day with the best intentions, but by noon I was watching Netflix and feeling sorry for myself. I needed socialization; I needed boundaries and a schedule. For me, getting a job meant interacting with people, establishing a clear schedule, and bringing in a little extra money.

The costs?

The biggest cost for me (and most likely you) is that of time. If you get a job outside of the university, then it is going to be up to you to carve out time to work on your dissertation. This means you that will have little free time to yourself and that you will have to get vicious in defending it. I found the people posting on #phdweekend super helpful in this regard. More surprising for me was how difficult it is to exist in a work environment where being a graduate student or having an advanced degree isn’t important. Losing my identity as a graduate student was profoundly painful. I struggled to explain to my coworkers what it is actually like to be working on a Ph.D. Some days it felt like a failure—to finish, to find funding, to be an academic. But I can live with all of these costs, because they are temporary and they are actually helping me achieve my larger goal.

Have you made sure that you’ve minimized your expenses? Have you talked to your department?

If money is a large part of your decision to get a job, then it might be a good idea to first make sure that your expenses are minimized. While making the decision to get a job, I wrote up a budget and started religiously following it. Also, I had a long and honest talk with the graduate student advisor in my department. Tuition, health insurance, fees, and completion schedules—she laid everything out and helped me make the most fiscally responsible decision while also working toward my degree. I found that getting all of these nuts and bolts together first meant that I had a very clear sense of my financial situation and that I knew exactly what my goals were

Are you looking for a career or a way to pay the bills? Is part-time enough, or do you need full-time?

I now work for an independent bookstore, which is a great job! Being surrounded by books and the people who love them all day keeps me intellectually stimulated. Even more than that, it has reignited my love for pleasure reading. But it is still retail. My schedule changes from week-to-week, the work is a lot of standing and lifting and shelving and more shelving, and it isn’t my dream job. Before applying to the bookstore, I tried to get into a career. I applied to libraries, academic departments, and private schools; however, the market is tight. The rejection letters, common in those first months on the market, did nothing for my productivity or sense of isolation. So I decided to get a job quickly, one that could pay the bills and get me out of the house. I still apply for those dream jobs as they come up, just in case, but these applications are now sent from a place of stability and productivity.

What is your work/life/dissertation plan?

Before signing up for a job—be it a career or a just-for-now—be clear with yourself: When are you going to work on your dissertation? How are you going to be held accountable? What is your schedule? Now that I have been doing this for a year, I have learned a lot about myself and my productivity. I used to think that I could only work in the morning, because in graduate school I got most of my work done early, before classes. What I have discovered, though, is that it is less about the time of day and more about the habit. Instead of getting up earlier and working, I spend the morning with my partner, go to work, get a cup of coffee in town, and go to the library to work for a couple of hours. This habit, this ritual is all I need to be productive.

Although I have presented this process in a linear and straightforward way, it isn’t. I still go back-and-forth. Should I have held out for a more academic job? Do we really need to have two cars? Why couldn’t I get even one grant? Just last month, for example, I decided to drop down from full- to part-time, because I was starting to lose the thread, to forget that I was writing my dissertation first and working second. This list of questions is meant to be constantly revisited, constantly reevaluated as your personal needs and priorities change.

Have you had to take on a day-to-day job in graduate school? What helped you balance work/life/dissertation? Let us know about it in the comments!

[Image, which is in the Public Domain, is by Flickr user rob walsh.]

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