PhD Students on Welfare and Working Service Jobs: Thoughts on the PhD Trap
PhD students – particularly those in upper cohorts – know all too well the debilitating and humiliating experiences of finding themselves stuck in the PhD trap. What, you ask, is the PhD Trap? The PhD Trap happens when you have run out of funding and are no longer eligible to apply for guaranteed Teaching Assistantships. In order to, well, live, you then find a job. Because you are now working, though, you are unable to focus on your dissertation, leading to a longer completion time or – even worse - to never finishing your dissertation.
This, of course, assumes that PhD Students are single without children. You can imagine what happens then when you’re a PhD student with kids to support. If you are lucky, you will have a partner who is willing to pitch in, either by doing half of the reproductive work or by ensuring that the bills are paid. But what if you’re a single parent? Then it really becomes impossible to finish on time because the scholarships and the TAships that you get are insufficient to support a household with one or more children! Have you heard of PhD students on welfare (Employment Insurance in Canada)? Trust me, it happens. Some of those who’ve had to resort to this are people I know personally.
A survey MOTL and I conducted a year and a half ago within our department, which 100+ students responded to, was indicative of the dire financial straights PhD students find themselves in when trying to finish their degrees. While financial vulnerability is evident in all year-levels, students who have lapsed out of the funding cohort are most at-risk. A majority (50%+) have done the following to finance their degrees:
1. Taken out a line of credit
2. Borrowed money from parents, family members, friends
3. Worked 2+ jobs (beyond TAships and RAships)
The first two survey results initially flabbergasted me but it clearly makes sense if you think about it closely. If you are financially vulnerable, borrowing money really becomes one of the few options that you have. This is why some of my friends well into their PhDs have resorted to working in jobs in the service industry to meet their bills; being paid close to minimum wage, however, doesn’t actually pay all of the bills, so options 1 and 2 listed above becomes increasingly necessary.
The fact is, readers, no one really likes to admit the realities of financial precariousness because it is embarrassing. Some think that this is a sign of personal failure. “I should’ve finished faster,” WE, a friend in my program, once told me. “It’s my fault that I’m in this position.” What I should’ve told WE, rather than nodding in agreement, was that while personal accountability is important, there should also be institutional accountability.
In my department, not only have mandatory course requirements been increased, making it more difficult for students to finish their course work in their first few years, funding opportunities have also dried up. Factor in the reality that some supervisors have absurdly high standards when passing research proposals, which in my department is needed in order to achieve PhD Candidacy status. It is in fact common in my department to hear of students who’ve taken two years to get their proposals approved, which means that by the time they get “All But Dissertation” (ABD) status, they are already in fourth or fifth or sixth year. Then we get to the dissertation approval stage. Some professors I know are against meeting their students while they are writing their dissertations because they do not want to provide feedback on chapters. “Why should I?,” one professor said to me. “If people saw the David before Michelangelo started working on it, all they would see is a lump of clay. I want to see the finished product before I can give feedback.” The flaws behind this rationale are quite clear: if you wait for two years before even giving your supervisor your chapters, what happens when s/he sees the finished product and finds it unsatisfactory? Do you make another sculpture?
So, you ask, what can be done? Well, I think we should hold our departments accountable to our needs as PhD students, specifically as upper year PhD Candidates. Use your union and your graduate student representatives. They don’t wield a lot of power, but they hold some. If job postings aren’t advertised or assigned correctly, tell the union!
Also, we all need to hussle. Much like all job markets, there is a hidden job market in academia and in your department. Postings for sessionals and research-assistantships are technically supposed to be made public, but in reality, we all know that the people who ultimately get hired are the those who have connections with the professors doing the hiring. This is true for all job markets – those who network well and forge relationships with potential employers are the ones who avail of the opportunities of the hidden job market and who ultimately get hired. This is clearly the case in academia.
As for me, I am buckling down, working on my dissertation and my publications, and getting the hell out of here. I’ve achieved some moderate success in my work, which is giving me the momentum needed to write, write, and write. But I also recognize that I am luckier than most: I have a great supervisor and a supportive committee who doesn’t seek to derail me, and while I occasionally freak out about falling into the PhD Trap, I don’t think I will have to (*knocks on wood*). I am forever aware, though, that others aren’t as lucky. On the whole, I like research and I like my colleagues; I like teaching and derive inspiration from my students. But academia as an institution is so dysfunctional that it kills me.