Gambling with your life

At first, the higher education gambling industry lets you win a little by giving you a full ride for a year and telling you not to worry about subsequent years because you’ll find some source of funding. So you think “Wow, I’m getting paid to be a student! I can do this!”

Then, your second or third year, you loose half or all of your funding, but you are given a T.A. position with tuition remission and a small salary for living expenses. You can’t survive on your T.A.-ship and 1/2 or 1/4 of your previous fellowship alone, because you probably live in an expensive city and have a spouse who is in the same position and needs your support. So you tell yourself “Why don’t I take out a little loan. This is just temporary. I’ll get a better fellowship next year.”

Next year comes around, you have made little progress on your writing because the T.A.-ship is taking up all your time. You feel that you just have to manage your time better with your new “no minute left behind-without work” regiment. You also apply for fellowships again and you get denied – not because you’re not brilliant, but because there are only two fellowships out there and the recipients have already been decided by the academic gods and given to their  “favored children.” However, you keep telling yourself “I’m going through a dry spell and something will have to give. I just need to work harder and be more brilliant.”

Although the voices in your head tell you to keep charging ahead and not give up, your gut keeps yelling “run.” So you ignore your gut and take out another round of loans to supplement your joke of a salary from your T.A.-ship. Now, you’re in your fourth or fifth year. Your writing is suffering because the T.A.-ship is taking 30-40 hours a week, pays less than minimum wage, and you don’t have any emotional or mental energy left to give to your own work.

So at this point you’ve actually been paying to work (yes, you have been paying $15,000 a year to work because you had to take out $15,000 in loans to supplement your T.A. income) for the past two years, but you make yourself believe that this is part of being a Ph.D. student– getting teaching experience and paying your dues.

Also, now that you are in your fourth or fifth year, the stakes are higher and you don’t want to quit after investing all this time and $10,000 or $15,000 a year in loans for every year you’ve stayed in the program. You motivate yourself to keep going for another year. And the cycle continues, but now it’s even harder to get fellowships because you’re in your 4th or 5th year. You don’t qualify for dissertation fellowships because you are nowhere near being done, but you are also too far removed from your coursework. So basically there are no fellowships for people like you. But you apply anyway, hoping that your good thoughts will go out to the universe and that the universe will give you a miracle in return. However, the universe responds with a resounding silence.

You finally decide that you need to up the ante, drop your T.A.-ship and take on an even bigger loan just so that you can get ahead in your writing. You think, “This is my last year and I just need to suck it up and get the $30,000 loan so I can finish this damn degree.” However, you are also extremely depressed, have health problems and an unfeeling committee member who doesn’t respond to your emails and when he finally does he thinks your dissertation is nowhere being done.

This way, you keep going for another year or two until you finish. And now you have spent 7-10 years of your life, are $80,000-$120,000 in debt and you can’t find a job because only 15% of Ph.D.’s find tenure track jobs. Even though you went to a prestigious research university and some of your cohort members have tenure track positions, you realize that most of them had to leave the state and teach somewhere in the Midwest. You contemplate doing the same, except that, being an immigrant, a minority and a married woman, you don’t feel comfortable leaving your family and your whole support network to move to an isolating place for 5-7 years, work your a$$ off and maybe get tenure if all the stars align. So instead, you take a local adjunct position, earning less than $20,000 a year, and you keep hoping to be hired for a full-time position at your university.

After a few years, you realize that you are at a dead end job. At this point you have gambled over 10 years of your life (your highest earning years), $100,000 (it’s more like a $1,000,000 if you count lost wages for 10 years), your friends, your health and your chances of ever being gainfully employed, having children or buying a house and so you finally decide to quit gambling with your life because this is a losing game.


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