Living With Precarity in Academia (Part 1)

Paula R. Curtis
December 22, 2021

Last year a light went on in my brain. Actually, a light went out in my apartment. One of my cats knocked over my standing lamp and cracked the plastic shade. It was one of those Target lamps you can buy for 20 bucks, the kind that many people use in college dorms or in their first apartment—the cheapest available option. I’d had the lamp for so long that the plastic shade literally crumbled like a Ritz cracker when I picked it up off the floor. I then scoured the internet for replacement shades, frustrated that I had a perfectly good stand but no one sold these cheap covers online. What a waste of money to buy a whole new one! I grumbled. But an hour and a dozen websites later, it hit me: You can just buy a new lamp. A better lamp. A lamp that doesn’t cost less than a large pizza and crackle into dust after a few years of use. I sighed. Despite my currently stable financial circumstances, I still wasn’t giving myself permission to have nice things.

Many people go through this thought process regardless of whether they’re in academia. It’s common knowledge that millennials (most of whom are in their 30s or 40s, mind you) and the generations that follow us are living in some of the most financially unstable circumstances in U.S. history, and the U.S. is not alone in its economic troubles. As a result, the urge to penny-pinch, to live in denial, and to compensate for a constant state of anxiety about financial resources evaporating at the turn of each academic year is an incredibly difficult habit to break. In this article, I want to talk candidly about economic precarity within academia. It’s a conversation that many of us are hesitant to have, both with one another or with our mentors. Precarity can come with a sense of shame, of despair, and of isolation. But we do ourselves and others in our communities a disservice by not recognizing the realities that shape if and how we conduct our work and go about our everyday lives.

These issues can be extremely sensitive in academia despite the fact that job opportunities are dwindling. In History alone–my field–the American Historical Association has reported that “PhDs [continue] to face narrow windows for finding tenure-track positions” as job openings continue at a historic low and individuals often spend as many as five to seven years “on the market.” Furthermore, as with many forms of employment, salaries for those that remain have failed to keep up with cost of living. To make matters worse, career goals outside the Ivory Tower are only just beginning to be acknowledged as valid pursuits post-PhD. Studies since 2020 have shown that approximately 25% of adjunct faculty depend on public assistance programs (3 out of every 4 adjunct faculty are hired on a term-to-term basis) and nearly two-thirds of all faculty are non-tenure track. One adjunct professor recently wrote that she made anywhere from $10,000 to $23,000 annual salary, depending on if it was a “good year,” while assistant professor salaries can vary widely from school to school.

Even generously supported graduate students, too, are paid far less than the cost of living, and those struggling to obtain employment, contingent faculty, and at times even pre-tenure professors can find themselves in dire financial straits, barely able to stay afloat despite attaining (increasingly difficult to attain) positions in academia. Frustrated by a lack of financial support, this year graduate students have unionized in record numbers and initiated historic strikes. With universities and colleges across the country cutting tenure-track faculty, chipping away tenure protections, and in some cases closing their doors entirely, even tenure-track jobs may not provide the long-term economic security hoped for by aspiring academics.

The precarious circumstances, whether experienced by students or faculty, become especially frustrating (and enraging) in the face of clickbait articles that sensationalize a financial “normal” that is far out of reach for most of us, like 25-year-olds with a take-home pay of over $5,000 a month, people who claim to be “scraping by” earning $500,000 or $400,000 a year, or couples who “prove” you can buy property and pay off your student loans in three years (if only your parents give you the gift of a free condo, employ you at their non-profit, and you move back in with your grandparents!). Hell, even the life of The Simpsons has been far out of reach for decades now. We’re ready to read and (justifiably) be livid about the hot takes, but often less prepared to expose ourselves as someone grappling with getting by or to openly ask about solutions.

It goes without (but is worth) saying that whatever your circumstances, they are unique to you. This article is being written from the perspective of a white, female, single, childless U.S. citizen operating within the U.S. academic system. Not everything said here will be applicable to everyone. My privilege—racially, culturally, economically, and more—informed what I was and was not capable of doing. I was better off than some, worse off than others. Part of the reason I wanted to write this was precisely because my experience embodies an uneasy mediocrity, never in a situation so desperate that I might end up starving or unhoused, nor stable enough that I could take risks with money. Throughout the last 15+ years of my life as a student, graduate, and educator, “impostor syndrome” (a label that suggests we are the problem instead of the systems that fail us) about my own precarity has been an anxious constant. I hope that the experiences I describe below will be validating for those who have shared similar ones, illuminating for those who did not, and helpful for those who have yet to find themselves on solid ground, whether in reconciling their budget or their sense of self-worth.

By educating people about what many refer to as “the hustle” I am not advocating for the problematic systems that make it necessary, nor claiming to have solved anything. Precarity should not be a condition of being a student or academic; we shouldn’t have to hustle. And there is so much that must be done to address the institutional, social, economic, racial, gender, and other inequities that contribute to these insecurities. To read on issues of privilege, particularly within the academy, see my roundtable closing remarks from the Association for Asian Studies 2020.

What does economic precarity in academic spaces look like?

Economic precarity takes numerous forms and is marked by wildly different degrees of severity. As a young scholar I felt a continual, alienating frustration when I encountered those who did not understand what precarity can look like, particularly because they expected it to look a certain way. You’re in a good graduate program, you’re doing great. You’ve got a stipend. You look well enough. You couldn’t have gotten here without a certain level of privilege. These things were true. But at the same time, many graduate students, particularly in the U.S., also experience the first consistent paycheck of their lives (for me, that was the case) or their first reliable form of healthcare as a part of their university contracts. I distinctly remember a friend telling me that when she got accepted into our program she cried. Before she took a gamble on applying for a PhD, she had already resigned herself to dying young, unable to afford her insulin.

Being a student or in academia does not always mean that you have family to rely on. It does not mean that you have savings. It does not mean that you have a safety net. It does not mean you can afford a major life crisis like a sick family member, a major surgery, or a car crash. And it certainly does not mean that you are being paid enough to afford to live wherever you are.

But when others learn about these facets of uncertainty, they often doubt them until they’ve known, seen, or heard from someone who went through them. For this reason, I want to offer some examples of my own experiences with precarity throughout my time as a student, from my undergraduate degree through my PhD. Our students and colleagues encounter these seen and unseen challenges, challenges that help explain why and how certain patterns of behavior can become intrinsic to who we are and how we operate in our everyday lives and careers.

So what can precarity look like?


A knee-jerk reaction to statements about precarity is often “But they don’t look like they are experiencing hardship!” or “But they’re going to a fancy school, they’re fine!” This is a response that fundamentally misunderstands what precarity is, because it relies on the problematic assumption that for forms of instability or need to exist, they must be performed and visible, when in fact most people who struggle to get by go to extreme lengths to hide their circumstances.

As a student at a private college in the U.S., I saw the divide between the scholarship students and the wealthy (typically legacy) students everywhere. People around me took vacations to ski or went to Disneyland over short breaks. They never had trouble purchasing textbooks. During our senior week, when many people around me were flying to island destinations to party on the beach, four friends and I piled into a family van and drove to Niagara to stay in communal rooms for six at hostels, trying to still treat ourselves, but as cheaply as possible.

All four years as an undergraduate were spent working for minimum wage on campus or in town. When I wanted to study abroad for one semester, I knew I wouldn’t get any financial support from family, so I worked five jobs, some off campus, some at night, some on weekends, while taking a full course load and sitting in on a course I assisted with. When I was abroad, there were still weeks that I ran out of money to eat and had to rely on friends, even though I was careful with what little I had.

But what about family? Surely you could ask? Surely someone would be willing to help? It’s tempting to pose these questions because we expect that people have fully supportive and capable families. My parents went through a divorce a couple of years before college began, and Parent A withheld any financial support beyond what was court-mandated. Parent B, who was part-time then, gradually worked their way up to full-time work, but each time their salary increased, Parent A took them to court again to lower their financial responsibility, burdening Parent B with repeated legal costs until they had to represent themselves. Part of the reason I had so many jobs was also to support Parent B from a distance. I stayed on campus and worked during the summers so Parent B didn’t have to house or feed me.

Sometimes, I would get calls from Parent B asking to use my credit card for groceries. Sometimes, I wouldn’t get calls, because the phones were cut off because of overdue bills; I eventually had to get off our family plan and pay three times as much for my own plan so that I wouldn’t get cut off at random times when I needed the phone for communicating for class projects or everyday emergencies. Parent B did the best they could, but they, too, were in an impossible circumstance. Any ask to Parent A for help would result in a spiral of emotional manipulation and abuse that wasn’t worth what little money that might have been provided. Sometimes we have to make those choices for our well-being too.

When I graduated, I moved in with my best friend’s family. They helped me relocate and move in and out of every apartment I lived in for the next five years. They kept my belongings for me so I wouldn’t have to pay for storage. They shared their home with me for Christmases and New Year’s holidays. They kept my cats for me while I was abroad. They let me stay with them in between travel from state to state and country to country as academia kept me on the move every single year for half a decade. I would never have survived without them. And at the same time as I was eternally grateful for their unconditional support and love, knowing that what I was experiencing was nothing compared to others who might be unhoused, dealing with medical issues, taking out hefty loans, or other serious issues made me feel ashamed of my privilege, mediocre though it was. How could I complain?


I wasn’t sure about going on to graduate school, but I knew that I couldn’t afford to move home and hope for a part-time job that provided enough income to get by. There weren’t even enough bedrooms in Parent B’s apartment for me to live there. On top of that, I didn’t own (and couldn’t afford) a car, and it was impossible to get around my hometown without one. So I plunged ahead into the Master’s program that offered me the best funding package. I jumped at the chance to move there early, having been offered a summer fellowship before the fall semester began. Any extra funding to survive the summer and learn the ropes before the semester overwhelmed me was something to pursue.

My best friend’s family, of course, moved me into my new apartment, which I shared with her. They were appalled to learn that I didn’t own a bed and that I was planning on sleeping on the floor until I could buy one, waiting a month until I would receive my first fellowship deposit. They bought me a cheap twin bed that would take me seven years to permit myself to replace. My university fellowship barely covered everyday costs, even when splitting an apartment, but I was not allowed to work while on it. Once or twice I borrowed a thousand dollars from an ex with whom I was still close, because he knew I was good for it, and worried about me adding to the student loan debt I had to fill out stacks of paperwork and fight collection agencies to get deferrals for every single year. I was deeply embarrassed to ask for that money and only did so as a last resort. I paid back every penny, even if it meant only returning $20 a month.

I aggressively applied for fellowships and scholarships. I did manage to fund a year in Japan, but I opted for homestay, something not recommended by my program, to make it as cheap as possible. I planned my money as wisely as I could, and I did go out with friends and enjoy myself occasionally (after all, when in my life might I get this chance again?), but there were still weeks when I survived on convenience store rice balls and only had 2,000 yen (about $20 USD) to get through the last two weeks of the month. My fellowship was in dollars and the dollar was at a historic low the entire year I was there. I was only allowed to take out a certain amount of money from the bank each month, and it charged me a high fee for the transaction. Every time I took out money I lost more of it.

Meanwhile, Parent B still needed help with the bills. Sometimes I got emails asking to cover the electricity or the phones before they were cut off. I would log into the phone company website and discover the bill was three months overdue. I only learned years later that one of my other siblings was also helping with those bills and neither of us knew just how bad the situation was. I knew that if I asked for money, Parent B would let a bill go and give it to me without hesitation. I couldn’t ask.


Starting a PhD program with five years of guaranteed funding and healthcare coverage (which some US universities do not offer, or only offer up to a percentage) was the most financial stability I had ever had. But I still felt the isolation of my financial insecurity and all the habits that came with it. I dreaded gaining or losing weight because clothes cost hundreds of dollars to replace. Buying nice outfits for interviews or conferences kept me up for days thinking about credit card bills. I had been using my scratched up and peeling cookware since my freshman year of college. I never threw away any shoe, sweater, or bag that could still be used for something. It was hard to let anything go.

In the first year of my PhD, I still got calls from Parent B for financial support. Around that time, they got pancreatitis and a pre-pancreatic cancer diagnosis requiring serious surgery, and I had to warn my faculty mentors that my attention was divided. I actively asked about part-time work, searched for opportunities for grants and scholarships on campus. Some faculty scolded me for not focusing exclusively on my research. They told me I couldn’t possibly need that money, since I had “guaranteed” funding. Graduate students at my university were paid more than 10% below the cost of living at the time, and we were among the most financially privileged graduate students that I knew. I keenly felt my difference from others, even within my own cohort. One of them once asked me what I was doing for the summer and scoffed in disbelief when I said working. “Aren’t you going to do something like go bum around backpacking across Europe? That’s what I’m going to do for three months.” I will never forget how small she made me feel.

When I went to study in Japan for dissertation research, my external fellowships provided an annual income that was more than anything I had ever made in my life. It was twice the usual amount I received, even paid in yen when the yen was weak. I made it a goal to go home with 1/4 my income from those two years, and saved everything I possibly could while living in Tokyo, as expensive as it was. I desperately wanted a nest egg, a “just in case” for not being able to find a job or running out of funding in my final year as a PhD (which I did). Friends asked me why I didn’t just “hop over to Korea or Singapore” for a vacation, and joked that I probably went to sleep on a bed of the money that I never spent. But all I could think about was an inevitable future where I had no support or no safety net. I agonized over the thought of burdening anyone else with that problem.

Thankfully, partway through my degree Parent B recovered, got married, and no longer needed my help. I shifted all the money that would have gone towards that into paying down student loans while they were still in deferment. I had spent over a decade in a state of anxiety about all the loans that would come to call when the PhD was over, a common fear for U.S.-based students who might take out hundreds of thousands of dollars just to pay for their undergraduate education.

Precariousness and marginalization in academic spaces, like many others, should not be about visible markers of hardship or competing visions of who has it worse. The vast diversity of these experiences must be acknowledged. In the above I offer one real world example of how the lives of students and early career researchers can be shaped by financial uncertainty, complex webs of relationships and responsibilities, and the expectations of academic life. These perpetual anxieties reverberate through one’s sense of self. The image of the student or academic who is well-enough off that they can “indulge” in an education and needs nothing else to sustain a comfortable life is one that is decades old, terribly biased, and yet still able to dramatically impact how we feel about ourselves and our accomplishments.

Now that I have entered postdoctoral positions I experience that precarity anew; I have a steady income, but one that is finite. I can still save only so much money, because I am a single person living in an expensive city and, at my age, I just can’t feel like a sane adult living with a roommate anymore. I don’t know if I will have a job in several months time, let alone a tenure track or permanent one.

And yet I still hear the age-old refrain from established scholars in tenured positions and even colleagues in more financially secure situations of “Stop doing so many things on the side!” and “Do you really need this money?” It makes people like me feel unknown. It makes me feel tired.

This article is meant only as a starting point. I share my own experiences as an invitation for some to consider (or reconsider) what precarity can look like and as a chance for others to feel seen. These challenges affect everyone differently and to different degrees. Academia should be a place that is more accessible and humane, a place where we can openly talk about the realities faced by students and faculty alike; we are not monolith, and the complexities of our individual circumstances deeply impact how and even if we can accomplish what we set out to do.

I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunities that I had and to be (mostly) encouraged to do the things that I did to make ends meet. But now imagine that I am a caregiver for an elderly parent. A single mother. A person of color. An international student with visa restrictions on working. Someone with a chronic illness or a disability. Someone whose health insurance and annual income are dangling by a thread at the mercy of a government’s COVID restrictions on travel for research. Magnify these difficulties of all the experiences above by ten, or twenty.

As I type, I’m glancing over at a pile of old, worn down shoes that I should probably get rid of. They constantly make me think, “But what if I need them…!” “How wasteful!” when I consider tossing them out, even though they’re cheap, they rarely last, and I can afford better now. But the anxious mentality of catastrophizing has been burned into me for nearly two decades. If you had the temptation to respond to the previous statement with “Why don’t you just save up and invest in the nice thing up front and not have to always replace the cheap stuff?” I encourage you to read Terry Pratchett’s excellent commentary on the price of boots.

I hope that all I wrote above will be useful to some, comforting to others, and eye-opening for those who never considered some of the perspectives I presented. In academia and in other walks of life we often carry ourselves with a sense of shame for our personal struggles, especially precarity, even though it reverberates through all aspects of our lives and deeply impacts our health, our support networks, our access to resources, and the time we can dedicate to our work (and, by extension, a sustainable work/life balance). We should be having open dialogues about these challenges when possible (and safe) and strategizing together to create more equitable systems that eliminate the need to endlessly pursue the hustle on top of our already considerable responsibilities. And perhaps just as important, along the way, we should also be more kind to ourselves.

You deserve a good lamp.

Proceed to "Living With Precarity in Academia (Part 2)."1

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  1. A special thanks to Tristan R. Grunow, Christina Laffin, Sara Sumpter, and Kit Brooks, and Mindy Landeck for reading early versions of this article. It takes a village.