Living With Precarity in Academia (Part 2)

Paula R. Curtis
February 20, 2022

In my previous article I discussed my experiences with economic precarity in academia to foreground the diverse ways that seen and unseen struggles can affect how students and faculty live their day-to-day lives. Earning a degree is in and of itself an intense physical, mental, and emotional labor, but it can be made even more difficult when you have to constantly worry about your financial well-being. These challenges are only intensified when others feel the need to tell you that part time work or “hustles” are nothing but a “distraction” from “real” (intellectual) labor. I encountered this attitude a lot throughout graduate school, even from well-meaning colleagues.

But the reality is that graduate students are, by and large, grossly underpaid even at the wealthiest of institutions. Columbia University’s 10-week graduate student strike, the longest in higher education in recent memory, is just one example of the mobilization efforts taking root to address systemic inequalities faced by early career scholars. Similar organizing efforts, undoubtedly stimulated in part by hardships exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, took place at the University of Pittsburgh, MIT, University of New Mexico, Indiana University, and many more universities over the last year.

With inadequate pay and fewer potential job opportunities in a floundering academia where even the relative security of tenure is facing renewed threats, it is clear that focusing solely on one’s studies is no longer sustainable. We must be upfront with current and aspiring graduate students about the precarity our students face, rather than gaslighting them with fantasies of an academia past where one could devote themselves exclusively to books and publications. The “hustle” is not an indulgence, but a necessity. And in a narrowing job market, many of these seemingly side pursuits also provide us with new and crucial forms of experience that make us competitive in and beyond academia. We must either destigmatize views of the hustle as unnecessary and/or irrelevant labor or find new vocabularies that acknowledge how much of this work builds and diversifies our skill sets.

In this article, I use my own experiences to detail and bring transparency to the breadth of what the so-called hustle can be for some and the extent to which it can (or cannot) supplement a stable and sufficient income. I outline methods that I used and that were available to me to help offset financial instability during my time as a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher based in the U.S.

Making Ends Meet with the "Hustle"

In my time as a student and as contingent faculty I have learned to always plan for the worst case scenario: What if you don’t win that fellowship this year? What if you do win that fellowship but you get hit by a car and have tens of thousands of dollars of medical debt? What if you take eight years to finish your degree and your university only covers five years (this did, in fact, happen)? What if at the end of your degree you don’t have a job? What happens when you graduate and your student loans come to call? These, and a thousand other concerns, drove me to constantly pursue labor outside of my research. Squirreling away the “what if” money was the only safety net I might have, and it was the mentality with which I have always lived. When you don’t understand the circumstances of others it’s easy to sneer at some side gigs or the extra thirty bucks here and there. But for some, that’s one week’s worth of groceries, or can mean the difference between paying or not paying a bill.

So what types of side hustles can you pursue when you’re working your way through a degree? My list includes some positions or projects that were available through official avenues offered by the university and others that were outside of my institution. This is not an exhaustive list of what you might be able to do, but I hope it provides some examples of options that you might consider or not have thought to look for. I encourage advisors and mentors to be open to having honest conversations with their students about their circumstances, and to consider their own role in ensuring the wellbeing of those under their supervision. The precarious must also learn to be advocates for themselves to the best of their ability.

On a more practical note, you should always double check whether your current fellowship, visa, or any other labor- or education-related condition allows you to pursue part time (or even full time) work. Some people are not allowed to pursue additional income while others might have caps on their hours as conditions of a visa or contract. You should also think seriously about what the time investment is taking on that extra work; given your personal habits, needs, and any other demands on your time and energy, it may or may not be worth taking that extra step.

Below I break down the types of work I did by whether they were “official” roles in the capacity of my university or whether they were informal arrangements. I also include how much each opportunity offered in supplemental income.

“Official” work

  • created/ran graduate student interdisciplinary workshops (4 years)

    My university allowed graduate students to organize year-long interdisciplinary workshops through which they could host events, organize talks, bring in outside scholars, and other related activities. These provided annual stipends up to $1,500.

  • research assistant for visiting professor (1 semester)

    In my first year as a PhD student, a visiting professor in my field needed an assistant to work on research and translations for their book. I think I made about $20 an hour and earned roughly $2,000.

  • organized academic workshop

    In organizing an academic language training workshop, I discovered that one of my funding sources allowed for a graduate organizer stipend, so I wrote myself into the budget for about $1,000. This was a month-long workshop that required a lot of on-site coordination.

  • teaching partnership award

    My department offered a teaching partnership award where a student and a professor partnered to develop new or revise old syllabi together that are thematically related. The program came with an award of $4,000.

  • research fellow at affiliate institute

    I applied to become a research fellow at an affiliate institute on campus, meaning I was “in residence” as a graduate researcher and helped organize and conduct their annual lecture series, coordinating students, faculty, and outside scholars. It came with an award of $5,000.

  • graduate student liaison at affiliate institute

    At the same affiliate institute there was also a position for a “graduate student liaison,” who served within the institute’s organizational structure, communicating with graduate student fellows, serving as an ex officio member of the institute’s steering committee, etc. This position also came with a $5,000 award.

  • library digital scholarship program

    In my final year, the digital scholarship lab at my university started a pilot program for developing digital research projects with information services/digital scholarship staff. It was a 3-day event and came with a $500 grant.

  • digital history course assistant

    My department offered faculty the option of doing digital-oriented, hybrid, or other types of new, innovative courses. Faculty could apply for funds to hire a PhD student for assistance, and my advisor brought me on for a digital/public history course as a digital consultant/teaching assistant for about $4,500 in total.

  • pursued funds from the graduate school/area centers/international institute/etc.

    To support various workshops and conferences that I wanted to attend, I always applied for grants from the graduate school area centers, the international institute on campus, and other funds outside my department. I constantly searched for these opportunities and tried my best to combine them when possible so that I could avoid paying out of pocket for these events. If conferences offered their own travel grants for students, meritorious papers, or something similar, I always made sure to apply.

  • ran practice teaching sessions for graduate student instructor training

    Our Center for Research on Teaching and Learning offered graduate students the opportunity to run graduate student instructor (teaching assistant) training sessions for those who were about to begin their first year of teaching. These 1-hour sessions paid at $50 each. I did it 3 times for $150.

  • dissertation writing institute

    After returning from research, I applied for a dissertation writing institute offered by my university’s writing center. It was a kind of “in residence” peer writing and mentoring program. This came with summer support of $4,000.

  • dissertation writing group leader

    In the semester that followed, I applied to become a dissertation writing group leader through the writing institute for a small group of graduate students. This involved organizing regular meetings and guiding discussion. It came with a stipend of $600.

  • careful budgeting for conference/research grants

    Any time I attended a conference or asked for research funds, I was generous (within reason) in justifying the expenses in my proposed budget. If your university or other source of funding for any conference or travel support does not operate on reimbursement, just reward, then it may be possible to give yourself a little cushion just in case. Though you might think to yourself that it’s unlikely you’ll spend $35 for dinner, you never know if you might get an invite to somewhere fancy by a fellow attendee and actually need that much. Better safe than sorry!
  • “Unofficial” work

  • archival/library work for out-of-town scholars

    Every now and then an out-of-town researcher would email our department asking if any grad students were available for scanning books or other archival materials for them. In my final year I saw a request specifically from a scholar of modern Japan who was based in Asia and I put in a few months of periodic work at archival collections on campus, making probably around $2,000.

  • house/pet sitting for faculty

    I did house sitting and pet sitting for faculty a few times, earning maybe about $200-300 dollars.

  • surveys/on-campus experiments ($50 x 5)

    Ann Arbor had a local JSTOR office that often wanted graduate students for interviews about their platform or new tools they were developing for their site. They offered $50 a session (and they got to know me so well they knew to just email me sometimes…). Combined with the occasional on-campus experiments or interviews for students doing lab or survey/interview-based research, I probably pulled in about $400+ over the years.

  • part time work at the library

    During my final year, when I had no formal departmental funding, I did part time work at the Asia library helping to catalog an early modern/early 20th century Japanese manuscript collection. I made maybe an extra $150-200 a week.

  • article translations for academic journals/courses

    I did three paid translations during my years as a PhD student. One was a short article for one of my advisor’s courses, another was for an edited volume that has yet to be published, and another was an academic article for a major journal in the field. The latter two opportunities came to me through recommendation by colleagues, as I had a reputation for quick turnarounds and for meeting deadlines (a good thing to be known for in academia!). A formal translation of a full-length article (J to E), depending on its length, complexity, and the financial resources of the journal, might net around $3,000.

  • English-language check for foreign research institutions

    While on research my institute asked me to translate/edit a short piece for their website, for which they modestly compensated me about $150.

  • resold books

    Throughout my time as a graduate student I resold the books that I didn’t need to hang onto for my classes. There was also a free books shelf in our department hallway where faculty dumped off things they were ready to part with. If something sat there for a long time and seemed to be in good condition, sometimes I’d snag it and resell it. This meant occasionally I’d have an extra $15-30.

  • assistant work for faculty acting as chair to an organization

    My advisor became chair for an on-campus organization and was perpetually strapped for time, so for a semester she hired me part time as an assistant to help out with creating flyers, making announcements, designing their webpage, and other miscellaneous tasks. This was usually only a few hours a week, if that, so maybe an extra $100 here and there.

  • workshop leader (digital humanities)
    The opportunity to help teach a digital humanities workshop popped up in my later years and it was a compensated opportunity. If you’re invited to do something and it’s labor intensive, always ask! Depending on the resources of the university and the time investment, workshop compensation can be anywhere from say $1,000-3,000; for conference/symposia presentations, it might be anywhere from $100-500.

  • everyday budgeting! (more on this in the next article)

  • “PAULA!” You’re probably screaming at the screen after reading this. “YOU MADE SO. MUCH. MONEY.” Listen, you’re not wrong! And yet, only a fraction of it was ever all saved.

    Consider the following:

  • these hustles occurred over an 8-year period
  • my summer funding, which is a huge privilege to have as a grad student, ran out after 3 years
  • spring/summer terms without funding at my university lasted for 2 months, BUT getting paid at the end of the month when the semester began meant that some years I went 3 months without formal income
  • I was, for at least 2 of my years as a PhD student, still financially supporting a parent
  • I lived in the most expensive county in all of Michigan; most grad students were priced out of the city proper into the neighboring area
  • at any given time, graduate students were usually paid 10%-15% below the cost of living
  • for my final year I did not have full-time funding
  • many of those grants and stipends were given to me without taxes deducted (this meant that some years I had to pay as much as $2,400-$2,500 in taxes)
  • when I could, I put a lot of my extra money into trying to pay down student loans because I was terrified of graduating with debt I couldn’t pay because of unemployment
  • life happened—Sometimes I had a big dental bill that wasn’t fully covered. Sometimes a pet got sick and I owed $1,200 in vet bills. One year my rent went up $250, but it would have been more expensive to move before heading to Japan for research than to just eat the cost of an extra $3,000 for that year. When I moved for my postdoc after graduation, I had to break my lease a month early and lost $600.
  • My point is: Doing lots of hustles doesn’t necessarily mean retaining those gains. So if you’re a mentor to a student, before you tell them “You’ve done enough, just focus on research!” consider the fact that maybe they haven’t done enough and still have significant needs. This is not to say that students should not be careful to balance what they can take on with the demands of their degree. It’s very important to assess what you need and your capability of taking on more vs. other fundamental requirements of your work. It’s an incredibly difficult and stressful situation to be in, but it’s very real for many people in academia.

    It’s worth noting that much of the labor I listed above was only possible because I had supportive faculty mentors who were invested in my success and well-being. They had to write letters of recommendation for extra programs, I discussed my pursuits with them, and I frequently consulted with them about my options. Furthermore, a lot of the side jobs that I did or grants I applied to also incorporated forms of professionalization that were valuable, particularly jobs that involved organizing, coordinating, archiving, and communicating with students, faculty, or outside scholars. Many of these are not “just” side hustles, but forms of academic and intellectual labor. They can diversify your professional portfolio. Just because we affectionately call something a “hustle” doesn’t mean it’s invalid in other areas of your career.

    That said, it’s important to also keep in mind that not every institution will offer these opportunities. And some places may even require you to work part time as an instructor or grader from your very first year, which could already be a huge demand on your time and energy. At the very least, I hope this list and its descriptions are a helpful starting point for brainstorming, weighing options, and better understanding the reality of some ways it’s possible to strategize supplemental income when faced with economic precarity in academia.

    It is equally important that faculty step up, acknowledge the present circumstances within which their students labor, and consider how the most privileged members of this problematic system can be a part of the solution. Whether supporting unionization efforts for graduate students on campus, using faculty research funds to hire graduate students for additional work, or simply supporting these additional pursuits through letters of recommendation, being in solidarity across academic hierarchies is vital now more than ever. Academia has changed dramatically over the last several decades and it is our responsibility to address its institutional inequities and support those with the least power, rather than blame the new generation for how it has failed them.

    This article will be followed by a Part 3 that discusses finances in more depth.1

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    1. A special thanks to Tristan R. Grunow for reading early versions of this article.