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.
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.
“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:
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.
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Images from iconmonstr.
A special thanks to Tristan R. Grunow for reading early versions of this article. ↩