The life of a “jobless” grad student

Grad student with meager experience (mostly internships), a master’s degree in social sciences with a competitive scholarship and PhD candidate with another competitive scholarship (yes, social sciences, you get the idea) about to finally graduate and… Do what?

Profession? Student. Ok, researcher. It doesn’t make it any better.

At the end all we have is a massive debt and little (to none) perspectives.

Are there worse things about meeting new people, or even finding that aunt you have not seen in a decade, then having to respond to that basic question of our post-Fordist, postmodern and post-decent capitalist society and have absolutely nothing to tell to make them proud (or yourself proud)?

- What do you do for a living?

- Well, I study and research.

- Yes, but what is your job?

- I study; I am doctoral researcher…

- * embarrassing silence for a few seconds *

- Ah, cool, but when you finish your doctorate what are you going to do?

- Well, research…

- *another deep moment of embarrassment *

- But then you’re going to get, like, a job, for real?

- Well, I’m also a freelance journalist

- Wow, so you work for a major news outlet?

- No, I pitch them and hopefully they’ll pay me for articles.

- So that’s not a real job? How do you pay your bills?

-Ok, that’s a good question.

The embarrassment can be substituted for a look of disdain, pity, disbelief or, depending on who you’re talking to, even a sarcastic laugh. But invariably, “student” or “fellow” are not “professions” or even occupations appreciated by the majority of the population. In fact, some people really do not understand what you do, “to appreciate” is something else.

You have that funny friend who, every time you meet, asks if you are going to work someday, or that makes that timely joke about you being a vagabond.

Being a student, no matter how much you almost kill yourself in order to read those hundreds of books in medieval Portuguese for your dissertation in linguistics from the times of the poet Camões, or even the countless nights revising the article that your advisor insists it is “not perfect”, is pretty much the equivalent of being a (useless) vagabond.

Are you really spending your weeks (and weekends) trying to understand all the history of Catalonia from the 13th to the 15th century? Or the repercussion of William, the Conqueror’s conquest of England in medieval Europe? Don’t even try to explain why it matters. But be assured, it does matter.

A young man (or woman), struggling to publish articles, to survive with miserable scholarships given by any government who pretends to care and actually wishes to forget about your existence, is no better than… well, anything.

The student has to live with difficult choices: Morin or Bourdieu, modernity or postmodernity, write for that congress you really want to go (but have absolutely no money for it), to rob a bank or a shop to pay for the congress registration, to eat or buy books, ask for alms or borrow money from the advisor… in short, everyday problems that for “others” might seem irrelevant, weird even.

Sure, some people say that “well, you chose this life”. Indeed. A foolish choice, but a choice anyway. But it doesn’t mean you have just to smile and say nothing. We are the ones that are going to teach the future generation, yet sometimes we see no future for ourselves. And things are getting worse.

Why would anyone choose such life anyway? Well, I’ll let you know once I find out why. 
 Scholarships that perpetuate misery among academics and, in some cases, the pity/contempt/condescension in the eyes of family and friends, the lack of time for everything — there’s always an article to finish (publish or perish), a paper to grade, a class to prepare, a grant to secure, a book to read…

It is interesting that people usually look at teachers without having any idea of what they’ve been through to get where they are. When we look at university professors we are talking about someone who spent over 10 years preparing, researching, writing and sometimes also trying to teach in between the tight schedule. And once we dive into the academic life its fairly difficult to do anything else. We don’t often have “experience” in anything but medieval history, online political mobilization, migration, the conflict of Caprivi Strip (google it), etc. All from a purely academic perspective… So no, we cannot just give up to became bankers (well, at least most of us can’t).

So it is a decision most of us take for life, and it is very difficult to life up to that decision — or to live with what we earn. Also, our real careers start after we turn 30. Our friends have already a mortgage, kids, insurance… a life. And we are still struggling to get an assistant position or a postdoc.

Yeah, having a PhD is not enough nowadays to secure a decent position. Now you have to spend years as a postdoc hoping to finally find a permanent position. Meanwhile you have to constantly move, because the odds of getting a postdoc in the same city you did your PhD is close to zero, and then there’s the second postdoc because finding a job in academia is close to impossible these days… And when you realize, you are almost 40, spent years of your life producing knowledge and no one gives a damn about it — unless you are the cover of a magazine, but not a scientific one.

And don’t even let me start on how it impacts your marriage — when your partner is also an academic, there are even tougher decisions, as you have both to move and find ways to stay together.

Your family and friends keep asking when are you going to find a real job. And they are not wrong, because it seems that there’s an “academic conspiracy” to make you work terribly underpaid and without any assurances about your future — and sometimes without even health insurance.

I joke about a few topics we, academics research, but I swear to you that they matter. You may not see it, sometimes my relatives can’t see it, but we are making science. Maybe what we research won’t impact you or the “grand public”, but it will impact other researches that, then, will impact your life.

That’s how science works and we keep doing it despite all the setbacks, all the drama, all the little (and big) things that conspire to make you quit and go look for a bridge to live under.