What Did You Do to Survive Grad School?

Will Alma Mater for food

Yesterday, I asked folks on Twitter what kinds of jobs they did in graduate school to make ends meet. The question was largely directed at humanists (who generally get the fewest resources to pursue graduate study), but it could apply to MA and PhD students in the social or physical sciences who have to make do with a modest stipend as well.

The question emerged from discussions we have had at Georgia State University as part of our Career Diversity program, generously supported by a grant from the American Historical Association. Our brief is to help emerging scholars in the humanities navigate a wide range of career opportunities both inside and outside academia — and, especially, to point out that our graduates have skills and experiences that prepare them to thrive in doing a lot of cool and interesting things in careers that they might never consider or even know exist.

One thread that has come up again and again in our conversations is this: humanists have many different work experiences that could contribute to a future career, whether those are jobs they worked along the course of their educational path; volunteering, hobbies, community activities; or things that we might not immediately think of as “work” or “experience.” Did you manage a coffeeshop? Did you help someone rewrite their cover letter, redesign their website or syllabus, or catch freelance copyediting work here and there? Did you have to talk down sloshed bros standing on tabletops at 2am on the reg? So many of these experiences can be rethought and reformatted as well-defined and in-demand job skills that translate across multiple careers.

The immediate inspiration for this question was a session led by Dr. Julia Skinner in Georgia State University’s Department of History. Skinner holds a PhD in Library and Information Studies from Florida State and has founded Root, a thriving fermentation and food history organization in Atlanta. As she reworked her CV as a resume, Skinner realized she had done lots and lots of things over the years that actually count for a lot in terms of pursuing a career in the private sector or starting ones own small business.

(I had also just heard one of my former bosses, the social psychologist and universal bad-ass Sheena Iyengar, on the radio, and it prompted me to think of the many various and sundry things I did to earn money over the years.)

There are two dirty secrets about grad school, at least where money is concerned. One: most graduate programs offer some kind of deal whereby you can pursue a degree without paying tuition and getting a small stipend — for PhD programs, typically a “funding package” for a certain number of years. (When I was first setting about to apply to grad school, I had no idea about this strange arrangement or how it worked; like most people, I assumed grad school was just more school that you paid for.)

The mean streets of Morningside Heights

Two: even if one is lucky enough to get such a funding package, the stipend is often rather difficult to live on by itself. Most programs require that students who receive funding not have any other employment outside of their work as a TA, RA, or instructor in the department, but these rules are… ahem… often honored “in the breach,” so to speak. It was not a surprise to me that almost everyone who responded to my tweet had worked a myriad of other jobs while slogging their way through grad school.

So, without further ado, the social history of academic Twitter’s weary and beleaguered hive mind. Thanks to everyone who responded! And if you have not responded yet, please share your story with us here in the comments, or on Twitter. There is a Twitter Moment that collects many of the responses, and you can see the entire discussion by clicking on the tweet below.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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