Tag Archives: fellowships

Grad School and My Health

As we come up to the end of yet another school year, and I begin to think about transitioning to becoming a full-time professor, I can’t help but reflect on the last eight years of schooling, and how I’ve “mediated” my experience with my body. While I’ve encountered many highlights and benchmarks and celebrations, disappointments and frustrations and discouragements over the years — and everything in between — my mind begins to wander, without fail, to all of the ways in which I’ve carried the stress of schooling around in my body.

While I have been lucky enough to cover most of my schooling expenses over the last near-decade through fellowships, building websites, tutoring, taking on part-time teaching gigs when available, making and selling knitwear, and agreeing to odd jobs for cash whenever possible, my body feels like it’s been battered along the way. I wonder to what extent this has been due to having to work around the clock just in order to go to school. Let’s take a look back:

2005-2006: During my first year as a PhD student, I worked as a literacy coach in at an elementary school while going to school full time. I had chronic sinus infections all year, and had to have my tonsils taken out in April.

2006-2007: I decided to resign from my my job as a full-time teacher, in order to be able to accept a graduate teaching fellowship through CUNY — which would, theoretically, provide more time to devote to my studies. The fellowship, which paid me an annual salary of $13,000, required me to teach two college courses per semester. The pay was taxed, and though I was given tuition remission, I had to purchase my own healthcare. In order to make up for the cost, I took on a second job as a proofreader at a marketing firm, and a third job as a tutor.

2007-2009: I joined the fight for adjunct and student healthcare at the CUNY Graduate Center. I initially couldn’t understand why more people weren’t involved, and later realized that it’s probably because they’re too busy. I kept my teaching fellowship, as well as my tutoring and proofreading jobs, and begged my grandmother for extra cash.

2009-2011: I received a CUNY Writing Fellowship at a still-unacceptably-low-but-almost-liveable wage. The salary was about $30,000, and came (finally) with healthcare benefits. I continued to tutor, and took on a part-time literacy teaching job at an elementary school. I also initiated a knitwear company, and began making knitwear to sell.

2011-2012: I gratefully received an Instructional Technology Fellowship, which, like the Writing Fellowship, came with a salary of about $30,000 plus healthcare benefits. I continued to tutor and knit for additional money, and started building websites for pay as well.

2012-2013: I received a university sponsored Dissertation Fellowship of $22,000, with no healthcare benefits. I was forced to make the choice between 1) accepting this distinction, which would afford me the time I desperately needed to complete my dissertation, and 2) continuing on as an Instructional Technology Fellow for a second year, with a decent salary and benefits. I opted for the Dissertation Fellowship, and have paid $225 per month for the student healthcare cobra option. I continued to tutor, knit, and build websites for cash.

I am not totally complaining. Not completely. I am proud of the work I have done, and believe I received a stellar education at the CUNY Graduate Center. I also realize that many, many people face far more challenging, economically crushing circumstances. However, the fact remains that had I not worked three and four jobs for the majority of my time as a graduate student, I would, like many of my friends and colleagues, be facing an even larger mountain of crippling educational debt.

So then, what is the point of being a full-time student if you can’t actually go to school full time!? What are the actual expectations of being a full-time student these days? How does the rhetoric of doing something “full-time” match up with reality?

I started out this post thinking about all of my injuries and mysterious illnesses over the last eight years:  I have broken a bone, torn both meniscuses, suffered countless migraines, sprained my ankle at least twice, jammed my coccyx, had an extended bout with vestibular neuritis, contended with back spasms, and most recently was diagnosed with a labral tear in my hip. But as I started to write, it quickly became clear that the problem was larger than just my health — the problem all along has really been money.

It has been more than difficult as a student to make sure I’ve had enough at the end of each month to pay for rent, food, and healthcare coverage. And while I admit that there have been plenty of other factors at play, I can’t help but wonder at how the stress of having to work so many jobs just in order to go to school has prevented me from staying healthy while being a PhD student.

And the Search for Next Year Begins

When you’re starting to think about making the commitment to start a PhD program, you hear about how difficult/complex the academic job market is, but you don’t really get what that means till you’re staring down the barrel of your dissertation while simultaneously trying to make a livable wage, eat well, get enough sleep, and figure out what to do next year.  So far this school year, I’ve felt like a circus performer on most days, juggling more things than any person should.  And although I haven’t conducted a vast empirical study to test my hypothesis, it seems that most of my friends and colleagues are in the same exact boat.  I had a lengthy discussion yesterday with some classmates about how crazy (and a bit cruel) it seems that job and fellowship application deadlines are happening now for the next academic school year.

So how do people actually do it?  What does one do when they think they might finish their degree this academic year, but can’t fathom how the job search is supposed to happen right alongside the writing of the dissertation?  How do you know if you’re supposed to be applying for dissertation writing fellowships, jobs, or postdocs?  What if you’re not 100% sure you’ll be able to defend your dissertation by April in order to graduate by May?  What if you can’t have a lapse in healthcare?  What if you find a job but don’t graduate?  What if you graduate but have no job?  What if?

I have a lot of “what if” questions, and despite all the talking I might do with my mentors and colleagues, it ends up seeming like an arbitrary set of choices that may or may not work out in your favor when you’re trying to conceptualize what life might be like a year from now.  In an ideal world, I would either get funded for another year to write, or I would find a position in a school of education as a full-time professor, teaching a mixture of methods and foundations courses that draw on my experiences as a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, technologist, and artist.  I have yet to find a job listing that meets this criteria, but a grad student can dream, right?  In the meantime, I’ll keep at it with the job search on the Chronicle of Higher Education, keep poking around at various fellowships, and keep crossing my fingers that this all makes a little more sense come April.