I've spent an unusual amount of time lately talking with recent PhDs and doctoral students new to the area, a process that's been giving me vivid flashbacks to my own first year or two on the job. Some of these people are our own recent hires, whom I'm getting to know better--but most are people who've contacted me about the possibility of renting our house next year while we're away on my sabbatical. Both sets of people, though, have reminded me how tough it is to move somewhere new, and how even getting a tenure-track job doesn't catapult one into adulthood or into career or personal stability quite as easily or immediately as one sometimes hopes and imagines.
Grad students, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, and people finish their doctorates at different ages and at different life stages. Some are already in a reasonably stable place, financially and personally, and getting a tenure-track job involves only a relatively straightforward strengthening of that position (there may be some short-term anxieties or upheavels if there's a big geographic move or if a spouse has to change jobs, but nothing that the household can't weather). But for others . . . it's harder. As long-time readers know, I had a relationship of six years implode in my first year on the job, and I went into MORE debt despite moving from the country's most expensive metropolitan area to a very affordable Rust Belt city, and from a contingent faculty position to a secure, well-paid, tenure-line job. Nothing about that period was as bad as my first several years of grad school, but it was still a more difficult experience than I was prepared for.
Most of the people I've been talking with seem more like me than not, and I wish this were something that the profession acknowledged more fully: how very hard these shifts can be. We talk a great deak about how hard and how heart-breaking it is trying to get a tenure-line job, and we talk a certain amount about how stressful it can be to be a junior professor trying to make tenure; much less frequently do we talk about how hard it can be landing at a first job that just isn't the right fit (and those conversations are always hedged about with apology and embarrassment: yes yes, we're lucky to have these problems), and I'm not sure I've ever seen a public discussion of the struggles that accompany a new job that's actually pretty good and about which one has no real complaints--but that nevertheless produces new problems or fails to solve the ones we thought it would.
I'll leave the relationship component to the side, though I'm not the only person whose move to the tenure track or to a new job precipitated a breakup or divorce--or a prolonged period of isolation and unhappy singlehood. But the money thing is huge, and compounds whatever other struggles a new faculty member may be having with her job or her personal life. Moving is expensive and complicated, and requires a major outlay of cash, especially for people who have been subsisting for years on a graduate stipend.
When I took this job, I had a final paycheque from my previous job in May. I wouldn't receive my first paycheque from RU until the end of September (and my health coverage wouldn't begin until October). I had to travel to a new city to find an apartment, put down a deposit, move, buy a car, and live for four months. . . on nothing. Since I was only coming from 400 miles away, RU covered most of the cost of my move itself--three professionals and a van--so things weren't quite as dire as they could have been. But they were dire enough. I had good credit (i.e., a high credit line and a low rate on a few too many cards) and some help from my parents, so I made it through. But seven years and a number of raises later, I'm still paying off some of that debt.
I'm in stable though not excellent financial shape these days; my car is paid off, I own a house, my consumer debt is slowly shrinking, and though taking a year at half-pay will be tough, I can do it without adding to my debt. I'm no longer in constant financial panic. But lemme tell you: running credit checks on possible renters and piecing together the kinds of gambles and bad decisions they made in grad school has given me some PTSD-style flashbacks. I want to tell some of these prospective renters, "OH MY GOD. I UNDERSTAND!" But I also want to tell them, "You're fucking delusional if you think you can afford this rent on that salary. It's going to be so, so much harder than you think."
But no one wants to hear that. All I can do is tell our own new hires, as soon as they accept the offer, when their paycheques and medical coverage will actually begin. (Strangely, this is information that no one else ever bothers to pass along.) And I can try to be a sympathetic and helpful colleague, if they have other problems they care to share. I hope they won't have problems--but experience suggests that an awful lot will.