Monday, June 17, 2013

New faculty woes

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.


Bardiac said...

This is such an important point!

It's probably worth mentioning, for those who are on 9 month salaries, that you absolutely must save for the three unpaid months.

My first TT job was humane enough to give us half our October salary in September the first year. What a godsend that was!

I was also lucky in moving from an expensive area to an inexpensive one. My car insurance was one third what it had been, and my rent half for a larger place. That really helped. But the first months were lean, anyway.

DDB said...

Most places I've seen will give you the option of taking your 9-month over a 12 month or 26 pay period session, allowing you to do less guesswork on what those summer months will look like. I've elected to do that at both institutions that I've been at.

That said, this post resonates at this particular time, as I am trying to shed some of the last of my poor financial decisions from early on in my academic career.

nicoleandmaggie said...

That whole first paycheck in October thing is crazy! Especially when our classes start in August.

Even with our big savings from grad school (from when we were RAs), we were still coming up short the first half of our first year. It took a long time to get furnishings, even a w/d.

Our blog post today is actually about that! (Well, technically it's a love letter to my husband on our anniversary... but it's a money Monday, so the early years on the job are in there too.)

Flavia said...

nicoleandmaggie: yes! I saw your post just after publishing mine. It's a vivid illustration of the financial realities in the life of a junior academic...though you're far more prudent & forward-looking than I've ever been (not that I needed that post to know that)!

Sapience said...

I'm starting a Post-Doc this fall, and I've been acutely aware of this problem. This is the first summer I've ever not had income of some sort, because I have to move in the middle of all the summer teaching that usually happens at my university. I've got to pay for moving costs (only about 1/3 will be covered by the university that hired me) and deal with the fact that I won't have a roommate to split costs with like I did the last eight years. Between that and having some unexpected dental bills that are occurring between the expiration of my old insurance and the beginning of my new, I'm wiping out almost half my savings--and I was regularly putting away 1-2K each year, even on my grad student stipend. Basically, I will have to be on a stricter budget as a post-doc than I was as a grad student.

Sisyphus said...

Ugh, yes, I have to deal with all this thought too! Remind me to do a post on that along with all my silly moving posts.

...and moving is no cheap shit, yo! I probably should not be trying to fix all the hassles/problems/difficulties that arise with moving by throwing money at the crisis.

Canuck Down South said...

Moving to graduate school--especially from a long ways away--was the first time I faced this: my grad institution pays 1/2 a paycheck in August, but on a grad stipend, that is, well, rent and nothing else. My department was good enough to make a point of telling us we didn't get paid fully until the end of September, but what they didn't know was that given the slow processing time of stuff like SS number applications, no international student was going to be paid, at all, until around the end of September anyway.

I've made a point of telling everyone who might deal with international students about that little problem, but a few months ago when I mentioned it to someone who did administrative work for the international students' office she had no idea. Argh.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Heh. If people want to hear about new faculty woes, send them my way. I am nothing if not a complainer. As you know... :)

Honestly, it really surprised me that getting a job didn't solve every problem in my life. I put THAT much stock into it. Really, all it did was change my problems. But I still have problems -- plenty of them -- but now my career depends on how I handle them. It's nerve wracking. TGIS (Thank goodness it's summer...)

Flavia said...


First, congrats! But I don't think this is a unique experience--there are lots of ways of economizing as a grad student, and at least in one's first years in grad school, those kinds of economies seem normal (many 26-year-olds NOT in grad school are also living with roommates and eating ramen). Taking a job genuinely requires start-up expenses, but it also often feels like a time when you *should be able to afford* to live differently. Even if you really can't.

Academic Cog:

You sing the song of my people. And sometimes it's just hard to know where one could really benefit from economizing and where it's more of a headache than it's worth.


I finally asked my departmental secretary if there were any possibility of getting an advance on my salary. And she asked HR, and I did get one just to make my two car payments--but NO ONE HAD EVER ASKED before. Everyone was very nice and helpful, but I was flabbergasted that in the entire institution, apparently this had never come up before.


That's a really important point, and a story we don't hear enough. It's not unique to academia--but there's a longer delay between starting on the path and actually getting "a real job" in academia than in, say, law. So the fantasy can be more powerful, and the contrast between the fantasy and reality can hit that much harder.

Canuck Down South said...

No one had asked? Wow. I was fortunate enough to have both the Director of Graduate Studies and the graduate secretary offer me personal loans in the first week of September when they discovered I hadn't been paid the week before I didn't take them up on it--I just used credit cards for that month--but it was nice of them to offer. Since then I've discovered that it's standard practice in departments that deal with many international students to offer them a loan out of the department coffers until paperwork for the regular pay finally gets processed. My department just has so few international students that they have no idea.

I slept on an air mattress my first two weeks of my PhD program and only owned a (crappy) bed, a hard chair and, after about two months, a desk, for the first 8 months of grad school--and this despite being in a cheap middle American city, so those moving costs are pretty much etched in my brain. What surprised me is how long they continue--several years into grad school, I still find myself needing to buy some basic household item every few months.

dhawhee said...

oh man, so true, all of this. And I wonder if the settling-in part isn't made worse by the more restrictive hiring these days. When I was hired I was lucky to have been hired alongside two other colleagues in similar life stages. But my department now hires a freshly-minted PhD maybe once every two years. This scenario has got to compound the loneliness.

Dr. Virago said...

I actually had to move in WITH MY PARENTS for a month between my post-grad-school lectureship and moving to Rust Belt City for the TT job. Lucikly for me I was moving from a 3-quarter-system job that didn't end until June to a 2-semester-system job that start in August, and I had a little savings, so it was only July that I couldn't afford on my own, so that's the month I spent with my parents. It was actually kind of nice, really, especially since my Mom was just about to hit the downward slope towards her eventual passing three years later, so I'm glad I got that time with them. It also meant I didn't have those weeks without furniture as it slowly moved across the country (as one does with cross-country moving-van moves). But still, the idea that a professional who'd just been hired for a Real Job had to spend a month with the 'rents to make ends meet is kind of bonkers!

Luckily we get paid every two weeks, so I didn't have to wait until September or October for my first paycheck.

On the issue of saving for the summer vs. having your paycheck divided over 12 months...Some places actually can't do the latter, and some do it in weird ways (like my institution does) so that it's not an even division. My first year, I took the quasi-12-month option just because I really didn't have a sense of how much I'd need to save, but ever since then, I've saved it myself. Plus, in saving it myself I earn something like a whole dollar in interest. ;-)

Miriam said...

Yikes, now I'm having flashbacks. The college covered moving expenses! Hooray! Except--they initially refused to reimburse me for them! Which, combined with the delayed first paycheck, meant that at one point I was down to approximately $1 (not an exaggeration) with a maxed-out credit card (because, um, moving expenses on the card). Finally, I went to our chair at the time and wailed; he immediately got on the phone, yelled at the dean, and lo, moving expenses. But that made the first few weeks of classes really tense.

Flavia said...


I'm sure you're right about that--and as if it weren't hard enough to move to an entirely new place! (Especially as a single person: the partnered at least have someone to talk to at the end of the day and someone to explore their new community with.)

I was lucky to be part of a rather large cohort coming into my department all at the same time, but even so and even though I liked all my colleagues, I can't say that I connected on a close, personal level with any of them until my second year.

In fact, had YOU not set me up with our now-mutual friend, I'm not sure how I'd have survived my first 15 months.

QueSera said...

Eight weeks away from my big move. I'm not stressed yet, but wonder if I should be. I'm hoping because of my age and financial situation that I'll be OK. I might just be very naive.

I'd love for this post to be followed up by tips for new faculty. You are so right that there are few places to discuss these issues. Thanks for providing a forum!