Thursday, May 6, 2010

Following What You Love vs. Paying the Bills

(As they say in various recovery communities: trigger alert! (un-)Employment-related post follows. Click away now if you don't want to read it.)

I talked yesterday (okay, chatted online) with a journalist friend. This guy is really good at what he does, has won at least one national award (that I know of), and was doing the print/online hybrid thing years before most people knew what was what there.

He's been out of work. Picking up shifts in a coffee shop to help make ends meet (his wife isn't yet working full-time either) and support his two year-old son. Looking for jobs and hoping for someone to recognize his undeniable talent, and pay for it.

I used to joke that my younger sister, as a bartender, was in one of the only recession-proof jobs. Then she lost hers when the bar she worked for changed hands and the new owner decided to "make some changes." She found another bartending job a few weeks ago. Hates it, because the guy also owns strip clubs, and is a bit of a sleazeball, but she's got a six year-old, a new baby, and a new mortgage, and off and on is single-momming it (it's complicated).**

Sometimes I dream about life at a fancy SLAC, surrounded by trees and engaged students, with my own office and research money and the like. Sometimes I just dream of not having to pay for my own photocopies. But I don't always take the time to take stock and realize that, short of the complete collapse of my state's education system ((knock wood)) or gross dereliction of duty on my part, I cannot be fired. I need to be grateful for that more often -- internally, anyway, even if I continue to sign up for Union actions to push for better.

But here's the point: Our recent discussions about whether or not (or when and under what circumstances) one should go to grad school, what one should expect of the labor market, etcetera, aren't taking the emotional factors into account. These are wrenching decisions, whether you're in academia or out of it, and it's not all about crunching the numbers (number of Ph.D.s versus number of jobs; monthly paycheck divided by frequent flier miles accumulated flying to see your partner once a month; pay per adjunct gig divided by number of weekly miles on the freeway). If your passion is Restoration drama, but you know the abysmal state of the job market, should you go anyway? Is it more important to find a job that's likely to keep a roof over your head (and the heads of your loved ones) in the long term? What sort of compromises should be made for a paycheck? Is it better to make them before investing (or wasting, depending on your perspective) 8 years of your young life in grad school, or should you roll the dice, and believe that those 8 years have a value in and of themselves? What's the psychic trade-off for walking away from what you love for pragmatic reasons, and is it worth it?

**Unexamined privilege note: unlike my first two examples, and unlike many of my commenters, I am single, with no children. So my calculus is somewhat less complicated. It's a lot easier to cut back on expenses when it's just my own.


Historiann said...

Interesting thoughts. I too have some friends and neighbors who have been put out of work by the Great Recession. Having slogged through grad (me) and med (husband) school and residency and adjuncting in the 1990s while all of our friends were making the big dough and cashing in on the dot-com boom (before it went bust) turns out to have been the more prudent course. But as you note, it only looks prudent in retrospect because of my great good fortune in getting first one and then a second (much better) tt job.

I've been reading a lot of articles recently that have argued that the old career advice from the 1980s and 90s--"figure out what you love and find a way to get paid for it!"--may also kill your love for that thing. That is to say, it might be just fine to be a smart bartender who reads Restoration Drama in her spare time rather than a struggling grad student, adjunct, or proffie of Restoration Drama. It might be better to be a court reporter who paints, or an accountant who plays in a band on the weekends. I'm not suggesting that we regard art or intellectual passions as "hobbies," but rather wondering if it's useful to think about having a "vocation" versus an "avocation."

(Sorry to hear about your journalist friend. That's a field that's seriously crashing and burning. All of my journo friends have jumped--interestingly enough--into academe, which looks remarkably secure and prudent by comparison!)

FrauTech said...

Great post. My unscientific opinion is we'd all agree that we've made some sacrifices in our lives, and given up one thing for another.

I do think the "do what you love" thing is bad advice on many accounts. Like Historiann said, sometimes it can kill your love for that thing. But I think it makes the focus too narrow. I think people underestimate their ability to be happy/satisfied. If you make an effort, I think you can find a great number of things that will give you satisfaction. It doesn't have to be your "passion" when you were aged 17, I assume most people academic and corporate, have a diverse set of interests and we could all probably be just as happy doing something else. Not to mention the "do what you love" greatly underestimates our need for money or stability. It may be that you love being an artist, but it may be you love raising your children in a house instead of an apartment better, and working a non-art related job for better/stable pay that is less satisfying for those 40 hours a week might actually give you MORE satisfaction that you can provide for your family or achieve other (travel? antiques? cars?) goals in your life.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Good points, sisters, but I should point out that we all got to do what we love for a living, and are now critiquing it from a point of privilege. I don't personally find that being a professional medievalist has killed my love of medieval stuff. Just sometimes, because I can't always read what I want.

Oh, I feel another post coming on...

MsMcD said...

I've noticed a large number of my peers (graduating/on the job market) bemoaning their years in grad school, hating the job market, and wishing they had gone an entirely different route. I have a different perspective. Yes, I'm graduating soon and yet to have a job. However, I loved my graduate school career. The 8 years were not the most fun, and I made very little money, but I didn't get into this field for the money. I learned a lot, and I love Colonial history more now than I did when I entered graduate school. If I never get a relevant job, so be it, but I followed my dream, and I earned a PhD- something no one can take away from me.

I find it strange that history professors insist on a liberal arts education for their undergraduate students, expound on the skills learned in history classes that fit a variety of fields, and support college to inspire love of learning, yet insist that graduate school is not part of the liberal tradition but an essential step in technical training. Maybe if we think of graduate school as an advanced period of intellectual exploration that will provide advanced skills for a variety of fields, rather than an internship for a faltering job field we will have a more balanced relationship between graduate students and job prospects.

Anonymous said...

This is a common topic at our dinner table. My partner dropped out of a doctoral program after realizing he hated teaching, hated his students, and was starting to hate the very discipline that brought incredible joy and hope into a poverty-stricken childhood. He learned a trade through an apprenticeship and between the two of us, we do alright. He recently ran into a former departmental colleague who stuck it out. This individual has to hold down teaching gigs at four separate institutions in order to pay the bills (wife unemployed, baby, etc.). My partner still finds time to write, attend conferences, and participate in research activities as an "independent scholar." No begging for departmental funding.

We're still paying through the nose the student loans his family took out to send him college, thinking degree = ticket out of downward economic mobility, but at least we can pay them. I have no idea how we could pay them if he had stayed in academia.

The idea that we can "have it all" is - in my opinion - one of the most dangerous myths propagated during the 20th century. It's the same entitlement that tells people they can buy a house they can't afford and max out credits cards because they somehow "deserve" stuff.

I like to remind friends considering getting that incredibly useful MFA in Creative Writing that William Faulkner worked in a university physical plant. Clement Greenberg worked as a clerk for U.S. Customs because it gave him an opportunity to think. Our local hero botanist is a fruit importer.

It comes down to choices. Some of us have more choices than others, but in the end, decisions need to be made what is and is not feasible, desirable.

Dr. Crazy said...

I guess what I'd say is that I don't think it's unreasonable to want to enjoy one's career (in at least some capacity) and to think that it is (in at least some capacity) rewarding. What I think is unreasonable - and what I think many grad programs propagate - is the idea that the ONLY rewarding or enjoyable career path for people in PhD programs is academia. Actually, that's a problem that extends to the broader culture, too - the idea that EITHER one follows his or her 'bliss' - and damn the consequences - or one is a pragmatist and leads a joyless life of drudgery.

I think that the people I know who are most happy in their careers (whether academic or not) don't buy into this either/or, but rather have found some sort of a path down the middle wherein they realize that no job is total and utter bliss but also that a job that isn't bliss doesn't have to be the end of the world, either. Going and getting a PhD doesn't change all of the above.

But so should one follow one's passion? Hmm. I think one should *try it out.* But I don't think there's any shame in getting out while the getting's good if something better comes along or if one realizes that it's not all they thought it would be. And I don't think that there's a thing in the world wrong with refusing to live on an adjunct's wages because one would rather do something - anything - that would make more money and provide health insurance.

Janice said...

We're just weeks away from seeing the one year anniversary of a major local strike (against the mining co. Vale/Inco) which has hit our community hard. Seeing lots of secondary impact of that in other hirings and even in the schools as family pull up stakes and move on out so fewer teachers are needed. Ironically, we've recruited strongly enough we'll have more students next year than this at the U (especially on the international front).

But, again, I see people who were touted as having "the most secure, regular jobs" dealing with hard times. And I know that even with increased enrolment, our university isn't adding any new hires (heck, they're not even replacing 1/10th of the retirements this year, as far as I have heard).

So I am brutally honest with prospects that grad school can be wonderful but the financials are tough. Showing them how even holding the most prestigious national scholarships along with a teaching assistantship won't cover tuition and cost of living. Pointing out how doctoral programs' guarantees of funding have so many limits and strings attached that debt continues to pile on.

At least if we're honest, we can give them the information they need to make their own decisions.

Unknown said...

I like Historiann’s comment that doing what you love can sometimes “kill your love” for that work. What complicates the decision for a young adult considering graduate school (as if a factor such as career prospects is not enough) is that the day-to-day reality of doing what you love in college may bear little or no resemblance to the day-to-day reality of doing what you love as a graduate student or as a career.

As a college senior, I was somehow too naive or whatever to recognize the disconnect between these realities. I loved reading and loved two language/literature majors in college, but did not love graduate school in that field and could see from the lives of my professors that I would not be happy in a career as a literature scholar.

Having said that, I still gained something valuable from those two miserable years in that graduate program: I got a little experience in a related field and enough of a sense of direction to end up in a different graduate program and (eventually) a non-faculty academic job that I love. I also learned how to deal with some less-than-impressive behavior on the part of people in positions of authority, and to trust my gut.

Very important stuff. Maybe I could have learned some of it elsewhere, but in that sense, even a crappy grad school experience was not a waste of time.