Grad Students In the Moonlight…

Here’s a shocker: Graduate School is a significant financial investment.  Some begin graduate school with already significant school debt.  A fortunate few attend schools that can afford to fully financially support their graduate students, but it’s tough to find a Master’s program that guarantees funding; even PhD programs that give tuition waivers and stipends for teaching can still require students to pay all or some of their health insurance and their student fees.  We all know how many worthy things we can spend our precious stipends on—books, conferences, travel for research, rent, utilities, groceries—and we also know how quickly those stipends can run out.  Fellowships and grants are fantastic when granted; loans are slightly terrifying; none of this is news.  It is not my purpose today to complain or dredge up all of our financial worries; I actually feel very fortunate to spend hours of each day researching interesting things and teaching great students, and for now I find a certain bohemian charm in this life of genteel poverty.  I do, however, want to acknowledge the reality that, given our financial positions, most of the graduate students I know find creative ways to supplement their income.  In this season of scrambling for summer employment, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the moonlighting second-lives of scholars.

In talking with my friends and fellow graddies, I’ve actually been really impressed with the range of jobs people do in addition to their teaching.  Some stick close to academia, working as research/administrative assistants, freelance writers/editors, tutors, library instructors, and department office staff.  Summer teaching positions at community colleges and year-round high schools level are at a premium.  I feel incredibly lucky to moonlight as instructor of an online community-college Humanities course, based in another state (it’s a carryover from my previous life teaching there in person). One friend has a paid position organizing/running an annual conference. Some folks pick up short-term gigs as AP graders (a one-week commitment), and the shortest-term jobs are always welcome: just this week I received emails offering 5 hours of employment helping run graduation festivities, or two hours helping to proctor a final exam; I imagine the positions filled within seconds.

I’ve been interested to find how many graduate students take second jobs outside academia. Nannying seems to be a popular one, and a natural result of department professors seeking childcare.  Bookstores and coffeeshops are favorites.  Some love waiting tables.  Hotel desk clerks can discreetly do homework during slow times.  I even have a friend who walks dogs.  Some are fortunate to have jobs directly related to their hobbies (play in a band with paying gigs, anyone?), or even to their dissertation work:  one of my good friends works as a full-time administrator for a humanitarian organization that helps women in Uganda, while dissertating on contemporary literature and transnational female identity (Tackling so many things has put her “on the slow boat,” as she says, but how cool that it’s all connected!).   I’m sure all you readers could name dozens more interesting odd jobs you and your friends have taken as graduate students, or various ways you save your hard-earned cash– anything to keep from selling our plasma, right?  (Um, not saying I haven’t thought about it….)

The fact that grad-students moonlight is not at all strange or difficult to understand; what is strange is how reluctant I have felt to talk about it. Maybe it’s just me, but that little phrase in my offer letter, “you may not accept other University employment that would result in your being employed more than 50% time by the University unless you receive approval by the Associate Dean of the graduate school,” has had me a little bit spooked—as though extra employment, even outside the University, is at least a breach of trust, if not of contract.  “A second job?!,” I imagine a shocked voice say, “How dare you squander the investment we’re making in you by not spending every spare hour in the library!”.  Judging from Brittany’s last post, I’m not alone in feeling some of this anxiety.  Now, there are some fellowships that do not allow recipients to have other employment during the time of support, since the point really is to enable him/her to spend every waking, working hour on research.  You might want to check the terms of your own contracts, but I’m willing to bet that for average grad students with part-time teaching loads, this stipulation doesn’t apply.

This isn’t to say that holding down extra employment is easy, or that our schoolwork and/or the job don’t sometimes suffer. We all have that haunting feeling that somewhere, someone is spending more time than we are researching and writing and publishing brilliant articles—because let’s face it, that person probably does exist.  Still, today I want to send a shout-out to all the folks who, like me, are cobbling together a living while also managing grad school, and might have felt a little sheepish to admit it. Way to go, I say! I think we should give ourselves a collective pat on the back for supplementing our income, minimizing our student loans, making ends meet, and acting like responsible adults.  Best of luck to all of you in your summer endeavors!


3 thoughts on “Grad Students In the Moonlight…”

  1. Kelli, this post definitely helped me think through the stigma that tends to get attached (or at least can be projected onto) working a bit through grad school. I’m wondering why so many of us may have this initial reaction? It really should be something to be celebrated–working on top of the academic employment we love, but supplementing our TA/RA incomes, as much as possible. In my case, I’ve been able to bring in some extra income tutoring a Korean family in English that I got connected with through the volunteer work I do with the university art museum.

    However, I’d love to hear what more creative things others are doing. Has anyone ever done any summer camp counseling? I’ve heard that that can be a great gig for grad students…

  2. Thanks for the post, Kelli! As an American attending a Canadian school who is legally barred, if I am to retain my full-time status, from working more than 20 hours per week off-campus, this definitely hits home. I would almost certainly be taking my degree at a more leisurely pace if I had more work opportunities, and I question the implicit idea that a shorter period of more intensive research necessarily leads to better work. I’ve noticed a pattern with finishing times at U of T: people who spend 7-8 years writing their dissertations tend to produce very good (and in some cases prize-winning) dissertations, even if they’re teaching/working simultaneously. There’s something to be said, I think, for the long gestation of an idea, even if it’s not being actively worked on at all times.

    1. Interesting comments, Brittany and Jacob. I hadn’t even thought about the benefits of taking more time with the dissertation… but I can certainly see how taking more time could lead to a better end product. That’s tough, though, since staying in school longer than necessary is a financial burden of its own.
      Jacob, I’ve never done summer camp counseling, but it sounds like a lot of fun, though it’s one of those 100% commitments; my cousin did it for several summers and loved it, but it is exhausting. I suppose it depends on the kind of summer camp, though, and what kind of counseling you do. If you gain some experience in that field, come back and let us know about it!

Comments are closed.