Should I let myself be exploited for a year in academia?
June 6, 2008 6:07 AM   Subscribe

Should I take this job offer to work at a wage that's barely livable so I can get into grad school?

I have a job offer to work for a wage that's considered just barely high enough for a single person to live on in my area. The unquantifiable perk is that I'd be working for someone whose recommendation will considerably strengthen my grad school application, in exchange for a year or two of near-poverty.

I've done a budget with their offer, and I could do it, barely. I wouldn't be able to eat out more than once a month, and I wouldn't be saving more than 5%, and I could end up bankrupted by a major unplanned expense. I already tried asking for a little more, and they made me feel like a jerk for trying to take money from a non-profit that's already strapped, so any extra income will have to come from side gigs.
I have tentatively accepted their offer, but now I feel bad for doing so. I feel like I'm perpetuating a system that feeds off the labor of those at the bottom of the academic ladder who are largely duped into thinking that their work will be recognized and they will get their turn. I have no such high hopes; I want to get into grad school because I like my subject, and I have plans outside academia for after the PhD, but I'm worried that I'm paying too high of an opportunity cost now to get it.

Where is the point where love of the field isn't enough? I'll walk away before they ask for my firstborn, but should I be running already?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total)
Can you tell us what field you're working in, how old you are, how long the job commitment will be, etc? This is a hard question for anyone to answer but yourself, especially given these details. If it were me, at my age, with my interests, I would take the job and try to work on the side tutoring or waiting tables. If it's only for a year, and you're young, and it might made a difference towards getting PhD funding next year, then a year of meager living is well worth it.
posted by farishta at 6:22 AM on June 6, 2008

Is there a compelling reason why you can't get into grad school now? Maybe you're making this too complicated.
Also: if you're this worried about a couple years of poverty, I don't recommend becoming a grad student.
posted by willpie at 6:26 AM on June 6, 2008

To be honest, you're hardly talking about admissions to Yale Law here. Even "competitive" graduate school programs are honestly, not all that competitive.

Like farishta said, MeMail the mods with some of those specifics, and there might be more specific advice.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 6:37 AM on June 6, 2008

Another factor to consider: will you be working long or intense hours, or will you have freedom to actually _do_ side gigs?
posted by amtho at 7:12 AM on June 6, 2008

I'm going to come right out and say it, no, it is not worth it, period. As long as you take a respectable job in a even perriferally related field you are going to find people that are capable of writing your grad reccomendations. An added factor in working in the field is that you are getting work reccomendations and experience nailed down early and not selling your soul for short term gain at the expense of the long term goal and short term misery.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:31 AM on June 6, 2008

I already tried asking for a little more, and they made me feel like a jerk for trying to take money from a non-profit that's already strapped...

If they are already making you feel bad -- and for something like asking for the pay to be closer to a living wage -- working there may be hell for a year.

This is a red flag, too: I could end up bankrupted by a major unplanned expense. So I'm guessing no benefits, either?

If you don't take this job, are you still going to be able to get into grad school? It seems to me like the price is too high.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:35 AM on June 6, 2008

Once you enter grad school, you will be exploited and financially destitute for the duration. Your plan extends that situation by one year.

I am in grad school now, making just enough to live. I recently had a medical emergency and it consumed all the money I had saved from my previous job. I am worried that I won't be able to afford another accident. Be sure you are ready for that kind of humiliation.
posted by fake at 7:48 AM on June 6, 2008

Nthing that you have to make the decision yourself, but:

How would you feel if you didn't get into grad school after enduring the low pay for a year?

Are you certain that the job will take up a reasonable amount of time such that you could moonlight to supplement your income? Might it be 40 hours that could bleed into 50, 60, 70?

What would be the value to you of the savings you could accrue at a higher-paying job to cushion you through the low pay (or student loans) of grad school?

How are you judging your odds of getting into grad school and the impact of this job experience/resulting recs on them? This is very difficult to do. If you have a specific program or two in mind, have you talked to admissions people?

Best wishes.
posted by ecsh at 8:14 AM on June 6, 2008

If they ALREADY made you feel like a jerk for asking for a living wage, why work for them? No way. I'm so disgusted by nonprofits that treat their own people like garbage. Plus if you don't want to stay in academia, who cares what they think - don't live in poverty. Also it could be good practice before getting into academia to be able to say NO to being exploited like this, because once you're there.. well.. it could easily happen again, let's say.
posted by citron at 8:55 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Unless it's a sure thing for you to get into grad school because of this dude's rec, don't bother. You might not even want to go into grad school for this program in a year or two. Don't exchange a living wage for something that is two years from now. And don't work for nonprofits that make you feel guilty. They'll probably expect you to donate to them too, if you're at a nonprofit with a development department.
posted by onepapertiger at 9:00 AM on June 6, 2008

Another thing to consider: do you need the PhD to work in your field, in the subject you enjoy? You mention that you plan to work outside academia afterwards - in many fields, the PhD might actually work against you as far as job searching goes. Is it possible to find a job with a living wage in this field?

I have to agree with everyone: don't do it! I would guess from your question that your gut's already telling you this - but to hinge something like a grad school admission on two years of being poor/miserable could be calamitous. What if you put in two years, and your boss declines to give you a recommendation or worse, asks you to write it yourself so he/she can just sign it? What if you hate it, and quit within three months - will that make your application look worse? What if - as you've pointed out - you have an accident and end up in major debt?

As everyone else has said, only you can make this decision, but please consider what would happen if you took this job and something went wrong with it.
posted by universal_qlc at 9:31 AM on June 6, 2008

Contra NucleophilicAttack, competitive grad schools *are* often quite hard to get into (and the law school comparison is particularly inapposite -- I say this as someone who has gone to a tip-top law school and currently goes to a tip-top grad school, so I know what I'm talking about).

But you need to give us more information. How much of a difference is this guy's rec going to make? Normally, one rec isn't a make-or-break kind of thing, if you have good recs otherwise... I think this is a bad idea unless there's some special reason that this person is so important.
posted by paultopia at 2:29 PM on June 6, 2008

Folks without trust funds in these situations (and if you think this is tough, in other fields it's not uncommon for the most elite internships to be entirely unpaid) handle it by getting a second job as well-- waitress, barkeep, freelance programming, landscaping, dog walking, etc.

If you can't live in a major metropolitan area on $16,000-$18,000/year without freaking out, a PhD might be the worst 6 years of your life.
posted by availablelight at 2:56 PM on June 6, 2008

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