Tag Archives: career

Let’s Talk about Debt, Part 3: Debt & Regret

(Read Part 1 and Part 2)

The long and short of it is that the culture of debt in grad school supported my dumb decisions. The problem is both individual and systemic. Because the system gave active and vigorous windmill high-fives to my desire to avoid adulthood or cope with poverty and bad choices, there was no pushback on my decision to subsidize my very long and mostly pointless degree(s) over and over again with government money. I had to force myself to lift that rock and peer at the gross stuff, on my own, and because human beings like to avoid pain and embarrassment, it took me a long time to have the guts to do that. As in, years. And when I finally decided to leave, some still encouraged me to stick with it, just for a few more years.

But, now we’re there: we’re looking hard at our budget, we’re coming up with a plan to reduce our debt and be able to afford things like, ya know, FOOD, and it’s very painful. Ask yourself the last time you looked up your outstanding balance on student loans, or did the math on how much interest you pay on your credit card every month. It hurts.

It’s very easy to say yes to loans when you’re 22. You think, I will be done in 5 years. You think, This is an investment. And you think, as I mentioned before, that at some point you hit a threshold past which the amount of debt doesn’t really matter (a mountain is a mountain, right?).

But it does matter. Everest vs Mt. Hood matters. K2 versus McKinley fucking matters. There’s a world of difference between 60k and 20k in debt; between 120k and 70k. (Even if you don’t have debt going into grad school, how many grad students go debt-free during the average 8.2 years it takes to complete a PhD?)

Let’s say you only have student loan debt when you finish your degree (no credit card debt, even!), and you decide to aggressively pursue debt-free status. You are a very, very lucky PhD and you find a job in the midwest that pays 45k a year. You’re single and don’t have kids (or pets): bonus! You pull a Joe and share an apartment with a friend and are able to live on 25k a year, doing the rice and beans thing and keeping costs low. Putting 20k towards student loans, which doesn’t include interest and all that stuff, it will take this much of your life to repay the loan:

  • 20k in loans = 1 year
  • 40 k = 2 years
  • 60k = 3 years
  • 100k or more = 5+ years

Really, let’s reframe student loans as a prison sentence. The higher your debt, the longer your sentence. And 5 years might seem like nothing at 22, but I’m telling you that ten years later, 5 years seems like a big chunk of your life, and that’s if and only if you are able to put a huge amount towards loans every year. Most people – like me and my family – can’t approximate that.

So you might say Fuck it, I’ll just make my minimum payments for 25 years or whatever and just count on having to pay it. OK, yeah, that makes sense (if you ignore things like the massive amount of interest you’ll pay); but really, think about what you could be doing with that $400 or $500 (or $1000) per month. You could… save for retirement. Get your kids the braces they need or help pay for your Mom’s nursing home costs. Go on a honeymoon in San Francisco instead of camping. Get your dog the surgery for his hip instead of putting him to sleep. Invest in the stock market, or buy a kickass car. Fix the car you already have. That kind of money, month after month? It can be a life or death, eat or go hungry difference.

Loans are only an investment if they pay off. Going into tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an advanced degree that is highly unlikely to get you a job that pays more than an entry-level salary is idiotic. We are crazy for thinking this was the right thing to do. Because we end up on food stamps. Or we end up realizing we should have gone in a different direction in our careers and go back to school, again, for a different, practical degree (I know PhDs who are becoming librarians, midwives, doctors, high school teachers: they could have saved years of time, effort, and money without the scenic route through a PhD, although few will outright say that they regret the PhD). I’m starting to agree wholeheartedly with the boom-and-bust “higher ed bubble” theory because my decision to go to grad school parallels so closely the heartfelt and utterly misguided desires of folks who bought houses during the real estate bubble and ended up with homes worth less than the money owed on them. A PhD is worth so much less than the debt incurred to earn it. The PhD, in most cases, will cost you way more than it’s worth in debt and regret. But when you are inside the system, it’s surprisingly difficult to see the writing on the wall. People are so certain that they will regret quitting more than anything else that they stay on even when the thrill is gone. This is bonkers. Quitting is awesome. Quitting is freedom. Debt sucks. Debt is prison.

I’m in my early thirties and I have two daughters, a house, two Master’s degrees and a ton of worthless graduate credit hours. I have dreams for my daughters that may never be fulfilled. I have dreams for my own life that will be on hold indefinitely, and may go completely unfulfilled because the next decade or more of my existence is dedicated to paying for mistakes I made when I was young and willfully ignorant.

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What Lauren Learned About Identity & Work via a Craft Disaster (aka “Do it, start it, FUCK THIS IT’S NOT WORKING!”)

It’s time for me to ‘fess up: I did not do the Pinterest challenge assigned to me by Renee, the winner of the Pin Us To It prize at our 4K giveaway.

Now, I bet some of our newer readers, brought here by our connections to other post-academic blogs, are thinking “WTF is this Pinning shit?” So before I launch into a discussion of my crafting experience, let me say this about Mama Nervosa: it’s a non-niche blog. We don’t just write about being ex-grad students, or just write about being feminists, or just write about being Moms, or just write about secretly reading super goofy quasi-pornographic YA lit in sixth grade. We write about all of our experiences, and some of those experiences include stuff that’s very typically feminine or maternal. We simply aren’t interested in fracturing our identities into separate blogs or saying that how we feel about ourselves as brainy feminist women has nothing to do with being mothers or crafting disaster-ers. I’ll try to make some connections between this craft experience and some of the stuff I’ve been thinking as I quit grad school towards the end of the post, so stay with me!

From our inception as a blog, we’ve been preoccupied with Pinterest and lifestyle blogs because they’re such an integral part of the online mommying world (read this recent article from Jezebel for a taste of it). Jen is pretty ok with Pinterest: she recognizes its flaws, but overall, her experience with Pinterest is positive. I… let’s just say I feel differently. Continue reading

Let’s Talk About Debt, Part 2: The Catch 22 of Grad School Economics

The impossibility of the Grad School Economy really hit home for me last summer (2011). We’d just moved to a bigger place after squashing into a 2-bedroom apartment for years. Like the woman in the Grad School to Welfare article, we live outside our university town because it is more affordable. My daughters were 3 years old and 18 months old at the time, and I was gearing up to take my comprehensive exams in the fall. Because summers in the past have been terribly tight (more on that in a minute), I took a job as a part-time writing tutor at my University. We could only afford half-time childcare for the girls, which meant they spent the mornings at school and I either tutored or worked towards comps during that time: this meant commuting between their schools, my school, and our house all between the hours of 7:30 am and 12:30 pm. So, my schedule looked something like this:

7:30 Leave with both girls and all my school stuff to take Kid 2 to infant daycare in nearby town.

7:50 Drop off Kid 2, drive Kid 1 to hippie daycare for preschoolers in university town.

8:15 Arrive at writing center, check email, tutor anxious grad students on mind-bending dissertations about standardized outcomes language in nursing or African-American porter unions or bio-mathematics.

10:30 Finish tutoring, get out comps stuff and start getting head into game. Read articles, look up references, start taking notes/drafting.

12:00 I just got into a writing rhythm, but I have to pack up and race to hippie daycare because I’m already running late.

12:20 Drive to nearby town to pick up Kid 2 as fast as possible, because if they fall asleep in the car on the way home, then they won’t nap, and if they won’t nap then I am SOL in terms of work time.

12:40 Drive home with the radio blaring to keep kids awake. They scream in my face.

1:00 Shovel food into their gaping maws as fast as possible, nurse one or both to sleep. Get comps stuff out, find where I’d left off, and start drafting or note-taking, while feeding myself with my non-dominant hand.

2:15 Shit! Someone is setting off firecrackers. Please don’t wake up please don’t wake up. If they wake up, I am ruined. RUINED.

3:15 They slept and I got a paragraph of summary written. Now it’s time to be a Mom, fix dinner, clean up, do bath time, and do bedtime.

8:45 They’re asleep! Now I have to decide if I’m going to work some more, have sex with my very neglected husband (oh yeah, that guy), or go to sleep.

9:15 Sleep wins.

Other than being completely crazy-making, the Catch 22 of this economy flummoxed me:

  • If I wanted more time to write, then I needed to have more money to pay for childcare.
  • If I needed more money for childcare, then I needed to spend more time working on a job that paid.
  • If I spent more time working at a job that paid (tutoring, nannying, adjuncting 1-2 sections at a local CC, all of which I’ve done as a grad student), then I had no time to write.
  • If I spent more time writing during “free” time (evenings and weekends), then my marriage collapsed like a dying star and I became a stranger to my children.

We know firsthand how painful and terrifying it can be to go broke. We went broke in 2010, the first summer after our second baby was born. I was too exhausted and clueless and desperate to calculate the full cost of childcare for two children. The pregnancy was a surprise, and I wanted to prove that I could balance family and school, so I was bound and determined to have a sitter for the girls and get some work done (any work, progress is progress, right?). But my summer income is zero: my TAship was a 10-month contract, and July and August are always tight. By the time I realized that there was simply no way for us to afford childcare for two young kids relying solely on my husband’s salary, it was too late to regroup and come up with an alternative plan. I pulled both girls out of childcare and spent that summer as a stay-at-home-mom, letting go of all work time to take care of my family and painstakingly attend to our budget. We made it, but it was extremely stressful, and I lost a lot of momentum towards comping, which was what I felt I needed to do so I could get to the part where I made actual money.

But after that, we prioritized money over grad school progress to avoid repeating that experience: I tutored in the summer, and taught anywhere from 1 to 3 additional courses each semester (in contrast to my usual one). My husband got a promotion at his not-beloved-but-solid job; he also works a second, part-time job every other weekend.

Focusing on income cost me dearly as I struggled to prepare for comps in 2010-2012. I deferred again in Fall 2010, and again in Spring 2011. Last summer, I was determined to comp in September, but Grad School Economics made that impossible. My adviser was skeptical that I would be ready to comp in the spring (2012). I was absolutely determined to make it work, and I took drastic measures to sprint my way towards comps readiness: I hired a cleaning lady, put my kids in daycare full-time, and started writing nights and weekends. I wrote and wrote and wrote, often immediately scrapping what I’d just spent weeks on. I was still floundering with topics and focus: maybe I was just not academically ready to comp at this time, but I didn’t really have the time to come to that realization, nor did I have the time to concentrate and solve that problem. I was out of time: I needed to comp as soon as fucking possible. I was dug in and furiously working away in a not-very-productive manner, but I knew that our family could not sustain this life for long, so I thought if I really hammered at it and got through comps, I could slow back down after that, maybe even work a part-time job while I dissertated and the girls got into school, whatever. I needed to get over this ENORMOUS mountain.

But at my first meeting with my adviser in the spring semester of 2012, it became clear that I was nowhere near ready for comps and had miles to go before I slept. I’d lost my way and would have to work harder, for longer, to reorient myself and get back on track. I was not up for that. It felt impossible to continue in this way, so I quit.

(To be continued!)

Let’s Talk About Debt, Part 1: the Real World Economy versus the Grad School Economy

Lauren Does Math and Has a Brainsplosion

I sat down to work on our family budget yesterday and it was… unpleasant.

I am not a math person. I’m not a person who thinks well in this way. I worked extremely hard to get an A in basic college algebra. It takes considerable effort and a lot of repetition for me to do math right, and even then, my brain trends towards the unrealistically optimistic. I’m a “round up” kind of gal. I had been working on a budget for awhile, here and there, using estimations of biweekly payments, etc etc — estimations that I thought were very conservative. But, I was off by about $600, which is a lot of money to “find” in an already dramatically scaled back “Lauren quit grad school and ruined our lives” plan.

I’m not the only one facing the harsh reality of the real world economy, versus the grad school economy. A much-circulated Chronicle article about PhDs on food stamps makes it clear that whether you finish or not, the transition from grad school economics to real world economics is devastating to a lot of people. And if you have the stomach to read the comments, you’ll note that many of them are a variation on the theme of “They got what they deserved” or “How could they be so stupid?” or “What part of ‘loan’ did they not understand?”

And it’s true, it’s insane that we all fell for it and made chronically bad choices when it comes to economics. But, here’s the thing: everyone else was doing it. First of all, insane willingness to take on debt has staggeringly obvious precedence in every facet of American life from the housing bubble to the net bubble to the national debt. PhDs aren’t the only ones being blithering idiots in a culture predicated on getting what you want right now and paying for it, literally and figuratively, later on.

But beyond that, I think in grad school there is a special economic culture; or at least, I felt like I was part of a strange little world in which there were different economic expectations and rules. The sort of unspoken rule I — and many of my peers — operated on went along the lines of, “If I’m going to be paying this debt off for the rest of my life, the amount of debt I’m in really doesn’t matter.” Continue reading

Google Diaries: We know you quit grad school.

When Lauren and I initially created Mama Nervosa, we imagined a space where we could write about the whole, weird range of experiences that make up our lives and identities: watching tv, mothering, unsuccessful crafting, writing, teaching, and figuring out who we are and what we do beyond grad school.

It turns out that this question of figuring out life beyond grad school resonates with a large number of people, many of whom find us by searching some variation of the phrase “I quit grad school now what” on google. I quit grad school. I want to quit grad school. Should I quit grad school? I want my husband to quit grad school. How do I tell my wife I quit grad school? My personal favorite: quit grad school no job 2012. It’s a tiny diary entry, a moment of grief and hope and desperation poured out into the google search box.

We’ve both written about leaving grad school, but while Lauren is saying her goodbyes this week, I said mine a long time ago. Eight years ago, in fact, a number which completely shocked me when I did the math this morning. So what have I done since I sent that fateful email? Continue reading

Fresh Beats, Gators, Surrender

So I didn’t do much (okay, any) writing last week. But I promise, I wasn’t slacking!

What I did:

1.)    turned in my grades

2.)    spent 2 days in professional development seminars

3.)    went to my nephew’s track meet

4.)    planted lime basil seeds

5.)    hung out with my sister and her new baby

6.)    cheered for the otters at the zoo

7.)    cheered for Margeaux when she stood up for the first time

8.)    bought a new round squishy ottoman so Margeaux has a safe place to stand up

9.)    taught D and Lucy how to use a lint brush so they can clean the cat hair off the new ottoman

10.) chased the cat around to squirt peroxide on his gross open wounds twice a day

11.) vowed to never let the cat outside again Continue reading

Having a Baby as a Life Organizing Strategy

A miracle occurred in my house on Sunday: my two year old slept all night, by herself, in her bed. For the first time in her life.

Finally, she sleeps!

I’ve written about my children’s terrible sleep before, so this bears repeating: my twenty-seven month old daughter slept through the night for the first time last night. I remember that it was also April when my older daughter started sleeping through the night, too: something about the spring after turning two must flip a switch in the brains of my children that says, “Hey – sleep is grand. Let’s do it some more.”

This means I slept through the night, too! For the first time! In over four years! I woke up at 5 am and could tell that it was way later than I typically got to sleep before being called back to the kids’ room. I squinted at the clock to bring the numbers in focus and couldn’t quite believe it. Then I fretted in bed for thirty minutes, assuming that she had not woken up because ya know, she was probably dead. 

It’s funny: co-sleeping is so often characterized as reckless endangerment of a child, but to me it offered ironclad knowledge that my kid hadn’t suffocated. I felt like a neglectful Mom when I woke up the next morning, having slept all night in luxury and not made sure my child was alive once. But she was alive! And I missed her little body in that moment, her snuggly ways and how she always jams her feet under my side. I know she will probably continue to wake up sometimes (like, ya know, the very next night), but I also expect that, like her sister, this will be the start of her kid years. She’s not a baby. She’s almost not even a toddler. She’s almost a kid. I’m almost to a place where I might sleep, all night, in a bed, maybe even with my husband (if he doesn’t snore).

So it might surprise you (it certainly surprises me) that I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not I want to have another baby. Not only did my youngest child do something that tells me she’s not so little anymore, but it’s my breeding time of year. I got pregnant with Robin in June, and Holly was accidentally conceived during a post-finals week high in May two years later. My body is telling me it’s time to get back on that horse: my body really, really thinks it would be a good idea to get pregnant yesterday.

My heart also kinda wants a baby: I love newborns, I love fat baby faces and snuggles, and I’d love to see my 4-year-old dote over an infant (she often asks me to have another baby, and often asks when she can have a baby). And there’s nothing like the anticipation of a new baby. It has this open possibility that is scary but intoxicating: you know life is going to change completely, and you also know you are about to fall hard for someone completely new and wonderful in ways you can never anticipate and never knew you needed. I found this especially true with Holly (our 2nd) because we were no longer so terrified of the baby thing, so we really enjoyed her infancy and getting to know her little personality. The idea of seeing what else our genes could come up with is tempting. A brown-haired child (finally)? A boy? It’s not that different than gambling, in a way – and it has tremendous emotional and cultural payoff. Nothing is as hard as having a small baby, but on the flip side, nothing is as powerful. In the right circumstances – support, security – a desired pregnancy is enormously LIFE ORGANIZING. It has its own gravitational pull, a centripetal motion that brings everything else into focus and order in a way that’s really gratifying.

I’ve been rereading The Feminine Mystique and one of the themes that comes up again and again is that women have another baby to solve problems in other areas of their lives. I say this not as judgment but as fact: I think anyone committing to having a child does it for myriad reasons, some selfless or laudable as “in the child’s best interest” and some personal, relational, and complex. I didn’t have kids when I did because the timing was perfect and we have pre-established college funds, etc. It was a complicated blend of biological imperative, life timing, and personal desire. In Friedan’s analysis, women of the 50s and 60s kept having children because they’ve been culturally conditioned to see mothering as the only valid use of their time and abilities, and when their littlest becomes independent, they have a personal crisis. I don’t think that’s the case any longer: certainly, all the women I know understand that there are many paths to a fulfilling life and work can be a part of that; but at the same time, we still expect, and experience, an intense devotion between mother and child that can feel and be engulfing at times. It makes sense that coming out of that, and deciding to end that time (no more kids) creates new space for questioning and wondering that’s a bit scary to negotiate.

Sweet Baby Robin

Pregnancy really forces you to get your shit together. You get house projects done, you quit drinking or smoking, you start eating better. Suddenly, you are flying through your dissertation or push a big project at work through because you want to be done before the baby gets here. For some women, pregnancy is really good for them: they love their bodies, sometimes the hormones even relieve persistent problems like depression or anxiety. In some marriages I know, the time around pregnancy and birth is a time of harmony in the home: conflict and disagreement are set aside while both parents focus on the new baby. It might not be “right” but babies can temporarily repair broken relationships, broken minds, and broken bodies. The needs of an infant are urgent, primal, and utterly reasonable (love, food, clean bum). Priorities become crystal clear. Life makes sense. Nothing quite brings together personal desires, biological urges, and cultural cache quite like babies. And I think it does allow us to kick down the road some stuff we’re just not up for yet. Betty Friedan specifically asks,

What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one, when she must decide who she will be, is simply the terror of growing up – growing up, as women were not permitted to grow before? What if the terror a girl faces at twenty-one is the terror of freedom to decide her own life, with no one order to which path she will take… What if those who choose the path of ‘feminine adjustment’ – evading this terror by marrying at eighteen, losing themselves in having babies and the details of house-keeping – are simply refusing to grow up, to face the question of their own identity?

I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m not sitting in judgment of people who might have babies to defer dealing with life problems or “facing the question of their own identity.” Nor do I think people who want to have lots of babies or who are in the middle of growing their families are necessarily “avoiding” growing up. I’m just speaking to my experience and from observation that sometimes we have babies for reasons beyond a simple “I want another baby.” I’m in the middle of the “terror” Friedan describes right now, albeit 10 years later than the women Friedan writes about, because both my childbearing years and my whole vocational concept are coming to an end at the same time.  So, I have to be aware of the fact that I might be fantasizing about another baby not just because I want another baby or it might be fun or good. It might also be – hell, it probably is largely because – I’m not sure what’s happening next in my life, and having experienced the power and pleasure of mothering a baby, that seems like an awesome option. My very own brilliant and wonderful partner wrote me this email back in February when we were trying to make sense of this emerging obsession:

I do think you should try to think about this stuff in the context of grad school falling apart. I remember after grad school feeling suddenly very old and somehow more aware of my own mortality. There’s something about being launched into the real world that is very disconcerting and makes you feel like there’s no time, or that you have to make up for lost time or something. In your email you say, “I always wanted to mother a lot of kids but maybe I’m just not cut out for that, and that’s ok, but kind of sad to acknowledge.” To me that sounds like a classic I just got out of grad school and I don’t know what I’m good at anymore statement. It makes perfect sense that you would want to replace your sort of stillborn grad school career with the thing that made the most sense to you and brought you the most fulfillment, but the reality is that you might not actually want to go through with having another baby. I can see how the idea of having a fresh little person to dote on would seem attractive to you right now. It’s unfortunate that the thing you are fantasizing about (having a baby) is also inextricably linked with some of the most unpleasant memories you could possibly conjure up (months of nausea, vomiting, sleep deprivation, etc.)… The point I’m trying to make is that you might need something new to think about. You might need something new to obsess over.

Jolly Baby Holly

This is why I’m not making any big decisions right now. As much as having a third baby might be a great thing for our family, I don’t want to get pregnant because I’ve tried nothing and I’m all out of ideas when it comes to life after grad school. I don’t want my knee-jerk reaction to the fear of what’s next to involve a human life – at least not a new human life. Having a baby is compelling but it would also shut down a lot of possibilities – writing? A magic job that may or may not be in the works? Moving? Travel? The point is, I may not know yet what I want from my future, even though my instinct is to grab on to something for dear life. I want to keep as many doors open as possible and go through the terror of “growing up,” as painful as it may be, because I want to keep possibility open and see if life surprises me. So right now? I’m sitting tight with my two kids, watching some Spongebob, and doing some more writing.