From The Chronicle of Higher Education:
While in the middle of my Ph.D. studies, I was on my way back to La Guardia airport after a conference when I had a long discussion with a cab driver. It turned out that he had been a medical doctor in his home country but his qualifications were not recognized in the United States. He had no choice but to find any job he could to make ends meet, even though he had worked as a specialist in pediatric care for years. I remember feeling immense frustration for the waste of his gifts and knowledge.
Back in Dallas, things were going well for me as a graduate student. I was reading and developing theories related to dialogue, poetry, and social change. I was honing my skills as a researcher, writer, and scholar. I moved quickly from teaching first-year writing classes to teaching more advanced classes in my areas of poetry and 20th-century literature. I was asked to be on committees and met regularly with the department’s top professors, had travel money to attend and give papers at conferences, and basically enjoyed a poverty-stricken but rewarding intellectual life.
And I knew poverty. I was a single mother of two daughters without child support for a good part of that time. I know what it’s like to be on food stamps. I also know what it’s like to pick up adjunct work and writing-center work to make ends meet. But like most graduate students, I expected the period of personal and financial sacrifice to be temporary—a struggle that would yield greater rewards in the long run.
And it did. While still A.B.D., I landed a tenure-track-equivalent job in a two-year (now four-year) college even though well over a hundred people applied for the position, many with Ph.D.’s from prestigious universities.
From my first day on the job, I was treated as a valuable member of the faculty. I was given my own office with state-of-the-art computer equipment and my name on the door. I had my pick of classes, most of which were directly related to my studies and scholarship interests. I was instrumental in creating liaisons with university humanities programs and was involved in a host of writing and visiting-speaker series. Sure, we had a heavy course load, but we had a tremendous amount of support alongside generous travel money ($2,500 a year), a decent paycheck, and full benefits. The college even paid for the rest of my Ph.D. studies. Best of all, I had found a truly collegial atmosphere in which I felt appreciated and respected and where I could grow as an educator and a scholar.
But so much is about perspective. Fast forward to 2008. I received my Ph.D. at the same time that my partner was offered a job in Chicago. I would have to leave my teaching position, but there were many universities in Chicago, and I had a strong vita, a growing list of publications, and experience in a core faculty role, alongside great recommendation letters.
In 2009, I was offered a visiting lectureship at a state institution in Chicago that served the kind of population (first-generation college students) I enjoyed teaching most. The job even sounded relatively good compared with other contingent faculty positions. I was offered a one-year contract with a 3-3 course load and benefits. But the pay was shockingly low: $26,000. Not only a great deal less than the job I had just walked away from but significantly lower than my salary as a primary-school teacher in England in the 1990s.
But this was temporary, right?
That taxi driver? I soon began to know how he felt.