Productivity, Perseverance and Precarity in a Pandemic: Reflections of a PhD Student

I am a PhD candidate in the middle of a global pandemic. The phrase “global pandemic” seems played out. It’s become a daily word that does not quite have the power that it used to. I am told, also daily, in various emails, video calls, and recorded messages that the university cares deeply about me and wants to support me. That my perseverance is admirable during these challenging and unprecedented times. I guess it’s admirable to pass my dissertation proposal in the middle of a global pandemic. I guess it’s also admirable to have to revise my study to be conducted online because human subject research is a public health threat now.

Today I got a $500 CARES grant payment from the university. That’s nice. What I really need is a signed contract for next year so I can pay my mortgage and car payment and utilities and bills. And a sense of whether or not the university is willing to support me if this challenging and unprecedented time results in my degree taking longer to complete. So I can have my tuition covered while I conduct my no-longer-in-person dissertation research. So I can have health insurance for myself and my recently under-compensated and enormous student debt-carrying part-time graduate student spouse. It seems I can’t pay my bills with compliments for my determination and tips for busting boredom and staying connected while stuck at home.

My husband has been partially furloughed, amounting to a 10% cut in his pay over a 7-month period. Meanwhile, I wait every day for a new job offer letter for the next academic year. I was offered an assistantship the day before the university announced the move to online and remote operations in March. I trust that my faculty offered the job in good faith, but until I get that letter approved by the Dean’s office, nothing is certain. Since nothing is certain with the budget or operations of the university for the fall, it seems all too likely that the offer could fall through. Offers can fall through, even under non-pandemic conditions. Being a graduate student is precarious and unpredictable, and you have to hustle from year to year to make ends meet.

Getting my PhD is a six-year endeavor without a global pandemic. I worked full-time for the first three years of coursework. I’ll be in my mid-thirties when I finish my degree. In many ways, this puts me in a better position than many of my peers, with the benefit of some retirement savings and having accrued enough wealth to buy a small condo instead of paying college town rent prices. It also means that I constantly struggle with the pressures of pursuing an academic career during my prime childbearing years. It’s sad, but I feel grateful not to have children right now. I worry for my friends who are suddenly balancing full-time PhDing and full-time parenting and full-time elementary school instruction. People in my field say there’s no good time to go back to school for your doctorate. But the academic job market is already a nightmare, and pandemic-driven recession is now making it worse. It seems that maybe this was really bad timing. I don’t know when it will ever be a good time again to pursue an academic career.

Meanwhile, it feels utterly impossible to sustain the kinds of activities necessary to have my CV in tip-top shape when I enter the topsy-turvy academic job market. I’ve been suspicious of the now commonly held idea that PhD students need to have multiple publications before even hitting the job market. It’s a symptom of the neoliberalization of the university. We scholars have responded to the precarity and adjunctification of the academic job market by putting our CVs on steroids, armoring ourselves against academic austerity with fiercely individualistic competitiveness, passing the torch of publish or perish to ever more junior scholars. Undergrads publish research papers to get into PhD programs these days, after all. Good graduate students are productive scholars, perhaps even during a pandemic.

Needless to say, the constant personal crisis associated with the worldwide crisis has further slowed my already weak sense of motivation for academic productivity to a slow crawl. Mantras like “good enough is okay” help me get through each day locked in my home that I thankfully can still pay for, but they aren’t exactly going to help me get a job in an overly saturated hiring field in a couple of years. It’s not that I don’t care about my work. I care a lot about my work. I just think that publishing in journals is probably not the best way to actually effect change toward more equitable outcomes in policy and leadership at colleges and universities. As a higher education scholar-activist, I am living a real-life case study that suggests to me that most higher education decision-makers do not give two shits about what we are publishing in journals. The vast majority of them have also never been through a higher education administration or leadership program that might give them tools to be more equity-focused, humane, and student-centered in a crisis.

So, I rage against the academic machine through my activism and organizing, and question whether my writing is just going into an echo chamber. I will admit that I rather like the echo chamber of critical higher education scholarship; I learn a lot there. But I wonder where I should be spending my time right now and where I should be spending my time in the future. I and every graduate student and contingent instructor across the country are currently engaged in a deeply unequal relationship with our institutions and the institution of U.S. higher education. We have gotten a clear message amidst this crisis that we are more or less disposable. If we can figure out how to get out of this mess and still get our degrees, we might be so lucky as to enter the academic job market. But even then, most of us will be eaten alive there or left to languish in precarious year-to-year employment as part of the massive non-permanent instructional academic workforce.

The complete lack of commitment by my university and most others tells me that this is a perfectly acceptable outcome to those in charge. The social Darwinism of neoliberal higher education in full display. Some of us won’t make it. It’s a pity isn’t it? I guess we should have been more productive during the pandemic.