Economics/Class Relations

From Graduate School to Public Assistance

By Jason Brennan

This story at the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye.

“I am not a welfare queen,” says Melissa Bruninga-Matteau.

That’s how she feels compelled to start a conversation about how she, a white woman with a Ph.D. in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Ariz., says the stereotype of the people receiving such aid does not reflect reality.

A striking section:

She entered graduate school at the University of California at Irvine in 2002, idealisticabout landing a tenure-track job in her field. She never imagined that she’d end up trying to eke out a living, teaching college for poverty wages, with no benefits or job security. [Emphasis mine.]

I find this perplexing. I also entered grad school in 2002. At the time I entered, I knew that the job market for Ph.D.s tended to be bleak. I also knew that the market for people with Ph.D.s in history was considerably worse than it was for people with Ph.D.s in philosophy. I also knew that getting a tenure-track job was difficult even if you come from a top program in one’s field, let alone a program outside the top 20, such as the program Bruninga-Matteau attended. I frequently imagined that I would never get a job, which is one reason why I made sure to start publishing while in graduate school. (I don’t know if Bruninga-Matteau has published anything. Nothing shows up in Google Scholar or JStor, but that doesn’t mean much.)

It wasn’t as if I acquired this knowledge through difficult research. All of this information was publicly available and well-known.  I am sorry that Bruninga-Matteau ended up in this situation. However, the article makes it sound as if she just expected to get a tenure-track job. She was “idealistic”. She “never imagined” she’d have to eke out a living. If that’s accurate, then it seems to me she made a culpable mistake. Anyone pursuing a Ph.D. in history as of 2002should have known better than to expect a tenure-track jobIf you are pursuing a Ph.D. in a humanities field right now, it’s your responsibility to know the risks. If you think the risks are worth it, go for it. But please don’t complain that you didn’t know the risks. (Even if the system sucks and should be reformed, you should know that the system sucks before you stake your future on it.)

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau grew up in an upper-middle class family in Montana that valued hard work and saw educational achievement as the pathway to a successful career and a prosperous life

I’m a first generation college student. Still, despite coming from a background where no one has experience with higher education, I knew getting a Ph.D. was risky.

I’m not interested here in debating public policy or welfare benefits, though you are free to do so in the comments section. I’m also not interested in debating the use of adjuncts, though I have plenty to say about that.

I’m interested in this article because it is  (or at least seems to be) a striking case of naïveté. It’s surprising to me how many graduate students are just like Bruninga-Matteau. Perhaps that’s not accidental. Perhaps the Ph.D. admissions process tends to select for 2 kinds of students: 1) go-getters who know what it takes and do what it takes, and 2) book-smart people who have their heads in the clouds when it comes to practical matters. I frequently meet graduate students from the second category, though I rarely meet assistant professors who come from that category.

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