09/14/2010 11:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Too Many Books, Too Few Bookcases

In June I left the best job I've ever had and the only job I've wanted for the past ten years.

Part of it was the politics of academia, I'll admit; being a professor is never as idyllic as the hopeful graduate student anticipates. But despite that, I sincerely loved the thrill of teaching, the profound joy of watching young people become interested and then invested in stories and characters that I love deeply, and the excitement of connecting what many think is a lost generation with the experiences of peoples long gone. They are not a lost generation; they are brilliant and hopeful, and I believe in their future success. This is all great if hope, brilliance, and belief actually count for anything in the present dismal, and dream-deferring, economy.

The loss of my job boils down to one thing: my husband, also a grad school survivor and ready to work in his field, could not find a job, and we could not survive on one income. Upon moving to Minnesota, a jaunt north that gave my very Southern mother much consternation, we were content with my salary and the early hope that my husband would soon find something. We suffered from the same disillusion that many freshly-minted advanced degree holders do: we assumed that a master's degree would set him apart in a terrible economy. It is a carefully constructed image created by all of the entities that support and benefit from higher education in this country, the promise of unlimited opportunity in exchange for only a few years of grueling subservience to the academic ivory tower. Unfortunately for us and others
like us, sometimes there is no big payoff.

And the effect of this deferred dream has a heavy psychological toll, as it did on my husband when he was out of work and depending on scant freelance possibilities. I think that one of the things that draws people to graduate school is the hope that there will be a well-paying and perhaps even prestigious job to be had on the other side. And for some of us, that is true; my job carried a decent salary, and one of my close friends landed a great job that, like mine, is temporary but promising. In essence, they have to give those positions to someone, and getting one is a huge ego and general mood boost. And truth be told, there are other positions like instructorships, post-docs, and part time assignments for grateful and deserving applicants. At least for the ones who are lucky. In any case, it got to the point where we could not stay in a place that was economically and emotionally damaging to us and our marriage.

You see, what the placement advisors and dissertation committees don't tell you is that there is a strong possibility that you will be eating ramen noodles again. Or that you will not be able to afford bookshelves for the hundreds of books you own. Or that when it's time for a new computer, you'd better find some electrical tape and a good friend who knows about circuits. Temporary positions do not offer moving compensation, and moving costs a hell of a lot of money. Good luck scraping together a deposit on a new apartment, and we surely hope that you have enough savings to live on throughout the summer and won't have to live on your friend's futon. Be prepared to stay on the market for a few years at least, and don't forget to publish, publish, publish! Oh, and by the way, thanks for teaching undergraduates for eight years. Good luck!

What I hope to do with this blog is forge a connection with the millions of people who know this story. There are so many of us out there--everyone who has done everything right academically and financially and it still falls apart. After years of struggling as a graduate student, a monstrous post-doc vortex appears, and it sucks all of the income from your bank account and the hope from your heart. How do we deal with this? As academics, as lifelong students, as active participants in the betterment of America? I dealt with it by leaving the job that I loved so that we could both have an opportunity. We lost our bookshelves on the 1,000+ mile journey south, and the books, as you can see, still have no permanent home. We didn't really want to move back to Baton Rouge, where I went to college, as I am still a bit burned
out by it and would rather live in a bowl-shaped city that sits in the elbow crook of the Mississippi River. Still, some might say, isn't all this a good tradeoff for two working partners even if it is for far less than we are worth? We may still be struggling, but we aren't living in the streets, right?

Right. But I miss teaching, and I miss bookshelves. Perhaps in the near future I can save enough to get at least one of those things back.