Robert Neubecker

The cost of a career: A letter to my younger self

"Are you really going to cross the picket line?” my mother asked. She had called after reading that the clerical union workers were on strike, and she could hear in the background the tell-tale honking horns and ringing bells of the picket line. “Yes,” I responded. Despite her impassioned pleas, I was not going to boycott my first day of graduate school. A few weeks later, I said no when asked to join the graduate student union. Why would I, a paid student, need union representation? If only I had known then what I know now, 16 years later, this is what I would have told myself.

Dear younger self,

Today is your first day of graduate school. You fought hard to get here, and you deserve to be proud. You didn’t let professors who gave you Cs make you feel like an impostor. You didn’t let a so-called mentor kissing you in a dark parking lot throw you off course. You gave up a paid work-study job so that you could do your science for academic credit, all to earn the golden ticket to graduate school.

Now you need to buy a computer and repair the car that broke down on the drive across the country. Rent is due in a few days. You haven’t gotten your first paycheck yet, so you will use the money you earned over the summer as a researcher. You won’t have savings again for 13 years.

Once your paychecks start, you will be flabbergasted that someone is willing to pay you all of $23,000 per year to do science. You’ll feel like an adult—until you realize that, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, you will barely be able to cover rent and food. Also, you won’t get checks in the summer, so budget accordingly. The McDonald’s Dollar Menu will help. When you’re out of cash but need $2 for bridge tolls to get to work, you’ll bum money off a friend. Don’t worry—he knows you won’t be able to pay him back.

When you finish your Ph.D., your student loans will be due. You will join a prestigious lab as a postdoc, but you will only have a salary if you get a grant. When your funding dries up, you will move out of your apartment and onto friends’ sofas. This may sound like a fun adventure now, but it will be demoralizing when you are 32 years old, homeless, collecting unemployment, and hoping for a job at Walgreens (they don’t call you back), all while doing your science for free. You will earn a few thousand dollars adjunct teaching, which will put food on the table for a few months.

Why would I, a paid student, need union representation?

You will then be one of the lucky ones to hit pay dirt on the tenure-track job market. Everyone will tell you that it’s time to celebrate, but it won’t be that easy. With no savings or paycheck, you will cash out your retirement to pay the movers. Relocation expenses will be reimbursed later. At least the job will be worth it. You will teach the most amazing students and work with them in your very own lab to do the science that you are passionate about. Your student loans won’t be paid off until you are well into your 40s, but you will eventually have some savings.

The road to a secure academic position will feel like a hazing ritual. You will be in the tenuous early stages of your career for 20 years. But yours is not a sob story. It is one of luck and privilege. You don’t have a family to support, but you do have one that will lend a helping hand when you have the courage to ask for it. Not everyone is so lucky—not all the students whom you will eventually mentor, not your future colleagues in permanent adjunct limbo, and not those university employees on the picket line.

Thus, I ask you this: First, don’t cross that picket line today. Instead, stand up for the people who make your university run. You will soon depend on them. Second, join the graduate student union. You are wrong to think that making graduate school more financially accessible is someone else’s problem. Paying your union dues is one small way to help. Finally, when the time comes, do everything in your power to lessen the financial hurdles that students and early career scholars face. Doing science is difficult enough. Your students don’t need to be hazed just because you were.

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