To Moonlight or Not

Nate Kreuter reviews the issues associated with holding a job while enrolled full-time in graduate school.

August 10, 2011

I believe strongly that people should not attend a Ph.D. program in the humanities unless they are offered a tuition waiver, a stipend working as a teaching or research assistant, and health insurance. I feel less rigidly about M.A. programs in the humanities, because the reasons for attending are so various. In my own field of English, for example, many high school teachers become automatically eligible for pay raises with an M.A., in which case it makes perfect sense to pay out-of-pocket while pursuing the degree. And I realize that the circumstances might be entirely different for programs in the sciences, where employment prospects are different, and in professional programs (medical, law, and M.B.A. programs). I can’t speak to those other fields. Regardless of one’s field of study, though, even full-time graduate students receiving stipends are often confronted with a difficult question: should they work an additional job to supplement their income?

Stipends vary from institution to institution and from discipline to discipline. A friend of mine in a computer science M.A. program made considerably more from his stipend than I did from mine as an English Ph.D. candidate. He didn’t feel the pressure to secure additional income, but I did. So, perhaps this pressure to find supplemental income doesn't apply to all students in all fields of study, but I suspect that it applies to many students in many fields of study.

The risks of working an additional job while enrolled as a full-time graduate student can be great. It is a distraction from the primary focus of your graduate studies, and not only will the time you devote to a second job be lost, but you will lose additional time each week recovering from that extra mental and/or physical labor. Psychologically, working a second job can also prevent some students from fully committing to their program of study, making it less likely that they will complete a degree in the first place. That’s not all bad, though — I've known several graduate students who realized, because of outside jobs, that academe was not for them, and who then parlayed their outside work into fulfilling, well-paying careers. Similarly, working a second job within your own field, such as teaching at a community college, can expose you to a different type of educational institution while bolstering your C.V.

Not always fully aware of the risks of taking on outside work, I worked second jobs throughout my graduate career. I was an anomaly within my graduate program in this regard. Few of my colleagues worked second jobs, except perhaps during the summer months. I’m not recommending that graduate students work outside jobs — some graduate programs strongly discourage (as did mine) or expressly forbid such moonlighting. Instead, I'm arguing that the decision of whether or not to work a second job in graduate school needs to be carefully considered and frequently re-evaluated on the bases of one’s financial situation, the state of one's studies, and family/social needs.

Shortly after beginning my graduate studies I convinced a solar energy company to hire me on the basis of my somewhat eclectic background in mechanical and electronic work and my willingness to do more or less anything in terms of manual labor (along with a hastily arranged Texas journeyman’s electrician license). Two days a week, and sometimes even three, I hefted solar panels onto roofs, installed inverters, bent conduit, pulled wiring, and wired various electrical connections. I still remember the awful, dusty crunch of dozens and dozens of mummified rat skeletons disintegrated under my back while I installed conduit and pulled wire in the crawl space of a beautiful old Texas ranch house undergoing renovation. Luckily the master electrician I was working with that day, knowing what I was in for, had loaned me one of his Tyvek jumpsuits to wear over my clothes.

In many ways my work in the solar industry was a hedge. I was quite conscious of the fact that I was developing a skill set in a growing field, entirely removed from the academy, that perhaps I could fall back on if an academic career didn’t work out. But during my third year in graduate school and third year at the solar company, I realized that the hedge was interfering with my studies. I simply could no longer commit two or three days a week to solar work when there was so much reading and research that I needed to accomplish outside of the structure of the classes that I was taking, and all while continuing to teach. I came to a point where I had to give up the hedge and commit fully to my graduate studies. I quit working for the solar company in January and didn’t consider taking up a second job again until the following fall semester.

That fall, in my fourth year of graduate studies, I hesitantly turned down a position as the head coach of a junior varsity lacrosse team. Coaching really appealed to me, but the five- to six-day-a-week time commitment would have destroyed my graduate career. But realizing that I didn’t have enough time to coach introduced me to refereeing. I was able to quickly get certified as a varsity official in both wrestling and lacrosse, the two sports I had played in high school (and college, in the case of lacrosse). The work was occasional, with a relatively high hourly wage, and I could turn down any assignments that conflicted with my graduate studies, or swap them with another official. The work was fun, too, and its challenges appealed to my competitiveness.

More than the solar work, the intense concentration required to officiate a match or game and keep the contestants safe is so demanding that every time I refereed I was forced to temporarily abandon the worries and anxieties of graduate school. By distracting me from my graduate work for several hours at a time, refereeing refreshed me, and helped to return to my graduate studies with renewed commitment and vigor. Refereeing became such an important part of my life that I continue to do it.

My personality is such that working second jobs also helped to structure my time, which in my own case made me a more efficient and productive student and scholar. In high school my bad grades became even worse when I wasn‘t participating in sports, and similarly, in graduate school second jobs actually helped me to stay focused on my graduate work by structuring my off-campus time. Some people are the opposite, and feel overwhelmed by multiple commitments. Knowing your own personality and how you react to such scheduling is an important factor in deciding whether or not to pursue a second job.

The potential advantages of working a second job aren’t only financial. One of the greatest benefits of working additional jobs during graduate school for me was how those jobs extended my social circles. While some of my closest, most enduring friendships began in graduate school, it was a relief several times a week to hang out with people who really, really didn’t give a damn about rhetorical theory one way or the other. After a day of installing solar panels, my coworkers and I would often drink beer and grill and sometimes tinker on the biodiesel motorcycle that two of the guys were building from scratch. Similarly, once I began refereeing wrestling and lacrosse, I was invited to poker games and cookouts, where I hung out with cops and teachers and real estate agents and grocery store managers and their families.

I can’t overstate the value I find in hanging out with people who don’t work in the academy (in addition to all of my friends from inside academe), who give me much-needed perspective on my own life and career. Working too much, though, could alienate you from fellow graduate students and your graduate program. It’s important to leave time to build social ties with your cohort. Not to mention, everybody needs downtime.

Sometimes a happy middle ground can be found working a second job within your university, or in related work, such as grading Advanced Placement tests. The logistics of working a second on-campus job are relatively easy. Often graduate students can find work drawing on or complementing their expertise, and in some cases students find a niche, such as administration, that they hadn’t previously realized would appeal to them. Balance is typically easier as well, as universities often limit the number of hours per week that a graduate student can work within the university system.

Whether you’re installing solar panels, shuffling papers in the honors college, or slinging beers at the neighborhood bar, the benefits of working a second job during graduate school are not only financial, but can be social and mental as well. There are risks to such a distraction, though, and I think that graduate students should carefully consider the demands of finances, studies, and family before committing to a second job, and then re-evaluate the situation as their individual circumstances evolve during graduate school.


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