We’ve had plenty of conversations with students and professors about the everyday sacrifices it takes to make a go of it in academia. In our How I Get By series, we’ll share some of those scholars’ stories.
Beatriz Reyes-Foster knows she was fortunate to land a full-time academic job right out of graduate school. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in May 2011, and started her tenure-track position as an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida the following August.
Before that, Reyes-Foster had worked as an adjunct at the College of New Jersey and Rutgers University for a little more than two years while doing fieldwork in Mexico and writing her dissertation, “Adoring Our Wounds: Suicide, Prevention and The Maya in Yucatan, Mexico.” During that period, she earned about $6,000 a semester—which she had to stretch to support herself, her husband (a full-time graduate student), and their son, who was born in 2009.
To supplement her income, Reyes-Foster relied on food stamps for one year and Medicaid for two years. She also racked up about $55,000 in student loans, some of which she used to help pay for her family’s living expenses.
Once she landed her faculty position at Central Florida, she thought she’d finally find herself on a path toward prosperity. But the hard times, she says, aren’t completely behind her.
Reyes-Foster tells her story in the edited transcript that follows.
When I got the job offer and saw the salary, which is in the mid-$50,000 range, it seemed like so much money. I felt a huge wave of relief knowing that, for the next six years, I was going to know where my next paycheck was coming from.
What I knew about a professor's salary and lifestyle was based on my experience growing up. My stepdad was a full professor at Rutgers. He made a very comfortable salary, well over $100,000. We lived in a nice house. He drove a nice car. I never saw him worry about money, and he had a well-funded retirement package. I felt that with my new salary I would have access to this middle-class existence.
Becoming a tenure-track professor was not that automatic entry into prosperity that I thought it would be. It's expected that you'll be poor during grad school, but I didn't realize how expensive life could be after living the bare-bones graduate-student lifestyle.
On the basics of her budget:
The reality of paying rent, utilities, child care, student loans, and other bills was a huge shock. I started seeing how much I had to stretch my check and not run out at the end of every pay period. I'd get to Thursday and ask, “Where did all this money go?”
We didn't get help with moving expenses, which cost us close to $8,000 to go from New Jersey to Florida. We benefitted, though, when the housing market tanked. We got a mortgage with no down payment, and we got it on a short sale for less than 50 percent of what the owners paid for it. Our mortgage is $600 a month and $300 for the taxes. Utilities cost us about $250 a month and we spend about $400 a month on groceries. We almost never eat out. Maybe once every other month we get Chinese or pizza, but even that we had to start curbing down.
The car is paid for. We have a 13-year-old 2000 Mercury Sable, which is falling apart and has no working air conditioner—in Florida. We've been driving around without a catalytic converter; that's the part of the car that keeps it from polluting the air. To replace it will cost $1,700, which is literally more than the car is worth and way more than we can afford. Fortunately, Florida doesn't have vehicle inspections. There's no way we would have been able to pass inspection in Jersey.
Do we care about the environment? Of course we do. But we had to ask: Do we want to save the environment, or do we want to have enough money to make ends meet? We had to choose the financial.
My husband and I don't have a huge nest egg and I don't get paid during the summer, so it gets lean for us. I know the rule is that you're supposed to have six months worth of salary saved. I probably don't even have a month. I have enough so that if the car breaks down, I could fix that. But if I lost my job today we would run out of money very quickly.
It's tough, though. Sometimes I'll park on campus and I'll see a student drive up in a BMW. And it can be ironic, because I'm sure students have this idea about the kind of money professors make.
On raising (and expanding) a family:
Many institutions assume that men are the primary breadwinners. And institutions often don't have parental leave policies. That's incredibly difficult for women who are the primary breadwinners in their families. My husband and I were not hired as an academic couple. He is not working on a Ph.D., but rather a professional degree in social work. So what happens to other academic couples that both have Ph.D.'s, and one spouse gets a job and the other doesn't?
Our son is four and a half. I have another little one due in January, and we still have no idea what we are going to do.
I'm trying to frontload as much as I can now in terms of my own tenure-track responsibilities—publications, article and grant submissions, and service—to have more flexibility in the spring. But I will have to teach my usual load (2/2) and will be taking about six weeks off for family leave, which will be challenging because I only have five weeks of accumulated sick time and we do not have paid maternity leave. Right now I'm saving as much as I can so I can at least take one week of unpaid leave.
The campus pre-school does not provide infant care, so this is going to be a real problem— especially because many daycares do not accept part-time infants. We'll figure it out. Likely, the baby will be in care part-time—either at a home-based daycare or with a part-time nanny or babysitter—and my husband and I will juggle school and work responsibilities with taking care of the baby. One of the things I do love about this job is the fact that there is so much flexibility in terms of schedule.
On reaching out:
I see many of my colleagues make do with less money than me. We don't talk about salaries in my department, but we do exchange a lot of tips on budgeting. A lot of us are single providers, so we talk about things we can do with our kids. We have a UCF faculty parents group on Facebook, which I created, where we also talk about how to manage our student loans, how to file taxes, and financing our homes.
These discussions foster a sense of community on campus and reduce isolation. We give each other moral support.
I'm sharing my story because the biggest lesson I learned during my transition from graduate school to the tenure track is that getting a full-time faculty position does not mean an automatic entry into comfort. Adjuncts aren't the only ones who face financial struggle.
I do have some survivor’s guilt because so many of my colleagues who are adjuncts are struggling. I struggle, but not like 70 percent of the academic workforce. At the same time, there’s also social pressure to be grateful that you have a steady job. My story is not extraordinary.