Last summer, as her 45th birthday approached, Melissa Bruninga-Matteau made a promise to “end part of her life.”
She had earned a Ph.D. in medieval history—from the University of California at Irvine, after nearly a decade of study—back in 2011, and she had hoped to glide into a solid faculty position. Instead, the previous two years had been marked by disappointment, depression, and rejection. Though she had applied for more than 100 teaching openings, nothing much had panned out. The best job she’d been able to find was as an adjunct at Yavapai College, a community college in Prescott, Ariz., where she taught a couple of humanities courses for meager pay and no benefits.
Bruninga-Matteau ended up relying on food stamps and Medicaid, barely scratching out a living for herself and her 17-year-old daughter. When she wasn’t grading papers, or worrying about keeping the lights on and the hot water running, she was trawling the Web in search of articles about the brutal academic job market and colleges’ use of adjuncts.
“It was just all so depressing,” she says. “If I was ever going to provide for myself and for my daughter, I needed a job with decent pay and benefits.”
So Bruninga-Matteau told herself that if she didn’t land a tenure-track job—somewhere, anywhere—by her birthday, June 11, she was going to give up on her dream of becoming a history professor and move on from that chapter in her life.
“I was gonna say ‘to hell with it,’” she says, “and look for a job at Wal-Mart.”
I first encountered Bruninga-Matteau back in April 2012, before she made her tenure-or-bust pledge. “Are you still looking for people with Ph.D.’s who are on food stamps?” she wrote in an e-mail. “I’d be one of them.”
For some time, I’d been hearing talk of adjuncts whose wages were such a pittance that they qualified for welfare. These anecdotes got me thinking: Were there really many academics living that close to the margins, or was that mostly hyperbole?
Bruninga-Matteau’s travails were real—and they became the centerpiece of a story I wrote for The Chronicle about Ph.D.’s on food stamps. Her adjuncting brought in $900 a month, $750 of which went immediately toward rent. To make the remaining $150 last longer, she learned tricks familiar to those with little room for financial maneuvering: stretching two pounds of hamburger meat over six meals, reminding her daughter to use a washable rag instead of paper towels, asking friends if they had an extra roll of toilet paper when she ran out. At times she borrowed her mother’s car to drive to campus—about 100 miles round trip—because she couldn’t afford to fill up her own gas tank.
She felt “bone-tired”—“poverty really isn’t healthy,” she says—and slept a lot because of depression.
A ‘Worthless’ Degree?
When my story ran, it opened with a statement Bruninga-Matteau made: “I am not a welfare queen.”
The welfare queen, she argued, “was a construction of politics—a mythical creature, who drove around in fancy cars wearing designer clothes, all on the taxpayers’ dime.”
She had a point, and she wasn’t speaking just for herself. Between 2007 and 2010 the numbers of Ph.D.-holders receiving aid more than tripled, from just shy of 10,000 to 33,000. Several of those Ph.D.’s shared their plight for my story. But as the piece got passed around, it was Bruninga-Matteau who faced particularly harsh criticism.
On The Chronicle’s website, many of the comments were excoriating. Some people said she was foolish for pursuing a “worthless” humanities degree. Others suggested she was lazy and felt entitled because she had earned a Ph.D.
Said one reader: “This woman should consider a full-time job instead of relying on handouts. Despite her degree, it appears she lacks any common sense or personal accountability. Quit leaching off the tax-payers.”
Another: “Anyone pursuing a Ph.D. in history as of 2002 should have known better than to expect a tenure-track job. If you are pursuing a Ph.D. in a humanities field right now, it’s your responsibility to know the risks.”
As the discussion moved beyond The Chronicle, the invective intensified. On his radio show, Neal Boortz, a right-wing political commentator, took some shots. “The money this lady is using to buy food came either from you, through taxes you paid, or your children,” Boortz said. “That money was taken from you by force. It was seized. Stolen.”
By the time Fox News and other media outlets reached out to her, seeking to do stories of their own, she realized she had become a political symbol and a stand-in for all Ph.D.’s on food stamps. (“I flat-out turned them down,” she says of Fox. “They would have definitely twisted my words.”) And she had long since stopped reading the comments, in an effort to protect her sanity. The invective about her weight, her hair, her tattoos, and her status as a single mom had stung hard.
“They denigrated my choice to get a Ph.D.,” she says. “They denigrated my field of study. They harped on the fact that I’m a single mom even though my child was born in marriage. They commented on the fact that I was buying sugary cereal for my kid. Those were personal attacks that said everything about me is wrong. Those pissed me off and made me cry.”
Even supportive responses sometimes felt backhanded. Bruninga-Matteau’s mother called after reading the story to tell her daughter that she was proud of her. But she also let slip that she thought Bruninga-Matteau would never get an academic gig. “She was sure my career was over,” she says, “and I had blacklisted myself.”
‘You Dig Your Heels In’
As the attention subsided, Bruninga-Matteau heard testimonials from fellow adjuncts, many of whom reached out on Twitter and Facebook to thank her for speaking out.
“Some adjuncts said they didn’t know they were eligible for food stamps and so they applied,” she says. “Some of them wrote back and told me they’re now able to feed their kid and buy food for their family.”
Bruninga-Matteau says she came to feel that the piece helped blow some myths out of the water: that most college professors are overpaid and pampered, that people on food stamps are uneducated, and that adjuncts are teaching only for fun or to supplement full-time careers.
She also emerged with a desire to prove all of her “haters” wrong: “Sometimes, when people say you can’t, you dig your heels in.”
So a few months after Bruninga-Matteau’s star turn, she packed the bulk of her belongings, put them in storage, and moved across the country to Washington, D.C., to live rent-free with her best friend, who is a family demographer for the U.S. Census Bureau. (Her daughter stayed in Arizona with her grandparents so she could remain at her high school.) She started teaching online courses for the American Public University, and by August 2012, she was off Medicaid and no longer reliant on food stamps.
Meanwhile, she stepped up her search for a long-term position. “I applied for all sorts of jobs, from R-1’s to community colleges, even some charter schools and private boarding schools,” she says. “If I was even remotely qualified, I applied, even for things that were long shots”—including a university in Australia.
She became expert at skimming job postings, looking for buzzwords and crafting her CV and cover letters. Listings that stressed the importance of pedagogy, or a broad teaching base, were worth following up on. Ones that prioritized research, not teaching, weren’t a good fit.
There were other limits to her search: She didn’t present papers at academic conferences, because she couldn’t afford to attend them. And she applied for very few jobs that required paper copies of her application materials, including her dissertation.
“Heck, the postage could pay for a couple of gallons of gas,” she says.
Her efforts yielded a grand total of six phone interviews and visits to a couple of campuses—Martin Methodist College, in Pulaski, Tenn., and Landmark College, in Putney, Vt. Landmark paid for her plane ticket. But to get to Pulaski, Bruninga-Matteau had to dig into what little savings she had until Martin Methodist reimbursed her.
During her phone and campus interviews, Bruninga-Matteau’s appearance in the food-stamps article inevitably came up. At Martin, she tackled the subject head-on: She told the college’s president that, if offered the job, she would act as an advocate for adjunct faculty instead of shying away from contentious issues.
Months later, though, Bruninga-Matteau still had no job offers. June 11 was fast approaching. The medievalist prepared herself to walk away from academe for good.
“But the universe had a different plan,” she says.
The day before her birthday, she got a call from Ken Vickers, chair of the history department at Martin Methodist. As she held the phone, she says, “I was shaking like a leaf.”
Vickers was calling to offer her a job teaching two history courses—one on world civilization, and one on historiography and research methods. The position, he said, would put her on the tenure track. Without a moment’s hesitation, Bruninga-Matteau said yes. Her immediate reaction after hanging up the phone was emphatic: “Hot damn, I did it!”
She called her mother, who was about to board a plane to attend a relative’s high-school graduation. “I told her to sit down before I gave her the news. She actually sat heavily on the floor. There were tears involved.”
Vickers said in an e-mail that Bruninga-Matteau was already on a shortlist of candidates when a search-committee members ran across the Chronicle feature. The professor’s time on food stamps didn’t help or hurt her case, he said.
“We needed a professor who relished a heavy teaching, advising, and mentoring load,” he said. “She has a big personality that seems to be winning students over to both her personally and to the history program.”
Bruninga-Matteau isn’t entirely sure what got her the Martin Methodist job after so many other disappointments, but she has a theory. “There must be something to that sense of finality, or perhaps fatalism, that allowed me to be fully me,” Bruninga-Matteau says, “to let it all hang out and stop trying to be what I thought the search committees wanted me to be. I actually was much more brave than I would have been otherwise, and I think that braveness is what got me the job at Martin.”
An Office of Her Own
In July, Bruninga-Matteau rented a car for two weeks and drove from Washington to Pulaski with her daughter. She says she’s adjusting well to life in Tennessee. Martin Methodist is a small college—there are about 1,100 students—and her campus feels like a family. She spends her spare time prepping for classes, slowly unpacking her belongings, making new friends, and exploring her new town. “This place is a place I can call home, if not forever, a good long while,” she says.
Having a steady paycheck also feels good. Bruninga-Matteau chuckles when she recalls the moment she got her first check from the college. This semester marks the first time in over three years that she’s been able to pay all of her monthly bills and still have money to spare.
“Now I can go grocery shopping and not have to buy the cheapest brands,” she says. “I can buy extra things for my daughter.”
And being on the tenure track means that her teaching has changed in some ways. She says she feels freer in the classroom and that she cares even more about her students because she knows that she’ll have a relationship with them beyond just one course.
“I am here beyond the classroom, and that allows me to be passionate in my teaching. If my students don’t get something the first time, they can ask me to clarify or come to my office to ask questions,” she says.
The office isn’t much to look at: It’s the size of a mudroom. But having her own space is “profound,” Bruninga-Matteau says. When Vickers handed her the key, he broke out laughing. He couldn’t believe how excited she was.
Follow Stacey Patton on Twitter at @SPchronvitae.
Images: Left: Melissa Bruninga-Matteau tracking job openings in 2012 (Laura Segall for The Chronicle of Higher Education). Right: Bruninga-Matteau now, in her office at Martin Methodist College, in Pulaski, Tennessee (Courtesy of Martin Methodist College).