Stacey Patton

Senior Enterprise Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

From Welfare to the Tenure Track


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).

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  • Good for her. And bad on vicious scum who made those nasty comments following the first article.

    Richard Grayson Richard Grayson
  • I was in graduate school in the mid- and late 1960s and knew married graduate students working on their Ph.D who were on public assistance of one kind or another.

    J D McMillin J D McMillin
  • I am so glad that her situation improved so dramatically. All those who, never having endured similar circumstances, criticized her previously are unempathetic trolls.

    William Barnett William Barnett
  • I'm so tired of those that have judging those who don't. There will always be bad apples in every group and to paint everyone with a broad stroke based on the lowest common denominator just irks me to no end. I am so glad that she is finally doing well. I have professional students who are on welfare and it is the only way that they and their families make it through school.

    Mary Gurney Mary Gurney
  • It's frustrating reading and hearing comments from people who shame those on welfare. Welfare needs to stop being a dirty word. Workers pay into welfare for it to sustain them in the case of temporary or permanent loss of income. If the welfare haters truly hated the concept of welfare, they should be directing their efforts to removing the taxes that fund them. But then they would have to realize that there would be nothing to protect them if they get injured or laid off.

    Weston Welge Weston Welge
  • She should get a lot of credit for staying on course and for bringing the issues that affect adjuncts to the fore front. It is easy to denigrate someone when he or she is having difficult times. Those that negatively critiqued her have been proved wrong. She has proven to be quite resourceful, wish her success.

    fermin ornelas fermin ornelas
  • Congratulations! So glad it turned out well for you. (I'm an American who ended up in an Australian university, BTW. There are worse things than a world-wide search. . . including the insecure, underpaid, under-appreciated life of a permanent adjunct. )

    Dorothy Gale Dorothy Gale
  • Great article!

    Jessica Jacobson Jessica Jacobson
  • I am so happy that she got a job! I prayed for you a few nights, in fact.

    I can't forget that article--I posted a comment supportive of her and got 1000 likes; I was sharing my story as well. I was contacted by some conservative media outlets but I also opted out of being interviewed about it. I think she did the right thing not going on Fox.

    I went through a similar dust-up to this woman, when my story as the son of a lesbian became an international controversy, especially because I ultimately opposed same-sex parenting and this shocked people. It's hard to be placed in that situation, to feel yourself being judged and threatened by people who don't know you. She did the right thing by not reading comments. I stopped reading anything people forward me anymore, even, whether it is from ThinkProgress or GLAAD or whatever left-wing paper wants to trash me.

    The good thing for you is that you learn to let it all go. It does strengthen you as a person.

    Nonetheless, I think the reporter for this story needs to take some responsibility for having engaged in this kind of "human interest" journalism. Sometimes writers think it's for a higher good, but when you are the one being placed under a spotlight, it can be very unfair. Ms. Patton should show greater caution with future exposés.

    Robert Oscar Lopez Robert Oscar Lopez
  • I am glad that Dr. Maningua-Matteau had acheived her goal of becoming a tenure track professor. Each of us has his or her own personal situation, and it is certainly tempting to pass judgment on others. I must also state the truth that given today's hiring reality, landing a tenure track in less than two years is pretty damn good.

    Donna Kelly Donna Kelly
  • Publicity can also give one an advantage.

    Donna Kelly Donna Kelly
  • ...not to be negative, Richard. I wish the best to her and to all here.

    Donna Kelly Donna Kelly
  • I had the privilege of taking one of Dr. Melissa Bruninga-Matteau's classes while she was at Yavapai College. I was appalled to learn of the pathetic reimbursement she was receiving for the outstanding teaching she provided us as students, disappointed that she would be moving, but understood her need to do so. I felt saddened upon hearing the judgmental comments. It's always a risk to go public with details of your personal life. In spite of what she endured, I would guess she is glad she spoke up because she would be glad to help others in the same plight. Congratulations, Professor! Glad you can finally survive as a teacher and enjoy your chosen career. And we miss you as students...we are the ones who lost out.

    L. Gray L. Gray

    William Stroebel William Stroebel

    William Stroebel William Stroebel
  • Thanks for the wonderful follow-up story! And many apologies for the nonsense comments above -- the work of my one-year-old child.

    William Stroebel William Stroebel
  • Great discussion. Dr. Maningua-Matteau revealed the truth about the lives of adjuncts and people resented her. I still have friends in the same boat with many of these adjuncts. It was good advice to disregard comments.

    h ng h ng
  • Anyone who reads the comments section in this or most other similar publications knows that there are quite a few haters out there. Haven't done a discourse analysis, but it does seem that the rudest of the rude take a conservative stance on things. Her strategy of not reading the comments sections is a good one. Why pay any attention at all to these fringe types? Why feature them in an article like this when they are shown to be wrong-minded? It just discourages me about the country. But that's not sensible - if 10,000 people read an article, it's not surprising that 10 with character disorders will read it and need to spleen their vent. I suspect the majority response was much more sympathetic.

    Woody Carter Woody Carter
  • Thank you for this article. I am in the same position. I am a PhD on food stamps. I work part-time as an online teacher. And, my last check was for $133. I have applied for numerous positions. But, no luck. I hope my situation changes in the future.

    Kecia McCoy

    Dr. Kecia McCoy Dr. Kecia McCoy
  • I hold 2 MA degrees and work for a private organization who supposedly supports higher education. I am the only person in the country who does the work that I do. I am respected in my field, but I earn about a third of what my collegues earn. I went to school late in life and been out for some time now. I cannot repay my student loans. My paycheck barely covers my essentials. Now I'm looking at retirement and wonder how I'm going to survive. I completely understand how embarrassing it can be. You follow the myth that your parents/friends told you, you go to school, work hard, earn your degree, hope for a good job - - that isn't out there. And then you can't repay the loans you took out to pay for your education, you fall behind on other bills, your health fails and you look at bankruptcy. But even then, it doesn't take care of the student loans.

    Jeanne Prince Jeanne Prince
  • Great article, and congratulations to Melissa! I received my PhD in Music from a top Ivy League school, and have also been on Medicaid. I had to move in with, and manage the healthcare for, an aging mother during this time as well. Shame on those who would heap abuse on Melissa and others in this predicament. She and I, and our peers, bought into the idea that the world (and academe in particular) was a meritocracy, and that the PhD was a key to a better life. This world is supposed to have a place for highly educated researchers and teachers, not just for Wall Street types. That's not feeling "entitled"; it's wanting to be able to support myself using my best skills in a way that brings me and others joy.

    April James April James
  • The word "has" should replace "had in my previous comment.

    Donna Kelly Donna Kelly
  • Ugh..."had"

    Donna Kelly Donna Kelly
  • If one is struggling, constantly seeking articles about how bad the market is may not be the best therapy.

    Certainly you should read enough to be able to suss trends or look for alternative strategies, but beyond that one risks wallowing in a place of anxiety for no good end.

    LC Lib LC Lib
  • Such an inspiring person. Her determination and hard work were proven long before she received this job. The university is indeed fortunate to have Dr. Bruninga-Matteau. Well-done.

    Dr. Gail Matthews Dr. Gail Matthews
  • Congratulations on landing a permanent job! It gives hope to those of us who are still looking.

    Patricia Haggler Patricia Haggler
  • First of all, good for her! And second, how many of the people excoriating her for all the ways she had "failed" (thereby comforting themselves that it couldn't happen to them) were at the same time bemoaning the high cost of college for their children, which would be far higher if the system were not built on the backs of and sacrifices of those same adjuncts.

    Lynn Rice-See Lynn Rice-See
  • Glad that to hear of a success story. Having spent 3 years, however, in a humanities PhD program before withdrawing for health reasons, I have to say that even these success stories show what an uphill battle it is. The amount of work and effort required to obtain such meager "success" is absolutely ridiculous. We have nearly come full-circle in the sense that the humanities PhD will once again be the domain of the independently wealthy, those with no need to earn a living, the aristocracy if you will. On the other hand, it always makes me laugh when radio buffoons like Boortz mock those who accomplish more in a single semester than any of the blathering idiots on the AM dial will in their entire life.

    Voz Mozhno Voz Mozhno
  • After recently reading a story about short order cooks making more money than college or university professors, I thought a reality show called the Trail to Tenure would help the public know what it means to do research, to believe in your work at almost all cost. I don't watch reality tv shows, but it seems as though they influence the public's value of individuals and their work.

    Melissa Bruninga-Matteau's story is a perfect example of one such story that could find itself in the public, even mainstream conversation that may help to end our demonizing of knowledge, learning, and finally teaching.

    Kathy Stockman Kathy Stockman
  • I find it rather depressing that the victory is in a job that seems to offer very little beyond the potential for security. We're fighting over scraps.

    Rachel Donelson Rachel Donelson
  • Honestly? I admire her following her dream, but question people's assertions that her situation was 'unfair'. She KNEW the market going into the program and yet continued looking at this Ph.D as her career move. What was unfair about her not being able to find a job in a saturated market? And, to be honest, many comments here about ' oh, I have a Ph.D in this and I'm still on welfare," DO stink of entitlement. The world doesn't OWE you a living just because you spent several years learning about a subject: If there is no market for your skills, then tough titty, kitty...Welcome to Grown Up land...

    Mike Roberts Mike Roberts
  • Bravo!

    Andrea Kaus Andrea Kaus
  • As Dr. Melissa's mom (yes, really), I am so very, very proud of her that words cannot express. It's been heart wrenching to see the struggles and to read the comments of the first article from people who have no clue what life was like (yes, I did caution her about her participation). She has never shied away from issues that might make others uncomfortable, and she has always championed causes that need more than local attention.
    Actually, at the age of 10, Melissa could keep a group of 3 year-olds’ attention with her made-up stories of history and fantasy. I knew then that she was going to be a teacher. In fact, it’s all she’s ever wanted to be (except a parent). In her classes history really does come alive.
    When your child does everything right from the get-go, and is told by others (educational institutions) that there will be a great result, it’s hard to watch life crumble from forces not her own. The economy crashing the year she graduated didn’t help matters any. Being in education myself, I know the realities of hiring and the realities of too many graduate students and too few jobs. Her field of study could have been English, Business, or Philosophy and the results would have been the same. She just is not a doctor or an engineer! (LOL.)
    I thank all of you for your positive comments; especially her former students. I am so thankful to Martin Methodist College for the chance to ‘show her stuff’. I knew when she moved to Pulaski and said it felt like home that she finally arrived in her place. As a mom, this is a huge sigh of relief.
    To Dr. M – I love you so much, and to say I’m proud in this public forum is one of the pinnacles of my life. You know I wish you the very best in everything.

    Chris Heyer Chris Heyer
  • Good for her. Her efforts have finally been paid off. I hope I can land a tenure-track position one day.