Monday, April 11, 2011

54. “What do you do for a living?”

For most people, this is an easy and straightforward question to answer, but for graduate students it proves surprisingly tricky. When someone asks you what you do for a living, you can answer, “I’m a grad student,” but you will feel less and less comfortable saying this as you get older (see Reason 12). A variation of the same response is, “I’m working toward a PhD in psychology,” but this has a way of alienating your interlocutor even more effectively than the first answer does (see Reason 30). In either case, you have not really answered the question. Perhaps you are living off of student loans, but it doesn't feel very good to admit that. Or maybe you are working as a teaching or research assistant.

Telling someone that you are a teaching assistant does not feel very good either, especially when you are 27 or 30 or even older (see Reason 53). Some TAs—more than likely with a hint of guilt—try to avoid the problem by answering, “I teach at XYZ University.” That sounds better at first, but the almost inevitable follow-up question undermines your attempt at evasion and makes the conversation even more awkward. The fact that such a simple question can be so hard to answer underscores the strange place of the graduate student in the world. It is made all the worse by the fact that this limbo tends to last for an excruciatingly long time.


  1. Answering that question has always produced mixed results.

    There are some whom I would describe as "academic outsiders," who more often than not think a graduate education is impressive since they have limited experience of what the process entails.

    Then there are those who have some experience with graduate school, whether it be personally and/or vicariously through others, whom I would describe as "academic insiders," who more often than not think a graduate education is overrated since, for obvious reasons, many have more insight on this process than the outsiders do.

    Still, explaining what I do boils down to who is asking the question and what question was specifically asked. Often, I just ambiguously say I'm an academic. If clarification is sought, I might add that I'm a teacher, a writer, etc., while letting people draw their own conclusions.

    In truth, I'd rather let people think whatever they want than say anything more that might confirm whatever prejudices they have of me and/or of graduate school.

  2. Can't you say "I'm a psychologist/literary scholar/historian/political scientist/sociologist" and leave the school thing out of it?

  3. "Still, explaining what I do boils down to who is asking the question and what question was specifically asked."

    Great point! For me, this question is a killer, along with the much dreaded "when are you going to be finished??" I've had more experience with folks who believe that grad school is a way of avoiding real life/accomplishing nothing of merit for an extended period of time than with those who are impressed with the enterprise. My partner is in an industry in which most people can earn six figures without even a BA, so it baffles most of our social crowd that I am "still in school." It also especially blows because I got my BA as a "non-traditional student," so it really does seem to some like I've been in school forever.

    Of course these folks have no idea what we grad students do, though they do intuitively know what I and some (lucky?) others do for a living: we mooch off our generous, financially stable partners, at least until they get sick of it and kick us to the curb.

    1. What industry can most make a 6 figure income even without a b.a.?


    2. i suspect the commenter means the computer industry, as it's the one with all the hype about people being well-compensated for what they know and not which degree they have.

      while it's still possible to be employed and get good pay, the "most" part (even with a BA) is the dubious one and the industry is increasingly insisting on degrees, as the inflation of degrees continues.

      6 figures in the computer industry is usually paid to senior engineers or consultants, or people working for a rich-and-growing company like google or facebook but no industry enjoys such remuneration levels for most of the workforce.

    3. I know two people in the computer industry without B.A. degrees. I also know for a fact that one of them lies about having a degree on his resume. This did not keep [redacted] from employing him though.

  4. "Can't you say 'I'm a psychologist/literary scholar/historian/political scientist/sociologist' and leave the school thing out of it?"

    As a grad student, I don't even feel qualified to call myself an academic, let alone a practitioner of my field. I think that "academic," "sociologist," or even "scholar" all imply a professional status that I simply do not have yet. Certainly none of the faculty members in my department would freely use those words to describe grad students.

    It saddens me to think about this, because this is what we do. For most of us, this is -all- that we do professionally. (It has been all that I've done for years now.) However, I am uncomfortably aware that our reluctance to call ourselves anything other than grad students is exactly what is expected of us.

    Regardless of our teaching experience or publication record or anything else, we just won't have the professional stamp of approval until we 1) have a PhD and 2) have an academic position in the field.

  5. Totally agree, anon 8:44. The only grad students I know who represent themselves as academics/scholars (rather than students) of X are the particularly insufferable ones. Mostly not taken seriously by anyone.

    FYI, this is extra-true for psych. You can only call yourself a psychologist if you have PhD (or PsyD) in hand.

  6. "Can't you say "I'm a psychologist/literary scholar/historian/political scientist/sociologist" and leave the school thing out of it?"

    All of those things are pretty "cool" things though, with status attached, that warrant many follow up questions.
    It always ends up with you either having to be really vague, in which case they know you're not a "real" one of those, or you have to come out and say you're in grad school, and then look a bit stupid for having claimed you were a psychologist or whatever.

    A similar thing goes for 'teacher' where they think you're an actual teacher at a school and that's your permanent, solid career and ask lots about it.

    And saying 'writer' (a thing a lot of people really want to be themselves) will get you a million follow up questions, because it implies you're a published author and that's your main thing.

  7. Just reread this today and couldn't resist sharing. Appropriate for reason 53 as well.

    From Neil LaBute's "Bench Seat" (short play from "Autobahn: A Short Play Cycle"--page 23-24):

    GIRL: Some people work.

    GUY: I know that. I work, too...

    GIRL: You know what I mean! A real job.

    GUY: Hey...

    GIRL: I mean with benefits. Full-time, not correcting papers and stuff.

    GUY: Oh. Well, that's what a teaching assistant does. Grade things.

    GIRL: And that's fine, it's great that they give you cash for that, but let's be honest...

    GUY: What?

    GIRL: It's not a job. With, like, some future to it.

    1. That guy could be doing anything and pulling down better than average income, and the girl would still be on his ass about how he doesn't really have a job with any future to it.

      Most women are always seeking to trade up and will grind their husbands into the ground to do it.

  8. Why does one to "do" something anyway? Just to fit in?

  9. Re: "Why does one to 'do' something anyway?"

    Well, you could just sit on your couch and scratch your ass all day. Problem is that's what most people think grad students do "do" and nothing more.

    Heh, the problem broached in this post isn't with what you do or don't do but with what people imagine you do -- and an even bigger problem is that nobody recognizes that contingent faculty (both TAs and adjuncts) "do" a huge amount of importnat work. A lot of colleges and universities couldn't function without what they "do," and yet they're not compensated in a way that says to anyone who cares to ask "What do you do?" that their work is meaningful and "real."

    When I was TA'ing and later adjuncting while still a grad student, I was "doing" all the time -- grading, planning, prepping, the works. It was a full-time job, especially the adjuncting, though I was hardly paid in a manner to reflect the time commitment.

    People would ask, "What do you do? Oh, you mean you're still a student? Well, when do you get out and get a real job?"

    Fuckers. (Pardon the profanity. I'm in a funk today)

    So, a few months ago, I got fed up and quit (read all about it on my blog). I still consider myself an academic (got my book project going, though on a back burner at the moment), but I'm working as a secretary. Boy do I "do" a lot less now -- and for more money -- than when I was teaching. Instead of grading, planning, and prepping night and day, I sit at my desk, scratch my ass, and blog all day.

    The sickest part is that when people ask, "What do you do?" and I answer, "I'm a secretary," they take me more seriously than when I said, "I'm a college writing instructor" or "I teach college English."

    Just to be clear, I didn't make this move in order "to fit in." I quit academe because I was angry and frustrated with a broken system that I felt wasn't treating me fairly. I also couldn't support myself on the salary once I was no longer "still a student." The "What do you do?" question just added insult to injury.

  10. Never explain or justify yourself or your actions to anyone - your real friends don't need you to and your enemies won't believe you anyway.

    Just say you're a grad student to anyone who asks, if they don't like it, they can go fuck themselves.

  11. The above post (4/14 3:31) explains why so many academics' romantic relationships fail: never explain yourself, never apologize. You are accountable to no one. Whoops! Why are you moving out?? And who's gonna pay my rent now?!?

    1. Why would anyone apologize for their job? Were you the jilted spouse of an academic? Also, why does anyone have to explain themselves to their friends or others? I think the point is, don't be brought down by others. Clearly, don't act like a dick either, but not justifying yourself to people who don't matter is not a dick move.

  12. I have my masters and I did not quit although I was tested to the limit. It just shows the heart of an individual. Grad school is not for sissies.

  13. This reason reminds me of a pathetic incident, way back in 2002, that occurred after I had completed my first full year of graduate school (an M.A. program in History). By then, I had already guzzled the Kool-Aid and fully immersed myself in the toxic grad-school culture. It was summertime. I was in a bar in downtown San Diego--not a student hangout, but rather the Gaslamp District, which draws a lot of business travelers and tourists who are relatively well off.

    I began flirting with a rather attractive Englishwoman named Eleanor, who was about my age (35) and on a business trip. Things were going quite well. After a decent interval of about fifteen minutes, she asked the inevitable question, "What do you do?" (An American would have asked it immediately.)

    This was still relatively early in my sojourn through Grad School Hell, so I hadn't yet learned the necessity of being cagey and defensive about it. With an absurdly open-faced innocence, using the same matter-of-fact tone in which one would have boasted of being a bond lawyer or a pro football quarterback, I replied. "Oh, I'm a graduate student in history at --- ----- ----- University."

    The lovely Eleanor shrank away from me as though I had just announced I was a leper, and a crestfallen look swept over her face. With as much tact as she could muster, she mumbled some excuse to beg off, and promptly vanished.

    This humiliation should have served as a warning signal, but I was too obtuse to grasp it.