Publication Date

December 16, 2021

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily, The Graduate

In her recent book on overwork and burnout, Anne Helen Petersen writes that she worked all the time because she was terrified of not getting or keeping a job, that she had “intractably intertwined” her status as a hard worker with her value as a person. To many graduate students, this sounds horribly familiar. Fears of unemployment motivate many of us, part of a broader culture of side-hustling—doing part-time work without benefits to earn extra cash. And although an individual graduate student choosing to take on a side-hustle to make a bit of money sounds like free enterprise, in practice, many are required to do so simply to survive.

Rebecca Brenner Graham in a red sweatshirt with a white, red, and black jersey on top, and a red ball cap with a white W, the logo for the Washington Nationals. Brenner is pointing to a poster for “Breaking News: Alexander Hamilton” for the George Washington University Museum. Her finger is pointing to “Curatorial Team: Rebecca Brenner, doctorial student, American University.”

Rebecca Brenner Graham did many side-hustles during grad school, including working on the exhibit “Breaking News: Alexander Hamilton” for the George Washington University Museum in 2018. Rebecca Brenner Graham

By not providing livable wages, many graduate programs not only actively limit who can afford to attend a PhD program and train as historians, but also profoundly impact the course and nature of that training. This structural problem results in real consequences for the already marginalized and underprivileged, who, although they have obtained the relative privilege of attending a funded PhD program, often need to take on endless outside employment opportunities to make ends meet. For many graduate students, paying the bills therefore requires that they have independent wealth, a partner, or family supplementing their graduate stipend, or they must exhaust themselves with “side hustles” in today’s “gig economy.”

My own side-hustling experiences were varied. At times they were wonderful, at times frustrating, and at times frankly bizarre. And although many of the opportunities my side-hustles provided truly felt like privileges, at the end of the day, it should not have been necessary for me to have side-hustles to earn a living wage.

During my six years of graduate school, in addition to my responsibilities as a teaching assistant for 20 hours a week for eight consecutive semesters, I worked 15 different temporary “gigs.” These jobs, in order, were:

  • First year: special assistant to a local author and ten hours per week of an administrative position in my department.
  • Second year: instructor for an online course through a museum, freelance editor and book-footnote-er, graduate laborer for a conference, and summer camp counselor.
  • Third year: babysitter, consulting curator, and freelance research assistant.
  • Fourth year: research assistant at a libertarian think-tank, guitar player and singer, babysitter, and freelance writer.
  • Fifth year: consulting oral historian for a local nonprofit, continued think-tank affiliation, and long-term substitute at local boarding school.
  • Sixth year: I was employed full-time.

In these jobs, all of which were part-time, temporary, and had no benefits, I gained experience that would help me secure a full-time position. More importantly, these jobs allowed me to afford basic living expenses. My annual stipend was initially $19,000, and my graduate union’s efforts raised it to $22,000 for my last two years on fellowship. This may seem like a decent income, but my graduate institution is in Washington, DC, where rent for a two-bedroom apartment can cost $2.5k per month ($30k per year). For my first two years, I shared a bedroom (not just an apartment) with three different strangers. One eventually became a close friend, but still—not an ideal situation for an adult. By the end of my third year, I had further expenses: my now-husband and I were engaged, and we needed to pay for our wedding and our own apartment. In other words, I needed to hustle.

At times my side-hustling experiences were wonderful, at times frustrating, and at times frankly bizarre.

The side-gigs I found either provided me with a decent income or were intellectually rewarding, but not both. Part-time work at the libertarian think-tank paid generously and covered my half of our wedding—but I’m not a libertarian. I enjoyed researching and writing a full exhibit for a local museum, but this work earned only $1,500 for several months of part-time work. A consulting oral historian job was likewise rewarding, including the privilege of interviewing FDR’s granddaughter. Although I negotiated hourly wages from $15 per hour up to $25 per hour, requesting my paycheck repeatedly required emotional energy when they forgot to provide it. It was only when I began substitute teaching that I finally found employment that was rewarding and paid the bills. Since early 2020, I’ve taught history at the Madeira School, an all-girls boarding/day school in McLean, Virginia. My colleagues and students are beyond wonderful, and the full-time position pays a living wage.

On the surface, side-hustling exposed me to new people and workplaces. Plus, I now have both a doctorate and full-time employment. In piecing together these jobs, I gained wide-ranging connections to professional contacts and industries, especially within the DC area. And I learned a little about many historical topics not covered in my coursework. Can I even complain about the negative impact of hustling to get by?

Side-hustling is not a sustainable model of work.

Now that I’m out of that frantic cycle, I am coming to realize that I, like Petersen, have entangled my worth as a human with my status as a worker. Side-hustling is not a sustainable model of work. I’m only now learning for the first time that my health and wellbeing matter, that I’m more than my capacity to juggle work.

All work—including in museums, social justice, teaching jobs in the historical discipline, and doctoral programs—should pay a living wage. People should be able to live on their income without worrying where their next meal will come from, how they will make rent, how they will pay for healthcare—including mental and reproductive health—and more. Graduate students should be able to afford a higher quality of life as ends in themselves, as well as fuel to produce their best work. Scholars from all socio-economic backgrounds should be able to engage in the discipline. The gig economy is not a means to achieve this. Universities providing livable wages for graduate students is imperative, especially if we as a discipline believe that our research is worth supporting—and I think that we do.

Rebecca Brenner Graham graduated with a PhD in history from American University in 2021. She is a teacher at the Madeira School. She tweets @TheOtherRBG

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.