Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Funding, Waiting and Nesting

Is it wet yet?  When will it be wet?  Will I like it when it's wet?

A non-update (and a cat picture, because when in doubt, cats illustrate many things).  I have had meetings, meetings, meetings the past week or so about my "funding situation," which is to say, various people want to know whether someone else has given me funding for next year so that I can be checked off as a problem to be taken care of.  For funding which various people are in charge of, though, the answer is: we'll know next month.  Wait and see.  We don't know yet.  

The problem seems to me to be a lack of planning.  I am not in the situation of needing a job or not having an income next year--I have two years of guaranteed funding left, so for at least two years I won't be kicked out into the cold.  But exactly what kind of funding I have, and whether it depends on my teaching in Overcast or not (and therefore, how much travel I will be able to do for research) is partially dependent on how many graduate students are admitted to the program for next year, and whether applications which my advisor has put in for me are accepted.

I am, of course, complaining from a position of privilege.  I know I will have some kind of funding for next year; I have known that since I was admitted, because my program guarantees the same package to all admits, rather than making us compete against each other year-to-year like some programs do.  I'm also my advisor's only and therefore favorite student, and he's gone the extra mile in both applying for money for which I could not apply myself, and in helping me find funding sources to which apply myself.

But even from this privileged position, it seems to me that the structure of academic funding is such that, whether intentionally or not, it creates a contingent, unconnected and personally unstable labor force at the bottom of the hierarchy.  The fellowships which I've gotten on my own have an academic year expiration date: I use them in the next academic year or I lose them.  The applications which my advisor has put in for me are for the next semester, and can't be applied for in advance.  Departmental funding is dependent on the decisions of admitted students for next year.

Throw into this that the city of Overcast's (and other college towns) rental market is so ridiculously skewed by the huge student population (landlords put apartments up for rent in February or March for August-start leases) and this creates a horrible limbo period in March-April-May where you have to commit to a lease for the next academic year without knowing whether you will have the right kind of funding to stay in town, or wait to hear about your funding and be left without a decent place to live.  Commit to a lease and then find that your funding either doesn't come through or that it requires you to be 100 miles away, and the landlord's burden of finding someone to pay the rent is shifted to you in finding a sublettor, as well as the burden of payment if the sublettor doesn't pay rent.

It seems to me that if academic funding was simply shifted by a year, it would create much more stability and allow graduate students to function as adults, instead of as something between contingent temp workers and students without safety nets.  That is, if departmental funding was disconnected from the number of next year's admits, or connected instead to the number of the previous year's admits, current students could be notified earlier in the year, eliminating the horrible spring limbo period.  Fellowships could be applied for and granted two years out instead of one year, allowing for long range planning.  Of course, that would require academics to get their shit together and meet deadlines far in advance of the payout, but if the culture shifted slightly, I think academics could manage being just as late for new deadlines as they are for current ones.

I think it's unlikely to happen, though, because the current situation trains graduate students, and therefore future young faculty, even at prestigious and privileged institutions, to not put down roots, to make no commitments, and to stay ready to move in the event of funding changes.  And I would argue that this is part of what continues to make the academy hostile to female graduate students and faculty, part of the leaky pipeline effect.  Not only are all graduate students infantilized by the inability to put down ties in a community due to funding uncertainty, but female graduate students, especially at institutions without graduate maternity leave or easily accessible childcare, are penalized by the decision to have children in an uncertain funding context.

This is not to say that having children is the only or even a central part of being an adult woman, but it is one aspect of adulthood which has to be put on hold without funding certainty, and it's one that has been weighing on my mind.  I would love to start a family with J.  All other things being equal, it probably wouldn't happen right away, but the limbo of my funding for the next few years, and the way it affects our geographic location, factors much more into this decision than I would like it to.  (This is not even considering healthcare: I'm also privileged in that I will still the age to stay on my family's insurance for several more years, and privileged that my family can provide that insurance.  Without that, I don't think we could afford either the cost of giving birth or the $4k yearly hike in the student insurance provided through the university a baby would bring).

While having a baby in grad school may not be ideal, having one on the tenure clock would be even less ideal.  And the other option is waiting until after tenure, which, even if I landed a TT job right out of the gate and things went well getting through grad school (not something I'll hold my breath for) and conceiving said baby, that would be at least eight years from this writing.  Ten or more if a TT job wasn't available right away or something else went wrong.  And, dear reader, that would be fifteen years academia put my baby plans on hold.  I don't think even med school and residency demands that.

So I guess the point is this: uncertain funding conditions graduate students to accept being treated as a contingent labor force, contributing to the adjunctification of higher-ed, and penalizes female graduate students who might want to start a family by creating a situation in which one cannot be certain of one's income or location for long enough to conceive and give birth to a child, never mind raising a baby or looking at schools. Of course people do it, but the difficulty of it I think contributes both to the leaky pipeline of female faculty and to the dearth of female faculty with children.  


  1. Is it annoying for me to just insert more sighing here? Had a conversation about some of these things today with my officemate. And did you see M's list of things we are not allowed to talk about? Follows from frustration and anxiety about so much of what you're thoughtfully outlining here. (More sighing. And waiting.)

  2. I did see the list, and all I could think when I saw it was that I have nothing else to talk about. Except maybe my cat. Hence the pictures, I guess. I'll join you in the sighing.