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"Just get a job"

"Just get a job"

If I had a pound for every time I've heard that in the past 3 years I well, I wouldn't need a job.

There are several strands to this attitude that irritates me as a PhD student.

Firstly that the PhD is in some way an indulgent waste of time, a hobby or a means to delay the 'real' world. Now I can't speak for all PhD students obviously and for some this may indeed be the case. But for myself I've always viewed the PhD as the direct and only route into the work I want to do. I view it as an apprenticeship into the world of academia, a training ground as much as a qualification. So much more so than my previous degrees, in doing the PhD I am gaining the skills and experience to do the job I want to do.

And in my case, just for the record. I took time off between studying, I had professional jobs. I'm a trained teacher, I've taught at University level for several years and I also work with disabled people. It's not that I'm incapable of getting/doing a so called 'professional' job, but these are the circumstances I find myself in. I also see no shame or no lesser 'profession' in working in customer service. In fact I challenge anyone who sits behind a desk all day to come out and face the public as I and many others do on a day to day basis. Forgive the rant, but also respect those who do serve you. We're not robots, we're not stupid, you'd be surprised what some of the people serving you do when they aren't there.

Secondly the idea that somehow the PhD isn't "work" and that it isn't time-consuming. There's a reason there is funding for people to do this full time, because then they can actually do it full time. Forgive me if I'm preaching to the choir for some readers but let me outline what a PhD is and isn't in terms of the work involved: Firstly it isn't structured in the sense of undergrad or masters level courses. There are (in Britain at least, and usually) structured classes to attend every week. We also don't operate to the academic calendar in the same way. So while the undergrads disappear for a month at Christmas and have three months off in the summer, these become prime working time for PhD students, particularly those who teach during term time. Basically holiday time becomes a mythical creature. Particularly if again you're working an additional job. But more on that shortly. Yes there are times of more intense activity and more shall we say relaxed periods. But on the whole it's a constant level of some activity or another.  And because it's independent study, because you have to do the work alone, the guilt for not doing it, or the stress because you haven't been able to is all your own.

So back to the job question. All self funded PhD's and a fair few funded ones I'd wager, need to work somewhere. For some, from the off the PhD is part time, fitting around a full time job. For those who venture on full time, it's still fitted around a job. The guidelines in my University are for full time students working a maximum of 14 hours a week in any job that isn't teaching. Thankfully that's not a rule I've ever seen enforced because I couldn't pay to get to and from University for a year, never mind anything else on 14 hours a week in lets face it, a minimum wage job.

But what work do you do? well if you're lucky (or some days you may feel, unlucky) you'll be teaching. Now teaching at the University (or any other) is a great experience in the 'apprenticeship' it's also a pretty great job (in my opinion) and has the bonus of being (on paper) quite well paid. But the drawback with this is mostly PhD students are 'hourly paid' meaning that relative to the hours they put in they're fairly poorly paid-this isn't a criticism of my particular University, it's just an unfortunate fact of the system in general, as is the fact that then you're also only paid in term time. So already the problem becomes clear, what do you do for essentially another 6 months of the year?

And there is the problem. I had a very frank conversation with my supervisors recently where I explained that 'just getting  a job' wasn't as simple as it seemed on paper. Firstly, a cursory glance at the news will tell you that 'just getting a job' isn't easy for anyone at the moment. And this means that even your 'normal' student jobs that were, "in my day" easy to come by, are now more difficult. Then you come to the notorious issue of being 'over qualified'. I worked full time for several years between my original studies and University, so I have a fair bit of professional level experience, which makes it difficult to secure a job. Employers would rather have a fresh faced 19 year old with no experience who will probably stick around for a while than an (ahem) slightly older experienced person who looks like they might run away at any moment for a "proper" job. No matter how much you plead/lie that you'll be doing this PhD until the end of time and therefore will want the entry level minimum wage job, if I were them I wouldn't employ me either. Particularly when in the current climate it's an employers market.

All that said I've been fairly lucky. I've worked constantly often in three jobs at once across the PhD. This creates another set of problems. The juggling effect. In juggling three jobs, I'm juggling time moving from one to the other and scheduling the PhD in between. I haven't worked 'full time' in the way funded students have the luxury of because there are only so many hours in a week. And when you work evenings as I have it becomes even more problematic. Particularly when personally I'm a lark being forced to work owl hours.  So the academic suffers for the work that is there to fund the academic. And so it goes on.

This finally, is why I take issue with the suggestion from sometimes well meaning individuals who suggest "I just get a job to tide me over until I finish" or those less kind who helpfully indicate others who are paying their way through their Masters by working in Tescos, as if I haven't worked not only through my PhD but actually since I was 16 (coincidentally in another well known supermarket).

Or those who pass judgement that someone of my age should be working in such jobs or juggling more than one. Firstly that's a narrow minded viewpoint of those lucky enough to have found full time employment. Plenty of people in the arts, as I keep one foot firmly in, need to juggle several jobs some simply for finianical gain. Others, including more and more graduates are forced to work for free in the field they want to be in and pay the bills with the same sort of jobs they had as an undergraduate. Times have changed, and it's more common than you'd think.

So next time someone asks 'well why don't you just get a job' and perhaps my reply is a little short these are the reasons why. My PhD is a job, I've had several professional jobs, and I do have a job (s) to pay the bills. Maybe it isn't what I want to do, but at least I've proven how hard I'm willing to work for what I do want to do.


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