It took about 30 seconds after I got accepted into my graduate program for my excitement to turn into panicked thoughts of “How the **** am I going to pay for this?” Obviously I did not think this through as well as I could have – see my post “So You’ve Decided To Take Out Student Loans.” I realized almost immediately that, even with taking out the maximum I was allowed in loans, I had about a $7,000 gap between my budget and my expenses. Higher education is a luxury in the United States, and luxuries require an income. So I decided to get a job. I have had many jobs as a graduate student, and so today I will focus on the employment I used to survive my first year.
Whenever possible, if you are taking time away from the 10,000 things you are supposed to be doing as a graduate student, you want that time to be worthwhile. In a perfect world, you will receive an outpouring of highly paid, flexible clinical jobs that work around your class schedule and make nice lines on your CV. If you pulled off this feat, please contact me so that you can write a guest post, because you clearly are better at this grad school thing than I am.
Back to my reality. Shortly after receiving my acceptance and deposit, my program was kind enough to send me a packet that was over 30 pages of clinical positions in the Hartford area. I spent two weeks calling and emailing every clinic, hospital, and research facility they had sent me. Approximately 75% of the sites never got back to me. The other 25% were either confused as to why I thought they were hiring, not interested in someone who had no Masters degree and no prior field-related work experience, or gave me the age-old brush off of “We’ll keep your CV on file and get back to you if something opens up.” I prepared for my move with no idea if I would be able to afford more than the first semester.
About two weeks after the semester started, I gave up my search for a clinical job. The only lead that would take me seriously was a volunteer position that actually required me to pay them for the training involved. It would have been great for my resume but horrible for my checking account. (If you can afford to volunteer in your field in order to build up enough experience for a paid position, be my guest, but like graduate school, volunteer work is a luxury.) As an undergraduate, I spent two years working as an usher for my school’s theater department to help curb expenses, so I contacted a local theater and was hired almost immediately. It wasn’t a psychology job, but my rent checks cleared. I loved my co-workers, and the benefits were pretty fantastic for a part-time job (free theater tickets plus admission to donor galas with free food and an open bar), and I got to meet Kate Mulgrew, but we were often short-staffed, so I kept being scheduled almost double what I had committed to. I also had to pay for parking in the garage every time I had a shift, and about once per week I was given a short shift where most of my income went into the gas to getting there and the parking, so I came home with almost nothing. Meanwhile, the over-scheduling was making it difficult to complete my school work. I had been assigned a group project, and I could not find time to meet with my classmates. That is the Catch-22 of higher education: Unless you are independently wealthy, you have to work so much to pay for everything that you do not have time to fulfill your student responsibilities.
Shortly after midterms, an opportunity fell into my lap. My school has an on-campus help center for students who are struggling with college, whether academically or personally. An email went around to my classmates indicating that they were looking for graduate students to work part-time as tutors to help students who were failing classes. At first my plan was to tutor on top of my theater job because, by definition, doctoral students do not know how to stop taking on commitments when they become overwhelmed. But after the interview, the head of the center called me with an amazing offer: They did not want me to be a tutor. They wanted me to run their tutoring program. My job was to sort through referrals from professors about students who were struggling, meet with those students individually, and set them up with tutors as appropriate. The pay was higher than my current job, I was allowed to make my own hours, and I could walk to work from my classes or park for free. Although not technically a clinical job, I have had a training director at an internship site tell me that this experience is invaluable to some of my clinical interests.
The point I am trying to make is, when you’re looking for work in graduate school, be flexible and willing to take a job outside of your field. When you have zero work experience you are not given the benefit of being picky. At the same time, though, do not settle for a job that inhibits your success. Persistence pays off – keep applying, and eventually something field-related will pop up and make your life immeasurably easier! I do miss the galas, though, and Ms. Mulgrew is delightful.