Here is the sixth column in a continuing series, Don’t Look Back in Anger, on the graduate-school experience and all of the ways in which it is, and is not, an oasis.
I've always kept a journal — a real one, on paper — every time I’ve traveled abroad. This began in 1995, on my first-ever transcontinental voyage, with a janky-looking book I made myself out of a pillowcase, a glue stick, the cardboard backing that came with some bedding, thirty leftover sheets of printer paper, and a hotel sewing kit. (The thought was that a sojourn of this monumental intellectual import deserved a handcrafted work of art).
In 1995, I was between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was a privileged little twit, spending the summer in Germany thanks to the permissiveness of my parents and the largesse of my grandfather. I was on a budget then, to be sure (a $5 youth hostel bed was my go-to when I traveled alone), but I also knew that if I ran out of money (definitely not because I spent the equivalent of five youth-hostel beds on hashish), I could ask for more. Most of my journal entries on that trip were about castles, and how mean my German host-mother was.
Eleven years later, I set out for my first summer abroad as a Ph.D. student — taking an intensive Czech language course in Prague, to help me read some of Kafka's professional legal writings in their original language. I was still keeping a travel journal, but by then its contents were markedly different. Alongside meditations on the elevators in my Soviet-built Panelák dormitory (they had no doors, so one could actually watch the the terrifyingly thin floors pass by) were pages and pages of budget calculations: “10 July 2006. Last week's spending: K 3500 = $20/day, THIS IS TOO MUCH! You need to budget your life better!!!!”
I was the same privileged little twit, but at least I was paying my own way. And as a graduate student in the summer — at the mercy of a stipend that stopped in June and restarted in late September, and a modest “summer language study” grant that just about covered my plane ticket — I had an intractable budget.
When I’d first received my six-figure fellowship package, it had seemed like a lot of money — and just to go to school! I came to graduate school after seven years of low-level media and publishing jobs in New York, where my “savings plan” usually entailed withdrawing $300 in cash every payday and then stuffing it in my sock drawer, doling out twenties to myself every two days. So that package felt like I’d hit paydirt.
Needless to say, my doctorate is not in math. Those six figures divided by five years — minus the cost of tuition, “fees,” and health insurance — worked out to about $15,000 per annum for living expenses. That seemed generous, given the actual work I did to earn it: teach a single class each quarter, at a base rate I would never earn as an adjunct. It also seemed like a lot because it arrived in nine monthly paychecks instead of 12 — which was great until summer came along and my final stipend check for the academic year arrived in July.
No matter how furiously I calculated and budgeted and hustled to earn extra dollars when I could, my stipend money was always damn near gone by mid-August. My first stipend check for the new academic year would not arrive until November 1 (after I’d worked a full month in October). By early September — when I was expected to be back on campus teaching, after a summer full of reading for my comprehensive exams — I was scrounging for change on the floor of my 1990 Volvo (itself little more than a statue in the parking lot, as I clearly wasn't going to be buying gasoline anytime soon).
I’ll never forget the day I ran into a student at a grocery store. It was the third week of classes during my second year in grad school, and the November 1 date of my next disbursement was still far off. We were in the self-checkout line, and I was buying the only groceries I could afford: a gallon of generic spring water in one of those 80s-style flimsy plastic jugs, and a package of store-brand tampons. My student gazed upon me with pity for the rest of the year.
Granted, the solution to this was pretty self-evident: Don't spend summers abroad anymore, dipstick. Kafka, Schmafka.
And, in subsequent years, I did have the good sense to stay put in Irvine, Calif., sweating in my sweltering student apartment, spending time with other people who didn’t have any money, and doing anything I could to shore up my cash reserves — like selling my theory books online and teaching ESL (the latter was not bizarre, in and of itself, except that I was utterly unqualified to do it). Waiting tables or working as a barista were out of the question: This was Orange County and, frankly, I wasn't good-looking enough.
Everybody I knew had a summer hustle. The guy I started dating at the end of my first year (now my husband) used to tutor wealthy kids in math and logic. Once, he was even refused admission to a gated McMansion community due to his automobile — a rusted 1987 Mitsubishi Precis with a self-administered racing stripe, nicknamed The Whip. “You can't come in here in that thing,” said the guard at the development’s security booth. Meanwhile, a classics student and board-game aficionado I knew got hired as a “manny” for an obscenely wealthy family that wanted their son equally versed in Latin and chess.
I have a pretty large social network of enterprising (ex-)academics, so I sent out a quick query on Twitter a couple of weeks ago to see what everyone had done to remain solvent in the summertime. The request yielded one astounding summer monetary scheme after the next. I heard from people who had spent their graduate-school summers selling anything and everything on eBay, bartending, driving a taxi, painting houses, tree trimming, nude modeling, working the night shift in a meat factory, surviving on rice and beans, and, my personal favorite, covering their apartment windows in aluminum foil during a heatwave to minimize costs.
Since the low-earning years of graduate school also coincided with the onset of my 30s, and the final hardening (I think that’s how it works?) of my frontal lobe, I did embrace those meager summers as an opportunity to learn to budget, once and for all.
I was lucky — I had no medical emergencies. My Volvo stayed true to its reputation and ran great. I had no dependents. It would be nigh-on Christmas every year before I could buy name-brand tampons again, and more students than that first one would pity (or scorn) me during ill-timed run-ins at the supermarket. But I never had to skip a meal or sell plasma before the first stipend check came in. Of course, that was probably largely due to the fact that eventually, I developed the good sense not to spend money on hash-fueled overseas trips. Luckily, I’ll always have my artisanal homemade travel journal as a memento.