What did I give up?

by Dame Eleanor Hull

Inspired by Squadratomagico and others, here’s a list of what I might seem (to myself or to others; at one time or another) to have given up for the sake of my chosen career. We all know that a story may be comic or tragic depending on where the narration stops, so I follow the list with analysis. Not all of these items involve true sacrifice, and on some my point of view has changed more than once.

Money (salary, savings)
Choice of where to live
Long-term relationship
Children
Health

1. Money. Obviously getting a Ph.D. in the humanities and teaching is not the path to riches. I knew that going in; I grew up in a college town, after all (as I said in “Ink and Valium“). You spend years living on a TA’s stipend, unable to save, and when you do start making a proper salary, it may not keep pace with inflation. This matters to me more now than it did when I chose graduate school, because I understand money better now. At the time, what I wanted was interesting work, the life of the mind, to spend most of my time reading and writing. My family always lived frugally, so I knew how to get by on very little; the secure salary of a tenured professor, compared to the ups and downs of my father’s income, appealed greatly to me.

My chosen career path was the biggest chance I ever took. I am not a gambler. Security motivates me more than adventure. Looking back, it is obvious that a much safer choice would have been to take a couple of business classes as electives, and then to have looked for jobs with companies where my languages and head for numbers would have been appreciated. I think I could have found interesting work I would have enjoyed, with possibly less stress and certainly more financial security. And I could have gone back to school around 30, had I decided to, with a financial cushion.

It has worked out well enough, partly because I got my way paid through grad school. I did have the brains to decide I wouldn’t go into debt for a humanities Ph.D. I had trouble saving in my early teaching years, anyway, partly because of the siren calls of travel and books, and I’m not proud of that. I knew better, but I didn’t act on what I knew about managing money. Then I married Sir John, who is not an academic and makes more than I do. So, though I intended more independence, I wound up being “rescued” financially by marriage, which is not a good feminist position. I think, now, if you choose a low-paying job like the professoriat on purpose, you should resign yourself to living like a graduate student at least until you get tenure, so you can pay a lot into a retirement account early and get some compound interest going.

I’m doing fine now, thanks more to luck than anything else. But really, money matters more as you get older. It’s one thing living on a shoestring at 25, and another entirely at 50. I don’t have regrets, but I wish I had thought more realistically about money when I went into this field.

Tune in tomorrow for analysis #2.