In just over a month, I’ll be graduating with my Master’s degree in biology. I worked my ass off in the lab, taught two classes, and took several of the hardest courses of my life in order to earn that degree. I read hundreds of papers, worked crazy hours, and stressed myself to the point of collapse more than once (seriously, I can show you the medical bills).
To even earn the right to try for that degree, I worked my ass off for four years of college. To be honest, most of the coursework for that was relatively easy for me, and even the stuff that wasn’t was at least usually intellectually satisfying. But in addition to the coursework, I also worked in several labs for free or for minimum wage, worked multiple food service jobs, volunteered for my department, and tutored in order to occasionally have spending money.
But as things currently stand, I won’t have full-time employment when I graduate in a month. Right now, all my prospects for generating income are part-time or freelance, and if I’m lucky I’ll make enough to pay my bills.
And because of this, I feel like a fuck-up. A failure. Pathetic.
I know that I shouldn’t feel this way. I know that the economy is fucking us all pretty hard right now, especially people my own age. In the three years I’ve been in the relatively cushy position of making a livable wage and getting decent benefits in grad school, many of my friends have had to take dead-end jobs outside their fields, move in with parents, or otherwise struggle to get by. I am aware of how rough it is out there right now. Hell, just tonight, I got an email rejecting me from a part-time, hourly writing position… that had over 100 applicants.
But none of that really makes me feel much better. See, the progressive idealist in me desperately wants to believe in the inherent worth of people: to believe that everyone should be entitled to at least food, shelter, and healthcare; to believe that if you works hard to acquire meaningful skills and apply them enthusiastically that you should be able to get a job that pays a living wage.
But there is another part of me that is just echoing every conservative pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps douchebag on the internet saying: This is no one’s problem but your own.
I made the mistake of going into biological research in a time where funding is at an all time low. I made the mistake of thinking that it was reasonable to follow my dreams and work hard and trust that I would make it somehow. Sure, I couldn’t have been expected to predict the economic collapse, but if silly things like ‘security’ and ‘not having massive debt’ and ‘having enough money to pay my bills and also maybe have some fun stuff too’ mattered to me so much, maybe I should have focused more on fields with high growth and earning potential.
I spent my life up through high school thinking that if I just worked my ass off in school and did everything “right”, I would end up with a life I could be happy with. I expected to have to work hard, and I expected to have to do some work that I didn’t enjoy, but I had been told my whole life that I had to do a certain set of things to be successful, and I was doing them, so I thought I would be successful.
And that’s when I started getting rejection letters from colleges. I was a National Merit scholar, I had almost perfect SAT scores, a GPA over 4.0… and I still got rejected a lot. I expected some of that, but after years of people assuring me that I’d “go to Harvard someday”, I kind of expected that at least ONE of the top-tier schools I applied to would accept me. And one of them eventually did accept me…though off their waiting list, after I had accepted a position at a state school.
I was shamed, more than a little, for being at all upset about not getting into better schools. After all, I got a full-tuition scholarship at Purdue University, which is still a pretty fucking awesome deal. What kind of entitled brat was I, whining about not having a chance to go to U of Chicago or Washington in St. Louis? At the time, bitching about the entitlement of millennials was a trendy thing, and I felt rightfully indicted. I had been a fool to think that just being smart on paper gave me a right to anything.
Not going to an ivy-level school actually turned out to be a good thing for me, especially given my current life situation–I graduated from undergrad with almost no debt, something that would have been impossible for me at a top-tier private institution, and I got a great education. But I was still humbled by that experience, by being caught off-guard about what success requires. And I was SO DETERMINED not to let it happen again. I would not be one of those horribly entitled members of my generation, I would earn my way, damnit.
And so now, facing down ‘failure’ again, the “entitlement” accusation is screaming in my ear. I should not be whining about “unsupportive academic culture” or “poor funding of science” or “the shitty economy”… because that’s just fucking life, and I should have planned better. I should have been better.
On the one hand, this impulse of mine, to refuse to let myself make excuses, is not an exclusively awful thing. Certainly, playing the victim here is not going to do me any favors. Certainly, I need to be working at 110% to develop my skills and apply for jobs.
But you know what? I should not be feeling shame for being where I am right now, and I am angry as fuck at anyone and everyone who would have me believe I should be.
I am angry at myself for letting the toxic idea that a human adult that cannot find gainful employment is always to blame for their own predicament get under my skin. I am angry that my own struggles to feel worthy of notice or love have provided fertile ground for the notion that a person who cannot economically support themselves is worthless.
Because, yes, all you totally self-reliant devil’s advocates out there, I could have made different choices that may have put me in a better position. I could have, for instance, gotten a degree that translated directly into a job in a field that was growing. But fuck you, hindsight is 20/20, and there are ALWAYS things that one could have done better. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen assholes comment on a humanities major’s tales of unemployment woes with “haha, should have gotten a degree in STEM”. Hell, I used to think that way myself at times–I was one of the smart ones, going into a “useful” field. Look where that got me.
The bottom line is, you shouldn’t have to do everything perfectly in order to have a right to complain when things go to shit. In particular, when things have gone shitty in part because the larger societal structures (the economy, the academy, the institutions supporting public science) involved are fucking broken, we have every fucking right to be pissed.
Could I have done better? Of course. You’re talking to a chronically depressed perfectionist, was there any chance in hell I’d say anything different?
But damn it, you shouldn’t have to be perfect to be deserving of a decent life. None of us should have to be. And I don’t think believing that should get me labeled an entitled brat.
And damn it, job or no job,
I am not worthless.
(inspired in part by this post and the following discussion)