The Edge Effect

Monday, April 17, 2006

Permanently Liminal?

Liminality isn't a concept I find particularly useful. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a fine idea and I can see that it has many good applications for other anthropologists. It just isn't something that has ever really factored into my work. At least not in a way painfully obvious enough that even I had to notice. The upshot is that I don't really have a working knowledge of the concept's intricacies.

My question for you, dear reader, is this - Is there a statute of limitations on liminality? How long can an individual maintain a liminal state? Since the concept was developed in thinking about rites of passage, I would expect that a normal liminal state could last anywhere from minutes to days. But what about years?

I know it's probably a trite usage of the term, but I'm wondering if the graduate school experience qualifies as a liminal state? I suppose this is right up there on the depth-o-meter with all the papers Anth 101 GSIs get examining the liminal nature of some sorority induction event or the communitas experienced in the student section of the Big House. But then I didn't come here to be deep, I came here to rant.

So on with the rant:

This state of quasi-permanent quasi-liminality that passes for graduate school is getting really old. (How's that for a rant?) There is plenty to complain about, but specifically it's really grating that after seven years of professional work and some serious research I still can't be a grown-up. C'mon people! It's hard enough to convince my non-academic family and friends that I'm an adult. Now we're trying to buy a house - talk about hoops. You'd think that the bank here (remember this is college town USA) had never heard of graduate school.
"You do what for a living?" "You really get paid for that?" "Well, who employs you?" "What do you mean you get paid through the payroll department but don't get a W-2?" "What are estimated taxes?" "So where do you work?"

So even though we have (near) perfect credit, have been homeowners in St Louis for five years, and have been getting regular substantial paychecks for the past five years (seven in my case), we are not considered good borrowers because we don't have any real income. Seriously, they calculate our debt to income ration figuring that I make $500/month. I don't make a lot but I make enough that all this runaround shouldn't be a big deal. I can document my paychecks for seven years, but since it comes from a variety of fellowships, grants, and temporary jobs it isn't as "good" as seven bucks an hour for pulling coffee at Starbucks. Does this make sense to you?

I can't really blame the bank, they have their procedures and their own well-fed asses to cover. But this is just one more way being a graduate student kind of sucks. I mean, if you're really fast you can finish your PhD by the time you're 30. Given the usual delay in getting a permanent job, then the several years before tenure, a very diligent social scientist will have some job-security and life-stability some time in their mid-to-late-30s. That's about when most of us, unless lucky or extremely savvy, can start thinking about saving money for retirement and buying a home. For those of us on grants, it's also when our paychecks start paying into social security. And for many graduate students, that's the first time that health-insurance becomes a possibility.

I know that is the life we all signed up for and believe me I didn't get into this to get rich. But I would really like a little damned respect. For gods' sakes we are professionals doing significant research, teaching students, and trying to put together a little life. Is it too much to ask that fellowships and grants be treated like real income? Is it too much to ask that seven years of continuous income be considered "secure?" Can those of you who are not academics but know us as family or friends not treat us like freshmen who are just lolling through college waiting for Spring Break when we'll have, like, all week to just hang out and not worry about stupid school anymore? Can you please realize that we are professionals with major responsibilities and careers, not just some quaint hobby to tell your friends about at cocktail parties?

I know it could be much worse. I know if I'd busted my ass more and slept less I'd probably have gotten done in six and a half years and be unemployed now instead of underemployed. I know I'm whining and have it pretty good in the bigger picture, but that's not what rants are about.

For all those other irritating questions:
No the U won't have a job for me when I'm done with my PhD. No that isn't how it works. No I don't care about dinosaurs or Egypt. No they aren't holding me back until I'm "good enough" to deal with dinosaurs and Egypt. Yes I'll have to take any job I can get. Yes there are only about 10-15 jobs each year that I am qualified for. Yes there are at least 100 or 200 other qualified people applying for each of those jobs. No I don't have any idea which one I'll get, when, or even if I'll ever find work. No I don't plan to make much money in my field. Yes I get paid to do research right now. No I don't think that's putting an unnecessary burden on the American taxpayer. No I don't wish I'd found a useful field to go into. If medicine or nuclear physics are such great damned fields why don't you go get a PhD in one of them.