The best advice I ever received during my MFA came at the very end, when I asked my fiction professor about how he had balanced money, writing time, and the desire for a teaching career when he was just out of school. If I wanted a job teaching creative writing at the university level, he told me, I didn’t necessarily need to bust my ass adjuncting for years. My professor had been on a lot of hiring committees. “We don’t care if you spent the last five years teaching composition or living on the moon,” he said, “As long as you’ve written a good book or two.” He recommended I keep my overhead low, work as little as possible, and spend as much time as I could writing.
I moved home to Seattle a few weeks later. While some of my grad school friends started picking up classes at community colleges, I looked elsewhere. Eventually I found a job bussing tables and watching the door at a fancy whiskey bar. My friends were confused by my employment choice—hadn’t I just spent four years teaching undergraduates? Why not use that experience to get a job at a community college or a state school?
I liked to tell them this: “Because I did the math.”
The problem with adjuncting
In 2017, we all know that making a decent living as a non-tenure-track instructor is impossible. In 2011, when I graduated, this conversation was just getting started. Michael Bérubé, the president of the Modern Language Association for 2012, was one of the first to advocate for a living wage for adjuncts. Under Bérubé, the MLA recommended compensation of $6,800 for a three-credit, semester-long class, and $4,530 for a three-credit, quarter-long class.
Around the same time, the Adjunct Project collected data on the pay and benefits of adjuncts and other “contingent faculty” in the hopes that they could honor the schools that treated their faculty well, draw attention to schools that didn’t, and promote transparency in higher education employment practices. The Adjunct Project crowdsourced a lot of information from faculty at hundreds of schools and shared it all in a Google Spreadsheet. It is a very bleak spreadsheet, and worth your time to look through. You will notice that almost nobody makes anything close to the MLA’s recommended wages.
In 2012, a lot of schools were also slashing their humanities budgets. My alma mater was in the middle of cutting 40% of the English department’s budget over the next two years. It wasn’t a good time to look for academic employment, let alone the utopian wages the MLA hoped for. My adjunct friends were working themselves to death, juggling classes at two, three, or even four schools, for wages just over the poverty line. I felt odd not teaching—it was how I had made my living for the past five years—but when I did a side-by-side comparison of my job bussing tables and adjuncting, my post-MFA employment made a lot more sense.
Bussing tables is more profitable than adjuncting
My alma mater offered $3,000 per course. If I had been lucky enough to teach four classes (which none of the adjuncts in the English department did), that would net me $12K a semester, or $24K a year before taxes.
As a front-of-house restaurant employee, I made a good base hourly (Washington doesn’t exempt tipped employees from the minimum wage like some states, and my restaurant paid more than the minimum) and a percentage of total sales during the shift. Bussing tables and answering the phone, I made about $5K more a year than I would have in the best case scenario adjuncting at my alma mater.
Bussing tables gives you health insurance
Adjuncting often doesn’t. I don’t know if it’s changed—I hope it has—but in 2012, my alma mater didn’t offer health insurance to contingent faculty. My restaurant offered very good health, dental, and vision after six months of employment. Neither job offered a 401(k).
Bussing tables gives you more time to write than adjuncting
As a graduate TA at my alma mater, I was expected to put twenty hours a week into teaching one composition class. I usually put in between thirty and forty, depending on the week (student conferences, man, they’ll get you every time). I don’t think that teaching four classes instead of one would necessarily quadruple the time—lesson plans can be reused, after all—but managing four classes in less than forty hours a week is a fantasy. And anybody who’s taught knows that teaching will eat up as much time as you’re willing to give it.
At the restaurant, I worked between thirty and thirty-five hours a week (twenty-five and thirty-five once I started waiting tables) and when I left, I got to leave my work at work. As a restaurant employee, I was on a much different schedule than my nine-to-five friends, and I spent a lot of mornings and afternoons cranking out short stories. I wrote prodigiously when I was a busboy. Adjuncting would never have allowed me that kind of output.
The importance of the post-MFA career choice
It’s easy to put writing on the backburner. You have to make enough money to live, after all. And you have to pay bills. You have to see your friends, do laundry, call your mom, clean your hallway closet, or execute on any of the other dozens of excuses you regularly deploy to write off your lack of literary output. But let me tell you: if you are serious about leaving your MFA and getting a fuckton of writing done, then take a job that you can’t easily use as an excuse.
I worked in that restaurant for two-and-a-half years, and the decision to stay for as long as I did is tied with the decision to attend my MFA for the Best Life Choice I Made for my Writing Award. So if you’re about to leave your graduate program and you’re thinking about adjuncting, remember my professor’s advice: keep your overhead low, work as little as possible, and spend as much time as you can writing.