Category Archives: economics

Grad School Plus – Boats and Goats and Getting a Job

This week, I’ve been reading about an institution that has violently opposed every kind of educational technology. That has locked up and restricted access to books. That imposed a ban on private, silent reading to prevent the uncontrolled spread of information… no I’m not talking about Trump’s campaign management, I am instead talking about… universities!

Admittedly, some of those heinous misdeeds took place way back in the 14th century, when new typesetting systems had just made silent reading possible and everyone was trying to work out what to do with this scary new thing. My point is that university life has undergone massive change over time: students are no-longer permitted to keep a goat on the cathedral green, although punting down the Cam is still a haven of English pastoral bliss. Pipes have gone out of fashion. Slaves and servants are no longer permitted. I cannot, on a blog, do proper justice to the increased diversity and continuing complexities of race and gender, suffice to say that I am grateful that now I can get a PhD – in dance, no less!

University use of time has changed: in 1830, at one American university, students would get up at six for prayers at 6:45. Seniors were excused from 7am classes, but everyone enjoyed breakfast at 8, and the second class for everyone started at 11. Students would enjoy a light lunch at noon, prepare for their final class of the day at 4, and had to be in their rooms by 8.

The subjects we teach have changed, how we teach them has changed… but universities themselves are slow to change, and I offer the historical perspective as a cry to radically reconsider what it means to be a student, especially a graduate student at the beginning of the 21st century.

Right now, it is impossible to get a job simply by successfully following a course of education. From undergraduate admissions to doctoral employment, it is never ok to just do school. Let’s take dance as an example: a company will often refuse your right to audition unless you have 3-5 years of professional experience. Before you reach that magical point you will mostly work for free, if at all. But if you want to get into an MFA program you have to have choreographic experience, so you work for free and you go to grad school. In grad school you’ll get to choreograph, but if you want to get a job in the academy you’ll need to have experience choreographing for large groups, and MFA students don’t really get to do that, so you’ll work for local studios to get extra teaching on your resume and the opportunity to make work. If you want to teach as a doctoral student, you have to attend conferences and publish articles, and the performing and choreography that tie you to your field have to happen in un-credited time, and don’t even get me started on the process of tenure.

To maintain good academic standing with the university, a graduate student is expected to spend an official minimum of 24 hours a week in study time. To graduate in three years, class requirements actually work out to be about 36 hours a week – as long as you can read and write fast enough to stay within the recommended homework hours – dear other grad students, how possible is that? To pay for graduate education, students are then also asked to spend 20 hours a week working for the university. One semester out of six that 20 hours has now become 25/30, and I would imagine that for graduate students without a university stipend the burden of time needed simply for subsistence living is even harsher.

A 55 hour week is tough, but not unbearably so, if you’re generally healthy, and you don’t have kids, and your partners are understanding, and your friends are flexible, and you’re willing and able to give up your other professional commitments while you’re in a university program… and those are all gigantic and unreasonable ifs. Of course, what with time between classes and warming up and meeting with your students and another student’s crisis and rehearsals and “I’ve been grading for three hours and I need a cup of tea and a break before I start this paper” it’s NEVER just a 55 hour week. EVER. A “55” hour week that earns you a hair over $15,000 a year pre-tax, pre university deductions, pre insurance etc. etc.

And then you realise that if you want to be employable when you graduate you need to have another job on top of your extra-full-time job, and that when you are employed it is most likely to be as an adjunct – a position subject to horrific abuse by the university system, without guaranteed hours, pay, or benefits – more on that, and please watch it, here.

Am I complaining? Well… yes, I am. You’ve just sat with me for 500 words of me doing just that (not counting the introduction because, frankly, that was just fun), so I can’t really deny it. I also love grad school, and I would honestly rather be spending my time here right now than anywhere else, but loving grad school doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the fact that the conditions it imposes on faculty, staff and students are systemically… tenuous. I am not blind to the 50% attrition rate of PhD students in American universities. I am not blind to the fact that statistically 47% of doctoral students, and 37% of master’s students, met the clinical criteria for depression in 2015, not counting those experiencing symptoms of other illnesses, or those who simply didn’t quite tick the boxes.

This is not a complaint specific to my own program (I’ve simply drawn data from where I know it best), nor about any program or university in particular. It is not a demand for less work or fewer opportunities. It is simply a statement of the need to re-think what it is to be a graduate student. Or to think about what you want a graduate student to be. We’re not going to bed at 8 anymore. We’re not going punting. What are we trying to do instead? How does that mean universities have to change?

Time, Time, Pay Time.

It’s crunch time for graduates. Term’s finished, summer’s over, we’re heading on into the long dark of October and the big question looms: “Have you got a job yet?”

It’s a big, scary, problem of a question, because of course as all of us know there’s a job… and then there’s a job. Is it in your field? Is it actually practicing your field as opposed to making the coffee? Does it pay the rent? Does it pay at all? This last a particular monstrosity of the arts where a so-called job listing may involve precisely zero payment for your time and expenses, and might even ask you to chip in to cover the costs of this “excellent career opportunity.”

But this isn’t, actually, a blog post about the issue of no-pay jobs in the arts because that subject doesn’t actually need a blog post: it’s just bad. A necessary evil perhaps, maybe a stop-gap measure while you desperately try and scrape together enough material for funding, but if you are not deliberately moving towards a place where you can pay your dancers for your time, if every project is subsistence and kickstarter then you need to take a long, hard look at your business model because you are doing it wrong. So this blog is, in fact, about negotiating those slippery grey areas between dancer and employer, and how we can treat people well, whatever end of the budget we’re on.

For Dancers

The most useful question I’ve found in reaching out to prospective employers is “What compensation will be offered for my work on this project?” It’s a little less black-and-white than “Are you paying me or what?” But at the same time places an expectation on the employer that my time is worth value and that I expect to see a concrete return beyond “exposure” or “professional development.” And the result? People value my time more!

But what is that value? Tip number two is to set a going rate for yourself for a couple of different types of work, and be prepared to ask for it. Ask your friends around you what they charge, and be ready to name your price in return if asked. Don’t try and keep what you charge secret because you’re hoping to undercut your friends, although do realize that sometimes your going rate simply will not be available. My basic rate for teaching is $50 an hour, although I have been known to be pulled down for friends, start-ups, or good causes in general. Performing is a lot more fluid, and varies depending on the time commitment I’m asked for, my relationship with the choreographer, and the status of the project.

Types of compensation I have happily accepted that is not money:

  • We cannot pay but we will find you housing and/or feed you every night you are there.
  • We have enough performers that you need only come on the nights you choose.
  • We will teach you how to build set/run sound/wire lighting in exchange for your skills.
  • Coffee

Types of compensation I would not readily accept instead of money:

  • Exposure
  • Photographs
  • Film – you should expect a copy of film anyway
  • And on one weird occasion… homeopathic gift vouchers

The first category of things all involve an active effort by my employer to offer things that will benefit me. The things in the second category are all (vouchers excepted) things that the choreographer already wants for themselves, and (vouchers included) can share at no cost. I am not going to dictate to anyone whether they should or should not work for low/no pay, and sometimes a project is very dear to your heart or simply worth doing. On the other hand, question how you are affording to work for low/no pay, and what steps you can take to move yourself and others away from that model: just because you are fortunate enough to be able do it doesn’t mean that anyone else can or should have to.

For Employers

State your business up front. Either that business is “I would like to hire YOU, what is your going rate/would you take this much money?” or that business is “I would like to hire SOMEONE and I can compensate you in this way.” Do not mess around trying to trick people into working for less – you should have a budget in mind before you start hiring, and you should be willing to pay the entirety of your budget for getting the work done to the people doing the work. Travel and expenses are not pay, and are a separate part of your negotiations.

If you are auditioning people for the work, set out your expectations as clearly you as you are able, and lock in those dates and times. If you said you’d see everyone, make sure you see them. If you want some people to come back, make sure the call back date is also posted. I have been waiting to write this article ever since I saw an audition notice that said “Those called back will be expected to spend the next week working intensely with the company.” … Seriously, who can afford to go a week without pay for the possibility of a job? A job that, incidentally, only just scraped in at minimum wage. Another audition concern: think long and hard about pulling the five-years-experience trick. Yes mature dancers are awesome, but you pulling this trick is one of the reasons that other employers can charge fresh graduates $200 a week to make a piece that will give them expose them and fill up their c.v.

That said, I’ve noticed a pleasant shift in choreographers recently towards really valuing people’s time, and I would like to see this continue. No-matter how important you think your work is, you should not oblige or pressure anyone to stay beyond the set work period especially if you know they have to do other jobs to make up the rent money that you are not paying them enough to cover. The only way freelancers can exist is by exceptional time management, and sometimes you really really can’t stay late after rehearsal.

And that rehearsal? Come prepared. Have stuff planned to do, and don’t make-up busy work if you find yourself done with it. Different types of dance will obviously have different kinds of work/planning, but planning to run one, fix the kick section for 20 minutes and then set the last eight bars is not actually that different from a 20 minute improvised warm up, 15 minutes discussing ontology and a 30 minute improvised score. Sometimes things go past time, and that’s ok… but that’s your issue and if that means you have to cut something else you do that. Also consider: do you really need everyone there for the whole time? Is there work they can do without you? Do people leave feeling like they spent their time in a worthwhile and productive fashion? Can you fix that?

When I work with dancers I have learned to establish a two-way contract: they will show up on time and stay for the whole time, barring emergency or long-informed absence. I will start on time, end on time, fill the time well and not ask for unscheduled extra rehearsals.

Thank your dancers!!!

…No, scratch that, thank anyone who spends their time for your benefit. They could be working, or laughing, or making out, or checking Facebook, or any number of things and instead they’re there for you. That’s worth some serious gratitude. And if you’ve said you’ll be there for someone? Show up. Know how much time you can spend and be responsible about how you spend it. Make it work for you too.

I hope that all of you out there are getting on and finding ways to spend your time that bring you value. I hope you, and others, value your skills enough to set up a system wherein you get compensated for them fairly. I hope that in a couple more years the idea of a no-pay job will be just as heinous in dance as it would be in, say, doctoring, and that “pay” will mean the same thing as “a living wage.”

Good luck!

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