Current Events

From Graduate School to Public Assistance

This story at the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye.

“I am not a welfare queen,” says Melissa Bruninga-Matteau.

That’s how she feels compelled to start a conversation about how she, a white woman with a Ph.D. in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Ariz., says the stereotype of the people receiving such aid does not reflect reality.

A striking section:

She entered graduate school at the University of California at Irvine in 2002, idealistic about landing a tenure-track job in her field. She never imagined that she’d end up trying to eke out a living, teaching college for poverty wages, with no benefits or job security. [Emphasis mine.]

I find this perplexing. I also entered grad school in 2002. At the time I entered, I knew that the job market for Ph.D.s tended to be bleak. I also knew that the market for people with Ph.D.s in history was considerably worse than it was for people with Ph.D.s in philosophy. I also knew that getting a tenure-track job was difficult even if you come from a top program in one’s field, let alone a program outside the top 20, such as the program Bruninga-Matteau attended. I frequently imagined that I would never get a job, which is one reason why I made sure to start publishing while in graduate school. (I don’t know if Bruninga-Matteau has published anything. Nothing shows up in Google Scholar or JStor, but that doesn’t mean much.)

It wasn’t as if I acquired this knowledge through difficult research. All of this information was publicly available and well-known.  I am sorry that Bruninga-Matteau ended up in this situation. However, the article makes it sound as if she just expected to get a tenure-track job. She was “idealistic”. She “never imagined” she’d have to eke out a living. If that’s accurate, then it seems to me she made a culpable mistake. Anyone pursuing a Ph.D. in history as of 2002 should have known better than to expect a tenure-track job. If you are pursuing a Ph.D. in a humanities field right now, it’s your responsibility to know the risks. If you think the risks are worth it, go for it. But please don’t complain that you didn’t know the risks. (Even if the system sucks and should be reformed, you should know that the system sucks before you stake your future on it.)

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau grew up in an upper-middle class family in Montana that valued hard work and saw educational achievement as the pathway to a successful career and a prosperous life

I’m a first generation college student. Still, despite coming from a background where no one has experience with higher education, I knew getting a Ph.D. was risky.

I’m not interested here in debating public policy or welfare benefits, though you are free to do so in the comments section. I’m also not interested in debating the use of adjuncts, though I have plenty to say about that.

I’m interested in this article because it is  (or at least seems to be) a striking case of naïveté. It’s surprising to me how many graduate students are just like Bruninga-Matteau. Perhaps that’s not accidental. Perhaps the Ph.D. admissions process tends to select for 2 kinds of students: 1) go-getters who know what it takes and do what it takes, and 2) book-smart people who have their heads in the clouds when it comes to practical matters. I frequently meet graduate students from the second category, though I rarely meet assistant professors who come from that category.


  • Jessica Flanigan

    As I wrote earlier in my UBI post, I don’t think it’s wrong to live on welfare… if someone wants to live at subsistence levels reading medieval literature, or surfing, or whatever, that’s her business… What I disliked about this article is that it seems to think that it’s some kind of scandal that an upper middle class white woman is accepting these benefits, as if she’s somehow entitled to more since she got an advanced degree. It’s that kind of attitude that stigmatizes other people who accept public benefits too- there’s nothing wrong with taking a UBI or benefits (though there is a lot wrong with the way the public provides them, obvs).

    The worst part of it was that they keep on throwing around the ‘stereotype of the black welfare queen’ as if that’s some huge failing to avoid, especially Kisha who “went to school to get all these degrees to prove to the rest of the world that I’m not lazy and I’m not on welfare,” but that kind of talk is a really frustrating kind of academic elitism, a lot of people without PhD’s who are on welfare aren’t lazy either, they’re raising their kids too. Even if people on welfare are lazy because they would rather play xbox than bag groceries, why is it somehow better to go on welfare so you can read medieval literature but not so you can play xbox?


      A person who wishes to live very modestly in order to surf, using his/her own meager resources or those voluntarily given to him/her…great, have a wonderful time. A person who turns down gainful employment in order to surf, knowing that the state will supply him with (meager) resources taken coercively from others, is a parasite.

    • martinbrock

      … if someone wants to live at subsistence levels reading medieval literature, or surfing, or whatever, that’s her business…

      If she wants to raise children and earn the very real yield of a very real investment in a very valuable means of production, I don’t think it’s wrong, but if she’s only recreating with medieval literature, she should get off her lazy ass and get a job. In case she hasn’t noticed, other people work to produce the goods she consumes. It’s called “work” because it’s not only recreational.

    • Snippybb

      What the hell is your problem?  You don’t think it is wrong for somebody to live on welfare because they choose not to pursue gainful employment?  What about all the hard-working people out there that don’t get to surf or play x-box because they are too busy actually working multiple jobs in order to pay their mortgage and feed their kids?  You know, like a responsible adult.

      Do you not believe in responsibility?  You believe that some loaf’s leisure time is more important than time/labor of those hard-working people?  

      The only people that should be on public assistance are people who physically are unable to work, not people who hold out for their dream jobs because they are too special to perform regular work like the rest of us.

      You are sick.

  • Did this expert in the field of literature never read The Tropic of Cancer?

  • KnowPD

    When I read articles like this one and the one this weekend in the NYT on student debt, it raises the larger question of who bears the cost of mistaken beliefs?  The comment that “there’s nothing wrong with takeing a UBI or benefits” only makes sense once we agree on who bears the risk of mistaken beliefs.  What is the incentive to hold correct beliefs if you don’t bear the risk of holding mistaken ones?

    • Snippybb

      You are absolutely correct.  “Bearing the risk”, as you say, is also called “being responsible for your actions (life)”.

      We are raising generations of kids who are incapable of being responsible adults.  That’s a huge problem and really scary.

      So, this girl grew up in an upper-middle-class home and “valued hard work”, eh?  That sounds like something everybody says.  How would she know hard-work if it bit her in the ass?  Where is the story does it state all the part-time jobs she had in high school?  I’d like to actually hear some concrete ways that prove that she and her family value hard-work.

      I have absolutely no sympathy for people like this.

  • I guess I am not scandalized that someone would be surprised to be unemployable with a PhD.  Think about it like this: you get a PhD by becoming fantastically good at the tasks which you’ve been asked to perform ever since you entered school.  That this chain of triumphs should terminate in unemployment is surprising.

    • dfjdejulio

      It shouldn’t be surprising, though.  I am reminded of a video clip I once saw of someone interviewing for a job and citing the incredibly high scores they achieved on a bunch of video games.  A chain of triumphs, regardless of how difficult or rare, shouldn’t be expected to make you employable, unless they’re in an area where people are willing to pay others to be triumphant.

  • Larry Holt

    Well it does beg the question of what is the culpability of  graduate schools who continue to accept many more PhD’s than the market can bear. If your response is that individuals are free to take on as much risk as they like (which seems likely given this blog’s audience), then what’s the difference between the University of California-Irvine and the University of Phoenix? Indeed, I believe at this point the latter is required to make more disclosure on career prospects to its students than the former.

    Of course if she was a law school graduate, she could just sue. 

    • j_m_h

      Schools are not selling jobs or even employability; they sell information and a teaching service to help make the information understandable by the student. They also provide a service to the student, in comparison to self-learning, that’s somewhat akin to what Cliff Note provides the students for their classes.

      Seems to me the message is that most people misunderstand what an education is. It’s either a functional one that applied to getting a job (trade or professional skills) or it’s consumption to feed one’s intellectual interests. Education as consumption is expensive, doesn’t pay for itself in any economic sense, and typically should be considered a luxury good. The nice thing is that a very close substitute  is simply doing all the reading yourself for a tenth of the cost or less — and you can do it at the beach or on the slopes or in a park after riding your bike around.

      • Have to disagree. A Ph.D. is not a B.A. The Ph.D. is a professional degree. It’s a degree designed to make you a researcher.

        • j_m_h

          I suppose I’m not surprised.

          I think you’re only partially correct. 

          First, the schools should not not be required/expected to turn away students in some degree because market analysis indicates either saturation or a short down terms that suggests the person come back in three years. Nor such the school be expected to perform such market analysis.

          Only the top research schools are really providing that professional edge and even there not all the students in the university are probably getting the benefit. Second and third tier schools are simply offering either commodity or niche specialties.  Moreover just because you are now a professional “researcher” that’s not a profession in the sense you’re claiming the Ph.D. signifies.

          Unless you’re talking about going into the profession of academia, anyone who goes to  

          I do agree that graduate, especially Ph.D.,  degrees is a more specialized degree than undergraduate and it tends to introduce the student to “current” theory rather than “standard” theory. 

          Finally, I still stand by the statement that anyone who wants to go teach themselves a subject today has all the access they need to the information. What the college offers for them is a filtering mechanism that makes some aspects of the learning easier (which can be a double edged sword if the curricula fail to offer the best of all approaches and  so biases the student’s education).

  • Aeon Skoble

    Spot on, except I’d change one sentence:  “Anyone pursuing a Ph.D. in English as of 2002 should have known better than to expect a tenure-track job.”  Replace “English” with “a traditional humanities field” and replace “2002” with “1992.”

    • Virginia Postrel

      Forget 1992. Try 1982. That’s when I graduated from Princeton, and my English professors then generally advised against graduate school because there were no jobs. I sometimes wonder whether such counseling is better at more prestigious schools.

      • j_m_h

        The reality is that it’s been largely universally true. Some pursue graduate degrees purely for the sake of knowledge, and sometimes the hope of an academic life. Tenure has always been a holly grail for most aspiring professors.

        Those that go back to school for graduate degrees in their field often continue to do well but many of those are not interested in the academic life.

  • Shawn P. Wilbur

    So what’s your point? That “go-getters” never end up on public assistance, and that those who do end up on public assistance don’t “know and do what it takes”?

    You seem to be placing a lot of emphasis on the accuracy of what may just be boilerplate “human interest” stuff in the Chronicle story. Perhaps she really was that naive, or perhaps like so many of us she gambled and lost on the whole graduate education thing. What she actually says about “making enough to live on,” having other skills, etc., sounds a lot more like the meat of the story. She’s certainly not the only college-level instructor to find themselves going from “enough” to not nearly enough in fairly short order as educational funding has dried up and employment strategies have changed. In 2002, the expectation of *getting by* in academia was certainly a lot less “culpable” than it was just a few years later. I worked for quite a number of years as one of those extremely adaptable part-timers, filling positions in six different departments over a 10-year stretch, and watched my status go from indispensable (but not quite every semester) to surplus labor. At the time I was working two other jobs which also underwent rapid changes in demand. Now I’m in the process of reinventing myself yet again, several adjustments later. C’est la vie, I guess. And, for the record, I’m not taking public assistance.

    But I guess I’m not seeing the “bleeding heart” element in this argument that unemployed academics are “people who have their heads in the clouds,” when, ultimately, more than just getting a ph.d is risky in the current employment environment.

    • My point is the stuff I said. No need to read into it.

  • Emily

     I’d be curious to know what sort of undergraduate school you went to and what sort Bruninga-Matteau went to.

    I went to grad school, realized I hated it and had no business being there, and dropped out at the end of my second year. I easily found a job in an unrelated field and have been steadily employed ever since. Where I see a similarity between myself and Bruninga-Matteau is that I didn’t know what I was getting into before entering grad school. If I had known how pointless it was for me, I would have never gone in the first place.

    I mostly attribute my ignorance to the fact that I went to a lower-tier undergraduate university that did not provide any real guidance to students who planned to pursue post-grad education. There were plenty of job fairs, resume workshops, interview training seminars, etc. but no equivalent offerings for those interested in grad school. I didn’t know anyone who had gone to grad school either. I just knew I was good at school, loved learning, wanted to be a college professor, and needed a PhD to do that. I did a lot of internet research, but in order to do good research you have to know the right questions to ask, and I didn’t think to ask questions like, “Will I be able to get a tenure job as a teacher and not have to do any research?” (Answer I learned two years later: No.)

    I also agree with Alex that the sort of folks who get accepted to grad school are probably accustomed to being the 5% that get straight As, get accepted everywhere they apply, etc. and even if they know that most folks won’t get jobs, they think (based on past experience) that they’ll be the 5% who do. Because they’re someone who always succeeds! It’s not a completely unreasonable sort of naivete.

    So I wonder: did you go to a first-rate undergrad that offered resources for students interested in graduate school? What sort of undergrad did Bruninga-Matteau attend?

    • I originally went to Case Western Reserve University. I ended up running out of money, and so had to work in a factory for a while. Then I finished at the University of New Hampshire.

  • Why is everyone talking about a Ph.D. in English? The quote from the CHE says she had a Ph.D. in medieval history.

    • Thanks for pointing out the mistake. Now corrected. FWIW, Irvine is ranked even lower in history than in English.

    • martinbrock

      We’re all smitten by Virginia Postrel.

  • Charles Hollingsworth

    A search of EBSCOHost turns up one article by Melissa Bruninga-Matteau:  “Fashioning Jewish Identity in Medieval Western Cristendom,” in Comitatus:  A Journal of Medieval & Renaissance Studies, 2005, Vol. 36, p. 208-210.

    • From its website:
      “Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studiespublishes articles by graduate students and recent PhDs in any field of medieval and Renaissance studies. The journal maintains a tradition of gathering work from across disciplines, with a special interest in articles that have an interdisciplinary or cross-cultural scope.”

  • martinbrock

    Well, she is a welfare queen, but maybe her title is defensible under the circumstances.

    On the other hand, if she had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering rather than medieval history or philosophy or history …

    We shouldn’t hold Melissa’s children responsible for her choices, but as you note, all education is not created equal. The state sponsors far too many tenured, academic positions with attractive salaries and health and pension benefits. In my way of thinking, it shouldn’t sponsor any.

    But the problem would exist without state sponsorship. People attracted to movie stardom also devote much time and talent to pursuing this attraction, and some of them end up as welfare queens earning beans in community theater. And some of the community theater is wonderful, but I still have a problem with the whole system.

    I agree with your post, but I’m not so perplexed by it.

    • Emily

      Curious how you define “welfare queen”–anyone receiving welfare, or only those abusing it? Or are those the same to you? The term has typically been used to refer to the idea of a woman abusing government benefits to achieve a high standard of living (new cars, TVs, and other consumer goods) despite doing little or no work. A struggling actress waitressing and doing community theatre and receiving some benefits doesn’t strike me as someone with a high standard of living.

      • martinbrock

        Anyone receiving benefits by writ of statutory entitlement is like a literal queen, and many recipients of welfare benefits today actually have living standards that historical queens would envy.

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  • martinbrock

    This article is outrageously funny. The medieval history professor is the tip of an iceberg. A Florida State grad student in film studies is doing his dissertation on Hollywood films portraying Vietnam soldiers as psychotic men destroyed by the war, while feeding his 3-year-old and 3-month-old children on food stamps and WIC, and he grew up in a family that valued hard work too. 

    He says, “But living on the dole is excruciatingly embarrassing and a constant reminder that I must have done something terribly wrong along the way to deserve this fate.”
    And he hardly seems to know where he went so terribly wrong. His parents are both academics, and the academy was supposed to absorb him now.

    “Perhaps I should have been learning a skill that the economy supports.”

     There’s the flash of insight. I guess all the education didn’t go to waste after all.

    • The article says he knows that jobs in his field are disappearing. That’s why he can’t even get adjunct work easily anymore. Maybe if he were an econ Ph.D. he’d know about sunk cost and try to move on.

      • martinbrock

        Are we really discussing wagon wheel makers watching their industry disappear in this case? For me, “film studies” is not a job descripton at all. It’s something I do for fun on the weekends … or when I’m wasting time on the job.

        I understand why people want the state to pay them for their recreational pastimes, but the state can’t pay everyone for a recreation pastime, and I don’t much want it paying anyone for a recreational pastime.

        Econ. majors … yeah … I waste time on the job this way too.

        An East European at Ellis Island? This guy’s life is a film study. He seems to be a drama queen looking for a sugar daddy.

  • dfjdejulio

    (Maybe not a “welfare queen”, but for some reason this article makes the term “welfare princess” pop into my mind.)

    I think you’re correct that schools select for “book-smart people who have their heads in the clouds when it comes to practical matters”.  Sadly, I think that’s because doing so is a revenue-generator.  I think there’s a subtle kind of fraud going on, selecting “customers” who are mistaken about some issues and then taking care not to correct them (because doing so would result in a loss of revenue).  It’s not overt, straightforward, provable fraud, but it certainly has something significant in common with it.  I do have a problem with that.

    (Full disclosure: in my youth, I myself was on food stamps for a short time while looking for work.  I do not believe the amount I “withdrew” came close to the taxes I paid before then, and certainly doesn’t approach the taxes I’ve paid since.)

    • martinbrock

      Looking for work is what food stamps are for.