The insecure scholar: A personal credit crunch

Financial woes make a short-term solution tempting. How desperate must I be to jettison my principles?

February 16, 2010

Lest there be any misunderstanding, allow me to make clear that I didn’t get into this business for the money – what academic does? When I first considered an academic career, I imagined earning a modest but liveable salary. I calculated that the unique combination of freedom and security that the academic life offers would more than make up for the low financial rewards: the freedom to follow my interests and not be tied to an office nine to five every day, the security of a public sector career path in a world in which educators would always be needed.

I’ve certainly achieved the freedom I craved, but – as I’ve discussed in previous columns – it’s been tough coming to terms with the insecurity of my career. In the past few days, however, it has been financial worries that have loomed largest. With no monthly salary now that my contract has finished and only a small, irregular income for the foreseeable future, I have become painfully aware of just how much money I spend.

I have a wife and two kids, and the latter seem to demand a terrifying amount of expenditure. The children have become used to a certain lifestyle, and they are too young to fully understand the need for economies. It was my eldest’s birthday last week, and he got the kind of birthday party that his friends have and that he himself has had in previous years: entertainer, going-home presents and everything. How’s this being paid for? The credit card is taking the strain. It’s not going to be possible to pay it off fully this month, and unless something happens soon the debt will grow every month.

I should point out that we are in a much better position than many families who have lost a major part of their income. My wife works in the voluntary sector and earns a respectable salary. An inheritance a few years back has covered most of our housing costs. This is all to the good, but I am part of the feckless generation that always expands its outgoings to match income and finds it difficult to save for the bad times during the good times. We are shamefully unprepared for the indeterminate length of time that my near-unemployment will last.

So, I am becoming drawn to the strategy that Winston Churchill used when he got into financial difficulty – don’t economise, simply expand your income. I’m working hard to bring in grants, but I’ve also been casting around for a short-term solution to my money worries. A solution is staring me in the face, and (to switch metaphors) the volume of its siren song is increasing.

I first heard the call of the siren a few weeks ago when in the course of some idle web surfing I stumbled upon a site that offered research services, dissertation editing and help with university assignments and was looking for well-qualified writers. A closer look showed that the company was an “essay mill”, providing bespoke solutions to cheating students. This is, of course, something that goes against all my principles. That said, this particular company also provided more legitimate services such as proofreading essays, and this sliver of respectability meant that I didn’t dismiss it the way I usually do these things.

The company is always looking for new freelancers, and it pays pretty well for work that wouldn’t be too difficult or time consuming. I haven’t taken the plunge and joined the dark side yet, but it is both tempting and infuriating that an easy solution to at least some of my financial woes is staring me in the face. I’m wondering how desperate I have to be to jettison my principles – what’s my price? I would imagine that most people who write for essay mills are similar to me, and there’s a vicious poetic justice to those whom academia rejects undermining academia itself.

At the moment I am trying to earn extra cash through freelance writing, and I am also looking for sessional teaching. There is, however, no getting around the fact that I need either a substantial grant or a proper job to really be able to survive. I’m too young to give up and too old to retrain and do something else. As I discussed last week, there are some hopeful signs on the horizon, but money worries present a new level of insecurity that I can’t put up with indefinitely without contemplating radical steps to change my situation.

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