Saturday, February 26, 2011

ABD waitress--and how is it different from a PhD waitress?

Eating lunch with the kids at P.F. Chang's the other day, I was reminded of the time I saw a grad student (ABD) there from my previous institution/dept.  She was working there.  As a waitress. 

Is this a tragedy? An ABD working as a waitress?

Many faculty that I have known would think so.  I think not.

For I, too, was an ABD waitress. 

I made more money per year as a waitress than I did my first year as an asst. professor.  And I only had to work 25 hrs/wk as a waitress!  Doesn't that put things in an interesting light?  And yes, that was a tenure-track professor job.

I learned a lot working as a waitress.  I like to think it made me more worldly and even more mature.  Several professor colleagues of mine would have been better off spending a few years in the "real world."  Pure academia provides such a narrow set of experiences, really.  One of my colleagues did a lot of different odd jobs before going to grad school, and he's a more interesting, multifaceted person for it, me thinks.  I mean, he can fix his own porch and fund-raise for the orchestra!

I write best if it isn't my full-time job.  Who can write a dissertation 8-hours a day?  Very few of us.  What were my other ABD friends doing when they were done writing for the day?  I'm not sure.  Good question, now that I think about it.  But I was working.  And otherwise having a good time.  My dissertation took a couple years longer than my adviser thought it would.  But it won a national dissertation award and was a book a few years later.  I really, really believe that it was a much better dissertation because I worked and lived and had a few mini-adventures while writing it. 

Being an ABD waitress wasn't bad, but I was scared sh*tless of being a Ph.D. waitress.  It is important to say that.  I felt that my status as grad student provided some legitimacy to my waitressing, made it OK if someone I knew from high school, say, saw me waiting tables.  "Grad student" was a status title that counter-acted the lower status of "waitress."  But interestingly, "Ph.D." would do the opposite--make working as a waitress seem evidence of failure. 

Around this time, I went to a comedy show.  It was a one-woman show, and for reasons I can't recall, she had us all write on an index card (anonymously, but blue for men and pink for women) our biggest fear.  I wrote "failure."  Going through the cards, she told the crowd that this was the first time EVER that she had a woman write "failure."  Men wrote "failure," not women.  Perhaps that was the downside of being an ABD waitress: "ABD" would only protect me for just so long.  "Ph.D. waitress" is really just "waitress." 

And I could have been a waitress with just a bachelor's degree ;)


  1. I also hope that the grad student/waitress from PF Chang's shared that she waitressed. I'd see that as a plus for any department. Here is someone who has gone beyond the books and had to do some serious problem-solving, as anyone who works in food service must do. I'd be sad if she was ashamed of it somehow or didn't bring it up in an interview. Like you, she did the math and found a part-time job that was actually going to pay her!

  2. I agree! But academics can be so harsh. I think that one can be a successful academic and be very open about having been an ABD waitress. But without publications or a good academic position (that is, a PhD on the market), it can be a mark against her, maybe an indication to some that she isn't really serious or committed to her academic work.
    Plus, I guess a good part of my concern back then was that I would be seen as a failure by those outside of academia--family and friends. I have known many, many advanced grad students and PhDs who did not become professors for a whole variety of good reasons. This is normal. But it is hard to explain that to people outside of academia.

  3. Thanks for reminding me that it is ok to treat the dissertation like a full-time job and not a lifestyle. Sometimes I wonder if my dissertation would be stronger if I didn't have to be a mom and wife. I have found the down time allows me to think through my arguments, but I thought I was just making that up!

    I wish I could be a waitress, but I know I'm too clumsy. I have much respect for people in the food industry.

  4. I think what you feared was being labeled as a doctor that holds a PhD degree in being a waitress. Anyway, you shouldn’t let other people dictate what you want in life. Look how you tackle on how to write a phd dissertation that became successful after being defended. Anyway, I do hope everything went well now.