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How Do You Make a Living, Freddie deBoer?

Noah Davis talks to Freddie deBoer about making a living in the world of academia, why grad school worked for him (but probably not for you), and why you should get a job before you start writing about politics.
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If you spend time on the Internet, you've probably run across the writing of Freddie deBoer at outlets like Quartz, the New Inquiry, and the Dish in addition to his blog. Pacific Standard talked to the outspoken deBoer, who recently received a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from Purdue University, about making a living in the world of academia, why grad school worked for him (but probably not for you), and why you should get a job before you start writing about politics.

How do you pay your bills?

(Photo: Freddie deBoer)

(Photo: Freddie deBoer)

I spent the last six years as a graduate student. The majority of my income came from stipends associated with a graduate assistantship. I taught for the university in exchange for my tuition, my health care, and a stipend on top of that. I'm narrowing in on an academic job. I have some good leads at the moment. On top of that, I've done some freelance work for media. The first time I ever got paid to write was about 2008. For the first three or four years, it was never more than $300 or $400 a year. In the last couple of years, the amount of money I have been making has ramped up considerably. This year, I'm under contract with two national magazines and I'll make about $15,000. I do a lot of little freelance projects for textbook companies and educational publishers. That's added anywhere from $5,000 to $6,000 for the last couple of years. Twice, I've done some ghostwriting, which I'm contractually prevented from talking about. But it pays pretty well.

How actively were you out looking for those other opportunities?

I have never been one to really actively look for that kind of work. The majority of the time that I've been published in a professional venue has been when people have asked me to write for them. The grad school stipend is very low, but it did pay the rent and the health insurance was pretty good. It has given me the luxury to only write what I want to for who I want to. I do pitch sometimes. But the majority of the things happen when people come to me.

You mentioned the contracts you have. It's amazing how much better print still pays.

It's not even the money. Having a contract makes things better, especially when you talk about kill fees. Those can be just brutal. I've gotten into situations where I've already spent hours and hours on a piece, I'll send it to a place and they'll want it, but they'll come back with extensive revisions that take more time and sometimes more reporting. The really difficult thing is that there's no guarantee that they'll ever pay you for it. With the two magazines that I'm writing for now, the kill fees are more than I've ever made on any individual piece before. I'm still going to be paid for the time.

Does the writing you've done help your academic career? Is there a benefit to being out there in the consumer media space?

I would say on a net it's actually been a pretty significant drawback for me, in part because I have a controversial opinion. If I had been more careful, smarter, and hadn't said things in a somewhat inflammatory way, I would be in better space. But, then again, I wouldn't want to write if I had to do that. It does help in the sense that people are more likely to look at your application if they've read something that you've written in the past. I now have a resume that includes getting published by the New York Times, which gets attention. The problem is that in a brutal academic labor market like this one, you really don't need much to get pushed off the pile. I know for a fact that in two instances I was told off the record by people who were on the hiring committee that I was taken out of contention because of political writing that I had done. So, it's been a net negative. That doesn't mean I regret doing it, but I do think that anyone who is an academic who is thinking about doing this has to understand that it just takes one person who doesn't want to deal with someone who has a controversial political background to get you off the list.

Do you think it's generally valuable, though? Perhaps not in your situation, but it seems that being out there in the consumer space can be helpful for an academic career.

Increasingly yes. I think it is valuable, and I think it's helpful for people. You're still going to have some pushback. One thing is that there are still a lot of people who worry that the presence of a lot of non-academic work on your website or your CV indicates that you might be spending time on that rather than publications that might help you get tenure. I also think that there are still some people who think those types of publications are inherently unserious. But there are a lot of people who have planned how they are going to present their work in the popular press. If you're smart about it, it can help a great deal. I've never been smart about it, so I don't have that benefit.

What does your career path look like from here?

My lease runs out on the 30th, and I'm not exactly sure what city I'll be driving to. I am a finalist for a couple of jobs that I would really like to get. If I don't get an academic job this cycle, which is almost over now, I'll go back on the market this fall. If I don't get an academic job then, I'll probably say that I gave it my best shot. Ideally, and what I think is probably most likely despite the brutal job market, is that I'll get a job as a visiting professor somewhere and that will be my primary source of income and most of my attention. I'll intermittently publish some pieces for pay and supplement my income that way. I also have a book proposal. I'm on the cusp of a lot of things.

You seem to have some good options. What does it look like for your peers?

I'm in a weird position. Going to grad school was the best thing I ever did in my life, and I also tell people not to do it. For a variety of random and idiosyncratic reasons, going to grad school was a good thing for my life. But generically, it's a terrible market. Even with all the supplemental sources of income, I have gone from a low of making $18,000 a year to a high of $25,000. I still enjoyed a high quality of living because it's a pleasant life and there are lots of things that are catered to you on-campus that make your life easier, but still, you're pretty damn poor.

I think it's possible to do the academic thing, to carve out a niche for yourself where you go to grad school, enjoy teaching, and don't necessarily leave with the goal of taking an academic job but with the goal of building a broader writing career. The problem is that you have to be a compulsive writer who can maintain the academic writing and the popular writing at the same time. I'm a compulsive writer, and I also suffer from pretty severe insomnia, which helps a lot. I've kept pretty rigorous records of how much I write since the second year of my master's, and I average about 18,000 words a week. It's not unusual for me to write 25,000 words a week. For a lot of people, that's not sustainable. You have to know and plan how much time you're going to spend on academic papers, how much time you're going to try to do popular press. And you have to understand that it's a lot of writing if you're going to do that. And a lot of rejection too.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.