The Homeless PhD: Will Pontificate For Food

Never in a million years would I imagine myself in this position. By all accordance, I did everything right. I maintained top grades, was involved, well liked and well respected all throughout pk-12. In college, I wasn’t the best student but I was fiercely curious and when it came to my involvement? I shined.  

In graduate school, I was the resource everyone went to, and I loved it! I had hands in teaching, administration, community service, I was exercising regularly and traveling to places I’d only ever dreamed of. Then life happened.  

Jan 2015–student conduct issue and subsequent investigation of myself as a teacher  

Feb 2015–sexually assaulted  

Nov 2015–mental breakdown  

August 2016-Assaulted by a faculty member at work  

January 2017-my partner has manic episode

February 2017-my father has a massive heart attack  

January 2018-my father is diagnosed with Stage IVb lung cancer  

July 2018-I am asked to resign from my position while out sick  

Dec 2018-I am told my position was filled while I was out sick  

I truly felt like, I couldn’t catch a break. Despite having boatloads of experience with social media, digital communications, and outreach I couldn’t seem to land any interviews  I tried a pivot; I looked at my resume and realized I had a ton of advising and coaching experience and had been counseling people on career decisions since 2009. Yet when I interviewed for a career coaching position where I’d have to help people prepare to communicate themselves effectively both in person and online (precisely what I’d done in my last role), I was told I did not have enough experience.

I soul searched and asked God what am I missing? Should I blast my LinkedIn contacts with messages letting them know I’m available for work? Should I be looking in the corporate sector? Should I give up on education? What about my own passions of writing and art, is this the time to be an entrepreneur? Still, the decisions could not be considered for extended lengths of time because there was the very real and pressing issue: how am I going to eat?  

I had representatives at temp agencies swear I should be easy to place given my extensive administrative background. And yet, my stomach was empty.  

I had friends and family review and revise my resume giving me feedback and job tips that all somehow lead to nowhere. Last November I thought I’d finally found my stride. The one part time job I had gotten from college associates, was cut short and before I even had time to catch my breath I was drowning again.  

“Are you writing? Because this is one hell of a story” that was the response from my friend Emily. We laughed, to keep from crying and then laughed again at that. This is our year though, we declared. Determined to finally reach the surface and breathe deeply again.  

The hardest part, in all this, was and remains keeping myself encouraged. I have to tell myself multiple times daily that I am good enough, something I never, ever questioned before. Losing my jobs shook my confidence to my core. What was I doing wrong?  

I felt as though, I communicated who I was very clearly and yet I was being punished for being me. I was, perhaps, most upset at my last two positions. As even upon being hired I would disclose my need for accommodations for health related reasons. Still, I felt when I took advantage of those accommodations (be it time off or simply calling out but communicating openly) I was punished. Or looked at as a liability. A risk. Or worse, incapable.  

Each day, I have to fight off the thoughts that I am deficient and defective. That is my depression. Then, I have to tell myself that if I continue to be persistent and patient, things will work out because they always do. That is my optimism.  

Still, it doesn’t stop the near constant worry over expenses. Basic needs like gas or groceries, medicine, toiletries overwhelm me every month and while I’ve let every monthly expense go other than my cell phone, even that $100 is impossible some times and I’ve had my service cut off more than once  

Last week in an explosive fight with my mom, I voiced my frustration at having a PhD I couldn’t seem to do anything with. I wasn’t getting jobs at universities and I was so traumatized from my past work experiences I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back. Yet, when your work experience is all institutional and you apply for a job at Olive Garden they ask “Well why aren’t you at the college down the street?”  

Many times, I’ve just wanted to walk into a store and beg for a job. Cry and plead my case and just ask for an opportunity. I know That I’m good at what I do, why was no one giving me a chance?  

It was then that I decided I would have to create my own opportunities. I was going to use whatever spaces and stages I had to tell my story. I did not and do not know what comes of it, but I know I can’t be alone. I also know that I’m not in the worst position I could be in.  

Though I am unemployed and home insecure as a result of prolonged unemployment, I’m still working. I take chances to edit papers for colleagues. I give feedback on dissertations or thesis. I look over conference presentations. I network with people in my field. I talk to parents about education and read to stay abreast of current trends and news. I try to stay productive.  

I try to make myself as available as possible because doing those things reminds me of why I do the work. Being connected reignites my purpose and passion for education and leadership. I will always be someone who loves to see others win, so supporting someone’s journey will likely always bring me joy. Because of that, in my period of unemployment I asked several friends to send me the portions of their “honey do” lists that I could do. 

If I had a piece of advice I could give those who are in transition and might also be struggling with unemployment or underemployed, which is just as soul wrenching without the financial repercussions, I would say don’t give up on yourself. In fact, lean more fully into YOU the things that make you special and set you apart will be your saving grace. 

The next thing I would say is, don’t get stuck under the shame of your current circumstance. This, too, shall pass. I maintain if you have the tenacity and endurance to obtain a terminal degree, you can truly survive anything. Please don’t ever stop fighting, I know some days you will cry and cry and cry and wonder when the fog will lift. I don’t know when, I just know that it will. You won’t always feel so hurt, so broken, so betrayed. You won’t always be in survival mode. Just trust and keep putting one foot in front of the other, sharing your story the whole time. Live in your truth, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in being fired or never hired. Don’t let one moment in your life define the entirety of your existence.  

To those around people like me who see the potential? Give us a chance. Reach out to your cousin or uncle or old boss and tell them about the bright, talent you know that they just HAVE to meet. Go out on a limb and advocate. If you’re in a position to hire, then make it known! I don’t care if it’s at McDonald’s don’t assume you know someone’s story from an application—GET THEM ON THE PHONE! Lend a hand and be the difference in someone’s life.

I’ve been grateful to have very generous friends who have sent me money to help support me during my time of unemployment. I always felt guilty accepting it until a friend of mine told me, “Stop playing the role of beggar. You’re my friend and I love you, I’m happy to invest in you during a time of need.” It was small, but it changed the way I looked at receiving help and my current circumstance. I might be homeless and unemployed NOW, but one day soon that was not going to be my story. I had adopted defeatist energy just that quickly though, and it happened because as a culture we put so much emphasis on capital. 

When I couldn’t pay my bills, I felt like less of a human. Less of a woman. Less of a capable and able bodied adult. when I’m actuality, I was just broke. That’s it. My income or lack thereof should not, and will never again, dictate who I KNOW myself to be. Still, our society says “you’ve made it” when you can claim a six figure salary, have a beautiful craftsman style single family home, drive a nice German car and take family vacations to the happiest place on earth. I had to dissociate myself from that narrative and create my own. 

For me, success is feeling centered and strong in spirit mind and body. Success is being in a position to empower others and doing so. Success is teaching what you know so that others may learn from your mistakes and innovate new ways of approaching challenges. Success is being secure enough in who you are not to feel intimidated when you see someone else coming into their success. For me this reframe was absolutely crucial to my survival because as long as I was measuring myself using someone else measurement, I would always all ways fall short. I had to decide what was good for me, what was right for me, what I could sleep with, what I could live with and what felt like balm to my soul. 

Right now I’m job searching for roles that speak to my heart. I want to help develop and support graduate students, because being where I am right now? I never would have prepared for this outcome in grad school and I don’t want anyone to ever feel like I have felt. If I can spare someone that hurt, then my experience of the pain was worth it. I want to help prepare graduate students for life, not just their career. I just had to find the right place that would give me room to fly. Terri Monroe always did say I was the canary in the mineshaft... 

 Jessica Williams is a writer, speaker, coach, and higher education professional with a commitment to intersectional social justice, authentic development, and the increase of leadership capacity. To book her for writing, coaching, facilitation or speaking engagements, visit:

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