The Gravity Well Of Graduate Poverty

The artist, selling old stuff to Tatar (Artist's Studio), Vladimir Makovsky
The artist, selling old stuff to Tatar (Artist’s Studio), Vladimir Makovsky

‘Hello, my name is Gareth, and I’m a graduate.’ I picture myself staring down at a little red and white name tag, unable to meet the eyes of the others – the failures, the graduates. ‘It’s been…’ I pause, I can’t say it out loud, ‘Go on,’ someone tells me gently, patting my arm. ‘… three years since my last graduation, but I think about returning every day. Even though I know it won’t go anywhere, even though…’ My voice cracks up, I cover my mouth with a shaking hand. I shouldn’t be ashamed, but I am. Everyone here understands.

I left school in 1999, right as the dot com bubble burst. Like many of my class mates, I coasted in the dead zone of early naughties minimum wage work. I made sandwiches  built websites, phoned farmers to question them on behalf of some wax faced European bureaucracy. I did courses, oh did I do courses. I dropped out of great courses in video game design, computer programming, and even an open university arts degree. I fumbled my way through a worthless FAS course in web design.

Finally, I scrambled onto the good ship education, finding a berth on the lower deck of a pre-college social studies course in NCI (don’t look for it, the ladder fell away behind me), attending Trinity as a mature student as soon as they’d have me. I was twenty three. Finally! Finally I could pursue my lifelong dream, I would unscramble the mental mysteries, I would become a soul surgeon, a thought tinkerer, I would become a psychologist.

College stretched for five years (four year degree, including a year out when a bad relationship kicked me into a funk). It was wonderful. I helped run a radio station, start a music magazine, and co-created Ireland’s first internet TV show. Then I graduated, right as the great recession hit, in 2009. Two strikes. I now had a first class honors degree, but no money for a masters (which might possibly get me into a doctoral program, but almost certainly wouldn’t get me a job in my field). What to do?

Since I couldn’t continue my studies I decided to pursue writing, because that’s just the kind of practical person I am. This quickly turned into performing standup comedy, making weird video things and producing radio programmes. The standup was eye opening – when it goes right, standing on stage in command of an audience is like mainlining love from a talent syringe. But try as I might, I couldn’t make it pay – nor could I afford to do the one thing that would give me a chance of progressing in it, an Edinburgh show. 

My own gig ‘Marshmallow Ladyboy Jesus’ pulled in a regular audience – but it wasn’t getting me any closer to being able to pay for luxuries, like pants. During this time I became involved in ‘the arts’ helping to run the collective arts centre Exchange Dublin, Open Learning Ireland and a number of other unpaid bits and bobs. So 2011 hits and I start to freak out a little. How am I to eat in this brave new future of massive social inequality and Europe wide austerity? Money isn’t important to me – eventually escaping Ireland is. So I tangentially peruse my degree, starting a two year diploma in psychotherapy (beginning, borrowing, stealing the substantial fees – which are still much less than a masters). This course will qualify me for an income. An income! An income which I can eventually use to pay for a masters, to get onto a PHD or D.Clin Psych, and perhaps some day, I think naively, around 2019 I can begin my productive working life.

Hah! Turns out the course I’ve selected is far from ideal – it’s two years part time (rather than three, as is the norm), which may lead to all sorts of certification problems down the road as psychotherapy becomes better regulated. It’s also in a quirky no-mans land of pseudo-science, lacking even the respectable intellectual veneer of psychoanalysis. Most importantly, its graduates don’t seem to be finding clients. So I change courses, switching to another faculty that has a three year (oh wait, no I later discover, a four year) diploma course. Meanwhile I finally get a radio show funded (hallelujah!), and consequently have to sign off the dole and onto a back to work enterprise scheme. Now I have a hard deadline for not being able to afford luxuries like fancy haircuts and medical bills. About six months remain. Fingers crossed, I await my next radio funding application – if I get it, and it’s by no means assured, my income for next year could possibly be as high as nine or ten grand, before tax.

I finish my sob story and finally look up. The other faces are blank, hopeless. One or two are teary. Some of them have jobs – in call centres, accounting firms, in the blood sanded arenas of marketing and sales. They’re the worst off, their eyes have that already dead look you see in cattle being funneled to slaughter. One or two are grinning slightly, they’re younger, more hopeful, they’re on springboard courses in ICT or biotechnology, they’re sure this won’t happen to them.

I’m two years into a four year diploma in psychotherapy; which will eventually allow me to work (maybe even for money, depending on when they bring in regulations, and whether I get grandfathered, and I never did get on with him). It won’t allow me to travel – since the qualifications don’t. There may be a possibility of doing a distance masters after this course (which would only be an additional two or three years, finishing around 2018). I’ll be thirty eight.

Options? Now that I’m building client hours, I could apply to a D.Clin Psych programme in Ireland – but they generally require research experience and a year of unpaid work for a clinical psychologist (a highly sought after form of middle class servitude). Even if I was lucky enough to get on one, D.Clin courses are generally four years (although they are paid). Not an option is a clinical psychology doctorate (three years, which you pay for – no funding available). That leaves a research / applied psychology masters (which could possibly, maybe, get me into a doctorate), but which again, I can’t afford. Yikes. How do I escape Ireland? How do I begin to earn a living wage if I stay? How do I overcome the gravity well of arts graduate unemployment. Rock, meet hard place.

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