How a $300 per Month Full-Time Job Changed My Life… for the Better
I never particularly wanted to be a college professor, but I applied to do a PhD because I’d found a topic I was very interested in, I had a strong academic record, and I didn’t really know what else to do with myself at the time. When I applied in 2008, I’d been teaching English in Japan and didn’t want to do that any more, but didn’t have any other career plans.
My fully-funded PhD came at just the right time: a couple of weeks after the beginning of the global financial crisis. For the next three-and-a-half years I didn’t have to worry about the fact that I was just another arts graduate with little to set me apart, professionally, from all the others. I was interested in the topic I was studying, it allowed me to conduct research in India, and I treated my PhD candidature like a (poorly paid) full-time job. (I was a PhD student in Australia, hence the fully-funded nature of my scholarship and the shorter duration of my program.)
In 2012, towards the end of my studies, I started half-heartedly applying for post-doctoral scholarships and teaching positions in universities. I had to do something after my impending graduation, and academic jobs were all I thought I’d be qualified to do. I knew I was good at that kind of work, so why not?
There were actually a lot of reasons why not. But I didn’t realize how important these were until I’d spent a few months in casual teaching and research assistant positions. I didn’t want to be a professor; my heart just wasn’t in it. I wanted to move into editing work — academic, journalistic, whatever — but feared that I’d have to do some significant retraining to get anywhere with that. I felt that I’d backed myself into a corner.
Then I saw a job opening at a journal in Nepal that I’d been following for some time, a reputable publication that had been running for many years. I’d never been to Nepal, but I had been to India numerous times, had studied the South Asian region, and was open to a massive life change. Anything to get out of academia. So I applied. I was shortlisted, and then I learned the salary.
$300 per month.
The magazine was a not-for-profit and funded entirely from grant money. $300 is a very high salary for Nepal, where the cost of living is exceptionally low. But could I live on that little?
There was only one way to find out. I took the final editorial test, had a Skype interview with the managing editor, and was given the job. With three weeks’ notice, I packed up as many of my belongings as I could fit into my two suitcases and flew to Kathmandu.
It was a huge risk, and I knew it. I turned down another semester of teaching in Australia to take the position. I would also be embarking on a long-distance relationship with my then-partner, who wouldn’t join me. What if I hated Nepal? What if I hated the work? What if I couldn’t make the long-distance relationship thing work? What if I didn’t want to be an editor after all? What if I wanted to get back into academia but nobody would take me?
None of those things happened. I found myself working with a team of interesting, dedicated and well-educated journalists, ex-academics, and students of South Asian politics and culture. The editorial work was very stimulating, and I was really excited to go to work every day. The interns and office staff were mainly Nepali, but I wasn’t the only non-Nepali on the team by any means; my boss was Indian, and my co-editors were from Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. We were all in it together. On a salary of $300 per month.
My rent in Kathmandu was about $180 per month for a nice, big room in an apartment that I shared with a German woman who worked at the United Nations. The rent included internet, power, gas and water. Other costs in Kathmandu are minimal: vegetables and other grocery staples are extremely cheap, but eating and drinking out can be a little pricey. The cost of running a cellphone was negligible. Buses cost 15 cents per trip, taxis less than $5 to get across town, and my workplace was a five-minute walk from my home. My salary was just about enough to live on, although it didn’t leave much extra.
Fortunately I had some small savings, I soon got a raise to $400/month, and my then-partner helped me out by sending me top-ups so I could afford to have a bit of fun. He came to visit a couple of times, so while I didn’t exactly enjoy being in a long-distance relationship, we managed.
After ten months with the magazine, a number of personal and practical factors led me to leave that job. I left Nepal for a while, but returned a couple of years later and embarked on a freelance writing and editing career — in which I earn significantly more than $300 per month! But without that massive leap into the unknown in 2013, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
I have never regretted leaving academia. I found it stifling, competitive, insecure, and — ironically — poorly underpaid for the amount of time, effort and expertise that goes into academic work. While at that magazine in Kathmandu I made some of the best friends of my life, and loved the fact that most expats living in Nepal are just a little bit weird (like myself) and unconventional, so there is never any need to justify one’s odd life choices. I already had a strong knowledge of India, but I learned about the broader South Asian region, which has stood me in very good stead for the freelance career that I’ve established. I’m now a specialist in travel in Nepal, and although that’s a very niche area, when companies or organizations need someone who knows Nepal well, I’m often the person they come to.
Taking the $300/month job wasn’t the financially poor decision that it might have been. Instead, it was one of the best decisions of my life.
Elen Turner is a writer and editor based in Kathmandu, Nepal. You can find her work at www.elenturner.com.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Moving Series.
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