Gimme some (money)

In the latest post, DrugMonkey challenges graduate students who lament their meagre pay and long work hours, allegedly often comparing unfavourably even with those of unskilled workers, to name or describe any low wage job that they have held before graduate school, presumably to substantiate the underlying claim of exploitation and harsh treatment of graduate students, at the hand of supervisors and universities.

I have to confess that each time a discussion of this type is centred on a bare, numerical comparison of a graduate student stipend with wages of regular workers, I am at a loss even understanding what people are talking about. I think that it’s a meaningless, nonsensical way of framing any serious debate on graduate education.
As DrugMonkey has already expounded in the post and replies to comments, very seldom if ever do minimum wage workers receive a training comparable to a graduate education, much less see ahead of them a well-laid out path (perhaps not a surefire, but still a statistically promising one) to increased prestige, quality of work, responsibility, earnings and security [0].

That is not to say, however, that no issue exists of fair and adequate pay for a graduate student. In fact, in a post a while ago, I even went as far as recommending graduate applicants not to pick a graduate school offering an inadequate financial package.
While it is (or, it should be) fully understood that graduate school is not a money making proposition, and that comparing it with a full time job of any kind is a dubious exercise, still a graduate student needs to make enough to make ends meet comfortably, without having to worry about his/her finances.

The question of course, is what constitutes an acceptable financial package for a graduate student. The mistake is often made of looking at the bare stipend, but there are a number of aspects that have to be taken into account contextually, for depending on them the same monthly compensation may go from being more than adequate, to barely sufficient.
When I started out as a graduate student at Florida State University in 1987, my annual salary was less than 10K/yr, and by the time I finished in 1992 it was 16K/yr. No, it was not a lot of money back then either — I was technically below the poverty line, and it surely did help that cost of living in Tallahassee was so low.
Yet, at no time did I experience anything that I would consider “financial hardship”. I was able to fly back to Italy once a year, buy a (used) car, go see a doctor whenever I needed, go out every Saturday night, eat the same (bad) food that everyone else was eating, and in general have a very reasonable existence outside work, for a twenty-something year old man.
Years later, I saw graduate students struggle to make ends meet, without doing anything extravagant and while making on paper way more money than I did. I started trying to understand why that was happening, and came to the conclusion that there are two crucial issues, of which anyone considering graduate school at a specific location in North America should be aware:

Tuition and Fees. Tuition and fees for out-of-state (or province) students can easily amount to 30% of a graduate student’s annual gross income. It is absolutely imperative that students find out ahead of time if they will be responsible for them, and what the end result will be on the student’s take home pay. During my five years as a Physics PhD foreign student, I never had to pay a penny worth of tuition or fee. If I had, I would not have been able to survive just on the money that was left, I would have had to find a part-time job, and that would have clearly taken away a lot of my time, which instead I could devote to my research and coursework.
The situation varies across disciplines, of course, but in the sciences I do not see how a graduate program, especially one at a university that is not ranked at the top in the nation, can stay competitive these days without some kind of financial commitment from the university administration to waive tuition and fees for its graduate students.
I find that sometimes universities and departments are less than forthcoming in their letters of admission to prospective graduate students, who then find out that they are expected to make do on fraction only, of what they were led to believe they would make. This is particularly serious with foreign or out-of-state students, who usually do not have any kind of family support in the place where they go to graduate school.

Housing This is another significant potential source of financial trouble. The university where I went to graduate school offered subsidized housing to graduate students. That made a big difference. The highest rent I ever paid for my one-bedroom apartment was less than $200/month, $175 being the average over the course of five years, i.e., consistently less than a third of my monthly income. It was not far from school, I could either walk or take the bus. And, it was a place of my own, something whose importance ought not be discounted, given the non-standard working schedule that a graduate students often has, not easily reconcilable with those of others sharing the same place.
If the university has no student housing, then things can be considerably more difficult; there is no question that metropolitan campuses at big cities, while possibly more exciting places to live, are at a disadvantage with respect to those at smaller mid-west locations, for example.

Pretty much everything else is just about the same everywhere. Health care is an issue for everyone in the United States, not just graduate students; very seldom do universities offer some kind of basic health insurance, most likely students have to take care of that on their own, and it is expensive everywhere. On the other hand, I think that food and clothing are on average reasonably priced pretty much everywhere throughout this continent.

[0] Personally, I think it is a red herring — the vast majority of graduate students who complain about wages, or working conditions, would be more than happy with the same package, if it came with a guaranteed, permanent research job at the end of the line. Many of them will one day shake their heads and roll their eyes, when hearing their own graduate students say the same things that they are fond of saying now.

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11 Responses to “Gimme some (money)”

  1. Ian Says:

    A real issue, especially for school’s without TA unions (like the UofA), is overworking of teaching assistants. At SFU, TAs get a level of base units that determines the pay level and expected work hours (typically 13 or 15 hours per week), and very reasonable compensation for those units (of course in physics and other sciences where there is guaranteed minimum funding, a TAship simply takes the financial burden off the supervisor for a term). If any TA feels he or she is being overworked (which is a real danger when a student has 2 or 3 courses to do and is expected to put a number of hours into the lab), they have the right to a review and either more money or less work.

  2. transientreporter Says:

    Being a graduate student isn’t a job, let alone a permanent one.

    Most I ever got paid as a grad student was $1K/month, and I thought that was a pretty good deal – frankly, I was amazed that I was getting paid to go to grad school (rather than vice-versa). One needs to be a little careful before comparing life in grad school to that of a low-income worker’s and their families’. Here is a good post about what it means to be poor: “Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.”

    This is not to say there are no problems with exploitation in grad school – both institutionally and individually (excessive TA’ing requirements, unprofessional behavior of PI’s, disinterested thesis committees, making students waive IP rights to discoveries – etc, etc, we all know them well). But if you want to make purely economic arguments – be prepared for the consequences. How does $70K/year for 3 first author publications in C/N/S sound? Any takers?

    • Massimo Says:

      frankly, I was amazed that I was getting paid to go to grad school (rather than vice-versa)

      Same here. Never occurred to me that I was not making enough money. If I had stayed in Italy and been a grad student there, I would have had to keep living with my parents, there was no way I would have been able to afford my own apartment.
      I still remember in the mid 90s, with a glut of PhDs not finding employment in academia, newsgroups like sci.postdocs or where routinely disgruntled young scientists would claim that being in the sciences was worse than in a nazi concentration camp…

    • transientreporter Says:

      Look, we all complain about money. I complained as a grad student, I complained as a postdoc, I’m complaining now as a professor. Even law professors at the University of Chicago with a household income of approx. $450K are complaining. There’s nothing wrong with complaining. But there’s something wrong – disgusting, even – with hyper-educated (or on their way to becoming hyper-educated) people comparing themselves with truly poor people with no options struggling to get by. It’s a false equivalence that diminishes their plight, and undermines their fight for social justice. When you say, “grad students are like the working poor” it then follows that “the working poor are like grad students.”

    • transientreporter Says:

      Oops, here’s the link to a story about the poor, poor law prof.

  3. Massimo Says:

    Ian, that’s a huge can of worms. I agree with you but do not know how to solve that. There is a huge disparity of treatment, no question about it, as you have on the one hand graduate students who do not have to teach at all, others whose main activity in the first year or so (and still a significant drain of time and energy until the end) is teaching. The problem is that one finds oneself routinely with fewer TAs than one expected; Departments cannot admit more students than they have TAs available, but then some of them end up not teaching for whatever reason. As a result, the others are overworked.
    In my idea world, graduate students would not be teaching at all.

  4. Steven Says:

    There are two extremes to look at. One, being the one already mentioned, that you are getting paid to be a student, rather than paying. The other is that, when you are not teaching courses, or TAing (or sometimes when you are TAing, depending on your supervisor) you are working full time or more hours, more like a full time researcher (although slightly less experienced) and should be paid as such.

    Also, just to compare, during my time in grad school my rent for a 1 bedroom apartment was approximately 2/3 of my monthly salary, which made for much tighter budgeting. Graduate salarys (at least in physics) seem to be roughly the same across the board (as far as I can tell), yet the cost of living from place to place isn’t all that comparable. In one place one might be able to live comfortably, where in another one might be living off of Raman noodles.

    When it comes down to it though, I feel that grad students in the sciences don’t have much to complain about. Often in the humanities grad students don’t get paid and have to work part, or full time, as well as being a student to make ends meet (I am not going to get into a discussion about whether or not there should be a difference based on the importance of the subject), where as in the sciences, even if ends can’t be met, its much closer!

  5. mareserinitatis Says:

    There are also issues of how to deal with families. A couple of grad students in the physics dept. at my undergrad university had families, and despite the low cost of living, were really struggling. One friend had a wife with a temporary (~2year) disability, so he was trying support himself, his wife, and his daughter on a poverty-level paycheck. Being a foreign student, he didn’t qualify for student loans. The other student was forced to take out student loans to make sure he could pay for his family’s expenses. One might say that it’s not the department’s problem, but I think a grad student who isn’t stressed out about making ends meet would probably have an easier time focusing on getting his or her work done.

    • Massimo Says:

      Cherish, it is the department’s problem too, for the reasons that you are stating, I’m just not sure what the department can or should do about situations of that type… I mean, more than assuming that people who make the decision of going to graduate school have thought long and hard about the repercussions of such a decision, including the financial ones, what is one supposed to do ?

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        There are some things that can be done. As you mention, tuition and fees are a huge help. I love how must universities are now paying tuition, but fees are your problem and are often 1-2 mos. stipend.

        One thing that annoyed me about my situation is that we were told we’d get a bonus for working the summer, but then found out that summer positions didn’t exist if you were only given a TA. Not only did some of us not have funding for the summer but also then failed to get the ‘bonus’. Therefore, our stipend ended up being a few thousand dollars less than we were led to believe. That’s a pretty drastic change and some people would have difficulty absorbing (which is why I ended up working elsewhere during the summers, while listening to comments that this meant progress to a degree would be impacted).

        There are some times that things cannot be done by the department, especially if things like medical emergencies or big life changes occur during grad school. However, it would be nice if the university had some way of helping student through those situations, like some type of short-term paid leave or something for exceptional situations. I know that if one has a flexible advisor, it can be done without all the jumping through hoops, but not everyone is so fortunate.

  6. microbiologist xx Says:

    I have to second what TR said. I was more than happy to attend school and get paid, even if that pay was fairly low. It’s way better than paying tuition and holding down a part-time job. Also, I actually know what it’s like to be poor as I grew up very poor and I can tell you it’s way fucking different than being a graduate student. When I was a kid I was happy to report I had a roof over my head, clothes on my back and food. I never worried about that in graduate school.

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