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 .
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.
 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.