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October 30, 2013 3:11 PM   Subscribe

A collective narrative of trying to make it on $17,000 a year: bargaining testimony from a UCSC student-worker
We make only $17,000 a year. We make only $17,000 a year in a town where almost that entire paycheck goes to rent. So today I’m going to talk about how academic workers try to get by on $17,000 a year.
posted by andoatnp (54 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think though, when it comes to being able to deliver quality education, that it’s not so good for my students that their teacher is spending that much time in a bar.

Not to detract from the gravity and seriousness of the essay as a whole, but that, right there, is comedy gold.
posted by The World Famous at 3:43 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


[Folks maybe RTFA?]
posted by jessamyn at 3:45 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


It really is outrageous that people working 20-40 hours a week doing research are not paid for that work. Minimum wage laws are supposed to address precisely this sort of issue, but the law has carved out holes big enough for some of the most important segments of our society to fall through them.
posted by The World Famous at 3:48 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a UCSC grad, I was surprised to see that living ON campus in the illegal redwood squatter's village was not mentioned.
posted by ikahime at 3:59 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


The article doesn't mention whether the TA and RA position comes with a tuition and fees waiver, which is worth a substantial amount of money. This waiver is standard at most research universities.
posted by about_time at 4:01 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is a lot of eye-rolly stuff here, it's true. Lots of people work two and three jobs. Lots of people go without healthcare and lots of people have to buy used books or use the library. Lots, if not most people with passions, have to find other means of supporting that. Being a researcher doesn't give you some special exemption from the horror that is modern capitalism. Also, presumably, these graduate students are being paid 17k cash, and whatever benefits they are getting in terms of tuition and such is not included in that number. If you are paying tuition for your PhD then you probably made a bad choice.

And yeah, all of those old arguments about education and ROI apply here too, tired as they may seem. Going into academia is a lot like trying to be an actor or a musician. It comes with a high degree of financial risk. It sucks that it is this way - but it is. Most academic jobs don't pay well. There is plenty of information out there that shows as much. Know what you're getting into. Seriously - I wish I had taken this advice more to heart before I went to college.

That isn't to say that the system, especially in CA, isn't totally fucked though. Because it is totally fucked. And it's fucked from a very high level. That's the problem with things like grad student collective bargaining. The university, even the university system, really doesn't have all that much wiggle room on allocations. They really don't. The money just isn't there.

I know it seems nice to just blame someone here - the grad student for being foolish thinking there was any kind of way to make a decent living getting a PhD in a non-STEM field, or the university for being stingy and not being able to balance a book despite having lots of smart people around, or the system for being wasteful and having too much admin and such, but the truth is that it's just way more chaotic than any one of those things. If anyone is to blame, it's probably us, because the only way to save higher education in this country is to increase taxes, and no one will do it.

Also, making $17,000 a year does not justify stealing. Good god.

posted by Lutoslawski at 4:04 PM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Assuming working 50 weeks out of the year, 5 days a week, 40 hours a week, $17,000 a year is equivalent to $8.50 an hour, which is $1.25 more than the federal minimum wage. According to the minimum wage laws in most of the United States, this is supposed to be a totally adequate amount of money to live on. It's not, but that's what the minimum wage implies. The upper end of the research time starts to get below that number, but in general, our current laws do assume that one can make ends meet on this amount of money, even when it is patently not true.
posted by Sequence at 4:05 PM on October 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


Minimum wage laws are supposed to address precisely this sort of issue, but the law has carved out holes big enough for some of the most important segments of our society to fall through them.

Oh, don't worry, I officially get paid $22.44/hour (just checked) for 20 hours/week, which is more than minimum wage if you call it a forty hour work week (which it is if you count research as work, which the university doesn't). I'm not at a UC grad student, though (and I'm in a subject that pays relatively well).

The article doesn't mention whether the TA and RA position comes with a tuition and fees waiver, which is worth a substantial amount of money. This waiver is standard at most research universities.

It does. You can read the expired contract for yourself. Doesn't mean they're not exploiting grad student labor. Basically, if people teaching courses qualified for food stamps, there'd be an uproar, but so since most graduate students are single person households, they just have to keep wages just above that threshold.
posted by hoyland at 4:05 PM on October 30, 2013


It wasn't clear what her discipline is--but I assume it wasn't science. It is amazing how different graduate school experiences can be. My experience was probably typical of students in STEM: PhD....University of Minnesota. I made only $12,000 per year on an RA stipend.....supported by my own NSF grant. I (and two other grad school friends) rented an entire house in a decent Mpls neighborhood for $600/month (that was 25 years ago). So my share of the rent was only $200 per month. I always had plenty of cash to do whatever. My tuition and fees were waived. I had no debt. I paid no taxes. It was the best time of my life!
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 4:09 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The UC system did not have tuition until about three years ago, at which point there were somewhat tense negotiations to add the appendix at the end of the contract that says 'Oh, yeah, where it says 'fees', have that say 'tuition and fees'' which you would have thought would be a no-brainer, but if there was a way to get rid of fee remission, way not try to exploit it?

(My original offer letter (again not a UC, for clarity) implied there was summer funding available for all summers following school years where one had funding. However, if you split hairs, it only guaranteed funding the first summer. Lo and behold, my first year, summer funding was abolished for everyone except us first years, as the university couldn't find a way round the letter (which is, by the way, the full extent of my 'contract'). But if you're not unionised, you can't pay a labour lawyer.)
posted by hoyland at 4:11 PM on October 30, 2013


Waivers are not standard in, for example, in Professional Schools. We're paying around $17,000 a semester for the privilege of being there. In other words, a 2 year trimester based masters program costs you around $100,000. Then you get to add in living expenses. Not bad for a job that will likely pay about $35k a year when you graduate.
posted by Jernau at 4:11 PM on October 30, 2013


I was a UCSC grad student worker a decade ago. My stipend was about the same as this person's annually (which means it was a bit higher in real dollars), but keep in mind I only worked those "20" hour weeks for 9 months of the year. I'd work an internship in the summers, which often paid substantially better (I'm in STEM).

If this person is not able to seek other employment in the summers then that is indeed "ouch", as without that boost of income I'd have had a substantially harder time in grad school. As it was I was able to avoid taking on any additional debt in grad school as my stipend and summer incomes were enough to cover my (very) modest living.
posted by LoopyG at 4:13 PM on October 30, 2013


Maybe the reason no one seems to value hard work anymore is because we always try to teach people how valuable it is by not paying them for it. I say we're overdue for a return to the labor theory of value. All the rest is just shysterism and marketing.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:13 PM on October 30, 2013 [20 favorites]


I say we're overdue for a return to the labor theory of value.

A-fucking-men.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:14 PM on October 30, 2013


On the topic of tuition and fees, I can say that at my own university, tuition is waived for graduate students, but fees are not. I pay $500-600 in fees every semester to the university (the fees go up most every semester). This isn't a tragedy, but is also not pocket change.

Our TA stipend is $17,125 this year, up from the previous $15,125 it had been for many years previously. Sometimes the TA union has been able to get some of the fees waived, but recently that's gone away.
posted by pemberkins at 4:16 PM on October 30, 2013


I'd work an internship in the summers, which often paid substantially better (I'm in STEM).

If this person is not able to seek other employment in the summers then that is indeed "ouch", as without that boost of income I'd have had a substantially harder time in grad school. As it was I was able to avoid taking on any additional debt in grad school as my stipend and summer incomes were enough to cover my (very) modest living.


An internship for a PhD student in STEM pays upwards of roughly half of my annual income (I was paid by a grant last summer--I'm a field where there's a fair bit of money available, but with limited industrial applications). Which is great if your research is of interest to oil companies (as is the case for one of my friends), but doesn't do the rest of us any good.
posted by hoyland at 4:17 PM on October 30, 2013


Oh, $17,000 a year, big deal. I know of people who can barely get by on $17,000 a week.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:20 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hey prospective students,

Any letter that you get from an institution offering you a chance at an academic degree but not enough funding for both tuition and a plausibly livable stipend, is not an acceptance letter, it is an advertisement, and the product is generally shitty. Unless this would be for something that would be a strictly professional and terminal degree like an MSW or a med degree, which is different, it is a very bad plan. An academic degree that you pay for will, in addition to driving you into debt that the degree will not help you pay off, make you an exploited stooge, and just like everywhere else, no one respects an exploited stooge in academia. An adviser who is desperate enough to take their failure to thrive and failure to fund their work out of the asses of their graduate students is an adviser who cannot be expected to give a sufficient shit about you to be worth your while; and a department that is craven enough to do the same also does not give a sufficient shit about you to further your interests. Similarly, an academic field without sufficient funding to do something as fucking basic as paying its graduate students a livable wage for their labor as either teaching or research is not a field worth joining for anyone but the independently wealthy and hobby minded. An advanced academic degree without funding is a lot more pain, but it will also inevitably result in a lot less reward. Not all academic degrees are created equal and an adviser/department/field that cannot get their shit together enough to pay you will be an adviser/department/field that cannot be taken seriously by the people you would want to pay you. That is an adviser/department/field that cannot be reasonably expected to train you in an economically viable skill set, much less help you prepare for a career more successful than their own.

Also, before some doe-eyed undergrad stops by to extol the virtues of sacrificing for what you believe in, joining an academic field under exploitative conditions will only ever hurt it. Where academia is all about making a living figuring out complex shit (ideally but not necessarily complex shit no one else has figured out before) and then explaining it to others (often but not always in various formalized ways), inevitably, the most important thing a voluntarily exploited graduate student will accomplish is push their chosen field further towards being dominated exclusively by those with more money than sense. Whether one has more money or less sense, the sacrifices that should be made for academic fields are ones that must be made by those with the ability to make meaningful and beneficial ones, like universities, funding agencies and the independently wealthy, not vulnerable students. As a prospective student you only really have the power inherent in what you are willing to consent to, and that power is considerable. It helps no one to use it to enable the exploitation of labor.

All that said, graduate school with genuine funding is fucking awesome and, were I to be honest (which I wouldn't always be if I like your field more than I like you), I would recommend it to most anyone.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:23 PM on October 30, 2013 [24 favorites]


Also consider the cost of living of where you're going to grad school! Maybe the Santa Cruz program had some very specific professor or such that drew her to it, and I know programs are competitive and there are lots of factors, but there are tons (tons!) of amazing graduate school programs in pretty much all fields that don't require you to live in one of the most expensive areas in the world. Seriously, that 17k would go a lot farther in Bloomington, and you'd probably be able to do just as good of work.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:29 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm a grad student at UC Davis (in a STEM field, not that treating people like fools who somehow deserve to eat out of the trash because they are in the humanities is ok).

A 50% TAship pays about the same in Davis. A 1 bedroom apartment in Davis goes for about $900. If you account for tuition and healthcare, I am actually paid quite well.. kinda. I am required to maintain 12 credits, so it looks like they're paying for 12 credits a quarter, but 11 of those 12 credits this quarter are paying for "research" with my professor, which costs the university precisely 0 in real dollars - it's just shuffling money around. Health insurance was actually quite good until this year, when they significantly upped the deductible and copays, and limited what they pay for.

I have eaten out of the garbage, on more than one occasion. I've gotten food stamps. I chose to live in a 375sq ft trailer with holes in the floor for "only" $500/month. I ran up massive credit card debt.

The system is fucked.
posted by zug at 4:35 PM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


All that said, graduate school with genuine funding is fucking awesome and, were I to be honest (which I wouldn't always be if I like your field more than I like you), I would recommend it to most anyone.

This is genuine funding. That's the point. (I know of one department at a UC that had no incoming students the year before last because the funding was so pitiful. It's got to be one of the top, oh, three departments in the world in that subject.)
posted by hoyland at 4:37 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


It is truly fascinating to me that we expect the best and the brightest to study hard and teach well for near-poverty wages. Some places can make that work (UOregon is in Eugene, which is pretty cheap, and they have a good union fighting for benefits ) but some can't. Santa Cruz is hella expensive and it looks like their union represents every UC instead of just UCSC, which means that everyone at a UC in an area that is more expensive than the average (or maybe even than the minimum) is going to get screwed - the bargaining unit is too large.

The student workers do also get a tuition waiver, but note that the value of the tuition waiver is set by the organization issuing the waiver. It feels wrong to count it as income - not least because only people enrolled in the school are eligible for those jobs.

Interesting fact: graduate students at public universities are entitled to unionize (and should!) because the NLRB was appointed by a (D) president when that issue came up to the national level. Graduate students at private universities are not considered employees and not entitled to unionize because the NLRB was appointed by an (R) president when the issue came up at the national level. So dumb.
posted by pmb at 5:00 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Compensation for UC vice chancellors and such is pretty absurd.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:01 PM on October 30, 2013


Terrible to hear. I TA'd and RA'd during the mid to late 90's and did pretty well in Pittsburgh, PA. Great health insurance, dental, and got paid well enough for the location. Under Clinton we got incredible tax returns - vacation worthy! As an instructor for a community college in CA for the past 13 years, not so much. I'm really disheartened to hear all of this. We had power back then because we'd just strike, classes would come to a halt, and we'd get what we'd asked for... What's changed? The linked article doesn't address it and I wonder.

(Disclaimer: I did wear gloves during the winter, studying in bed with a ton of blankets when the power went out in my apt. building.)

Off topic, yet related, I think: Pay now for teaching 1 class a semester = less than what I was paid for TA/RA one class or work for one prof, + no insurance, no nothing really, including the really important emotional bonding and feelings of being part of something good and useful.

Can I say that in education this is most important? We don't expect to make a lot of money, in fact, we carry this as a moral badge, some kind of superiority - "I don't need...". Fine. But, hell, when we end up scared, questioning everything and then talk to young people about what their potential choices actually mean? - could I lie, and smile? - - Do not do as I have done! - Money? Satisfaction? Status? The quickest way to understanding how thin this mask wears is to be absent from next semester's roster, with no call, no email, just silence. My weak, immature ego is still reeling from it. I'm 50. Fifty years old?

If only I had known when I was in grad school... Truth is, I'd have done something equivalently ignorant and %$*#%*. So there!
posted by svetafriend at 5:04 PM on October 30, 2013


We had power back then because we'd just strike, classes would come to a halt, and we'd get what we'd asked for... What's changed? The linked article doesn't address it and I wonder.

From what I've heard (I know a UC grad student union rep), they're heading towards voting whether to strike, but I don't know what the timeline is.

Maximum leverage is obviously striking during finals, but maybe you call a one day strike earlier to show you're serious.
posted by hoyland at 5:39 PM on October 30, 2013


I'm an artist, so of course the starving artist thing applies, but my MFA graduate assistantship paid $6,000/year. Tuition waived, fees not; fees (and health/dental insurance) ate up about $2,000/year of that so the actual amount for the year was about $4,000.
posted by vegartanipla at 6:07 PM on October 30, 2013


I checked with a friend at my local state university STEM dept. Graduate students make $26k/year *and* have health insurance. And they have a waiver of tuition and fees. By the way, per year means per two semesters (same as UCSC). Summer jobs in industry are a huge help. (When I worked in industry during my graduate degree, I made almost as much during the summer as I did during the year.) So the UC system does seem pretty out of whack by comparison.

Where grad students can get screwed as well are depts that offer half TA positions (10 hours per week) and give the same amount of work as a full TA.
posted by about_time at 6:12 PM on October 30, 2013


Oh, come on, the "wow you get tuition stipend" is sort of meaningless -- the university makes up an amount that they pretend to charge you, then they pretend they give you that amount which they immediately take back and if you're lucky you won't get charged on it as income. (International students say hi!)
posted by jeather at 6:43 PM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Assuming working 50 weeks out of the year, 5 days a week, 40 hours a week...

HAHAHAHAHAHAHaha...oh wait, you weren't joking?

Honestly, it's more like 70 hours a week rather than 40. At least that's how it is in STEM. Any PhD student who thinks they can get away with doing their degree like a 9-5 job is in for a really rude awakening.
posted by Scientist at 6:46 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not really complaining though. I make $22k a year (plus tuition, though recently my cash-strapped school has been stinging the graduate students for a few hundred bucks worth of fees every semester) and it's livable. $17k a year would be pretty hard... but then, I wouldn't have taken $17k because the median for my field is more like $24k. Still, I imagine I could get by. I live with housemates, I drive an old car, I eat a lot of yogurt and pasta and beans. I buy most of my clothes at thrift stores.

It's OK. I like my housemates, I like my old car. Yogurt and beans are good for me, and thrift stores don't support sweatshop labor. I get to spend three months out of the year camping in Africa as part of my job, and most importantly I get to do science! I love doing science. I bitch about it as much as any other grad student, but when it comes down to it I freaking love research and I love my field and I think that the work I am doing is important. And I can tell people that I Am A Scientist! How cool is that?

Plus, $22k a year is more than I've ever made in my life! Of course I'd like to make more, and hopefully once I get my degree I'll qualify for a better paying job. Maybe if I'm good and I'm lucky I'll even get a tenure-track position where I can be a respected member of my community, teach students, and direct my own research all while making a middle-class or upper-middle-class wage and enjoying solid job security. If not then I'll just have to figure something else out.

Getting a PhD is an accomplishment I'll be proud of though, and even if I don't get my dream job I'll always be able to say that I was able to get my doctorate. It's a lot of work, requires the ability to develop some very technical skills -- mostly self-taught -- and means that one has a deep knowledge of a specific subject and has contributed something significant to the overall knowledge base of humanity. That's worth being proud of, I think. Doesn't make someone with a PhD any better than someone without one of course, but it's an accomplishment nonetheless.

Yes, there should be more funding for graduate students. Yes there should be more funding for research and universities and higher education in general! It's pretty fucked how little our society seems to care about educating its populace and supporting one of the greatest human endeavors of all time, perhaps the great endeavor of all time -- the quest for more knowledge about how things work. Perhaps the other great endeavor is the quest for truth, beauty, and right living. That's your arts and sciences both covered right there, and that's what universities are all about promoting and developing.

We live in a society that is, as Carl Sagan put it, "eating its seed corn". We are not looking to the future, we are not investing in the future. We're trying to squeeze every drop of short-term productivity out of the present that we possibly can, concentrate it in the hands of those who have the wealth and power to grab it, and to hell with everything else. To hell with the planet, to hell with future generations, to hell with the billions of people living in poverty and illness and fear. We have become the Ouroboros. We are eating our own tail.

None of that has anything to do with my salary though, except that my low wages are a tiny symptom of the fact that we are living in a society that is eating itself and shitting on the future. It's hardly the most important thing. I'm doing fine, and I'm doing something that I love. If we can somehow pull out of this civilizational death spiral then I'm sure the lot of students like me will improve, as will the lot of everyone else except for the handful of greedy rapacious bastards who are strip-mining the future to feed their sociopathic avarice and odious narcissism.

My petty problems are just part of a larger syndrome of dysfunction and malice, is what I'm saying. It does nobody any good for me to look at them as if they existed in a vacuum, as if they were an isolated thing. I recognize that my rather paltry salary is just a small example of the kind of thing that happens to anyone who isn't close to the focus of societal power and wealth. It could be worse. I'm not hungry or homeless, I've got friends, and I love my work. What more could I really want, except for peace on earth and universal compassion?
posted by Scientist at 7:11 PM on October 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


Plus, $22k a year is more than I've ever made in my life!

One of the reasons universities are able to get away with paying graduate students so little is that most are fresh out of college and are happy to be getting paid anything. And also, as you say elsewhere in your post, money isn't remotely close to being a deciding factor for where to do your PhD. Private companies have to offer competitive salaries to attract talent, but why would universities offer more if no one is asking for it? I often hear graduate students complain that service employees with the university (dish washers, janitorial staff etc) make twice what they do, and while that's true I don't see the graduate students trying to organize in order to demand higher pay.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 7:29 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


My tuition and fees were waived. I had no debt. I paid no taxes

Uh, you probably should have, since fellowships of the type you describe are taxable income and $12K is well over the minimum income to file taxes for a single person.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:53 PM on October 30, 2013


My tuition and fees were waived. I had no debt. I paid no taxes

Uh, you probably should have, since fellowships of the type you describe are taxable income and $12K is well over the minimum income to file taxes for a single person.


Yeah, these are definitely taxable income although it's a bitter pill for grad students. It's with a mixture of sadness and hilarity that you pay taxes on 50k while actually getting paid 25k.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 8:06 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's 100% not true that tuition waivers are taxable.
posted by gerryblog at 9:00 PM on October 30, 2013


There is a lot of eye-rolly stuff here, it's true. Lots of people work two and three jobs. Lots of people go without healthcare and lots of people have to buy used books or use the library.

What exactly are you trying to say with this? Because other people have to deal with being poor, it's somehow not OK for one particular group to talk about the hardships they deal with as poor people, while trying to organize for better wages?

I seriously don't understand that perspective. Why is it OK to roll one's eyes at the economically disadvantaged?
posted by lunasol at 9:00 PM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


UOregon is in Eugene, which is pretty cheap, and they have a good union fighting for benefits

Nice to see. When I went there 20 years ago, we were making $12k a year no benefits in a STEM field, with required contributions to the union because we were teaching. When asked what the union did for us, the union rep said "Literally nothing".
posted by underflow at 9:20 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


More on topic...

I get almost irrational about this subject. So many articles in the world about some official saying "We really value STEM/medical/trades!!!" and posing with kindergarteners.

The calculus isn't hard here: Pony up the cash, and you get more people doing what you want. That's cash. Not promises of a bright future. Not because I love it. Not because it will look good on my resume.
posted by underflow at 9:45 PM on October 30, 2013


Meanwhile, coming up from behind are N number of graduates (where N is a very large number) from India, China etc. who have become utterly utterly brainwashed by the promise that further education 'T' job in a first world country 'T' financial security and are spending their family (and in some cases their village) savings to get there. (Where 'T' = unconditionally true)
I don't want be around when they find out, all at the same time, that they've been lied to and are F'd (where F is, oh never mind...).
posted by fingerbang at 9:59 PM on October 30, 2013


Sorry if this is a dumb question, but what do the prospects for gainful employment post-academic work look for STEM students? Underflow, you talk about ponying up the cash if we really value STEM/medical/trades, but the fact is that medical students look forward to a pretty lucrative post-graduation career, as do some trades. It seems like where the "pony up the cash" issue really comes into play during someone's studies is in fields where they have no reasonable expectation to make decent money post-graduation, such that the career they're preparing for simply doesn't justify going into debt for. To the extent that society values those fields enough to want people to get an expensive education in spite of grim prospects for good wages in the actual field, I agree that we, as a society, ought to subsidize the education enough for them to make decent money while they're studying.
posted by The World Famous at 10:01 PM on October 30, 2013


I'm a graduate student in a science field. I make the same wage. (In fact, I go to the same university!)

Here's the crux of it... I'm getting PAID to learn. No, really, get this. They're PAYING me to go to school, and to develop my research skills. If I wanted an industry wage, I would wander off and go work in industry.
posted by phyllary at 10:27 PM on October 30, 2013


The World Famous: "Sorry if this is a dumb question, but what do the prospects for gainful employment post-academic work look for STEM students? "

Well, the M in stem stands for medicine, so I think you answered your own question a bit. In the engineering and technology side, the numbers work quite well. The numbers we compensate our grad students for are based on an annual salary of around $50k, which is roughly the going wage for freshly minted undergraduates in the field. Of course, these are still part time jobs, but I was still able to make around $25k as a GTA/GRA in a relatively low cost of living state.

On an unrelated note, as a CS guy who didn't really interact outside the department much, I found it astonishing when I recently discovered that some departments pay people to read journal articles. Sign me the fuck up, man.
posted by pwnguin at 10:53 PM on October 30, 2013


.... the only way to save higher education in this country is to increase taxes, and no one will do it.

In other words, a 2 year trimester based masters program costs you around $100,000.

Look if 100 grand isn't enough, it will never be enough. Like Margaret Thatcher said "The left always runs out of other people's money."

The greed and entitlement of the education establishment is the problem and the solution is to burn it down and start all over again.
posted by three blind mice at 3:02 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


The M in STEM stands for Mathematics. Of course, the job prospects for non academic work for Math PhDs is actually pretty good, once you get over the idea that you're a failure for not landing an academic job, especially if you go into finance.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:01 AM on October 31, 2013


> "Here's the crux of it... I'm getting PAID to learn. No, really, get this. They're PAYING me to go to school, and to develop my research skills."

Well, yes ... but you're also getting paid to work. Unlike, say, undergrad, grad school is a vocational program that includes both classroom training and supervised on-the-job work, much like an apprenticeship. In fact, let's see what a typical apprenticeship program looks like:

"Apprentice electricians work 32 to 40+ hours per week at the trade under the supervision of a journeyman wireman and receive pay and benefits. They spend an additional 8 hours every other week in classroom training. At the conclusion of training (five years for inside wireman and outside lineman ...), apprentices reach the level of journeyman wireman. All of this is offered at no charge, except for the cost of books (which is approximately $200–600 per year ...)"

Sound somewhat familiar?

So, how much does an apprentice electrician make in Santa Cruz county? Well, according to the state of California, not counting the part of their pay that goes directly into their training, a lineman in training will start with a take home pay of around $25.84 an hour and end at around $38.76 an hour ... plus healthcare and a pension program. Now, it sure looks from that chart like they do the same trick as grad school where they only pay you for 20 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, even if you're actually doing more. So that's going to end up going from $25,840 a year to $38,760 a year, plus health care.

They're being paid to learn, too. And $25,840 still isn't exactly a fortune in Santa Cruz County. But it's half again what you're being paid. And it will increase to more than twice what you're being paid.

The University isn't "paying you to learn" purely out of the goodness of their hearts. You're doing work for them. They're also training you, so yeah they can pay you less overall than they'd pay someone more experienced, and yeah they can play with the numbers and call part of your pay a tuition waiver, i.e. training costs. But ... you're working for them. They have hired you. An apprenticeship is still a job.

They should pay you enough to damn well live on.
posted by kyrademon at 4:10 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's 100% not true that tuition waivers are taxable.

In Minnesota, there's a property tax refund. (If you rent, you're getting back some of your rent money that your landlord used to pay property tax. It exists for homeowners too and I have no idea what the rationale is. Making property tax a bit more progressive?) For whatever reason, tuition waivers count as non-taxable income for the property tax refund.* This is the only place they appear on my taxes (and, in fact, you have to calculate the number yourself from your student account because it doesn't appear on the 1098-T). This results in our property tax refunds being hundreds of dollars smaller because our incomes are artificially doubled to fairly respectable, making our rents look like a much smaller percentage of income.

*This probably makes sense for people who aren't grad students, to be honest.
posted by hoyland at 5:29 AM on October 31, 2013


while that's true I don't see the graduate students trying to organize in order to demand higher pay.

We tried, thank you very much. I'm much more deeply cynical about the university than I was three years ago, so, as you might suspect, we got to see the university go right up to the line of illegality to prevent unionisation, all while claiming to care deeply about us. (I'd say they crossed the line, but the state disagreed.)

(Of course, UC grad students are unionised, so they already succeeded.)
posted by hoyland at 5:38 AM on October 31, 2013


One of the reasons universities are able to get away with paying graduate students so little is that most are fresh out of college and are happy to be getting paid anything. And also, as you say elsewhere in your post, money isn't remotely close to being a deciding factor for where to do your PhD.

Not disputing the general truth of your point, but my salary was definitely a factor in choosing where to do my PhD. I was lucky enough to get a great offer on a position in a graduate program during my last year as an undergrad, in a city that I liked living in, working on a project that I was into and thought would be good for my career, for an advisor who I knew I could get along with. I didn't even have to apply. That's a huge gift, no question. It wasn't a gift that came without strings, however. I didn't accept the offer immediately, and one of the major questions that I had to ask myself (and my prospective advisor) was "is this position going to pay a stipend that's enough for me to live on?". The answer was yes, so because I liked the rest of the program I took the position. If the answer had been no, I would've either asked for more money or started applying to other programs.

I realize that "enough to live on" is not a super high bar, but I long ago made the decision as a point of personal philosophy that I wasn't going to worry much about money as long as I was making enough to get by without struggling too hard. It's still a bar, though. "Enough to live on" is good enough for me, but "not enough to live on" would have been a no-go no matter how much I loved the work. $17k probably would not have cut it, I would've said thanks but no thanks and looked elsewhere.

As phyllary said above, I'm getting paid to learn. I'm getting paid a livable (though modest) salary to receive many hours of intensive, one-on-one, long-term training and experience in a field that is very very technical and requires a deep amount of highly esoteric knowledge to be able to function in, and which I truly love. It feels like a good deal to me. If I were an experienced scientist who was capable of working fully independently then it would seem like a laughable sum -- but I'm not. I'm a student. An advanced student, but definitely not someone who could run a research program or teach an university class without a lot of help. That's what I'm here to learn to do.

I'm also here to help support my advisor's research and, less directly, to support the institution that I'm working at -- that's part of the deal for my salary, and I'm OK with that because I think that's a mutually beneficial arrangement in my case. It's not a mutually-beneficial arrangement in every individual case, but like Blasdelb said above it's something that a prospective grad student has to take into account before accepting an offer, and if you get an offer from a program that doesn't look like it's going to be able to give you (in terms of money, training, and the opportunity to establish yourself in your chosen field) at least as much as it's taking from you (in terms of labor in the form of research and teaching time, and prestige from taking partial credit for your work) then you shouldn't go.

Here's the question I asked on the Green when I was thinking about the offer I'd been given. A fair bit of what's in there is idiosyncratic (it's unusual to do your PhD at the same school that you did your bachelor's at, and I was worried that that might be a negative) but most of it is pretty universal. Most of the advice that I got was pretty universal for prospective grad students as well, and it was really solid, useful advice that helped me make a decision that I'm happy about. (I had some second thoughts about three months in, but in retrospect that was just an irrational freak-out. I'm still happy with my choice.) You can see from my followups that I did some digging into my advisor's record and that I also sat down with her, asked her all the questions that I thought I needed to have answers to, and that she was able to answer them to my satisfaction.

That's the way that a prospective PhD student needs to approach an offer. It doesn't have to be an exploitative relationship -- yes, the wages are never going to be spectacular, but if the rest of the package in terms of training and opportunity is good, it can be well worth it. The question of whether it's worth going for a PhD at all given the brutal job market at the end of the process is a bit different and one that needs to be answered as well, but for me I feel like my advisor and institution are upholding their end of the bargain: a modest-but-livable stipend plus lots of quality training and the opportunity to publish and network on their part in exchange for lots of hard work on my part.

It's a bargain that I'm happy with, but it's one that I thought hard about and examined very carefully before accepting. Anyone who is thinking about taking on an academic PhD needs to do that. As Blasdelb said, not all PhD programs are created equal. If you don't have an offer for one that looks like it's going to be worth it for you then you shouldn't go. A PhD program that can't pay you enough to live, or that can't provide you the specific training you want, or that won't give you the opportunity to start establishing yourself in your field is one that is exploiting you and will never get you to where you want to be. A big part of the problem here, really, is that undergraduates aren't taught to make that kind of assessment. When you're an undergrad, the narrative you are given is "BsC -> PhD -> Professor". It's not anywhere close to that simple, and universities should really get better about counseling their undergrads in that regard.

I was fortunate to have MetaFilter and its excellent cohort of scientists to give me some solid advice on that front, but most students are not that fortunate and many of them, sadly, are a little blind and naive in their search for a grad school and end up making choices that lead to their being used and abused. That's shitty. It's not something that's inherent to the bargain itself though, it's a problem of certain institutions and PIs being predatory exploiters and of the information balance between the employers/mentors and the employees/students being all out of whack.
posted by Scientist at 6:41 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


The average call-centre worker here gets by on the equivalent of $17k. Many of these are graduates, who either can't work in their chosen field, or who can't afford to take the time to get unpaid experience as you can no longer collect unemployment or housing benefit in the UK if you are under 25.

If you are unemployed, you don't need to pay for your medical and dental expenses. If you are employed, even if on a low wage, you do. As a student I lived off my student loan only, and even then I had to pay for my prescriptions and glasses. £7.40 per month, once or twice, is a big chunk of earnings if you're on just above minimum wage.

How do people finance post-grad in the US? I wanted to do a Masters course at a point when it would have built on a paid placement I had into a new career, but I couldn't, because the only way I could afford the fees would be to take out a Career Development Loan via a bank, and my credit rating at the time wouldn't let me. PhD courses can be funded with stipends and grants if you look hard enough, but you often need a Masters to get there, and these are not. Once you're on your course, you can indeed pay for living expenses by doing TA work - but you need to stump up your course fees first.

Just as those who cannot afford to work unpaid are sometimes priced out of careers that value internship experience, many are priced out of further education. Also, a very bright mathematician I know has recently left academia to go into consulting, as his work feels too precarious at the moment.
posted by mippy at 9:35 AM on October 31, 2013


It's 100% not true that tuition waivers are taxable.

Tuition waivers are not taxable (at least not on your federal 1099) but stipends absolutely are; if tuition was waived for Seymour Zamboni as he mentioned upthread, then that $12K was all absolutely taxable income. Not trying to pick on him, just responding to a common misperception.

Also, while we're on the subject of tuition waivers, the whole "oh, you're getting paid to learn!" thing is kind of funny to me. After all, for most students in year 2+ this is no more true than if you were being trained on the job at a normal workplace. The average PhD student in my department took 5 courses total (because that was what was required), over the course of 10* semesters. That's less than one half of one class per semester. The amount of "tuition" that we were theoretically but not actually paid was exactly the same as a fully-enrolled undergrad with no financial aid. Let's not pretend that this makes sense except as an established part of academic bureaucracy.

* Actually, most students stayed for more like 11-13 semesters but past 5 years you enter a different category of trainee in which you are not allowed to take classes and not "paid" tuition. The fact that your total pay does not go up as a result of this cost savings should be a hint as to how much this is about "being paid to learn."
posted by en forme de poire at 11:05 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also consider the cost of living of where you're going to grad school! Maybe the Santa Cruz program had some very specific professor or such that drew her to it, and I know programs are competitive and there are lots of factors, but there are tons (tons!) of amazing graduate school programs in pretty much all fields that don't require you to live in one of the most expensive areas in the world. Seriously, that 17k would go a lot farther in Bloomington, and you'd probably be able to do just as good of work.

This consideration would basically (for most people) rule out almost any of the UC campuses other than maybe Merced. If that's what you're suggesting, then that's a topic worth a separate discussion: the cost of living in most places in California (or other places, say, NYC and Boston) where there are "prestige" institutions. I know, because I commuted 3 hours a day to and from one of those campuses just to afford rent. I would never have been able to afford a place in the town where this campus was.

If the suggestion is that nobody should apply to UCs other than those who can afford it, that's also a separate and broader discussion that's worth having, because the Master Plan of the UC system as originally promulgated by Pat Brown and the UC Regents in 1960 (and still legally in effect) was that "some form of higher education ought to be available to all regardless of their economic means, and that academic progress should be limited only by individual proficiency." (My emphasis.) Maybe the pretense of a Master Plan should be scrapped once and for all and left back in the 1960s where it belongs -- in an era of much less income inequality.
posted by blucevalo at 11:14 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's 100% not true that tuition waivers are taxable.

For American students in US-based institutions, perhaps.
posted by jeather at 12:12 PM on October 31, 2013


en forme de poire: Also, while we're on the subject of tuition waivers, the whole "oh, you're getting paid to learn!" thing is kind of funny to me. After all, for most students in year 2+ this is no more true than if you were being trained on the job at a normal workplace. The average PhD student in my department took 5 courses total (because that was what was required), over the course of 10* semesters. That's less than one half of one class per semester.

Disclaimer: I know you are already familiar with the subject of student/advisor relationships en forme de poire, and I don't mean to be condescending. I'm going to speak in general terms because this is an open forum discussion. This is not directed at you personally.

I definitely don't consider my classes the main focus of my PhD education. Classes are for filling in the gaps in your undergraduate education, mostly. Most of my learning happens in the context of my research and my relationship with my advisor/mentor, and I would say that it goes way beyond what someone would experience in normal on-the-job training. It's many hours a week of directed self-study under the guidance of my advisor, coupled with frequent one-on-one problem solving sessions with my advisor, the other PIs in my department, and my fellow graduate students. If that's what you were thinking of in terms of on-the-job training, then it's five years of that, and at a very intense and personalized level.

Just as important to me as the training though is the opportunity to establish myself in the field. Part of the bargain that a PhD student makes with his or her advisor is that they get to trade on their advisor's reputation, facilities, professional network, and funding in order to produce and publish research that the student would be unable to do on their own. The benefit to the advisor is that they get a lot of labor out of the student and get to share the credit in the work that is done -- and rightfully so in any good student/advisor relationship, since the PI will have had a lot of input into the project and been an invaluable resource for the student over the course of the project. When it's done right, it's mutually beneficial.

The most typical arrangement (though hardly the only common one) is that the student gets first author on any papers where they did the bulk of the work and the writing, and the PI gets last author to signify that they provided the bulk of the support system for the project. Everyone in the scientific community knows what that means, and again when it's done right it's a sensible and mutualistic relationship.

The opportunity to tap into the advisor's professional network is also a big deal to a new scientist. A good PI will have a broad network of contacts and collaborators in his or her field and in related fields, and will make that network available to her or his students. That gives the student a huge leg up in terms of finding people to collaborate with, finding people to share data with, developing relationships within their field, and often even with finding their next position once they finish their PhD program. Building a social network from scratch in such a tight-knit community as most scientific sub-fields tend to be is a really hard thing to do, and having an ally with an established, positive reputation and a network of helpful people they can introduce you to is hugely important. That is another benefit to a good student/advisor relationship, and is part of the overall "compensation package" of the PhD program.

That's really how I see it. My job, as a PhD student, is to work hard and publish as much as I can (and also help teach some classes, if I were a TA), and to share the credit for my work in an equitable way with my PI. My advisor and institution's job is to provide me with huge amounts of extensive, difficult-to-access training under one of the inevitably very small number of people who are truly experts in my field of choice, with access to a professional network that I can build upon and carry forward throughout my research career, and with a modest stipend that is sufficient for me to meet my basic needs. From the student's perspective, all three of those aspects need to be in place for the deal to be worthwhile. When they are, however, it is indeed a pretty solid deal.
posted by Scientist at 12:53 PM on October 31, 2013


Also, and much more briefly, I would just like to reiterate that if the school you're thinking about attending for your PhD isn't capable of providing you with a stipend that will allow you to live comfortably (albeit frugally) in the area then yeah, you shouldn't go. The prestige of the program is far less important than your ability to support yourself while you're in it. Honestly, people care a lot less about where you got your degree than they do about what kind of work you did while you were there. By the time a PhD student graduates her or his publication record will speak for itself, and if that student did a respectable amount of quality research then it'll be there in the journal articles that they put out toward the end of their program, and in their thesis.

If the UC system is unable to pay its grad students a living wage, then it should rightfully suffer for that. In time, prestige will migrate to the universities that are able to support their graduate students effectively and thereby attract a higher quality of talent who puts out a higher quality of research. If the only people who are able to do a PhD at a given school (UC or otherwise) are those who either have outside support (say through parental funding or one of the rare pre-doc grants that are available) then that school should eventually find itself with a real shortage of quality applicants on its hands. That it can take a while for this to happen is an unfortunate symptom of the fact that students are not always very well informed as to the realities of what makes a good PhD program, and that they tend to overvalue things like the prestige and fame of the university.
posted by Scientist at 1:08 PM on October 31, 2013


Scientist, I don't disagree that classes should be a tiny part of your graduate experience, nor that advisors should be committed to the mentorship of their graduate students. I definitely doubt that this type of relationship is really so unique to the academy, or so extensive within it, that it justifies charging $50K a year in overhead for five years under the rubric of "tuition." A lot of people I know in tech either received or provided extensive mentorship on the job, and definitely were able to trade on the reputation of their institution and/or boss. Likewise, a lot of people I know in graduate school rarely interacted with their advisors or did not receive much of the support you're talking about - especially in the humanities, but even in the sciences. Besides which, postdocs also often receive a similar caliber of mentorship from their advisors without any involvement of tuition.

Don't get me wrong, I acknowledge that there are (or at least should be) perks beyond salary for going through a Ph.D. program. But this has nothing at all to do with the dollar amount of tuition they allegedly receive for free. Saying "oh, these people make $17K a year but they get $30K of tuition a year waived" is confused: this is just a bureaucratic accounting procedure (e.g.) and has very little to do with whatever other benefits you may or may not be getting as a graduate student that you wouldn't get in the private sector.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:31 PM on October 31, 2013


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