Graduate Funding: No Easy Answers
On Friday Queereka’s Vince posted this article about the Duke Collective, a group of Duke University graduate students who have decided to pool their funding as a means to collectivize risk and help provide for international students unable to earn additional income by working off-campus. Vince raised a lot of good points in the article, including the fact that many graduate students do not earn a living wage during the time they work toward their degrees and that this can present a significant obstacle for these students. The Duke Collective is certainly a creative means of dealing with this problem, and I wish those students who have decided to participate in that project all the best with their endeavour.
There is, however, a major unstated premise in Vince’s article that I think bears further examination: the idea that graduate study is equivalent to work, and therefore all graduate students should be getting financial packages on par with what they would be earning in full-time employment. This is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Grad school, after all, certainly feels like a full-time job, and as Vince says, it can be incredibly demoralizing to work very hard for, say, five-to-seven years without actually making enough money to live on. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in Star Trek’s post-scarcity economy, and therefore it’s important to think through why the current system is the way it is, what fully funding graduate studies would entail, and what effects it would have on academic labour generally.
Schools and departments have limited funding. This is essentially the crux of the issue. Committing to full funding for all students in a programme for the duration of their studies would, in most cases, require schools and departments to greatly cut back on the number of students they admit to graduate study. Some have argued that this would actually have a salutary effect on academia as a whole, since it would (theoretically) force departments to cut down their reliance on student labour (thus creating more jobs), reduce the overall number of PhDs (and thereby the applicant pool for academic jobs, improving employment rates), and help ensure that those students who are admitted get plenty of individual attention during their training.
Drastically limiting the number of PhDs would also, however, mean ending the careers of many potentially brilliant scholars before they even had the chance to get started. All but the very strongest and best-prepared applicants would be denied the opportunity to pursue graduate work at all, a situation that would not only work against late bloomers (who perhaps need a bit of graduate-level instruction and guidance to get on track), but also graduates of less prestigious institutions or students who have unusual backgrounds. I have to say that the prospect of denying otherwise-qualified students the opportunity to continue their educations for purely budgetary reasons strikes me as distinctly unpleasant.
Grad students are already compensated for their non-study labour, it is just that they are part-time workers. When Vince writes that “Graduate students are essential to the function of universities, teaching classes, performing research, doing laboratory work, grading papers and holding office hours for undergrads but they are not compensated well enough to make a living for the 5-7 years it takes to get a Ph.D, nor are they considered employees,” he does not mention that PhD students are in fact paid for all labour they perform outside their programme requirements. This means that they get an hourly wage for all that teaching, grading, lab work, and research assisting. At my institution (admittedly Canadian so it probably pays better than many US schools), they are paid extraordinarily well for this work: just shy of $27/hr.
It’s here that we run into the fuzzy line between work work and non-work work that can be so vexing to those of us in the academic game. Working on one’s own research and teaching some of the same material (or doing RA work on a related project) feel so similar to us that it becomes hard to mentally distinguish between them, and this in turn tends to give the impression that we are just being paid a very low salary for the whole shebang. But that distinction is, in fact, an important one. Graduate students may be professional teachers, lab workers, assistants, or whatever else they are contracted to do, but they are not yet professional academic researchers. They are not employed by their universities to conduct their own research projects in the same way faculty are. Rather, they are in the process of earning the necessary professional qualifications to be employed as such.
To argue that PhDs should be compensated for this professional training thus requires adopting one of three positions:
1) PhD coursework and research is uniquely deserving of compensation among all educational pursuits.
2) All learning is technically labour and therefore students must be paid to go to school.
3) There is a specific point (e.g. completion of an undergraduate degree) at which going to school magically becomes labour and we are obliged to start paying students to go to school.
In all honesty, none of these is particularly compelling. The second is probably the strongest in terms of consistency, but I sincerely doubt anyone seriously holds that belief much beyond the age of 13. If anyone can suggest a fourth possibility please do.
PhD research is not the same as paid corporate training. Companies pay their new employees for job training because they want and expect these employees to stick around and continue to do the work they were trained for. Schools are the opposite: it is expected that the student will leave upon completion of the degree, and thus they will not generate any return on the investment. The nature of the academic job market also means that (outside a few schools known for the practice), it is exceedingly unlikely that a PhD trained at a given university will later get a tenured position there. Any entity sponsoring PhD training as an overall investment, then, would have to be significantly larger than a single university (almost certainly a government).
All disciplines are not compensated equal(ly). There is a reason that it is relatively uncommon to find significant funding available for students doing postgraduate training in law or medicine, and that is that many of those students can expect significant return on their investment in future labour markets. Fully funding such training for all students would, therefore, be an incredibly inefficient use of limited university budgets. The same is true (if not as dramatically so) for some academic disciplines. Ensuring all these degree programmes are fully funded translates into less funding for less lucrative, but equally important, disciplines.
Nobody is forced to take a bad funding deal. I want to be clear here and say that I absolutely 100% think that governments etc. should be doing more to support research and education–a project that includes more funding for postgraduate training and the production of new scholarship–but when it comes right down to it, if a graduate programme is not going to make it financially feasible for you to attend, the best advice is usually to do something else. That was the first and most important bit of advice I got from my undergraduate advisor when I applied to PhD programmes, and it is the first advice I would ever give any of my students. Graduate school is difficult and stressful and grueling, and it simply isn’t worth going into any kind of major debt just for a shot at the vaunted dream of a tasteful white painted-cinderblock office with matching aluminum bookcases.
Featured image: 2bgr8.