Higher Education

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.

A pile of US $100 bills

In other words, let’s talk cashmoneydollars.

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.

Aragorn meme: One does not simply enroll in a PhD programme.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.

Skeptical African Kid meme: You make how much alphabetizing scantrons?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.

Picard facepalm meme: Early Etruscan Dong Doodles: A Catalogue raisonné

If I were on a grant committee I would so fund this project.

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.

Doge meme: Much Scholarly! / So Success!And if you’re not getting paid anyway, I can guarantee unemployment is more fun without a dissertation hanging over your head.

Featured image: 2bgr8.

Previous post

Queereka Cross-Post: Collectivism at Duke

Next post

Creationism, Part 1: It’s a fight over science, not facts.

Dan

Dan

Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

21 Comments

  1. April 15, 2014 at 2:53 pm —

    Apart from the very few fields where a job after graduation that pays quite well is the expected norm, no one should enter a grad program where financial support is such that the it is expected that students will pile up more debt. Avoid such programs! Also, be aware that professional schools that used to practically promise a lucrative future (e.g., law) are more and more only able to promise graduating with unpayable debt.

  2. April 15, 2014 at 3:20 pm —

    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.

    Yeah, this is definitely a case of different practices in US and Canada. The idea of being paid $27/hr is utopian in my mind. As a TA at a state school in Texas, I got paid $12.50/hr for 10 hours a week even though I was working more like 30-40 for much of the semester. This worked out to about $500/month, give or take. So the thing is, it might look like on paper I got decent funding because I was getting paid $12.50/hr for being a TA, I was limited to “working” (read: submitting) 10 hours per week.

    • April 15, 2014 at 3:26 pm —

      Yeah that’s way illegal by the terms of our labour agreement.

      • April 15, 2014 at 3:35 pm —

        Also, 30-40 hours a week is way more than a TA should be working by any reasonable standard. That’s four times what tenured faculty are “supposed” to work per class taught.

        • April 15, 2014 at 3:43 pm —

          But that’s the problem that Vince is writing about, isn’t it? There are systemic labor abuses going on in academia, at least in the US, but no one wants to pay attention to them.

          Also, 30-40 hours in a week is not unfathomable when you’re the sole TA for a course with 100 students who have to submit a bunch of writing assignments on a regular basis. Granted, my department has put out guidelines to more seriously restrict the amount of time TAs are allowed to actually work since I stopped being a TA, so they are at least cognizant of these issues.

          And I don’t know how a faculty member can spend 10 hours per week and be fully prepared for a course as well as deal with all the student issues and office hours and so on. That sounds like nowhere near as much work that is required to run a class. And most faculty teach 2-3 courses per semester. I’m teaching 2 courses with no TA support this semester, and I spend at least 40 hours per week, if not way more, working on those courses.

          • April 15, 2014 at 3:54 pm

            A TA could always choose only to work the hours they are paid for. Departmental TAs can organize.

            Part of the reason there is so much labour exploitation in academia is that so many people happily perpetuate the system. We really don’t have to take the bad deals. We can work somewhere else or do something else rather that perpetuate the system. I for one will take a walk and make coffee long before I cobble together 3 adjunct jobs for below-poverty wages.

            And it’s a little different the first time teaching a class, but that really is the formula. 3 hours class time, three hours prep, one office hour, and three hours marking and miscellaneous. That is how 60% teaching, 30% research, and 10% service are supposed to add up to a standard work week. Most people go over, but not by that much.

          • April 15, 2014 at 9:36 pm

            Of course people can always choose to do other things, that’s not really the point though, is it? I mean, that’s a little bit like telling a worker who makes minimum wage, “you can always go work somewhere else.” I want to work in academia, and I should be paid a living wage for the work I do. I don’t think that’s asking too much.

            And it’s a little different the first time teaching a class, but that really is the formula. 3 hours class time, three hours prep, one office hour, and three hours marking and miscellaneous. That is how 60% teaching, 30% research, and 10% service are supposed to add up to a standard work week. Most people go over, but not by that much.

            I’ve never heard the 60/40/10 formula, I’ve heard 40/40/20. Interesting. And if you can get through 75 5-page papers in 3 hours and give good constructive feedback, I’m going to need to know how you do that. Do you teach really small classes? Because I have taught larger classes with 90 students turning in papers with no TA to help grade, and it definitely takes more than 3 hours a week to grade that.

          • April 16, 2014 at 2:58 am

            The formula varies by institutional focus and expected teaching load.

            If you are assigning a five-page paper every week that seems pretty excessive to me and your students must riot. Do I really have to say that some weeks are busier than others?

            In fact I have only once taught a class with under 50 students and several times have had 300 (with 2-3 TAs). When they greatly outnumber you and you have no TAs, that actually does need to factor in to the kind of assignments you choose to give them. In a 300-person class I tell my TAs specifically not to spend the extra time required to give detailed comments on papers because a) most students will not read them, b) they will go over on their hours, c) if the student wants feedback they can ask in person and the marks can be explained.

            that’s a little bit like telling a worker who makes minimum wage, “you can always go work somewhere else.”

            It’s really not. It is like telling people who apply for a white-collar office job that is usually not minimum wage but who get offered an illegally low salary so say “no” and reconsider working for that employer. Academia isn’t WalMart, and we aren’t talking about people with no skills who don’t have other options. Is it controversial to say that just because someone wants to work in a field doesn’t mean that they must always get their ideal job offer?

          • April 16, 2014 at 3:16 am

            And remember, in the “fully-funded” scenario those people who want to be in academia get denied access completely, rather than offered less-than-full funding.

  3. April 15, 2014 at 3:35 pm —

    Also, it seems like you’re arguing that we shouldn’t be expecting better funding for PhD programs for various reasons, but then you advise not to attend programs unless they offer good funding. That seems a little contradictory.

    I’m not convinced that limiting the number of acceptances to PhD programs would drastically affect the kinds of people who are accepted into PhD programs. This point seems to operate under the assumption that there would be less master’s programs (most of which, as far as I understand, are unfunded) that could potentially serve as preparation for PhD programs. I don’t see that this is the case. I was definitely a “late bloomer,” finishing my undergrad in my late 20s and beginning graduate work in my early 30s. That was not a factor in where I got in–first and foremost was whether or not I was a good fit for the departments I was applying to and if the people I wanted to work with were taking students. There’s a lot more to applications to PhD programs that make someone a good candidate for admission than their performance as an undergraduate.

    • April 15, 2014 at 3:45 pm —

      I think it is reasonable to make a distinction between “better funding” and only accepting as many students as the school can provide 100% funding (equivalent to a living wage) for. That doesn’t mean “don’t expect better funding.” It means there is and always will be a finite amount of funding and we have to decide if that means some people get accepted and offered partial funding or no funding, or whether these students get turned down.

      I would love for departments to have enough money to fully fund the maximum number of students they can successfully accept and academically support, but this will probably never happen in real life, so decisions actually have to be made.

      The decisions students make and the decisions departments make are different. I see no contradiction in saying it is best for everyone if departments can still accept students they can’t completely pay for, even if it is probably best for most students to turn down such an offer.

    • April 15, 2014 at 4:22 pm —

      This point seems to operate under the assumption that there would be less master’s programs (most of which, as far as I understand, are unfunded) that could potentially serve as preparation for PhD programs.

      That’s really not the assumption at all. Also, many MA students get funding. Disciplinary standards vary of course, but in mine an unfunded MA is an unusually bad deal. There are, however, accelerated PhD programmes that skip the MA (something that occurs at my institution mainly to save students tuition money since it cannot legally be waived).

      The point is pretty simple. Programmes currently accept some students they have some slight reservations about without offering them much in the way of funding. These reservations can stem from many things, but often it’s just that a student shows promise but simply doesn’t seem as strong as the other candidates for some reason or another. These are the students that get left out if departments can only accept people they can fully fund for seven years. Some of them have the potential to really blossom in the new environment, just as some of the “stronger” candidates might not turn out to be as strong, or might burn out.

      If these other candidates really want to take a stab at it and are willing and able to make things work with less-than-complete funding, they should be able to choose to do so. That doesn’t mean it’s always going to be the right choice, but they can leave, too, if things aren’t working out.

  4. April 16, 2014 at 4:19 am —

    I like some of this, but I agree with above commenters that it is a tad bit limited to the Canadian perspective.

    When I left my previous grad school program, I found myself unemployed with no ability to file for unemployment insurance, so it was A) Find a job B) Find a PhD program that pays something, anything or C) Oops, I have no money. I tried but failed to find a job (not even something in retail/fast food…ugh job hunting seriously sucks these days) so I found a PhD program. Thankfully I now have somewhat better funding terms, so that’s nice, but my point is that while I wasn’t “forced” to take a bad funding deal, neither are people forced to take unpaid internships, minimum wage jobs, or just plain crappy jobs. Yet they do, and they line up for the privilege, which seems to suggest that at the very least they are strongly compelled by something beyond their control. Clearly we need to fix that too.

    “Part of the reason there is so much labour exploitation in academia is that so many people happily perpetuate the system. We really don’t have to take the bad deals. We can work somewhere else or do something else rather that perpetuate the system. I for one will take a walk and make coffee long before I cobble together 3 adjunct jobs for below-poverty wages.”

    Based on my experience, I would just ever-so-slightly amend this:

    Part of the reason there is so much labour exploitation in academia is that so many students feel powerless to change the situation and many higher-ups fight to maintain the status quo. But if we band together, we can strengthen our bargaining power and fight for a better overall economy so that we really don’t have to take bad deals. I for one will call up my closest socialist country and ask them to please let me come over and make coffee for them long before I will cobble together 3 adjunct jobs (not sure how to make this last one apply to me. I’m jealous of your coffee-parachute).

    Also, you asked why PhD’s should be paid. Graduate students produce something of value to the general public: new research. To be fair, undergraduates often also do a thesis or contribute to a publication, but it is a smaller fraction of their work. Also, if they are in an unpaid work-study situation, I would look at that with the side-eye as well. Also, much of the “training” is not done in a typical classroom setting, but as more of a collaboration with others, independent research and other activities (conferences maybe) which both train and produce.

    • April 16, 2014 at 6:08 am —

      But if we band together, we can strengthen our bargaining power and fight for a better overall economy so that we really don’t have to take bad deals.

      Well, yes. That is what I mean when I say student labourers can organize and refuse to do illegal unpaid overtime. But they actually have to do it or nothing will change. That is the whole theory behind unions! And sorry if my mind is a little boggled that students actually do tolerate something that, again, is illegal.

      Obviously the economy sucks and there are a lot of problems in the world at large. But all I am saying is that if it is prohibited for departments to offer students partial or no funding, then it’s not like those students who get partial or no funding now will magically get funding. They will just not get accepted into the programmes in the first place and left in the exact same shitty labour market.

      Also I’m pretty sure even non-socialist countries have coffee shops. Give me a break.

      • April 20, 2014 at 11:25 pm —

        “But all I am saying is that if it is prohibited for departments to offer students partial or no funding, then it’s not like those students who get partial or no funding now will magically get funding. They will just not get accepted into the programmes in the first place and left in the exact same shitty labour market.”

        This is the same argument we hear every time someone asks for fair pay. Women can’t be paid the same as men, because then companies will have to lay off workers. We can’t raise the minimum wage, because then people will lose jobs. It’s always nonsense. There are plenty of ways for you to find that “magic” extra funding without rejecting candidates. For example, Universities could pay administrators less and use the savings to pay PhD’s and adjunct professors more. On a national level, in the U.S. at least, we could tax the rich more fairly, use the extra money to better fund science and our public universities. In theory, this would also create jobs so these very PhD’s don’t get stuck unemployed after graduation.

        My main beef with your piece is that you seem to be blaming the students. Protesting illegal working conditions and finding alternatives are privileges that many students simply don’t have. You said you were boggled that people would tolerate something illegal. Let me explain. There are more unemployed looking for work than there are jobs – it’s simple arithmetic. People tolerate illegal working conditions not because they are lazy, not because they are just simply happy to go along with exploitation, but because they have to pay their rent. You can’t fault them for that.

        • April 20, 2014 at 11:55 pm —

          Once again: I would very much like it if structural changes occurred that made more funding available. I think this should happen. But in the mean time (which is likely to be a long time if not forever) what exactly are we, as educators, supposed to do?

          My main beef with your piece is that you seem to be blaming the students.

          Saying we as educators need to advise students not to take bad deals is not the same thing as blaming students who are being treated unfairly.

          A PhD is not the same thing as a job, and across-the-board comparisons to the labour market don’t really hold up. PhD students are working part-time and studying part-time, it just happens that they are doing both things at the same institution. Even if student workers never faced unpaid overtime and were compensated fairly for hours worked, it would still be impossible for them to earn enough money to live on without extra grants and stipends. We should thus advise students who don’t get offered grants and stipends not to go to grad school.

          Actually, not offering funding used to be enough to turn people away. That many are choosing to go to grad school despite not being offered funding is, in fact, partly a function of the horrible labour market, as they don’t expect to do better outside the academic setting. That problem is much bigger than academia.

          Women can’t be paid the same as men, because then companies will have to lay off workers.

          You do understand that this is not the same thing as discrimination against a class of people, right? We are talking about the fact that some people are not offered full scholarships to get advanced degrees and what to do about it.

  5. April 16, 2014 at 5:04 am —

    While I have very little understanding of American or Canadian education systems, I’m kind of wondering why it is so ridiculous to think that students could or should be paid for their work. I live in Denmark, and we are paid to go to school from Gymnasium (I think that is roughly equivalent to high school) and on. If I understand correctly, the issues would lie with requiring the universities to pay the students and thus lose some of their funding, but is there a reason that students can’t receive compensation through the state? It’s how things work over here. Depending on your legal guardians’ incomes, special circumstances and whether you live with your legal guardians, you are paid a certain amount by the state. It’s not much, but it covers daily needs, housing and similar expenses well enough.

    I’m quite sleepy at the moment, though, so I apologise if I misread your points and if my questions are irrelevant. ^_^’

    • April 16, 2014 at 5:55 am —

      The system is very different. Undergraduates are expected to pay tuition (although many receive financial aid) and are not compensated. Many graduate students do receive compensation in the form of grants, in addition to paid work they do during their degrees. It is not required that universities fund all students, however, and some students are admitted to programs without being offered significant funding packages and decide to attend anyway.

      The amount Danish undergraduates receive (approximately USD 11k/year) is about half the amount we are talking about here. I was not able to determine exactly how PhD students are funded in Denmark, beyond the fact that many are employed as full-time researchers. However the North American system of graduate education is very different from the European one (generally speaking it takes much longer and requires several years of coursework before the full-time research stage), so it is very difficult to make a cross-system comparison.

  6. April 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm —

    Hey just a head’s up. I have a response to this post in the works. I would have commented earlier but… well… grad school.

    • April 20, 2014 at 2:56 am —

      I am tenured professor at University of California, Los Angeles. Being a tenured professor has just been rated as the 2nd best job to have. And it is. I love it and I may end up being one of those annoying profs that retire by going out feet first.

      The previous paragraph is exactly why graduate school and postdochood afterwards has always and will always suck from a financial standpoint. Great jobs tend to attract a lot people that want them, and are willing to suffer and be exploited to get them. If we were to advertise my job, we’d get 100+ well-qualified applicants, easy. And it was no different when I was a grad student (80’s – best music decade, ever, he writes as listening to “Are Friends Electric?” and “Joy Circuit”). In fact, from a financial and workload standpoint, you don’t realize how good you have it relative to what I faced! At UCLA in my department, every incoming student now gets $26k/yr plus tuition and health coverage for 5 years guaranteed in terms of fellowships and TA’s. Unthinkable in my day.

      What has changed is the escalation. For me to be job competitive, my thesis had to be far better than the one my major advisor did. For my students to job competitive, they have to do an even better thesis. And have a credible teaching resume. And have demonstrated grant-getting ability. And don’t forget that broader impact and outreach component tied into it all. You have to be brilliant – that’s a given. But you also have to be hard working, and have the time to work hard almost constantly (no second job here). And some amount of luck to have your thesis work out as expected in a field that is ‘hot’.

      So you think you are going to be job competitive against my funded brilliant students by being in a grad program where you can’t make a living wage except by slinging coffee on the side? Do I think I can beat Usain Bolt in a sprint with 50lbs on my back? Maybe, but not hardly likely. I repeat my advice from before: if you want my job, the first required step is to find a program that at least gives you a chance to succeed.

      Because being a prof is such great job there will always be far more people trying to get one than can ever succeed. Being a famous actor is another great LA job. What do you think is the success rate in that career choice? So, I tell every student that applies to my lab the same advice given to wannabe actors – don’t do it, unless you absolutely, positively, for certain know that you will regret it forever in not at least trying. And then be prepared to suffer, be exploited, and work your tail off. If you make it, it’ll be worth it. If…

Leave a reply