Thoughts for the graduate students tonight

In graduate school, my stipend was $17,000 a year. I picked up an extra class a year on top of the three I taught for my stipend to make a little more. This turned out to not be such a ridiculous thing in the long term, as I gained enough teaching experience to make myself stand out a little on the job market. Though my research suffered.

My health insurance was designed for healthy 20-year-olds, and I was neither. We got a tuition waiver, but that didn’t cover fees, which came to a couple grand a year. In a right-to-work state, we had no hope of unionizing, and though we tried, we could never even get an advocacy organization off the ground.

We watched our friends who’d left academia buy houses and have kids and make retirement plans while we cooked rice and beans and scrounged furniture off the curb when undergrads moved out.

Then my husband and I graduated and got postdocs and I got a tenure track position. And now, adjusted for inflation, I make less than I did when I was a first-year teacher with Teach for America, fresh out of college. We knew what we were getting into, and we have no regrets about the decisions we made. But especially considering the time value of money, we made significant financial sacrifices for the careers we chose.

All this is to say that if our financial situation had been even a little more dire, we could never have gone to graduate school at all. And we were lucky: we had no kids or sick parents to support, in fields with tuition support and decent numbers of jobs available, and we came from white, middle-class families with parents who never once asked why we still didn’t have a “real” job.

I’m sure you all know that the current GOP tax plan will tax tuition waivers as income, increasing student tax bills by thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. There is no way we could have managed to pay for school under this scheme. There’s no way most of my friends and colleagues could have, either. The pipeline already favors students from wealthier backgrounds; raising the financial bar higher will choke off the supply of graduate students that the modern university system lives on.

Regardless of how the upcoming Senate vote comes out, there is a relatively easy way to solve this problem.┬áSarah Arveson, Ph.D. candidate in geology and geophysics at Yale, lays out an excellent argument in her editorial in the Washington Post for simply removing the accounting sleight-of-hand of waivers and stop charging tuition for graduate students. Not only would this solve the tax issue, I believe it would help reframe the position of graduate student entirely: recognizing that they generate more resources than they consume, and that they’re a vital part of the university ecosystem. Graduate students are more employee than student, it’s a real job with real work, and it’s long past time we recognize that in tangible ways.

I think a lot of us believe that being a professor is somewhat of a calling, and that it’s reasonable to expect to make sacrifices to become one. But there must be a line between making sacrifices to get to do what you love, and martyring yourself for your job. The current academic system already falls on the wrong side of that line more often than not. Depending on what happens tomorrow, it may get a swift kick even further. I can’t imagine how worried these students must be tonight, and I hope those of us on the other side will continue to advocate for them. For all our sakes.


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