ActivismEducationLawPolitics / ActivismScienceSkepticism

Retort and Riposte: More Grad School Stuff

So for those of you who missed the earlier exchange Dan and I have been having a bit of a back-and-forth RE: the state of graduate education. I broke the topic with an article on the Duke Collective, a group of students who had resorted to wage sharing to help minimize the perilous funding situations they found themselves in. I argued that the move places a spotlight on the structural problems with graduate education and higher education in general. Dan responded with some Canadian-centric points that I’ll try to respond to here.

” 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.”

I think in order to answer this point I need to give you a primer on the way graduate education is paid for in the US. It is not, as it is in Canada, a land of ubiquitous $27 an hour stipends and reasonable work expectations. I’ll focus on the way that sciences are handled because that’s the area I feel most comfortable speaking with any kind of authority on.

In the US the training of science graduate students is normally linked to “soft money”. Faculty mentors apply for short-term research grants and training grants to retain graduate students and fund student projects. Faculty often rent lab space from universities and pay themselves with the grants they bring in. Your future, the project you work on, and the faculty mentor you work with are dependent on federal and state funding and dependent on how good your mentor is at writing grants. In other words there is scarce agency given to individual graduate students as to which labs and which professors they actually want to work with. After the application process, the interviews, the “fit testing” and the rotations you’re left with only a few options for people who have money, let alone ones who aren’t terrible to work with. The marriage of short-term research grants to graduate funding also fosters a conflict of interest between the lab mentor and the student. The student has a vested interest in graduating sooner rather than later while the mentor has an interest in extracting as much useful work out of the student as possible which often leads to extended stays in training programs.

At the post-graduate level you can expect to transition into a post-doctoral position. These positions were at one time honors bestowed on promising young scientists but have now become so common that they translate into an itinerant, scientific workforce. Post-docs float from one lab to another on short contracts for four years or more working 60ish hours a week for $30-40K a year. The post-doc holding pattern combined with the linkage of grad student funding to grants has created a culture in which the majority of biological research is generated by transient or student researchers. The axiom is that trainees are the laboratory workforce and the axiom is poisonously true.

“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.”

It doesn’t matter how unpleasant you think this is. Restricting access due to budgetary constraints and the realities of the economy is fiducially prudent. Every other labor market is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Graduate programs should too. You cannot expect people to train graduate students at the same rate with less money. It’s criminal to try. Furthermore it’s been indicated time and time again by people in higher education and economists that there are too many people with PhDs. The market cannot absorb all of the PhDs in science. It’s even worse for the humanities. Calling for graduate enrollment to remain the same because you don’t want to avoid hurting the careers of young scholars ignores the prevailing market forces and dilutes the value of the PhD as a degree. When you factor in the American Academe’s  snobbishness against low-powered institutions, the torturous application process to get on the tenure track and the persistent adjunctification of the faculty you are left with no vacancies for people from “less prestigious institutions” or “weird backgrounds” let alone people with stellar records.

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.”

Again this misses my point entirely. Graduate students have to compete with other graduate students both inside and outside of their departments for limited funding space in the humanities. The work they perform, while necessary for them to survive, can detract from actually getting to complete your degree. It’s difficult to do research for a thesis while balancing a full course load and an introductory course with 50-100 freshmen. The problem is not that they are part time or full time the problem is that their funding is irregular and dependent on departmental whims or short-term research grants. We do not get regular paychecks, especially not in fields like Musicology. We get what we can take from the institution and by extension other graduate students. We get money when the graduate studies department decides when they want us to eat. Why should I mention that the students are compensated for the labor they perform outside the degree requirements when that has nothing to do with the thrust of the problem, lots of work for very little or irregular pay? Why should I mention that the students are being paid when the problem is that they are not compensated fairly for labor or recognized as labor by their institutions?

“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.”

If you are doing the same work as a teacher or a laboratory technician you should be compensated. You bring prestige and funding to your lab by generating data. In the US you generate the majority of all scientific discoveries. You educate the undergraduates. You grade papers and tests. These things are labor and should be compensated as such.

The way that the university gets around this is by framing graduate education as an apprenticeship.  The idea is that they work long and hard for low pay (or no pay) but that the mentor and institution have a responsibility to launch the career of the scholar. This is no longer the case. Placing people in tenure track positions is neigh impossible; employment prospects are tenuous at best. The part of the social contract that justifies the apprenticeship model is left unupheld by the university and the mentor but the student’s role has gone unchanged. The arrangement is convenient for the institution, which can ignore labor laws and basic fairness for the students. They ignore basic human dignity for the students and exploit their optimism. This has to change. If the IRS classifies graduate students as employees for the purposes of taxation so should universities. If the United Autoworkers are willing to allow graduate students to join them for collective bargaining rights they need to be recognized for the workers that they are.

PhD research is not the same as paid corporate training.”

No it isn’t. Cooperate training exists to enrich the organization that gives you the training for a job that exists. PhD training does neither of these things. The academic labor market and the labor market in general are so poor that the majority of PhD carriers will end up as transient academic labor or on foodstamps or both. If the point of the PhD is to enrich the society that produces them it fails by making it impossible for PhDs to return the investment. If the purpose of the PhD is to replenish aging faculty and serve as the institutional memory of the profession of professing it still fails due to the abysmal percentage of young scholars and scientists on the tenure track. What is the purpose of spending 5-7 years on a degree that certifies you for a job that does not exist?

The job market looks bleaker and bleaker for PhDs. (Source)

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.”

Law and medicine are pre-professional programs, not research positions or teaching positions. They are not the same. To conflate them is to be profoundly ignorant of the nature of post-secondary education. Nobody is asking that MDs get full compensation to do coursework but we do compensate them for post-graduate training during their residencies.  How would you feel if the doctor that was working the late shift in the ER wasn’t being paid enough to live without food stamps? Now expand that, how would you feel if the people developing new vaccines, discovering new species, or teaching your college kids weren’t paid enough to remain solvent?

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.”

Nobody is forced to do anything. Why should any problems matter? You’re arguing that nobody should expect good funding or the expansion of funding but you’re also saying that people should not take bad deals. Those points are contradictory and not terribly helpful. This is especially true in the US where funding is not something that’s regular or guaranteed. Your deal can go out the window, your TA spot can be taken by another graduate student, funding can be cut at the state, university or federal level. It’s unreasonable for graduate students, the people in the weakest bargaining position, to take responsibility for the funding packages that institutions offer them.

It’s not just me saying these things. The call has been sounded by professors warning people away from graduate schools, by scientists and engineers, by think tanks and by former academics. The question is not “Is the system broken?” but “When will people care?”.

 

Edit: This post originally misquoted Dan’s figure of $27 per hour as $27K a year.

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Vince Gabrielle

Vince Gabrielle

Vince is a recent graduate trying to get a goddamn job that pays the bills. He's working on a super secret project FOR SCIENCE! He is not (in order) awake, a bricklayer, fierce, or Ongwe Ias: Eater of Men. Ask him about science, fish, role-playing games, kink, fiction writing, or graduate school.

38 Comments

  1. April 19, 2014 at 8:10 pm —

    A nice and thorough response. You said, “If you are doing the same work as a teacher or a laboratory technician you should be compensated.” This point really is so vitally important in my mind. And I was glad to see you anticipated the response by discussing the history and contemporary state of apprenticeship. Thanks for this.

    • April 19, 2014 at 8:37 pm —

      Thanks Will. If I’m going to respond I’m going to do it properly. 😀

  2. April 19, 2014 at 9:26 pm —

    Could you please explain this $27k stipend thing that comes up twice? You didn’t get it from me. All I said was that out hourly wage for union workers is close to $27/hour.

    Canadian-centric

    The only difference, so far as I can tell, is that we have a higher hourly wage. At least in my discipline, the overall funding situation is not considerably better here than in the US. I can elaborate on this if you want (it’s mostly nuts and bolts), but please don’t be dismissive for this reason: I applied to and got offers from enough US institutions (and have enough colleagues at institutions in the US and elsewhere) to be able to speak about this topic from a general perspective.

    Every other labor market is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Graduate programs should be too.

    This is my argument, actually, not yours. What you are saying is that you want demand artificially lowered to match a desired wage. All I said was that this means fewer people go to grad school. I even said people have made this argument and that there are decent arguments for it…it’s just that I find it a little sad to deny people their right to continue on in school so long as they meet the necessary qualifications to be admitted and want to do it. You don’t. Fine.

    Calling for graduate enrollment to remain the same because you don’t want to avoid hurting the careers of young scholars ignores the prevailing market forces and dilutes the value of the PhD as a degree.

    I am not calling for enrollment to do anything. I am saying departments should be allowed to accept applicants even if they don’t have the cash on hand to completely fund them, and it should be up to the applicant to turn this down if they don’t like it.

    If you are doing the same work as a teacher or a laboratory technician you should be compensated.

    I certainly never said people should not be paid equally for doing the same work. Most of this labour is hourly: if institutions are paying different hourly rates for the same work then yes they should be equalized (organize!). But the vast majority of PhD students aren’t even close working full-time hours doing these duties, and that is generally why they get paid less than people who are working full-time hours. At least in my experience. And if yours differs, then blame your institution (especially if it’s doing something illegal even by US standards, like Will’s example in the comments to my post).

    Law and medicine are pre-professional programs, not research positions or teaching positions. They are not the same.

    Perhaps that’s why I used them as an example of the type of training that should not be funded. The larger point (i.e. CONTEXT) is that some academic disciplines also have more economic opportunities outside academia, like Engineering, Chemistry, etc, and that it might thus be worth considering in the funding debate if it is rational to leave space for students who decide to make that investment despite not being fully funded, because they are not reliant on the tenure track for the future.

    You’re arguing that nobody should expect good funding or the expansion of funding but you’re also saying that people should not take bad deals.

    No! No, no, no, no. First of all, some people do get offered good funding right now and some do not. Barring some kind of magic where funding improves (which would be wonderful and I have said as much), there is simply not enough funding right now for everyone who wants to go to grad school, and this is not likely to change.

    So, either we only accept as many students as we can fully fund (which means the status quo for the people who already get good funding but eliminates even the possibility of graduate study for those who are currently underfunded), or we let the students decide if it is worth it to them to take less-than-full funding (status quo for everyone). This is just true, and I honestly don’t understand why people think it is preferable for departments to make the decision by reducing admissions rather than leaving it up to the students themselves to decide if it is worth it.

  3. April 19, 2014 at 9:57 pm —

    What you are saying is that you want demand artificially lowered to match a desired wage.

    Isn’t Vince arguing to “artificially” lower supply (how many people are admitted into programs), not demand (how many people want to be admitted into programs)?

    • April 19, 2014 at 10:26 pm —

      I am literally arguing that graduate school enrollment should reflect market fluctuations. Graduate programs should not admit more students than they can afford to support nor should they admit more than the market can absorb. To do nothing or to do the opposite is more cruel than outright denying people entry into programs.

      Graduate programs do not make it clear who has funding or how much funding is available to students on enrollment and in the US it’s always subject to semersterly change. None of your rebuttals make sense in the context of our education system.

      So, either we only accept as many students as we can fully fund (which means the status quo for the people who already get good funding but eliminates even the possibility of graduate study for those who are currently underfunded), or we let the students decide if it is worth it to them to take less-than-full funding (status quo for everyone). This is just true, and I honestly don’t understand why people think it is preferable for departments to make the decision by reducing admissions rather than leaving it up to the students themselves to decide if it is worth it.

      That’s also not the point and it’s a false dichotomy. The point is that in many departments there are too many graduate students period, full stop. The university cannot begin to offer full or partial funding to them. The ones on partial funding get such deals irregularly. To correct this the school should either increase the budget to the department, lobby for more federal money or (the easiest and most prudent) gradually reduce enrollment until the grad student population is manageable. The current system is irresponsible to the students it is supposed to serve. It’s even more irresponsible to release these students into the contracted labor market because, shitty as the grad school wages are, some of them are better than adjunct pay.

      Also thank you for pointing out the 27K error. I’ve corrected it.

      • April 19, 2014 at 10:44 pm —

        No, because the we are talking about labour supply, which is the number of people who apply to PhD programmes, not the number of contract hours schools have to give out. The labour supply is going to be constant and inelastic, as is the amount of money schools have to spend. This means universities either take on more people with lower mean wages or fewer people with higher mean wages. The only ways to drive wages up, assuming funding does not increase, is to shrink the labour force. This either occurs because people drop out of it (by refusing to go to schools that don’t offer them enough funding) or because schools decide to take on fewer people. This is very, very basic econ.

        in the US it’s always subject to semersterly change. None of your rebuttals make sense in the context of our education system.

        That is simply not true. Departments in the US can and do offer guaranteed yearly funding to some candidates, usually as a mix of stipends and paid labour (I’m afraid it might by your experience that is limited in this regard). The situation you describe is basically the worst deal anyone can get short of nothing, and one I’d advise anyone to walk away from.

        • April 19, 2014 at 10:55 pm —

          The second clause of my first sentence should read *not the number of people already in PhD programmes*. Sorry it got jumbled when I rewrote it. Demand in this case represents schools’ demand for students, not necessarily labour, which is why the current system is messy.

        • April 19, 2014 at 11:04 pm —

          No, because the we are talking about labour supply, which is the number of people who apply to PhD programmes, not the number of contract hours schools have to give out.

          I’m talking about both sides of the labor market for people on the PhD track, outside and inside graduate school. Outside graduate school there are too many PhDs. Inside there are too many students. Lowering enrollment would go a long way to fix both problems by granting more potential jobs to PhD holders and more support to current students.

          That is simply not true. Departments in the US can and do offer guaranteed yearly funding to some candidates, usually as a mix of stipends and paid labour (I’m afraid it might by your experience that is limited in this regard)

          It’s fairly clear from the context of the thing you were quoting that I was talking about partially funded students. This objection doesn’t make any sense.

          The other potential pitfall in severely restricting enrollment is that, at some point, students get a diminished experience: fewer seminar options, fewer colleagues to work with and learn from, etc. That is why, from an educational standpoint, it is still in departments’ and students’ best interests to have more students in a programme rather than fewer.

          That’s a small price to pay for solvency and career options. Also it does not follow that because enrollment will go down that diversity will suffer. We’re talking about a cohort of people, people in charge of admissions, who are sensitive to campus diversity. It’s so in the admissions zeitgeist that I have no idea how they would fail to try to admit a varied group of people. And if we’re talking about funding it’s simply not true that you have a greater chance of getting a piece of the pie when there are more people clamoring for it.

        • April 19, 2014 at 11:14 pm —

          Departments in the US can and do offer guaranteed yearly funding to some candidates, usually as a mix of stipends and paid labour

          In my experience, this is more often the case for private institutions than public ones, though certainly better-funded public institutions can offer those kinds of deals. Most public institutions in the US are experiencing major funding issues, and that means that departments’ budgets are subject to yearly fluctuations, which affects the kinds of funding they can offer. Most of the programs I was accepted to offered funding without any guarantee that it would be there from year to year, but a couple did offer guaranteed funding for a set amount of time, and neither of those were really a living wage offer.

          Also, can we leave off the condescension please? No need for it.

      • April 19, 2014 at 11:02 pm —

        The 27k error is still not really corrected: it says $27/hr stipends, which doesn’t make sense at all. It is just the union wage for contract labour. Not everyone is guaranteed or offered work.

        • April 19, 2014 at 11:10 pm —

          The fact that you have a union and are offered such wages sorta concedes the point. Graduate schools in the US are not unionized by and large, this is something I’ve been over in the article. You are free to elaborate on the details of your contract and how such things are offered and determined since I am not you and I don’t have the same offer. It’s unreasonable for you to expect me to understand how the funding on your side of the border works.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:16 pm

            The point I am making is that it really isn’t that different. You have decided, on the basis of an hourly wage figure (which I expressly marked as potentially high in my own article) to make all kinds of truly weird assumptions about what goes on up here. If you think you might not understand the situation, you can always ask.

            Just like in the US:

            Some people get offered full funding (usually a mix of stipends/awards/labour)

            Some people apply for and get government funding (this frees up departmental money for others, usually international students)

            Some people get partial funding (usually only labour)

            Some people get no guarantees, but occasional windfalls.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:20 pm

            Yes, so in an average 110 hr contract as a TA, there is about $1000 difference. It hardly concedes any points, especially because we don’t get things like tuition remission. Tuition is pretty low, but it makes up for the wage difference more or less.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:28 pm

            Dan, I think you’re being disingenuous here. No one has debated that those things are similar in both the US and Canada. What is being contested are the shapes that those funding packages take. You keep pointing out that there’s hourly labor on both sides as if Vince is arguing that there is no hourly labor on this side, but really what Vince is arguing (and correct me if I’m wrong, Vince) is that those hourly wages are not reflective of the kinds of work being done–they are too low and do not allow grad students to earn a living wage. And further that grad students should be allowed to unionize (something you already have in Canada) to fight for those better wages.

            At this point it feels like you’re just nitpicking at little facts and figures here and there and not at Vince’s overall point. Vince’s original post was a call for wage practices more like what is going on at Duke in an effort to improve the dire funding situation many PhD students face. It’s like your responses have amounted to “it’s not that bad, and if you don’t like it, you could just leave and do something else!” Even if you don’t intend it, that’s certainly how it comes across.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:55 pm

            Will, you’ve correctly read my argument.

        • April 19, 2014 at 11:12 pm —

          I promise I’ll leave it at this for now, but

          We do not get regular paychecks, especially not in fields like Musicology.

          feels a little inappropriately personal. You don’t know what my funding situation is, nor did I volunteer it. So perhaps it’s best not to make any unwarranted assumptions about it.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:19 pm

            Eh, I read that as a statement of the kinds of values placed in academic funding. Certainly funding flows more consistently to STEM fields in US institutions, and less so to fields like musicology or modern languages or any other various arts and humanities disciplines.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:21 pm

            Look Dan from where I’m sitting $27 an hour sounds pretty awesome. Usually we get something like $10 an hour. Whatever deal you got sounds awesome. You’re free to clarify the issue either here or in a post of your own. You could even use the platform to talk about the student union you’ve alluded to being part of. Quibbling with me like this isn’t constructive.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:21 pm

            You may have read it that way, Will, but

            a) there is no reason to pick my discipline specifically (it was also more pointed when the incorrect stipend figure was attached).

            b) it’s not really true. US funding for musicology is pretty much on par with here. I would know.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:28 pm

            Will is correct. The sole point was to make it clear to you that in the US your hourly wage is astounding especially given your field. There is a reason to target your field specifically; I’m trying to reach you. If things aren’t so different please write a post on it, cite some sources. I’d like to see it and I’d like to know about your experience with a graduate student union.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:34 pm

            Dan, if you’re going to look for an insult there, go ahead. But I genuinely doubt Vince meant it in the way that you are taking it.

            Anyway, I don’t know any musicology PhD students in the US, but could you please direct me to the institution where they are being paid $27/hr to grade papers in 10-20 hours per week? =P

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:41 pm

            There are only so many ways I can say it. Things are not so different because:

            Overall people are getting about the same amount of money because:

            a) they aren’t working that many hours, so
            b) those making a living wage aren’t making it by working, they are getting other money
            c) the higher wage is balanced by having to pay tuition

            There are too many threads here for me to keep track of, and I keep feeling like you are both trying to paint my arguments as negatively as possible.

            Will I don’t know what you are on about my saying I’m pretending Vince is saying there’s no hourly labour. I’m only saying that no one in graduate school can work enough hourly labour at any wage to fully live on. For anyone with substantial funding the bulk of it comes from elsewhere. That is true on both sides.

            The fact is, I have repeatedly said that it would be nice if there was more funding available for everyone, and I don’t see why anyone is pretending I’m saying otherwise.

            What I am saying, and which keeps getting either ignored or dismissed, is that in the current real-world situation, in which overall funding is unlikely to change, I think it is better for departments to accept students and leave it up to them to decide if the funding is adequate, rather than just restrict admissions (which just dumps the underfunded on the non-academic labour market).

            But quibbling about fairly glaring errors and other substantial misreadings of my post is apparently unproductive, so I guess I give up.

          • April 19, 2014 at 11:50 pm

            And in case this wasn’t clear: the hourly rate has nothing to do with any discipline. It is a flat rate for all union-employed graduate students period.

          • April 20, 2014 at 12:05 am

            Dan, because I disagree with some of the things you’re saying does not mean that I am painting your arguments in the most negative light possible. Please do not try to pull some victim thing here as if we are teaming up on you. You’ve been quite condescending in some of your responses, so just stop trying to make this seem like you’ve been innocently voicing your opinion and we are maliciously ignoring it. You’re getting mad about people “misreading” you while you are insisting upon reading into what Vince has written. Cut it out.

            We disagree with you and we are voicing it. That doesn’t mean we are attacking you.

            The fact is, I have repeatedly said that it would be nice if there was more funding available for everyone, and I don’t see why anyone is pretending I’m saying otherwise.

            So, let’s say that I grant you this argument. What does this have to do with Vince’s original argument that collectivizing graduate funding at Duke is something other schools should consider to improve the disparate funding situations within universities? Your original response to his post was basically “quibbling” with his point that grad school funding is fucked up. At this point I’m not even sure if you think it is or is not fucked up. I genuinely cannot tell if you think the situation is in need of change or not. The way your arguments come across is as if we are complaining about an unsolvable problem and if we don’t like it, we should just leave academia.

          • April 20, 2014 at 12:55 am

            Will, my point is this: collectivization only works if you already have enough money to fully fund all the students (otherwise instead of the current system in which some people are fully funded, some partially, and some not at all, you get a system where everyone is partially funded and no one makes a living wage).

            There is currently not enough money to do that. This is a fact. It is fucked up and bad and whatever else you want me to say, but it is a fact. This doesn’t mean I am defending it. It is just a fact.

            Therefore, for that system to work fewer people have to go to grad school. This means departments have to limit admissions, which is not in their best educational interest. It also puts the decision in their hands rather than students’, which seems unfair. To me, it seems preferable to keep admissions as is and encourage students who don’t get offered full or close-to-full funding to consider their options carefully, and probably to turn down the offer. These students, who in the first system would be denied admission, at least in the second system get a choice (even if it should probably be no).

            This is not quibbling, it is a real problem with the collectivization argument. There are a lot of arguments for reducing the number of PhDs in circulation, as I have said before. I don’t see why it is intrinsically more just to tell departments to accept fewer students than it is to tell students not to go to grad school if they don’t get a good funding deal. The outcome is the same, except in the latter situation the students get to make the choice (and are not denied the right to an education, if they want to or are able to pay for it some other way).

            Much of this thread was basically built on an unsubstantial distraction: that the hourly wage tends to be different in both countries. The overall funding picture is largely the same, and I really shouldn’t have to tell you exactly how much I or my colleagues make to make that point. If it matters, our funding situation is really bad right now, thanks to huge retroactive budget cuts from the last provincial administration. But it really doesn’t matter.

            The simple fact is, while the union is somewhat helpful when it comes to employment conditions (i.e. unpaid overtime is well controlled and the wage is inflated for what we do), it doesn’t actually solve the systemic problem. It can’t. No hourly wage for part-time contract work is ever going to fully support grad students (and can be a huge pain in the ass when it comes to strikes, but that’s another story). TA and research work is simply not where the money has to come from for a living wage (unless we start making $100/hr to grade papers).

            This is not a false dichotomy. This is just how the math works out. I don’t understand why it is controversial.

            Lastly, I don’t think it’s playing a victim to say that the MD paragraph in this post widely misses the point I was making (which is made clear in the very next sentence after the one quoted), nor to say that references to all that funding you get up there, Dan felt a little pointed and bitter. “a land of ubiquitous $27 an hour [wages] and reasonable work expectations”? Come on. Also that read as much more bitter with the $27k stipend language.

            If I got condescending, it was because I was frustrated, especially because the use of “supply” in this thread was inconsistent and made the discussion difficult (it can’t refer to labour supply and the number of PhDs and funding and everything else at the same time). I am trying very hard to be consistent and always use the same term to mean the same thing, and it seemed obvious to me what supply had to refer to in this case.

            I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know what it is you’re disagreeing with, because none of these points are things you’ve disagreed with. You seem to be disagreeing with some other person who is telling grad students to quit whining or get out, who is especially annoying because he is floating in cash. Which is not what I’m saying and not at all true, but I would still never advise a student to go to graduate school with less than a minimum funding guarantee. And since that’s basically all I can do until and unless the system changes, that’s what I’ll keep doing.

      • April 20, 2014 at 9:53 am —

        One thing that hasn’t come up (that I’ve seen–forgive me if I missed it) is how long it takes many people to finish a Ph.D. Whose job will it be to determine how many doctoral students can be admitted to a program based upon such-and-such algorithm of market viability for as much as ten years out, as many programs now let students start doctoral programs post-bach? Also, not everyone gets a Ph.D. for the same reason. While I agree that students who enter the program thinking they will have a tenure track job waiting at the end should be warned of how increasingly unlikely that is, it also makes me sad to watch people talk about grad school as if its primary function is as a job licensing body. I would hate to end up with an education system at any level that limits itself to job prep. I know how naive that sounds, but there it is.

  4. April 19, 2014 at 10:47 pm —

    The other potential pitfall in severely restricting enrollment is that, at some point, students get a diminished experience: fewer seminar options, fewer colleagues to work with and learn from, etc. That is why, from an educational standpoint, it is still in departments’ and students’ best interests to have more students in a programme rather than fewer.

  5. April 20, 2014 at 10:24 am —

    And for the record, my program (American) offered a yearly stipend for teaching two sections of freshman comp each term (don’t even talk to me about grading papers!) AND we got no tuition waiver. I lived mostly off student loans and now I’m paying them. I landed a tenure track gig but many of my friends did not. I do wish someone had told me: 1) That I could shop for a better funding deal; 2) How hard it would be to get a tenure track job if that’s what I wanted. But I have never truly wished that I had not been admitted to graduate school. That experience and education enriched my life and my Self in countless ways. I understand the arguments for limiting admissions, and I get that programs are not always honest with candidates about the profession. However, I never thought, when I was teaching freshman comp, that I was doing the same work as a professor, or that my stipend was my only compensation for my labor. The experience and the pedagogical education I was getting were part of my package–it made a difference that I had taught all that comp when I applied for teaching jobs after graduation. And now that I am a professor myself I know exactly how different it is. I do not spend most of my work time in the classroom. Not even CLOSE. I spend my time sitting in committee meetings and writing/rewriting policy and advising/enrolling students and taking my turn as president of the faculty and reading colleagues’ promotion and tenure applications and rewriting NCATE program reviews for the 90th time and writing recommendation letters, etc. plus infinity. Grading papers feels like REST sometimes, and squeezing in time to do my own research is enough to make me weep. I’m not saying I think grad funding doesn’t need reform, but do I think it’s more complicated than just labor = $.

    • April 20, 2014 at 11:02 am —

      I did mention that the PhD can take an upwards of 7 years. Some have estimated this to be higher. I’m not saying there needs to be an algorithm for determining how many students get in but there does need to be a realistic assessment of market projections and departmental budgets. It’s not a matter of making the PhD a job certificate program or diluting the quality of education; it’s a matter of restoring the social contract implicit in the apprenticeship model. If universities are going to continue to delude themselves into thinking that the apprenticeship still works they should uphold their part of the social contract by making sure career opportunities exist. Furthermore they should be doing more to launch people into “alternative” career path outside of academia.

      The reason why I didn’t address your point about the intangible benefits of teaching and education is because, well, they are by definition personal, qualitative and unmeasureable. I can’t advocate for an increase in the pedagogical benefits of teaching and even if I could I wouldn’t because it wouldn’t put food in people’s mouths or promote student solvency. The graduate school equation is not as simple as labor=$ but that’s not the stance I’m taking. I want living wages, dignity in the workplace and collective bargaining for the students and some structural reforms on the institutional side.

  6. April 20, 2014 at 1:39 pm —

    I get what you’re saying but I find the things you define as “intangible” to be in many ways quite tangible. All manner of different kinds of studies show how changed people are in various ways by increased education. And the pedagogical benefits of graduate teaching are very like those of student teaching for elementary and secondary teaching candidates, in that the experience indeed helps you feed yourself ultimately by giving you something to put on your resume and talk about in teaching statements and interviews. All of the sample syllabi and teaching demonstrations I had to present as part of my interviewing process were made possible by my work as a graduate teaching fellow. Only to say, the benefit of that labor does not flow merely one way; it makes us more qualified job seekers. My program, for all its flaws, did make every effort to give grad students diverse teaching and professional development opportunities for just these reasons, and it helped me develop into a more effective instructor.

    And let’s think about student teaching for candidates seeking state certification for a moment. (Yet another of my duties that is not teaching is supervising English Education candidates. sigh) They spend an entire semester writing and executing lessons and not only receive no pay for their exhausting labor but in fact must pay tuition for the privilege. Why?

    (I feel like I’m giving the impression that I’m one of those fancypants profs with a big salary and a 1-2 load or something, but I teach a 4-4 and serve as coordinator of my department and am required to hold 10 hours per week of office hours at a very small 4-year liberal arts college where our pay is second to lowest among Oklahoma colleges–and Oklahoma is not exactly renowned for its education funding to begin with. Just for full disclosure’s sake. My pants are not fancy.)

    • April 20, 2014 at 2:45 pm —

      I think student teaching is a useful comparison, but I think it’s important to underline that grad students, unlike student teachers, are never doing teaching work for free. The work they are not paid an hourly rate for doing is their own research (usually, unless they are riding on a supervisor’s grant) and coursework.

      • April 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm —

        Although instructors are sometimes paid on a per-course basis and not hourly.

    • April 20, 2014 at 4:10 pm —

      People in student teaching programs are in well-defined, temporary training positions under direct and close supervision. It’s not the same thing as being handed a classroom full of college freshmen. Student teachers are also undergraduates, typically, which as you should both know is an entirely different animal in terms of the expectations, financial aid and parental assistance. The student teaching experience is a quick, heavily supported position. This is not what graduate TAs face. The comparison to me smells of exploitation. It’s like you’re trying to excuse poor working conditions and piss-poor ability to negotiate with the idea of “education”.

      I’m not dismissing the power of teaching others as a way to teach yourself. That’s not the issue here. The issue is basic fairness in the workplace.

  7. April 20, 2014 at 6:25 pm —

    No, sorry, I wasn’t clear: I’m not excusing anything. And I know student teaching is different, but it might not be as different as the difference between someone with a full time job and a grad student. That’s the problem here, that it’s hard to delineate reasonable compensation and workplace fairness for people who are more like interns than employees. I do admit that I’m not convinced that grad students suffer from “poor working conditions” to the extent you seem to suggest, but that’s not “excusing” so much as not being convinced you’re entirely right about the suffering. Now, if we were talking about adjuncts, I’d be right there with you. Those people are fucking exploited, and the exploitation derives from the assumption that they will not be able to find anything better, ever. There’s very little about being an adjunct that feels like it’s designed to propel you to something else. Grad students don’t cruise through programs as quickly as undergrad student teachers, but they don’t stay forever either; they sure aren’t making a career there, hanging in for retirement. It’s a transitional stage. They’re transient workers, not because the Man refuses to offer them anything else (as with adjuncts) but because that’s what they’re signing up for in the first place.

    And I think you are dismissing my argument that grad student teachers get more compensation than just money. I’m not trying to make a purely abstract argument there; I’m saying that compensation matters and is factored into the deal. I had a supervisor as a grad teacher. We also had a pedagogy class and a bank of textbooks and syllabi and a full professor whose job it was to help us when we needed it. I think most grad students actually receive a lot of support. I would love for everyone to get cheap or free graduate educations. I have no doubt it would make the world a better place to live in for all of us. I also support wage rights and unions. I’m just not entirely comfortable calling grad students exploited workers based on their paychecks alone.

    • April 20, 2014 at 7:24 pm —

      The exploitation is not just a matter of low pay. It’s a matter of irregular pay, obtuse or obscure funding decisions on the part of the university and lack of negotiating power. Typically there aren’t contracts or unions or stability. If you look back at the article I address those points.

      The situation only gets worse when you look at adjuncts. When you consider that most grad students will end up adjuncting for roughly the same pay as a grad student but with more teaching work.

      And yeah, I was dismissing your argument about intangible compensation because that’s not what I’m talking about. This whole thing was started because I thought that the Duke Collective story was a red flag, a starting point for a broader conversation of the state of academia. If you have a group of students who are so dissatisfied with the way they are treated that they’d go around the university to sustain themselves what else are you supposed to think?

      I love science. I. Fucking. Love. Science. I read for fun. I enjoy lab work. I am aware that I’m getting intangible benefits from my laboratory experience. I am not given funding outside of tuition support. Does this mean that I don’t think I’m learning or growing, no. Does this mean it’s more difficult to put food in my mouth, yes. I’d prefer to be able to eat. I think most people would too.

      • April 21, 2014 at 12:07 am —

        So let’s say that universities begin to take on only as many students as they can pay for, and that means you don’t get access at all. Is that an outcome you find preferable? If so, how is that different from choosing not to go, except that the decision is made for you?

        • April 21, 2014 at 11:10 am —

          The decision isn’t made for me. I can always choose to apply to other places, other programs or to get a job as a tech or in something else. In this scenario how would I know it was a budget thing and not a case of better competing applicants or bad fit with the university? There are innumerable reasons to be rejected from a program and a university will never tell you why.

          But I’ll bite the bait.

          Yes. I think it’s still preferable. I don’t want to spend the better part of a decade building expertise, going to conferences, writing papers, doing lab work, and enduring committee meetings to be greeted with a shrug after graduation. I don’t want to become an expert in a field only to be left in a job market that doesn’t want or need experts. I don’t want to be told by my peers the innumerable stupid things that are told to people seeking jobs but having no luck. I don’t want to tie my life, my love and my identity to a callous and indifferent academy. I don’t expect the process to be easy or without hardship. I fully expect stress and difficulty along the way. What’s unacceptable to me is the insane, dignity-destroying status of the post-doc and the adjunct.

  8. April 21, 2014 at 7:48 pm —

    not a case of better competing applicants or bad fit with the university

    . But that’s the thing. Funding packages are already essentially offered to admitted students in this fashion, at least in programmes that don’t guarantee full funding.

    What’s unacceptable to me is the insane, dignity-destroying status of the post-doc and the adjunct.

    I agree that these are huge problems, but they weren’t the topic of this discussion. I’m also not convinced that cutting down on PhDs (by whatever method) would solve this problem without other major structural changes totally unrelated to the number of people getting degrees.

    I don’t want to tie my life, my love and my identity to a callous and indifferent academy.

    I agree that this is a terrible thing. But that is actually the current state of the academy, and it is dishonest and irresponsible to give students any other impression of it when counseling them about their desire to join it.

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