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To invest in science, we need to invest in tomorrow’s scientists. Let’s start by paying them wages that meet the cost of living.
By Jacqueline Acres | November 10, 2022
What, exactly, is a graduate student?
The answer was not always clear-cut to the U.S. government, which for decades debated whether graduate students are strictly students, or whether they are also employees.
In 2016, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board voted that graduate students who teach and aid research are indeed employees . This reaffirmed what many knew all along — that graduate students provide enormous value to universities as employees, not just as students.
So why are graduate students still so underpaid?
Some universities argue that their relationship with graduate students is solely educational, because students’ labor — through teaching or research, for example — helps them earn degrees.
But this overlooks graduate students’ economic and scientific contributions to their schools. For faculty to be successful, they must have students capable of researching, and who can demonstrate competency in their fields. In addition to aiding in meaningful research, graduate students teach, often as a requirement — and they spend many hours doing so, often far more than the university expects. Data is scarce, but according to a 2015 survey from Georgetown University, more than 75% of graduate students worked at least 30 hours per week. In my experience, students work 30 to 70 hours per week and treat this as a year-long, full-time job.
For these contributions, graduate students across disciplines should receive at least a living wage, but many do not. In 2020, a national survey of 3,000 graduate students found that 1 in 4 endured housing or food insecurity. According to recent crowdsourced data, 98 percent of institutions and departments in the biological sciences do not guarantee that graduate students receive salaries that exceed their cost of living. And a 2019 survey from the American Chemical Society found that more than 27 percent of graduate students reported that their funding was not adequate — a number that rose more than 6 percentage points from 2013.
Physics is no different. According to data from the American Institute of Physics’ Statistical Research Center, first-year doctoral students who earned their bachelor’s degrees in 2019 and 2020 in physics earn $21,900 to $30,000 annually (25th to 75th percentile) from teaching assistantships, the most common type of support (Fig. 1). The cost of living in these institutions’ cities frequently exceeds these salaries. (Students are pushing back, often through strikes.)
Some graduate students earn fellowships to supplement their income, but many do not. Some work second jobs, but many universities prohibit this. And graduate students usually lack access to employer-sponsored, tax-advantaged retirement plans, like 401(k)s or 403(b)s, impacting students’ far futures. For all of this, students pay a price: Scientists have known for decades that low or no pay is linked to worse health outcomes, both physical and mental.
Like so many graduate students, I have faced these financial stressors firsthand.
I’m Jackie Acres. I’m a doctoral candidate in applied physics at Portland State University, and I expect to defend my dissertation this February. Even now, so close to the finish line, that sentence comes as a shock. I’ve spent my life seeking opportunities to learn, but I did not realize how much a Ph.D. would challenge me.
My path was unconventional. After I earned my master’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2010, I took several years off to stay at home with my daughter, Lyra.
My life changed when I got divorced and decided to go back to school. Graduate school scared me: I would live for years with low pay, and if I did not earn my degree, I would have nothing to show for that time. The prospect of failure, particularly with a then-first-grader, was frightening.
How frightening? PSU’s acceptance offer made no promise of pay at all, and if I were to receive a stipend, I could earn, at most, $24,000 a year, before taxes and without benefits — but MIT’s living wage calculator indicates that a household with an adult and child in my area needs to earn $79,000 before taxes to cover basic costs of living. The discrepancy is stark, not least because, according to rent.com, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Portland is $1,622 per month, nearly $19,500 a year.
But I dove in. At Portland State University, I found Dr. Jay Nadeau, whose work in biophysics fascinated me: Dr. Nadeau uses digital holographic microscopy to look for life on other planets. She also makes sure graduate students are paid and secures the funding to do so. On paper, the program seemed like a great fit.
Getting through the program, though, was a different ball game. My first year in, rumors abounded about the program shutting down. Although I received funding as a research assistant through Dr. Nadeau’s grant, I feared that the situation could change, or that I would struggle to pursue a career in academia after school. I began to doubt that my degree, if I earned it, would be useful.
To assuage my fears, I started my own tutoring business and took on as many clients as I could. I worked in the lab for Dr. Nadeau, one of few professors at the school to pay their students through grants, and ran my business in my off-hours to generate extra income.
I completed my required coursework in two years, passed my comprehensive exams, and am working on my dissertation. I am the first author on two publications, and I won a fellowship through the Oregon Space Grant Consortium. I have also maintained my tutoring business and raised my daughter, encouraging her to pursue her interests.
I am proud of all this, but financial insecurity has also made this experience deeply difficult. I am a divorced mother in my late thirties; career pivots are risky, and pay matters. In many ways, I have been lucky — I earned income through my business, and Dr. Nadeau let me work at my own pace — but I do not want others to go through similar struggles.
The consequences of underpayment do not hurt everyone equally. Graduate programs that do not pay students livable wages will push away bright minds who come from less wealthy or marginalized backgrounds. Higher education is already unaffordable to low-income families; years of financial insecurity await many of them if they become graduate students.
If indeed diversity, equity, and inclusion are central to our vision of physics’s future, then science institutions must look beyond those who have traditionally had access to more resources. To support scientists of diverse backgrounds or non-traditional career paths like mine, we must advocate for stronger financial support for graduate students, who are invaluable employees for universities.
Paying graduate students fairly would also be better for science. We need aspiring scientists to focus on discovery, problem-solving, and innovation, not on whether they will make their next rent payment on time.
In the last few years, I have become a strong advocate for equitable pay for graduate students. In December 2020, I was elected Secretary of the APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA), and I participated in the 2022 Congressional Visit Day, where I could advocate for more funding in education. Now, through the APS Student Ambassadors Program, I have worked with other graduate students to bring attention to graduate student pay.
Through this involvement, I have learned more about what could help solve these challenges. Our student ambassador group has drafted a white paper on this issue, to discuss with APS leadership, and we’re proposing a focus session at the 2023 APS March Meeting, hosted by FGSA, to raise awareness of graduate student underpayment. We are urging APS to publish guidelines that advocate for living-wage-minimum pay for graduate students. This issue is also woven into the fabric of federal research funding, which is why we urge agencies, like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, to allocate more funding to graduate students.
If you are interested in sharing your own story, or helping our team in our advocacy efforts, please join us. Together, we can work to ensure that graduate students, no matter their background, are paid living wages — not only for their contributions to universities, but to science, which needs every penny.
Jacqueline Acres is a doctoral candidate in applied physics at Portland State University in Oregon and an APS Student Ambassador.
 The National Labor Relations Board’s decision applied to graduate students at private universities; student assistants’ rights at public universities are governed by state law.
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