Some grads struggle to make ends meet

“Positive reforms will not happen without a union,” seventh-year anthropology doctoral student Joe Feinberg said in an e-mail.

“If I had more money, I could save up and some day start a family. I wouldn’t have to feel bad about going to the theater once in a while,” seventh-year anthropology doctoral student Joe Feinberg told the MAROON in an e-mail. “I might be able to work fewer hours so that I could devote time to my research and other writing and organizing. But also I wouldn’t feel like a second- or third-class person in the University,”

Feinberg is one of many graduate students campaigning for the University to recognize Graduate Student United (GSU) as a union. Graduate students must pay Advanced Residency (AR) tuition after their fourth year at the school. GSU has been campaigning for higher wages and lower tuition for years and declared its intent to unionize this March.

The University does not plan to increase wages, decrease tuition, or recognize GSU as a union, Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen said.

Feinberg said he and his wife–a graduate student at Northwestern—live on a tight budget and can’t start a family, though they would like to. “We’re living below the poverty line. We can try to economize, but if you have children there’s no way you can support them on this amount of money,” Feinberg said in an interview, where he wore a GSU button.

“Positive reforms will not happen without a union,” Feinberg said in the e-mail. “A union says that we can no longer be ignored.”

Cohen and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum announced in February that the University could not afford to eliminate AR tuition in the current economic climate, and wrote that, though they appreciated “the need to ensure that a University of Chicago education is affordable to all,” they believed doctoral students had a responsibility to contribute to their education. While rates vary by division, typically about 80 percent of the tuition is paid by the division and the rest is either waived if the graduate student is teaching or the student must pay the remaining 20 percent if they are not currently teaching.

The University already increased graduate student wages in 2008, Cohen pointed out in an interview. In 2008, the University doubled TA quarterly salaries from $1,500 to $3,000 and increased graduate instructor quarterly salaries from $3,500 to $5,000. These salaries are independent of any tuition fees waived by the University.

Feinberg said AR tuition is used to coerce graduate students into providing cheap labor and to discourage them from seeking higher paying work outside the University of Chicago, since the fee is only charged to students who do not work for the University.

Cohen said she was upset by GSU statements that graduate students live in poverty. “Graduate students are not like fast-food workers paid minimum wage. There are poor people in the U.S. with no prospect of a different existence. We’re talking about students who will soon no longer be in this situation. We should be very careful with the imagery we’re using,” she said.

“That’s not to say that they are not technically making wages below the poverty line, but just to say that a lot of people would jump for the opportunities they have,” Cohen said.

Based on figures calculated two years ago by the University’s Graduate Student Life Working Group, U of C graduate students are still paid less than the average wage offered at peer institutions in 2008. “In a study of peer institutions, as well as other schools where we would have expected teaching pay to be less competitive than at Chicago and its peers, we found the average pay for an 11-week course (reckoned at 20 hrs/week) to be $5,868, with a median pay level of $5,018,” the Working Group wrote.

Feinberg said GSU is advocating for a financial position similar to that of its peers. “Grad students shouldn’t and don’t claim that we are the most miserable people in the world. And we shouldn’t demand to live better than anyone else,” Feinberg said in an e-mail.

Duff Morton, a GSU member and fourth-year anthropology and SSA graduate student, said the University should not make graduate school prohibitively expensive. “Our wages are still at the very bottom of comparison groups. We’re at the bottom of the barrel.”

  • David

    I’m not sure why anyone feels like they are entitled to have their childcare expenses paid by the University. Life is about tradeoffs, and everyone would be better off if they made more money. As they would say in the Econ department, every decision has an opportunity cost. I suspect that if Mr. Feinberg was not pursuing his PhD, he would be able to find a job that paid him enough money (in his eyes) to raise a child. I also find it absurd and insulting that Mr. Feinberg considers himself innately better or more valuable than a person who works at a fast food restaurant. That’s an incredibly calssist notion and depicting certain types of workers as having no ambition or future is insulting.

    I’m not saying that Mr. Feinberg shouldn’t fight for higher pay, but simply that he shouldn’t expect it or feel entitled to it. In the mean time, if he wants a child more than a PhD he should feel free to drop out of the program and/or find a job that can support that desire. Mr. Feinberg shouldn’t blame the University for the the tradeoffs he’s had to make in order to live the life of his choosing.

  • Not “Thankful”

    The logic that we should be “thankful” that we’re in an infinitely more privileged position than the working poor is misguided… but it gets nicely to the “imagery” or vision of the university that Cohen is implicitly proposing. The fact that, in terms of sheer wages (ignoring future prospects), we’re at roughly the same level of income for work as a McDonald’s employee reflects an administration whose values are no higher than market fetishism.

    **And that is not to claim that we have a “right” to higher wages because we have XX years of education**.

    The very oddity is that university wages are on par with McDonald’s, a business whose only value is the bottom-line. The university is not a business, it should have principles that gaze higher than a race to the bottom in cost-cutting. Yet, this wealthy university refuses to enact those values into tangible benefits — it refuses to act as a model of providing what people *need* and instead seeks to pay the very minimum that might avert a strike or unionization.

    The point isn’t that students “should” make more than a low-wage food worker. It’s that the university organization should always function as a critical consciousness against society as a whole — not seek to affirm it through mimicry of its very worst employee treatment just because the admin assumes privileged students can take loans. Our teachers, our food service employees, our janitorial staff should all be making a living wage for their contribution to this wealthy and *principled* institution. It should seek to be the anti-thesis of McDonald’s. How can we, as critical researchers, legitimately think through alternatives to the present world when the institution that we represent continually affirms its basest forms?

  • Former grad student

    “7th-year anthro student”

    I dunno. Can’t muster too much sympathy for someone who hasn’t finished the PhD in seven years. Four is plenty.

    Especially since there’s no real job waiting if s/he ever does finish.


    Actually, if I read this article correctly, it was Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen who mentioned fast-food workers, not the grad student in the article. And is it really too much to ask if these grad students want to be paid the same as their peers?

  • A.

    “Former Grad Student”:

    Remember that those 7 years include an MA thesis, so Mr. Feinberg is really in his 5th year. Four years is plenty for a department like economics that works on one small problem using previously compiled data sets that are available at the university. Anthropology’s average is something like 9 years because it requires 2 yrs of coursework, training in multiple languages, and 1-3 years of field research outside of the country in addition to all of the other prerequisites. If the university wants to have the highest ranked anthropology department in the country (as it currently has), then it needs to reasonably support students for that duration. Just like the university expended million and millions of dollars on the Milton Friedman Institute initiative to ensure that the economics department could remain at the top of its class along with MIT, Harvard, and others.

    And anyone who has met Mr. Feinberg and Mr. Morton would know that they would never argue that they are better or deserve more than someone who works at a fast food place. Please re-read the article, “Dave”, and see that Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen introduced this language in order to obfuscate their point: they make a good deal less than their peers at other schools, and the administration does not seem to care. Hence the need for a union.

  • Daniel G

    It is outrageous for these grad students to be claiming that they live in poverty. It is an obscenity to compare a University of Chicago PhD student, who is voluntarily sacrificing current income while investing in his human capital, with those who actually do live in poverty. How can Mr Feinberg and the students involved in this possibly claim that to “feel bad about going to the theater once in a while” can be compared with the struggles of people living in poverty? I second the views expressed by David: grad students make a voluntary choice. They choose to foregoe current job opportunities in exchange for an education that will have pecuniary and non-pecuniary returns in the future. It is an investment decision. If they do not think it is worth it, they should leave and get a job, get a better salary, have kids and have al those things we sacrifice to get a gradate education. No one is forcing them into this life. They are privileged, if anything.

  • Reality Check

    Former Grad Student needs to look up every once in awhile — Anthro degrees take an average of 7 years, History takes 8 1/2 years, English takes 7-8 years. This is not unusual. 4 years is impossible.

    However, all grad students need to understand that it is irresponsible and cruel to make babies while they have an unstable financial future. Contrary to what this provost says, poverty in academia is not a temporary situation. It’s most likely permanent. So if you want kids you need to change careers NOW. Only 1/3 of Humanities degrees get well-paying tenure track jobs. The rest give up and go private or become adjuncts at $12k/year.

  • A supportive undergraduate

    I think graduate students have every right to want more. While devoting a large portion of their lives to advanced research, grad students shouldn’t live in fear of graduating and being thrust penniless into the “real” world. It’s not that simple. Universities should be havens for these sorts of academics. We should take good care of them!

  • T

    @ “Former Grad Student”: I think these issues are interrelated. One reason it takes so long to do a PhD is that grad students are often required to do a lot of the teaching that is not being done by faculty members, because proper faculty are not being hired. Long time-to-degree and the lack of full-time jobs are part of a single vicious cycle. Trying to change this bad state of affairs is a big reason why grad students and contingent faculty need to unionize. It’s not about privileged grad students whining for sympathy, it’s about trying to address wider problems with our industry.

  • SC

    Reality Check, where are you getting your numbers?

  • JP

    I don’t know where “Reality Check” got his or her numbers, but a recent NY Times article seems to indicate that they are pretty accurate. An April 18 article entitled “The Long-Haul Degree” says that while law degrees typically take 3 years and MDs 4, one in the humanities takes about 9.3 years. Earlier this year, I was told that PhDs in my department (also in the humanities) takes an average of a little over 8 years. This is because we typically have to master two languages and conduct at least a year of field work. By the time we return to Chicago from our field work, we’re loaded up with responsibilities of teaching, paying tuition/fees/insurance, and writing our dissertations. It doesn’t at all sound outrageous to me that Mr. Feinberg is in his seventh year in the anthro. program, which I’m sure also requires language training and extensive field work.