Graduate students are a source of cheap, exploited labor

Nicholas Holterman

In the comments section of Associate Dean Raizen’s article on graduate student funding in the College of Liberal Arts, published on June 24, reader “Mike” stated rather disparagingly — albeit out of ignorance and indignation — that graduate students at UT do not deserve sympathy from the undergraduate community. “Mike” argued that undergraduates, in addition to paying for their own degrees, pay tuition that also serves to “supplement graduate students’ ‘free’ degrees.” What “Mike” has done is demonstrate the seemingly widespread unawareness of what it means to be a graduate student. For many, life as a graduate student means being overworked and underpaid while being expected to maintain a professional lifestyle.

Although I am incredibly grateful to be able to pursue a career in academia and get paid for it, my contentment with my financial situation as a graduate student is a very rare case. I spoke to two UT graduate students who wish to remain anonymous, and their circumstances reflect the difficulties many students face, especially with the recent increase in students attending graduate school, which is only exacerbated by shrinking institutional funds. 

The issue of exceptionally high rent is all too familiar among UT students who live off campus, and graduate students are no exception. Many graduate students struggle financially because they are often older and strive to be independent.

The first student I spoke to said, “My primary concern with funding at the University is that the wages do not match the amount of work performed by [assistant instructors]. As a language instructor, I teach six credits, which is the same number of credit hours tenured faculty are given to teach in a normal semester. We must also not ignore the exponential growth the city of Austin has undergone in the past decade.”

Few realize that in addition to covering the cost of living, many graduate students are also paying off debt acquired as undergraduates. “Because of skyrocketing rent and stagnant wages, many grad students have been forced to take on second and, at times, third jobs in order to stay on top of rent, student loan payments and the like. I cannot afford to let my student loans go into default because the University pays us as if it were still 2005,” the student said.

Unlike most student workers, assistant instructors and teaching assistants take on similar workloads to administrators and some faculty who make up to five times their salaries. The second student expressed that “the meager stipends offered to graduate students only amplify the academic stress we already experience. We are expected to perform exceptionally in our own classes, teach, publish research and network exhaustively at conferences, while managing a yearly budget well below $20,000. By the time I pay my rent, bills and purchase groceries, the money left over is negligible. It’s impossible to save any money, making any unexpected medical, car or family emergencies yet another victory for my credit card. The low stipends force us to acquire even more debt, when many of us already have undergraduate debt looming over us.”

The testaments of these liberal arts students would surely demonstrate to “Mike” that graduate students are not living in the lap of luxury. The hard work is often not commensurate with the pay. Unfortunately, that is not a characteristic that is specific to liberal arts, or even to UT. Graduate students in all fields throughout the country are accruing debt and often remain in debt for decades after graduation. There are university and external fellowships and scholarships available to these students, but with a restriction on employment outside the University, it is often difficult to supplement income. If, however, what Raizen stated in her rebuttal to my column holds true, graduate students should expect an increase in stipend at some point in the future. Let us hope that that “if” becomes a “when.” Contrary to what Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy believe in NBC’s show “30 Rock,” graduate students are not the worst. We are just passionate about what we do and are, sadly, paid less than we should be.

Holterman is an English graduate student.