So ... privilege in academia. I want to write about it, but to be honest? I'm not sure how to start. ... and I'm kind of nervous about writing about it.
Something I've always heard from my fellow grad students (and sometimes still see pop up on Facebook and in other places) is that grad students are very, very privileged people. Jokes about "first world problems" like being at a coffee shop at noon with no laptop charger were common, as were observations about how lucky grad students were to be reading and writing and teaching for a living rather than doing some kind of backbreaking manual labor or working for a tyrannical boss.
"We're so lucky," they'd say. "Our lives are so privileged. We have no right to complain. We're lucky."
So part of me does feel odd starting this series. I feel like I'm going to get a bunch of comments and emails telling me how crazy I am -- that this is the best job in the world and I'm insane to try to argue that there's anything like "inequality" or "unfair working conditions that segregate people by class" in it. Because, did I forget? Grad students and academics are privileged.
So let me start this series out by saying that to some extent, I agree. Having the kind of job where you're free to come and go as you please, and where your work duties require no physical labor and where you have the freedom to sit in a coffee shop or a park all day "working" (when in actuality no one would be able to prevent you from playing on the internet all day long) is a privileged lifestyle. A lot of people would kill for that kind of flexibility and freedom.
But in other ways, I don't think that academia is a life of privilege ... unless, of course, you come from a privileged background. That's right ... I'm talking about salaries again. (But grad student salaries, this time).
Now, there are certainly other things to discuss with regards to privilege and social class in academia (I've already talked about conference travel, and later I plan to write about the divide between students who are paid through fellowships and those who are "teaching fodder" for the department because they are desperate for some type of funding). But let's start out by talking simply about grad student salaries ... and how they often exacerbate preexisting class differences between incoming grad students.
It's one major, major beef I've had with the academic lifestyle for a long time - since well before I left. Because ultimately, academia is a system where already privileged people can play with mom and dad's money while the rest of the people work their asses off and go into debt, all for very questionable job prospects.
But no one talks about it. No one.
Oh, sure ... some people will mention taking out a student loan or having credit card debt, or that their parents "help them out" with rent or a car payment or whatever. But no one talks about how truly inadequate a grad student stipend is for funding a normal (even frugal) adult life, and the vastly different methods that various people use to get around that reality.
Here's the way it works. If you go to grad school and are lucky enough to be funded*, you will probably make a salary that hovers somewhere in the low- to mid-teens. Graduate instructors in my department made a little over $14k during the last year in which I taught. Paychecks were right around $1100/month. (And it's worth noting, we were one of the better-paying departments outside of the hard sciences).
Even if you're living someplace with a very low cost of living, an apartment is probably going to eat up close to half of that salary. Add in utilities and groceries, and a few hundred more dollars per month (at least) flies out the door. Add in something unreasonable (note the sarcasm) like a car payment or a once-per-week dinner or round of drinks with friends? An illness that runs up your insurance deductible by a few hundred bucks? There you go, into the negative income category. It's very, very, very easy to do, without ever having to be financially irresponsible or doing anything extravagant like (gasp) going on a vacation.
Simply put, life's monthly expenses are not predictable and not guaranteed to never fluctuate month-to-month. But in grad school, your salary does not fluctuate, and cannot typically accommodate even minor unpredictable expenses.
And of course, you could choose to live with roommates or to take the bus to campus rather than drive. But those sacrifices shouldn't have to be necessities when you're living in a low cost-of-living area like I do. What if you want to live on your own in a small apartment (which is a perfectly reasonable thing for an adult to want to do)? What if your family lives within driving distance and you want a car to be able to go visit them without having to shell out for plane tickets? Are those unreasonable, wasteful expenses?
Of course they aren't. But there's minimal room in the grad student's budget for such things. So people wind up needing to supplement their incomes while in grad school in some way.
And what you wind up with is two separate groups of grad students, divided up by how they supplement their income. (Because trust me, everyone does ... at least occasionally). One group of people supplement their grad student income with some type of allowance from their parents (or perhaps a wealthy partner). It's money they get for free, that they don't have to pay back.
The second group has two possibilities. They can bring in extra income by scrambling around for extra teaching opportunities or small research grants or RAships. Or else, they can add in extra "phantom income" by racking up credit card or student loan debt ... for such extravagant luxuries like a new winter coat or a plane ticket home for the holidays. Either option is possible ... but either way, it is not "free money" like the first group gets. They're either working for it (thus getting behind on their own research projects), or borrowing it against their future salaries (thus knowing they'll have to pay it back, unlike gifts from Mom and Dad).
"Well," you may be thinking. "Everyone should teach a little bit while in grad school, and every grad student is chasing grants."
The difference, though, is between the students who apply for grants because they want to further their career, and those who have to spend hours and days writing grant applications and prepping classes because they truly need the money. For the first group, the grant is a competition. For the second, it's the difference between being able to pay rent or not. It's absolutely not the same thing.
And you may be thinking, "Well, I have a student loan too, and a Kohl's charge card! I have debt!!"
But there's a world of difference between the student who takes out a $5k student loan to fund their travel to an exotic academic conference and the student who takes out $50k to simply help them make ends meet. And there's a world of difference between owing $300 to a clothing store for that pre-vacation shopping spree you went on, and owing $30,000 to Citibank for various things that have popped up over your eight-year graduate career.**
The first category of students will survive if they don't land the grant, because they can always ask Mom and Dad for money. And they will be okay even if they wind up underemployed after graduation, with just $5300 to pay back in student loans and credit cards.
The second category of students, however, will spend their grad school years scrambling for teaching jobs or paid research scut work if they don't win the grant, and will graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they ever collect their first real paycheck.
And it's quite possible that the sole difference between them is the fact that Mom and Dad - rather than Visa and Sallie Mae - gave the first group the extra few thousand bucks per year they needed to pay their bills.So in the end, the first group comes out tens of thousands of dollars ahead of the second. But it has nothing to do with aptitude or how hard one works. It's just math.
And that's all well and good ... I'm not trying to pick on people who have the good fortune to grow up affluent. But in this day and age, with the down economy and the terrible academic job market and the prevalence of adjuncting, this class difference in grad students combined with the terrible grad student salaries can have serious negative effects. One group will graduate and will be more or less able to continue down a low-paid path for awhile if they have to, and can look to Mom and Dad for help if needed. The other group will have creditors breathing down their necks and have no way to pay them back while they try to find some type of work that pays a sustainable salary, with no safety net standing behind them. (And all of this, with no real-world job training to boot).
And remember, we're not talking about irresponsibly immature people who take out a new Visa card to buy designer clothes or exciting vacations. We're talking about whether a $500 car repair bill or the $250 plane ticket to go home and see your dying grandmother (1) comes out of Dad's checking account or (2) gets added to your growing Visa balance.
Your advisors and graduate program won't talk about this ... the reality that the grad student stipend is a completely inadequate amount of money for a lot of people. Or if they do, they will say that "everyone is poor - it's part of being a grad student." What this (possibly well-meaning) advice ignores, though, is that there is privileged grad student poor (the kind that allows you to still have your European vacation in the summer and somehow graduate with no debt because someone helps you deal with your bills) and nonprivileged grad student poor (the kind that leaves you with $20k in credit card debt, spent on gas and food).
So you wind up with a two-tiered system. The privileged students have a cushion and come out ahead (or at least not behind), while the rest come across the finish line already in debt and with no safety net to fall back on. And they're both entering the same terrible job market.
This is something that drove me absolutely crazy while in school. I didn't grow up poor, but my parents were unable to help me out other than in the most dire emergency. Also, I had a strong desire to pay my own way as a person in my mid-to-late twenties who wanted to be independent. So it drove me absolutely crazy that I was criticized for my inability to attend conferences due to cost or for my decision to take a part-time job ... while many people around me were praised for their dedication and hard work (which was only possible because they could survive on a tiny grant while Mom and Dad paid their rent and car payment for them).
Here's my take home point from this long post. My problem does not lie with people who were born into affluence. My problem lies with the structure of academia, yet again. Academia assumes you will come in privileged, and that you don't need any extra money to make ends meet. If you do, it's your own moral failing and not anything that is wrong with the system.
Well, I say otherwise. Grad school and academia exacerbates inequality, and like any other industry in the world, is invested in keeping salaries low. And ultimately, it values the privileged over the non-privileged. But because they give lip service to "reducing inequality" in their research and their seminars, no one notices until it's too late.
Well, I noticed. And it makes me sick.
*For the record, no one should ever, ever, ever enter a Ph.D. program without guaranteed funding. Even if you're rich. I mean it.
**Does $30k seem excessive? It's $3750 per year, over 8 years. In the case of my department, that would mean someone would have lived on a salary of $17,750.00 per year while in grad school. Hardly extravagant. Debt is very, very easy to rack up whe you can't make ends meet.