Thursday, January 5, 2012

Let's Talk about Privilege and Inequality

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.


  1. I laughed out loud when I saw this post, because I read it *just* after completing a "Survey of Earned Doctorates" form that my U requires for graduation. It asks a bunch of (IMHO intrusive) questions about your income during graduate school, your future goals, your ablebodiedness, etc. Paul and I found the section on alternate sources of income particularly entertaining, because it had little transparency about the fact that the form-makers assume someone else was supporting you through graduate school (spouse, family, etc). I wish!

  2. Thank you for this excellent post. I'm glad someone is finally speaking openly about this important topic.
    In my view, the class differences were not as big a deal in grad school as after. I went to grad school in an affordable city at a school that gave a stipend of around $20,000 each year. It was actually possible to go to grad school without taking on debt, which is one of the reasons I chose this school, despite getting into slightly more prestigious schools in much more expensive cities. (Which itself is a class issue, but that’s another story.)

    After publishing four journal articles, including two in the top journals in my field, getting excellent teaching reviews, blah blah blah...I, like most people in my field, have no job next year. Unlike most graduate students, I got married while in school. This means I’m reluctant to take post-docs and VAPs, because my husband would have to constantly quit his job and since he’s now the only one with any semblance of a career, we can’t afford to do that. Adjuncting salaries in this affordable part of the country top out at around $2000 per course, so I’d have to teach at least ten courses a year to equal my grad stipend. This is impossible in part because it’s insane – but mostly because so many people are in this position here, I would be lucky to get one course per semester.

    My husband and I need two viable incomes, so I have the choice of 1) adjuncting and going into the debt that I managed to avoid 2) getting a non-academic job and surviving 3) moving around for years for a post-doc or VAP which will probably not lead to a permanent job and thereby destroying my husband’s career and our financial stability.

    That’s my situation. It’s better than almost everyone I know, because I’m not borderline homeless or in massive debt. Almost every recent PhD I know is jobless this year. They are either 1) getting welfare, and WIC for those with kids 2) living off their parents 3) living with their parents 4) taking on an enormous amount of credit card debt 5) looking for a non-academic job and getting shit from their departments, who seem baffled that money could possibly be an issue.

  3. @Currer - I sometimes think that one of the only things I'll regret about not finishing my diss is that I won't be able to complete our department's exit interview/survey, letting them know exactly what I think of them. Heh.

    @Anonymous - thanks for commenting. Your story isn't surprising to me when I sit and think about how things likely would have gone for me if I'd continued pursuing an academic career. I also have a partner who I didn't want to uproot for a VAP post, and I wouldn't be able to pull together a livable salary in this area by adjuncting. No way. You have my sympathy, and I hope you're able to find a good solution for you and your husband in the near future.

    If you have no objections, I might pull your story up into a future post in this privilege/money series. In fact, if you'd like to write an entire post about your experiences for others to read on here, send me an email. The more stories we can get out there that talk about the reality of academia (rather than just the "it'll all work out somehow, don't worry" nonsense we get from our departments), the better to prevent other people from winding up in our positions someday.

  4. JC--I don't know if my department will schedule an exit interview with me. They used to do those, but I think they have stopped. Maybe they were hearing too many unpleasant things. I filled out SED paperwork for a statistical study being conducted by a bunch of organizations, including NSF, National Institute of Health, USDA, NASA, etc.

  5. Anonymous here. You can quote from my post however you want.

    Rereading my post, I realized I left out the main point: the PhDs who can continue adjuncting and taking one-year positions after they graduate are the same ones whose parents are supplementing their grad school years. They can afford to "just keep applying" (as the litany goes) because they have no real worries about their financial future. They don't have to think long-term: they can live for the moment, which is all academia affords us.

    There is no way to beat this system. I thought I had by being smart about where I went to school and getting good funding, but I can't contend with this sort of endemic privilege.

    Adjunct salaries are clearly designed with the assumption that you are getting additional work elsewhere. Yet the work we are expected to do on the side -- writing articles, conducting research -- is also unpaid. There is no way to survive financially as a scholar after graduate school unless you are in the very small percent that lands a job right away. What a waste -- of research, of the money that schools paid to fund us while in grad school, and of our lives.

  6. I've only just finished my first semester in a humanities PhD, so I have not encountered so many of the obstacles and difficulties of the job search that you mention on your blog, but I found it disheartening to read some of what you write here.

    It is disheartening to see how class inequalities are perpetuated in an institution, the university, that purports to be more meritocratic than other systems. The idea is that if you do good work, you'll be judged on its quality and contribution to the field, rather than *primarily* on your appearance, connections, or attitude, as can be the case in the business world. To an extent, you are probably judged *more* on the quality of your output in academia than in most other sectors, but people don't think about the conditions affecting your quality of work when they look at a CV, and certainly don't talk about the huge influence class/money can have on the former. Students in the situation you described - paid an unlivable wage by their university to pick up teaching slack - simply do not have the same time to devote to their research as students with sizable fellowships + few teaching obligations and/or outside financial support do. In many cases, they take longer to graduate, and I cannot imagine that their motivation and number of publications do not suffer for it.

  7. (continued - sorry!)

    Of course, class background and money are not exactly the same thing, but end up being strikingly intertwined in the PhD setting. My parents were both small-town professors, so I didn't grow up poor by any means, but I attend an "elite" institution that pays me a cushy two-year fellowship of around 27K to take courses in the humanities before I even have to think about teaching a course. In some ways, admissions to "elite" PhD programs seem, on the surface, more traditionally meritocratic than college admissions, where legacies and the school's own personal priorities are considered alongside the student's academic performance. That anyone can work hard and develop a strong research project in order to be able into one of the few programs that can actually pay a living wage like the one I'm fortunate to have seems to be the conventional line of argument. The problem is that, when I look around me to the educational backgrounds of the students in my program, so many of them come from elite, private institutions, and, in many cases, the same 4 or 5 schools. I find it hard to believe that students with similar grades and recommendations from less impressive public institutions - and, likely, lower family incomes - would have had the same chances of being admitted. Thus, in many ways, it's a system in which the students with the highest stipends often also come from the highest-income families.

    I don't know what solutions to propose, because these kinds of issues go back to how we're groomed as children, and how "opportunity" is measured, and it's hard to know where to start. All I know is that it is absolutely fraudulent to pay students in the mid to low teens, call it a "salary," and make them slave away on it for years in fields that cannot numerically yield jobs for every candidate. And pretend that the playing field is level with that of candidates who did not have these difficulties. It's unconscionable, and it horrifies me.

    There are also a number of sad by-products of this system, other than the exploitation of the individuals involved. In my program, where the teaching load is notoriously light and money is flowing, researchers are formed to write books and articles, but not to be teachers. While some of them are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with students who were forced to teach more and thus have more impressive teaching resumes, quality of research still seems to be supremely valued above all else on the job market. This seems to mean that students who have spent the least time teaching are often the best poised for the job market, while people with real teaching experience and interest (gasp!) in mentoring young people are forced to fight for what they can get. Interestingly, these people forced to teach for every bit of grad school money they earned are often from middling income families, tend to be more human and involved in their communities, and genuinely attuned to their students' needs. When did that sort of teacher stop being valued at "elite" institutions? I can tell you unequivocally that something IS lost from hiring nothing but cerebral research machines at places like Harvard and Yale. In those precious 8 hours/week of class we attend as graduate students, I have yet to experience a deep intellectual connection with my professors or peers, and there is an aura of self-assuredness, privilege, and general disaffectedness that completely turns me off both to the people and the discipline.

    I don't know what the solution is. If the only alternatives left to us are scrambling to make ends meet on pitiful "salaries," or making a temporarily decent wage with the illusion of being able to become like the smug, pretty-sitting professors we see around is, then this is a broken system. It can't stay like this forever.

  8. As far as I can tell its always been this way. From the gentleman scientists of the 17th Century, to the parental/spouse subsidised students JC discusses, privilege has always been an integral part of academic life. Apart from a brief period in the 50s and 60s, where there was a little more room at the top, academia is no different from other institutions like politics and media in its love for unwaged labour in its early stages.

    I have come to realise that it is a case of: "For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away". Which is probably the same as it is in all aspects of life. However I think the illusion of meritocracy ("just work hard...") and hope ("just one more go on the market") is the cruelest part for those at the bottom tier.

    And I am not saying this as someone who has a grudge or as a victim of the system that has been chewed up and spat out. From the outside, I would probably look like one of the winners. Currently working in well paid academic post at a prestigious university. Affluent background, with private education, showered with scholarships, and awards (which in retrospect I can now see I really didn't need).

    So what is my problem? It has got to the stage where it is painful to watch the self congratulatory backslapping of my peers, and see how much oppression and exploitation is going on. Well, in much the same way many white South Africans had problems with Apartheid, you don't have to be the exploited to have reservations about the system- it cheapens everyone.

  9. @ 2:10PM: "Students in the situation you described - paid an unlivable wage by their university to pick up teaching slack - simply do not have the same time to devote to their research as students with sizable fellowships"

    Exactly. It's not that teaching in itself is a bad thing ... heck, I loved teaching more than anything else I did in academia.

    However, teaching eats up a lot of time ... time that you then can't devote to research - which (as you say) is the thing upon which your academic record will likely be judged. So when comparing your CV to someone who has been living on fellowships, your research record will likely be less impressive. Search committees will evaluate you as less dedicated or less successful ... when in reality, it's just a matter of time availability.

    I know that I once turned down a small fellowship simply because I could make more money teaching for the department. It was a good financial decision for me, but probably not a good career move. And yet, ultimately I had to pay my bills. The fellowship went to a fellow grad student whose parents gave them a $600 monthly allowance. They had the flexibility to take that job. I did not. And ultimately, they're now teaching at a small teaching college ... despite having only taught one semester while several other people from our department alone have taught 3 or 4 different classes.

    I'm not picking on that person ... but it's indicative of how the market works. You think teaching will help position you better ... but in the end, if there is someone applying to a small, less prestigious school with a great research record? They'll probably get brought in, even if they haven't taught all that much. Every school wants to land the "stars."

    "All I know is that it is absolutely fraudulent to pay students in the mid to low teens, call it a "salary," and make them slave away on it for years in fields that cannot numerically yield jobs for every candidate."

    This is what makes me the angriest out of the entire situation. These schools must know there aren't enough good jobs for all of their students. And yet, they keep recruiting full classes to serve as cheap labor. It's disgusting.

    And as to the aura among graduate students you describe? Let me just say that I know exactly what you're talking about, and leave it at that.

  10. @Galton: thanks for your comment. I am very glad to see someone who is currently successful in the system noticing these inequalities. As I've said before, it's certainly not true that NO ONE goes on to success in academia. And it's certainly not true that students from less-than-privileged backgrounds deserve special treatment or to be MORE successful than their more affluent peers.

    But it's true ... the meritocracy myth is harmful, especially for students who have to work to make ends meet financially. The people who can fall back on their parents for help if they wind up underemployed after graduation are going to be okay. The ones who have no such safety net are the ones who are going to be most harmed by the "don't worry, it'll all work out if you work hard enough" myth.

    Because not only will they probably not succeed ... but they'll blame themselves for it, instead of the broken system.

    Kudos to you for seeing how it really is. Hopefully you can pass the message along to your students. Thanks for reading!

  11. Part of the problem of the "meritocracy myth" is that there are certain aspects of academia that really are a meritocracy. Journal articles that are anonymously peer-reviewed are a prime example. I wish the job application process was anonymously peer-reviewed as well! It's painful when places that include all your prestigious peer-reviewed publications on their syllabi reject you for a position in favor of an unpublished, untested scholar who went to a more prestigious school. But that's what counts -- it's the brand of where you came from, not who you are.

  12. Yes, this is true. It's reasonably fair to assume that the journal peer-review process is truly blind. There can be no such possibility for job applications ... so all of those things that aren't SUPPOSED to matter (like program pedigree, how much someone likes your mentor, race/gender prejudice, etc) can intervene when a committee is evaluating your portfolio.

    That reality along with the mysterious question of what makes someone a good "fit" for a job in the eyes of a search committee should make it plain that there is nothing a candidate can do to guarantee they get a job. And yet, the meritocracy myth continues...

  13. "In those precious 8 hours/week of class we attend as graduate students, I have yet to experience a deep intellectual connection with my professors or peers, and there is an aura of self-assuredness, privilege, and general disaffectedness that completely turns me off both to the people and the discipline."

    I go to a state school in the social sciences, and it's exactly the same.

    "Part of the problem of the "meritocracy myth" is that there are certain aspects of academia that really are a meritocracy. Journal articles that are anonymously peer-reviewed are a prime example. "

    This may be true in certain subfields that have to submit original data sets along with your manuscript, but it's not true in all cases. It's not objective by any stretch, and reviewers don't all agree. Also, an editor can hand pick reviewers specifically to attain a more favorable or less favorable outcome.

  14. I am the person who posted this over at 100 Reasons (first quote is something I'm responding to):

    ""I realize now that, even though I had lots to offer in terms of both teaching and research, I was admitted to my grad program to serve as teaching fodder."

    Yes. This.

    I had an epiphany the other day about the star system. The department knows there aren't enough jobs. They fund the only ones they think actually have a chance of making it. They know and always knew there wouldn't be enough jobs to employ people like me--we're just "teaching fodder," as you suggest (great term). I was crossing the street when I put all of this together coherently. I stopped right in the middle. Hubby had to grab me by hand to avoid me getting flattened by a truck--or should I say "another truck" after this whole grad school debacle."

    I've seen both sides of this privilege equation. My lower-middle class parents made it no secret that college was a luxury--one of several reasons I didn't go (I paid my way through trade school on credit cards). I probably would have never even gotten a BA if my hubby hadn't raised my standard of living from working class to solidly middle class.

    So now, I'm a spousal support grad student. I always knew that grad school was for privileged folks. The shocking part for me was more that admin must know we're not all going to be employable upon graduation, but that we're needed in the meantime for teaching fodder.

    As tuition at my school continues to hike, I'll probably leave even though I can afford to stay. The whole thing is so preposterous. And unlike folks who are parent funded--in a community property state, it's actually my own money. I just no longer think it's an investment worth making.