Recently, I was talking to a graduate student at a land-grant university. Because this person works at a land-grant, the salary of everyone who works there is public information and available online with some minimal searching. This person, a second-year PhD student, was shocked to discover that all of the faculty in their department make six figures a year.
For the past decade or so, most online academic writing has been in a self-hating death spiral about how horrible academia is. That isn’t to say there aren’t legitimate criticisms. Indeed, if there weren’t legitimate criticisms this site wouldn’t exist. However, in the flurry of pieces on how happy our alt-ac colleagues are, scathing quit lit, and adjunctification it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is still possible to make a good living in academia. There are reasons why tenure-track jobs are referred to as “golden tickets” and their increasing rarity is only one of them.
Academic conversations about money get weird very quickly. We are prone to the deeply flawed “do what you love” narrative which tells us that talking about money is gauche. Then there’s this weird idea that academics are somehow separate from the labor economy? Then there’s the idea that academic work just isn’t valued which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is by design. None of this, however, is what I want to talk about today.
Today I want to talk about the vast financial chasm between graduate students and faculty. Sure, we all know it’s there, but we all work to keep from seeing how immense it really is.
My MA program hosted a number of professionalization seminars throughout the year which was a wonderful thing.
In the two years I was there I went to exactly one (which is a mistake I’ve posted about here). As a first-gen, working-class student I had deeply internalized the meritocracy myth and I thought going to professionalization seminars was a luxury I could only afford if all my work was done which, since the work is unending, it never was. It wasn’t until my second year that my friends in the PhD program convinced me that regular attendance at the pro-sems was one of the intangible factors used to assess how serious MA students were about becoming PhDs.
So, I paused the work and went to a seminar where a group of graduate students was told by a faculty member that she fondly looked back on her graduate school days and all of the free-time she had then. As a faculty member, she assured us, we would have less free time than we currently did and we had best be committed and prepared.
I almost broke down crying on the spot. I was already feeling overwhelmed due to 12 hour days on campus, every weekday and couldn’t reconcile the degree I had always wanted to get with working even more. (To be fair, my undiagnosed anxiety disorder probably played a part too.) Deep inside, I felt that there was a problem with what we had been told but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
It took me years, literal years, to identify what was wrong with that meeting.
In fact, it wasn’t until a series of odd life events had led me to work at a for-profit “college” that it finally clicked.
Money makes things easier. In the capitalist system, we live in money makes life easier. Working late? That’s okay–I’ll just order some carry-out from that Italian place with surprisingly good gluten-free options on my way home. So busy you forgot to order that very particular set of shoes the bride wants her wedding party to wear? That’s okay–just pay for rush delivery. Would that new book really help define the article you’re working on? Order it on Amazon instead of requesting the library buy it and then waiting.
This list, drawn exclusively from personal examples, is just a partial list of one-off things that money helps with. At my current campus it costs somewhere between $250-300 to park on campus. It is free to take the bus. Although there are exceptions both ways, graduate students generally bus and faculty generally drive and park. From my house to campus it takes a solid half hour to get to campus by bus. It takes seven minutes by car and about fifteen to drive and park. This means that, on an average day, an hour of my time is taken up in transport just because of money. I don’t mind taking the bus–thanks to Resist Bot I use it as my built in time to contact my congress people–but the material point isn’t whether or not I like it. The material point is that I have an hour less time in my day than the faculty who are paid a living wage and can afford to get a parking permit.
But there’s an even larger issue at work here. New research has shown that being poor takes up brain space constantly and being poor during childhood changes your brain permanently. The human brain can only handle working on so many problems at once and when your brain is constantly engaged in the arithmetic of survival you concretely and unalterably have less to give to teaching, research, and writing. (See here, here, here, and here for starters.)
While faculty may have more work responsibilities (a proposition I’m still not convinced of–fight me) they also have more brain space to devote to those responsibilities and money to make little problems go away before they turn into big problems.
These financial differences are almost always present between grad students and faculty, but are exacerbated between faculty and working-class PhD students. There is so much work to be done here. Faculty and administrators need to reckon with their continued use of the apprenticeship model of academia to exploit graduate students. They also need to do more work on supporting first-gen and working-class PhDs *after* they’ve been accepted into programs. Graduate students need unions to help them create these reforms.
All of that is a lot of work that will require a lot of people and, probably, a lot of time.
Until then, know that you’re not crazy if you think that faculty might be a little out of touch with the realities of graduate student life. Know that you’re not crazy if you think that being poor is making your scholarly work harder than it needs to be in a million little ways that sometimes turn into big ways. Know that money–coming from it and having it–make a huge difference on how you move through this system. Know that you are worth more than you’re paying paid. Know that it’s not fair. And know that we see you working your a** off and being awesome.