I arrived at Penn in debt because I was responsible for covering the costs of accommodation, international flights, living expenses, and class materials. I didn’t receive my first paycheck until a month after the semester started. For those of us who come from abroad, the financial burden can be staggering. I’m at the end of my second year and I still haven’t paid off that debt.
— Gabriel Raeburn, Religious Studies and History, School of Arts and Sciences
The Graduate School of Education offers a four-year funding package, but no one in my program finishes a PhD within that time. I paid for my fifth year through external research grants, but didn’t get any for this year. I’ve been teaching as an adjunct at two different universities. The time I spend trying to figure out how to make ends meet is time I can’t devote to my research or my dissertation. If my funding package had matched the length of my degree, I would be able to focus on my research instead of being anxious and distracted about my finances.
— Miranda Weinberg, Educational Linguistics, Graduate School of Education &
Anthropology, School of Arts and Sciences
In the Graduate School of Education, Ed.D.s are guaranteed 2 years of funding to complete coursework. That funding includes 8 courses. After 2 years, in order to make ends meet, I returned to teaching middle school, completing my academic work in the evenings and on the weekends. In my third year back as a middle school teacher, I left the position mid-year, partially in order to finish at Penn.
— Bethany Silva, Reading/Writing/Literacy, Graduate School of Education
As a sixth-year student in the School of Arts and Sciences, I’m living off of savings while I write my dissertation. I’m also supporting my wife through a masters’ degree, and if it weren’t for assistance from our families we wouldn’t be able to pay our rent. Though I wanted to graduate earlier, I needed time to do fieldwork abroad, so I sacrificed financial security for my degree. I have tried to find external funding, but all I’ve gotten so far is rejection letters. Unless my wife can find a job next fall, we’ll be running out of money around September.
— Aaron Freeman, Linguistics, School of Arts and Sciences
Penn keeps denouncing social injustice, but the university president makes over a 100 times as much as graduate students. The provided stipend is certainly not enough, especially if you are an international student and have to pay for a plane ticket to visit your family back home. While we could be earning 3 times more money working in industry, we decide to share our passion for research with Penn, devoting our time and our effort to do high-quality research. But only Penn seems to be benefiting from this research, since we are not compensated enough. And remember, without graduate students, there is no research, no grants, no tuition, and no prestige!
— Graduate Student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
PhDs in the Design School receive three to four-year funding packages for a course of study expected to last at least five years. After my funding ran out, I was offered the opportunity to teach a course in the Architecture Department. The class got cancelled because of low enrollment, but I still had to pay the University thousands of dollars in tuition, fees, and health insurance.
–Graduate Student in the School of Design
When we began at Penn, many of us were unaware that we wouldn’t receive our first paycheck until the end of September. This left us without an income for our first month, when we are shouldering moving costs, living expenses, and housing payments, as most landlords require a security deposit in addition to first and last month’s rent upfront. This “month of poverty” is particularly difficult for graduate student workers who are international, who have families, and who come from from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Once we started getting paid, other issues arose.
On average, it takes more than six years to complete a PhD at Penn. In most schools, this completion time is mismatched to the guaranteed funding packages. In the School of Arts and Sciences, the Annenberg School for Communication, and the Wharton Business School, most graduate student workers receive 5-year funding packages. Other schools receive less. The School of Social Policy and Practice, the Graduate School of Education, and the School of Design are guaranteed four years funding, while the Nursing School guarantees just three years. Many graduate student workers only receive summer stipends during some of their funded years, and others receive none at all. Once their funding runs out, many graduate student workers pay Penn thousands of dollars in tuition, fees, and health insurance costs in order to complete their degrees. For example, in the Graduate School of Education, where only four years of funding are guaranteed, a standard fifth year would cost a graduate student $5,484 in tuition and fees, plus $3,348 in health insurance costs. This is before living costs.
Students whose funding packages have expired are left with no choice but to teach extra classes at Penn, if they can get them, or adjunct elsewhere in the area. Classes at Penn are often not guaranteed until a minimum enrollment has been met, which makes financial planning stressful and can lead to long-term mental health issues. Those who work outside of Penn often have to take on heavy teaching loads in order to make ends meet, which makes it even harder to complete their dissertations and compete on the job market. It is worth noting that, year on year, Penn offers fewer research fellowships that encourage completion, and there has been a shift towards different types of assistantships that are cannily called fellowships.
Insufficient funding also leads to problems in the School of Engineering, Biomedical Graduate Studies, and the hard sciences within the School of Arts and Sciences. For example, graduate student workers may be forced to change labs if their Principal Investigator runs out of grant funding. Occasionally, if a graduate student worker is unable to join a new lab, they may be forced to leave their program. While, in some programs, Principal Investigators are asked to confirm their ability to pay for their graduate student workers until they complete their degrees, this affirmation is not contractual and some graduate student workers are still made to switch labs. Further, President Trump’s proposal to cut funding for NIH grants by $7 billion, introduces a significant degree of uncertainty for many Principal Investigators who depend on these grants to pay for graduate student workers.
All graduate student workers are exposed to rises in the cost of living. Rents in Philadelphia rose 4.2% month-over-month in 2016 — the second fastest rate of inflation in the nation — but no school at Penn received a commensurate increase in their stipend. In other words, real living standards fell last year for all graduate student workers. If were were able to collectively bargain, that need not be the case in the future.
GET-UP, as a union of graduate student workers, can both work to end first-years’ “month of poverty” and advocate for annual cost of living increases that keep up with inflation as well as Philadelphia’s housing market. A union can also fight for all graduate student workers to receive sufficient funding based on realistic completion times. Further, a union can work to ensure financial support and lab continuity during times that are uncertain in terms of funding and politics. Specifically, a union can streamline the patchwork solutions that have thus far been developed to address what happens to grad student workers when grant money runs out.
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