This July, I found myself being revived after having a bad reaction to donating plasma. Lying down with ice packs all over my body, waiting for my vision to come back and for color to return to my skin, I could only think about one thing: “Will I still get paid for this?”
The first year of my Ph.D. program in psychology had taken a toll on my finances. I had moved from a job that paid me just enough to get by, determined to make UF’s much lower stipend work. Unfortunately, determination wasn’t enough to make that stipend stretch to cover the cost of living.
After burning through my savings to cover moving costs and medical treatments, credit card debt started piling up.
Like many graduate students, I had to start using the food pantry. In May, I discontinued my use of a prescription drug I could no longer afford. This month, I’m late on rent for the first time in my adult life.
My experience is neither uncommon nor extreme.
A recent report by Graduate Assistants United (GAU), the union representing graduate students at UF, found that nearly 30% of graduate students have been unable to buy enough food at the current stipend rate. Additionally, 72% can’t cover all of their living expenses on their stipend, 20% have been unable to pay rent and 22% are unable to afford medications.
But there’s some relief on the horizon: After a long and grueling bargaining period, UF and GAU have negotiated a stipend increase for graduate students. The minimum stipend for employees on 9-month stipends has been raised to $17,000. The minimum for 12-month employees will be $22,753. To put these new minimums in perspective, I make several thousand dollars above the present 9-month minimum.
Unfortunately, this raise is not nearly enough to account for inflation. Graduate students today will still be effectively making less than their counterparts were in 2017. For many, seeking outside employment is impossible, as international students are legally prohibited from taking on other jobs.
The pay graduate students receive is in no way commensurate with the value they produce for the college.
We teach undergraduate classes. We produce research and perform service. We write and work on the grants which bring external money to the university.
Without the labor of graduate students, there would be no university. Paradoxically, we aren’t paid enough to do this work well.
No one teaches while hungry. I can’t do research when I’m selling my plasma. I can’t focus on grant-writing when I’m worried about getting evicted.
Graduate students look forward to the wage increase this year. But we know it’s not enough.
S. Elisha LePine is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida.