Being a student is a difficult job on its own. Add to that teaching courses, conducting your own research, and constructing a dissertation all while being a student, and you begin to paint a picture of the typical life of a graduate students. Perhaps that’s why recent studies have found graduate students to be more than six times as likely to experience depression or anxiety as compared to the general population*. And yet in the face of all of the associated duties and responsibilities that come with being a graduate student, many find that the greatest source of stress is actually their income - or lack thereof.
Graduate student stipends are a rising concern for public institutions across the country - and SUNY is no exception. With student stipends reaching as low as $9,000 per year in some programs, stipends for doctoral students especially are a very real and inescapable source of stress. Unlike their undergraduate peers, most students at the doctoral level begin to phase out from taking traditional courses fairly early on in their graduate career, and commit the remainder of their tenure conducting research, working on their dissertations, and/or teaching courses. All of these endeavors provide a net benefit to the university in some shape or form, whether it be through the end product of their scholarly pursuits or the assisted staffing in undergraduate classrooms. This unique dynamic puts many doctoral students in the strangely hybrid position of serving as both a student and employee simultaneously.
For the vast majority of doctoral students, tuition is waived for their time as a graduate student, while living expenses such as rent, food and transportation still need to be paid for - often out of pocket. In exchange for their critical work and contributions to the University during their graduate career, doctoral students typically receive a small stipend as compensation. With little-to-no availability for loans for graduate education, students are often solely dependent on their stipends to sustain their livelihood while pursuing their own scholarly endeavors, often serving in the dual or even triple capacity as an RA, GA, and/or TA. With the graduate student stipends averaging roughly between $18-20,000 per year at most schools, this is often far below the recommended living wage for most New York areas. This issue is only further exacerbated when students are required to pay fees, reaching upwards of $2,000 per year, bringing their net income down in some cases by more than 10%. The result is a plethora of students struggling to meet their costs for rent, having enough food for grocery shopping, and hoping nothing happens to their car during their morning commute. Ultimately however, this leads to increasingly stressed graduate students, slowing down productivity and an inferior student experience - a poor outcome for both students and the University as a whole.
Graduate student stipends are not often the first thing that comes to mind for many people when thinking of University priorities - at least it wasn’t for me until a few years ago. However, behind every new innovation in science and technology, every new study that is published or analysis conducted, is the work of teams of graduate students working tirelessly each day towards their own scholarly pursuits, and assisting in the advancement of their field. Graduate students provide an essential service to our University systems, and as we continue to benefit from the fruits of their hard work and labor, it is more than time that we begin to find ways to compensate them appropriately.
*Hyun, J. K. & Quinn, B. C. & Madon, T. & Lustig, S. (2006). Graduate Student Mental Health: Needs Assessment and Utilization of Counseling Services. Journal of College Student Development 47(3), 247-266. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Written by James Vassallo, SUNY Student Assembly Chair of State-Operated Campuses, Stony Brook University Graduate School