Students and universities are increasingly asking whether graduate students are being paid enough.
Graduate teaching and research assistants on some campuses want the dialogue to focus on equity as they press for higher pay. Stipends often vary so much across disciplines within the same institution that some students’ pay hovers near the federal poverty threshold, while their peers across campus earn two or three times as much.
Administrators at some colleges, meanwhile, have become concerned about competition. They are comparing pay on their campuses with that at peer institutions, looking for ways to avoid the low stipends that might send the best prospective graduate students elsewhere.
One of the newest efforts for change is at the University of Texas at Austin, where graduate students are calling for higher stipends for some as part of a broad "bill of rights."
Data provided by the university show that pay rates for teaching assistants who worked a typical 20-hour week for the nine-month academic year in 2012-13 ranged from an average of $8,864 in the School of Information to $19,336, on average, in the College of Pharmacy. Pay for graduate research assistants ranged from an average of $10,410 in the School of Social Work to $17,966, on average, in the College of Pharmacy. The lowest-paid graduate research assistant earned $9,468, the highest $28,330.
Such disparities are common at universities and are partly the product of market forces. Some gaps in pay may be understandable, but student leaders at Austin want the divide to shrink. They want a conversation with administrators about what is an acceptable minimum stipend for graduate students to live comfortably. The federal poverty guideline for 2013 for one person living in the mainland United States was $11,490, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"Many graduate students already start accruing credit-card debt," said Columbia Mishra, president of the UT Graduate Student Assembly, the group drafting the document to assert rights for graduate students at Austin. "If you want good, quality teaching and research from anybody, you have to give them some peace and quiet in their lives," Ms. Mishra says. "We want to help students find that peace and quiet."
But the numbers don’t give the entire financial picture, said John Dalton, assistant dean for graduate studies at Austin. All teaching assistants and assistant instructors receive a $3,784 tuition benefit per semester. Eligible student employees—which include all teaching assistants and assistant instructors and some graduate research assistants—also receive health insurance at no cost, worth nearly $500 a month, he said. Some students also have access to extra sources of financial support, like student aid or fellowships.
"When we’re talking about compensation, we look at all those factors," Mr. Dalton said.
He said that state budget cuts of recent years have limited the university’s ability to raise employee salaries, including those of graduate students. However, he added, "if there's an opportunity for us to better support our graduate students we're certainly open to it."
He said he and the graduate school’s dean have spoken with the students drafting the "bill of rights" and want to help them talk with faculty and administrators about their concerns.
Elsewhere, teaching fellows in the English department at the University of Houston’s main campus saw a 55-percent jump in their annual pay after staging a sit-in outside the president’s office last April. They protested a run of at least 20 years without a pay raise for teaching fellows.
The effort at Houston began after student organizers said conditions within the university’s English department were becoming untenable. One sit-in organizer, Ashley Wurzbacher, a doctoral creative-writing student, said she was living in a "constant state of anxiety all the time, in the morning and at night," figuring out how to pay for necessities like food and utilities. Her after-tax stipend was $963 a month, she said, and most of that went toward rent.
"People have to truly be desperate to make a sit-in like that happen," she said. "We just reached the point where we felt it wasn’t possible to go on under the circumstances. And it was clear to us that no one else was going to help us."
The sit-in ended when the university’s president, Renu Khator, announced a commitment of $1-million to improve graduate students’ working conditions and pay. Ms. Wurzbacher said their annual salary went from $11,430 to $17,750. English master’s students saw similar increases, she said, and other departments benefited, too.
Ms. Wurzbacher and other students who started the sit-in want their success to serve as an example. "I tell my creative-writing students every semester that your words and your language are all that you have, and you can use them to better your life," she said. "You really can improve your life by putting together a good argument."
Wide Spectrum of Pay
Graduate-student stipends vary widely within and across institutions.
The disparities in graduate stipends among his friends struck Josh Carp, 28, who recently earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. About a year ago, Mr. Carp, disappointed by the lack of information about pay available to graduate students, started GradPay, an online, crowdsourced survey of graduate-student stipends and working conditions. As of this month more than 2,700 students from more than 200 institutions had submitted data.
The data set, he acknowledges, has limitations because it is self-reported, although he verifies that each entry comes from a university-affiliated email address.
The highest yearly median stipends, grouped by departments across universities, according to the data, are cell biology, at $30,000, nuclear engineering, also at $30,000, and mechanical engineering, at $28,600. The lowest median stipend amounts are music performance, at $12,000, folklore, at $13,000, and creative writing, at $14,000.
In Mr. Carp’s data, large teaching loads do not correlate with higher pay. In fact, some of the lowest stipends were recorded at institutions, like the University of Kansas, where students also reported relatively high amounts of teaching. On the other end is Harvard University, where stipends are high and students report teaching relatively little. (Mr. Carp asks users to report stipends only once, so it’s possible that figures were reported by students who have since received pay increases.)
"You’d hope that if people are teaching more, they’re at least getting paid more for all the work," Mr. Carp said, "but that’s not the case."
Competition With Peers
A number of universities, citing the need to be competitive, have started to compare their graduate-student pay with that at peer institutions.
The desire to provide competitive stipends is the goal behind a controversial plan at the Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences to bring the stipends of graduate students in the humanities and social sciences to parity with those of grad students in the school’s sciences, and with those of their peers at such institutions as Columbia, Stanford, and Yale Universities.
To help pay for such a move—which next year would raise those students’ yearly stipends from roughly $23,000 to $30,000—administrators have proposed a 19-percent decrease in the number of graduate students within the school, said William Egginton, vice dean for graduate education at the Krieger school.
"It became increasingly difficult to compete for students," Mr. Egginton said. "What we’re proposing is bringing everyone to the same level. So we’re not going to be reducing the stipend amounts of anyone in the sciences. We’re using them as a benchmark."
Competitive motives were also behind a decision at Ohio State University to raise its minimum nine-month, 20-hour-a-week graduate-associate stipend. It went up by 50 percent over the last three years, to $13,500.
Patrick Osmer, dean of the Ohio State Graduate School, said the university wanted to remain competitive and treat students fairly. Mr. Osmer said graduate students in engineering and the sciences typically get the highest stipends.
"In the sciences and engineering, there are more opportunities for federal grants, fellowships, and research dollars than in other disciplines," he said. "It’s very much market-driven."
Ms. Mishra, the graduate-student leader at Austin, said that the dialogue on her campus should be part of a larger national rethinking about how master’s and doctoral students are financed. A 20-hour workload on paper often far exceeds that in reality, she said, and there should be some sort of mechanism that allows for extra pay for extra work. Stipends, she added, should be re-evaluated every few years and be adjusted for inflation.
"Graduate students should be able to pay for their cost of living," Ms. Mishra said. "That’s all this is about."