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Looking into living wages for graduate students

Twenty-four thousand eight hundred dollars ($24,800)—the Duke Graduate School estimate of the cost-of-living in Durham.

Twenty-two thousand nine hundred and twelve dollars ($22,912)—the guaranteed stipend graduate students are paid to live in Durham.

Currently, a gap of almost $2,000 separates many Duke graduate student workers from what Duke considers a livable wage—a conservative estimate in the first place that does not adequately cover the cost-of-living in a rapidly developing area. Graduate student workers do crucial work for the university including acting as instructors, teaching assistants and research assistants. Why aren’t they paid a living wage?

Duke PhD students in years one through five are currently guaranteed a nine-month stipend of around $22,912 (slightly increasing to $23,370 next academic year). Some students, especially in the sciences, receive funding year-round, but in many departments across campus, students face uncertainty during the summer months, do not receive payment for their work until the end of September and have little support when moving to Durham. 

In summer 2017, Duke promised to increase the minimum wage for “all eligible Duke employees and full-time contract workers” to $15 per hour by July 1, 2019. This does not include many groups on campus, including graduate student workers. Members of the Duke Graduate Students Union have been circulating a petition that seeks for graduate student workers to be included in this move toward a livable wage. We ask that Duke:

Firstly, extend the campus-wide wage increase to include the 2,500 graduate student workers on campus. Assuming an average 40-hour workweek, this would mean that PhD stipends would increase to a $31,200 pay floor for a 12-month pay cycle. To be sure, some graduate students work fewer than 40 hours a week, and some, especially in the sciences, work far more. We are not asking Duke to artificially cap our hours, but to pay us the equivalent of a living wage for full-time employees. 

This increase would make it easier for all graduate student workers to finish their degrees on time and without undue financial stress, but it would in particular help those with dependents, large student loan debts and/or chronic medical conditions. 

Many of us find it challenging to live on less than $24,800 a year. These challenges are so obvious that the university helped to establish a food pantry of non-perishables and basic necessities for graduate students who struggle to make ends meet with their meager stipend.

The current pay makes graduate school especially hard for parents. A graduate student parent who wishes to remain anonymous spoke of the challenges she faces: “Full-time daycare in my city ranges from $900-1500 per month, which equates to half or more than half of my monthly stipend.”

“On top of expenditures and medical bills pertaining to maternity care, you would be hard-pressed to support a child (let alone multiple children) in daycare without external help or taking on private loans while taking classes and teaching at Duke as a graduate student,” she said. “If Duke expects its graduate parents to be able to focus their time on graduate studies and teaching at a full-time capacity, they should take a hard look at the capabilities that their graduate stipends afford.”

Secondly, the Duke Graduate Students Union asks that Duke pay all graduate workers on a 12-month pay cycle so that all graduate student workers will make a living wage year-round.

Although we are expected to continue working on our projects year-round, many graduate workers are not consistently guaranteed summer support from their programs. This is especially true for students in humanities departments. Having a 12-month funding cycle would allow us to focus on our academic work and would provide stability we currently do not have, especially for international students.

Anastasia Kārkliņa, a graduate student from Latvia who works in the Literature department, says, “‘If you do not have a safety net or a support network, well, ‘why don't you just get a job,’ is a question I have heard before. Foreign students do not have the option of securing income off-campus because Immigrations regulations prohibit work off-campus. This means: no coffee shop job, no waiting tables, no occasional freelancing gig here and there. It is not an option.”

Thirdly, we ask that the funding cycle begin in August to match the academic calendar, rather than in September, to avoid unnecessary hardship for incoming and continuing students.

New graduate students are expected to be on campus in August or earlier for orientation and to begin work on courses and research projects, but many do not get paid until the last day of September.

A graduate student who wishes to remain anonymous found this affected their work at the beginning of their first year.

“I was under the assumption that I would start receiving my stipend either at the end of August or the beginning of September. Upon discovering that I had to fend for myself until the end of September, I felt completely lost,” they said. “Instead of comfortably adjusting to the intellectual and social rhythms of graduate school, I had to grapple with looming anxieties about how to pay for my electricity and food with little sense of the recourse available to me.”

Although this graduate worker was able to borrow money from their family, many students do not have that option. Since 2013, the Duke Credit Union has provided short-term loans to U.S. residents (if their applications are approved), but international students have fewer resources. More to the point, accruing debt should not be a condition of graduate study, yet Duke normalizes and benefits from graduate student debt by lending us money that should be in our paychecks.

Finally, the Duke Graduate Students Union asks that a relocation stipend of $1000 be provided to each incoming graduate student.

Moving to a new city often requires money for a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, utilities, essentials and relocation costs. These numbers add up quickly. Together with paying students in August, a relocation stipend would make a graduate education at Duke more accessible to students coming from all over the globe and from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Duke currently advertises on its website a recommended 12-month stipend for graduate students as $30,550 and claims that it will rise to $31,160 next academic year. These numbers are misleading: not only is this figure higher than what many graduate workers, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, make, but, more specifically, many of us do not receive the summer funding that this statistic assumes. Even for those who do receive summer funding, it is not at the level of $7000 the graduate school claims. Traditionally, summer funding is $5,500 through the Graduate School.

Yet, Duke claims almost 90-percent of PhD students receive year-round funding. If this is the case, our demand that all students—no matter what department—receive funding on the level the Graduate School claims we receive for 12 months is more than reasonable. Instead of forcing graduate student workers to rely on predatory loans and a university-sponsored food pantry, Duke should pay them a living wage.

Not only would this funding increase vastly improve the lives of the people doing critical work for the university, it would promote the very values Duke claims to embody.

Hannah Rogers (English, fifth-year PhD Student) is the director of communications for the Duke Graduate Students Union, Local 27, Southern Region Workers United SEIU writing on behalf of DGSU’s Pay Regularity Campaign. For more information about DGSU, please visit 



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