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I already make a living wage: Here’s why I’m fighting for my colleagues who don’t

I’m a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering. From September 1st, 2018 to August 31st, 2019 I will be paid $33,289.98 as a base stipend. I will also receive an additional $5,000 for the year, bringing my annual salary as a Ph.D. student to $38,289.98.

I’m the exception.

Currently, the Graduate School says that incoming Ph.D. students should expect a salary of approximately $31,000. I came to Duke University in part because I knew I was greatly exceeding this floor. I am close to earning what I could expect to make in industry as a laboratory technician, and that salary allows me to go to graduate school. I came to Duke thinking all of my peers would have a base salary that comes out to approximately $15 an hour for 40 hours a week. I know having a living wage would allow us to pursue world-class scholarship with fewer worries for our economic situation.

Not long after I arrived in Durham, I began to hear stories that my base stipend was exceptional. The friends I have made in departments all across the university informed me of these disparities in pay. Many Ph.D. students, ones who do amazing work that pushes our understanding of the world further and further, make thousands of dollars less than what the Graduate School promises prospective students.

Those who receive the full stipend face financial hardships, too. Like many first-year students, I wasn’t paid until the end of September, even though orientation started in mid-August. I went without pay for a month and a half after spending several thousand dollars to move to Durham from Grinnell, Iowa, where I did my undergraduate degree. I know this pay schedule is unsustainable and makes graduate education at Duke inaccessible to many. I know I cannot stand by while this happens. I wanted to join a group that was agitating for better working conditions, and, as I walked into convocation, I ran into the Duke Graduate Students Union tabling outside of Duke Chapel. They were handing out some of the most helpful material about life at Duke I had seen all week. After reading the material they were handing out, I gladly joined and am now a dues-paying member of SEIU Local 27. I’m fighting for better pay for all graduate students.

I’m getting a Ph.D. in environmental engineering because I believe society has mounting problems that can be solved through empirical investigation and careful application. I went down an applied path when I pursued an undergraduate degree in chemistry because I felt that the fundamental chemistry research I had seen was too separate from the real-world problems. I know many of my peers in the Pratt School of Engineering feel the same way: we are   committed to finding solutions to problems and improving existing systems. That’s exactly why I joined the union. The Duke Graduate Students Union is an effective and powerful organization enacting the kind of change I want to see on this new campus I’m learning to call home. The union is fighting for $31,000 a year as a floor, not a ceiling. We are fighting for a $1,000 relocation stipend to make graduate school more accessible for people who don’t have the finances to move across the country. We are fighting harassment and discrimination, something many of us who are minorities in STEM know far too well. We are fighting for health care that covers everything we really need.

As engineers, if we did not care about the impact of our work, we would have stayed at home. Instead, we are engineering tissues that will save lives, investigating the contaminants that make us sick, developing the next material that revolutionizes the polymer industry, and so much more. We are willing to push the boundaries of what’s possible with our research, and we should be willing to do the same for graduate study at Duke—for Ph.D. students in all departments. We need to end pay gaps and raise wages. We need to end the discrimination rampant in the STEM fields. We need healthcare that meets our needs. Even those of us who make what the Graduate School says we do should fight to make sure that all graduate students are paid a living wage.

Austin Wadle is a first-year civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. student and is the co-secretary for the Duke Graduate Students Union, Local 27, Southern Region Workers United SEIU. For more information about DGSU, please visit dukegradunion.org.

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