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Coronavirus pandemic adds urgency to graduate students’ fight for increased summer pay

Graduate students have been advocating for increased pay and improved working conditions for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting campus shutdown has renewed calls for the Graduate School to provide summer funding to all students. 

The Duke Graduate Student Union issued a list of demands to the University March 18 calling for guaranteed summer funding, paid time off and sick leave, and expanded support for international graduate workers, among other requests. The demands came a couple of weeks before calls from GSU, Duke Contract Workers United, Duke Faculty Union and a group of alumni to guarantee full pay to all workers during the pandemic.

Ph.D. programs at Duke offer 9-month or 12-month contracts depending on departmental resources. Students on 9-month contracts are guaranteed summer funding after their first and second years, and all funding is application-based during or after the third year, according to John Zhu, senior public affairs officer and communications strategist for the Graduate School. 

The Graduate School’s most recent strategic plan, for 2016 through 2026, states that 18% of arts and sciences doctoral students in their third through fifth years did not have summer funding as of 2016, having decreased from 40% prior to 2014. 

Zhu wrote in a Feb. 23 email that the number of summer research fellowships has increased since 2014, but did not give an updated percentage. In a follow-up March 2, he wrote that the amount of summer funding had increased over the years and would continue to increase. 

Ph.D. students not already on 12-month contracts and non-engineering Ph.D. students are eligible for the Graduate School Summer Research Fellowship. For Summer 2020, recipients will earn a stipend of $5,500 in addition to coverage of tuition and fees, while Zhu noted that the stipend is slated to increase to $6,500 for Summer 2021 and $7,500 for Summer 2022. 

Zhu confirmed April 9 that the Graduate School still plans to distribute funds to students who are scheduled to receive fellowships this summer.

“The Graduate School’s goal has always been to provide the support that students need to focus on their academics,” Zhu wrote.

However, some students believe that the Graduate School should offer guaranteed summer funding. 

“The grad union has been actively fighting for guaranteed summer funding since 2018, although certainly there have been grad students struggling to get by on less than a living wage long before that,” Jeffrey Letourneau, a third-year Ph.D. student in molecular genetics and microbiology, wrote in an email.

Letourneau noted that many Ph.D. students in the sciences are already on 12-month contracts, so this change would primarily impact graduate students in the humanities.

In April 2019, the Graduate School announced that it would switch to a 12-month pay schedule for all Ph.D. students, but the change does not go into effect until Fall 2022.

“With COVID-19 making it extra hard for grad students to find additional summer employment, there have been renewed calls from the grad union and individuals such as myself to guarantee summer funding now,” Letourneau wrote.

Stipend supplementation

Graduate students seeking supplemental income in addition to their annual stipend often serve as teaching or research assistants. But before the 2019-20 academic year, there was a limit on how much they could earn.

“Before the stipend supplementation policy was revised in Fall 2019, students could receive up to $3,000 per section and up to $5,000 in a calendar year for such supplemental assignments. For other types of supplemental opportunities from their home departments, they could receive up to $5,000 in a calendar year,” Zhu wrote in a March 2 email. 

He confirmed March 2 that Fall 2019 policy revision removed pre-existing caps on supplemental income.

Casey Williams, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in literature and chair of the GSU pay regularity working group, wrote in an email that supplemental income caps have posed a barrier for graduate students in the past.

“Supplemental income caps have historically been an issue for grad student workers because they have capped income without capping hours,” Williams wrote. “I know of union members who have had multiple jobs with Duke, but instead of receiving the full payment for each job, they have only received payment up to the cap.”

Matthew Taft, a fifth-year English Ph.D. student and co-chair of GSU, wrote in a statement that the Graduate School made “no public announcement” about the policy change that removed the supplemental income cap.

“It is my understanding that the Graduate School removed the supplemental income cap in the dark of the night a few months ago,” Taft wrote.

The policy, updated Aug. 27, 2019, does not mention an income cap but states that students enrolled full-time in a degree program may not perform or “receive financial support for” more than 19.9 hours of service-based work per week. Taft wrote that this time limit was an issue for at least one union member. 

Williams stated that he was unaware of a policy change, but that he would not be surprised if the change was a result of pressure from students.

“Our union has sought the removal of supplemental income caps, but it is often hard to tell why exactly the Graduate School makes a given policy change,” he wrote.

As of April 8, the “Funding and Finances” section of the English department student handbook still referenced the previous policy that said any earnings exceeding $5,000 during the academic year or $3,000 over the summer, must be paid back to the Graduate School.

Sharing concerns outside of the University

In late 2019, a spreadsheet began circulating that gathered anonymous salary and benefit information from people who taught in universities. The spreadsheet was created by historian Erin Bartram. It collected responses from people of various academic ranks, from graduate instructors to tenure-track professors. 

As of April 13, there were 10 responses from Duke graduate students, out of the 1,009 2019-20 graduate responses on the sheet. 

Six out of 10 respondents reported that they had 9-month contracts. These responses represented the departments of art, art history and visual studies; history; classical studies and political science. 

“As you can see, I have it very good—and yet, I don't know how I'm going to make a single dollar for four months this year,” wrote one respondent from the history department.

The four respondents that wrote they already had 12-month coverage were in the disciplines of genetics and genomics, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and neurobiology.

In response to a claim on the sheet that seeking supplemental employment while on a full fellowship or during the write-up phase is discouraged, Zhu wrote that additional work should not take up the majority of students’ time, and that the written policy states as much. 

“The Graduate School does not discourage students from pursuing supplemental assignments within Duke or outside opportunities,” he wrote in an email. “In fact, the revised supplemental stipend policy allows for greater flexibility on that front.”

He explained that the policy states that directors of graduate studies are “within their right to question supplemental opportunities that provide financial support, either within or external to Duke, if it impedes a student’s progress towards their degree.”

Zhu did not directly answer a question about whether pay stayed the same regardless of hours worked.

Support for international students

International students in the Graduate School face unique challenges compared to domestic students. Ph.D. students on F-1 visas, the most common visa for international students, have very limited options for working off-campus. 

The GSU highlighted this issue in their list of demands, stating that the suspension of on-campus activities leaves international students without summer funding or other opportunities to earn income during the summer.

In advocating why Duke should provide a guarantee for all graduate students to receive summer funding, one international student wrote in a statement to the GSU that high taxes made it difficult to save income they earned during the academic year.

“Saving money from my regular paycheck is quite difficult, however, because international students get taxed at a high rate,” the student wrote. “Working for the university to get by without summer funding is really international students’ only option, and with this pandemic making many of those campus roles impossible, that single lifeline is quickly disappearing.”

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