When I was applying to and interviewing for grad school, I told myself that the only factor I would consider when selecting a school was the advisor with whom I would work. I wanted to do high-quality research in my sub-discipline of interest and wouldn’t let the reputation of the program, the city, or anything else get in the way of working with the best advisor (for me) possible.
Thankfully, my preferences with respect to the non-research factors crept into my decision-making subconsciously when I compared the programs I’d been accepted to. Ultimately, I decided that two potential advisors at different universities would be equally excellent for me to work with, and I allowed the cities the universities were in to break the tie. Namely, one city had unequivocally better weather for me and my boyfriend of two years.
Now that I have completed graduate school and corresponded with hundreds of students at universities across the US, I realize just how fortunate I was that my decision-making process didn’t completely backfire on me. Yes, your research advisor and the quality of the research produced by your department is an important consideration, but not to the exclusion of other factors affecting your quality of life.
Your stipend and benefits offer will greatly affect your lifestyle during graduate school and possibly your net worth for the rest of your life. (Consider the same student accepted to two programs, one of which would force her to live paycheck to paycheck while the other would allow her to save. This disparity in savings ability over even this short period of time can result in a difference of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in retirement due to the power of compound interest.) If you are a competitive applicant – meaning you’ve been accepted to two or more programs – you have the opportunity to take your financial offers into consideration. While you shouldn’t necessarily accept the largest stipend and benefits offer (after adjusting for cost of living), you should vote with your feet by vocally declining offers that too low to provide you with a reasonable lifestyle.
If you do decline any admissions offers for this reason (perhaps among others), you should let the departments know why. At the same time that you are competing with other applicants for admissions, the departments are competing with one another to attract the best individuals and overall class. Universities pay attention to how well they are doing in comparison with their peer institutions on various metrics, and many of them try to offer stipends and benefits that are in line with their chief competitors. (Some programs even offer unusually high stipends when they are trying to move up in rankings.) The departments pay attention to which programs they they lose students to and why. Giving them the extra information that the lower stipend (relative to the local cost of living) or lack of benefits played into your decision is a great act of service to both the departments and students if they choose to use this information to improve how they treat their current and future students.
Once you have accepted a program’s offer of admissions, you still have the opportunity to advocate for higher pay and better benefits, especially through assembling with other students. However, your strongest position for making your voice heard is often before you accept an offer or upon your rejection of it. Once you have started graduate school, the switching costs become so high that departments practically have you over a barrel. Graduate students almost never have the opportunity to negotiate their offer letters, so one of the best actions they can take is to vote with their feet by declining unacceptable offers outright. It’s hard to overstate how much universities depend on graduate students and postdocs to bring in grant money, produce research that raises their prestige, and create their other major product (undergraduate education). This value should be reflected in the pay students receive, and if it’s not, the departments need to hear about it.
There are two practical steps prospective graduate students can take to strengthen their position when accepting or rejecting admissions offers:
- Apply to a number of programs. I know it’s expensive and time-consuming to add schools to your application list, but that cost pales in comparison to how much going to a poor-paying or unsupportive program will hurt you over the years you are in it. Having multiple admissions offers will give you the best chance of attending a program that will support you as a whole person.
- Thoroughly research the stipend offer letter extended to you by each program you gain admission to as well as the benefits provided by the university and how the benefits have changed over time. While some of that research is available online, you will almost certainly need to talk with multiple current students to get the real scoop. Ask them if they can live comfortably on their stipends and how they define comfortable. Ask them if there are any common financial pain points that students gripe about. Ask them if out-of-pocket fees have increased in the past few years, whether the ACA has changed their health insurance benefits, and about any special considerations you have such as partner benefits, chilcare subsidies, or support for students with chronic medical conditions. If the students share their perception of an “us vs. them” attitude on the part of the administration or an administration that is powerless protect students from federal and state funding changes, take that as a major red flag.
When I was applying to grad school, I didn’t know about benefits, unions, how states cutting higher education funding affects grad students, or health insurance subsidies. I had no idea that a good advisor or good department could be housed in a university that has an adversarial relationship with its students. I consider myself very fortunate that I ended up at a university that provided a reasonable stipend and benefits and had a supportive administration just by following my research and weather preferences.
I don’t want you to get ‘unlucky’ in this process simply because of a lack of information or that you only received one admissions offer. I want you to accept an offer that allows you to live a reasonably comfortable lifestyle in graduate school for your own well-being, and I want you to signal to departments whose offers didn’t meet that standard where they are lacking for the benefit of their current and future students. If enough of us vote with our feet by rejecting low offers, the departments and universities will hear us and be forced to change.