In this episode, Emily interviews Alex Parry, a sixth-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins in the history of medicine. Alex is a strong advocate for increasing stipends both in his department and at Hopkins broadly and is deeply involved with the grad student unionization movement. Alex and some colleagues recently released the results of a study of stipends vs. the living wage for about a dozen peer institutions to Hopkins, and he explains in detail the methodology of the study and the patterns that they found, making a case for the urgency to increase stipends at virtually all US universities. Emily and Alex discuss the benefits of this approach vs. how PhDStipends.com collects data. Alex shares a powerful concluding message on the need for collective action among graduate students.
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- Alex Parry’s Twitter (@SafetyWorkHSTM)
- PF for PhDs Community
- PF for PhDs: S12E7 Show Notes
- Alex’s Tweet Comparing PhD Stipends
- MIT Living Wage Calculator
- IRS Form 1040-ES (Estimated Tax Worksheet)
- PhD students face cash crisis with wages that don’t cover living costs (Nature article)
- Ph.D. students demand wage increases amid rising cost of living (Science article)
- PF for PhDs Quarterly Estimated Tax Workshop (Individual link)
- PF for PhDs Quarterly Estimated Tax Workshop (Sponsor link)
- PF for PhDs Register for Mailing List (Access Advice Document)
- PF for PhDs Podcast Show Notes
00:00 Alex: But ultimately, our ability to get what we need as adults and as employees of these universities done is contingent on what kind of pressure we are able to bring to bear. And what data we’re able to bring to bear. And the data are only a starting point, right? They provide the talking points you need, they provide the evidence you need. They provide the ability to do the negotiations, right? But ultimately, we will succeed or fail collectively. And we will succeed or fail on the base of our ability to sort of band together to demand what we rightfully deserve.
00:37 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts, a financial educator specializing in early-career PhDs and the founder of Personal Finance for PhDs. This podcast is for PhDs and PhDs-to-be who want to explore the hidden curriculum of finances to learn the best practices for money management, career advancement, and advocacy for yourself and others. This is Season 12, Episode 7, and today my guest is Alex Parry, a sixth-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins in the history of medicine. Alex is a strong advocate for increasing stipends, both in his department and at Hopkins broadly, and is deeply involved with the grad student unionization movement. Alex and some colleagues recently released the results of a study of stipends vs. the living wage for about a dozen peer institutions to Hopkins, and he explains in detail the methodology of the study and the patterns that they found, making a case for the urgency to increase stipends at virtually all U.S. universities. Alex and I discuss the benefits of this approach vs. how PhDStipends.com collects data. Alex shares a powerful concluding message on the need for collective action among graduate students.
02:01 Emily: If you are a fan of this podcast, I invite you to check out the Personal Finance for PhDs Community at PFforPhDs.community. The community is for PhDs and people pursuing PhDs who want to take charge of their personal finances by opening and funding an IRA, starting to budget, aggressively paying off debt, financially navigating a life or career transition, maximizing the income from a side hustle, preparing an accurate tax return, and much more. Inside the community, you’ll have access to a library of financial education products, including my set of Wealthy PhD Workshops. There is also a discussion forum, monthly live calls with me, and progress journaling for financial goals. Our next live discussion and Q&A call is on Wednesday, August 17th, 2022. Basically, the Community exists to help you reach your financial goals, whatever they are. Go to pfforphds.community to find out more. I can’t wait to help propel you to financial success! You can find the show notes for this episode at PFforPhDs.com/s12e7/. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Alex Parry.
Would You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
03:23 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on the podcast today, Alex Parry. He is a rising sixth-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins in the history of medicine. And we have a really valuable conversation coming up for you because we are talking about stipends and how to increase them, and the advocacy work that Alex is doing. We are recording this by the way in May, 2022. I know it’s going to be out a few months later. So, just for context, that’s where we are. Alex, would you please introduce yourself further to the listeners?
03:53 Alex: Sure. So, as it was already stated, I’m a rising sixth-year in the History of Medicine Department at John Hopkins. I work specifically on the history of consumer product safety and home accidents in the United States from about 1920 to 1980. And I’m also one of the organizers with Teachers and Researchers United (TRU) which is the currently unrecognized graduate student union at Johns Hopkins. So, one of many people who’s trying to push here and at other universities for increases to our stipends to accommodate a quickly accelerating rise in the cost of living.
Teachers and Researchers United (TRU) History
04:26 Emily: Yes. So, let’s hear more about that unionization movement right now. So, it’s currently unrecognized. Can you give us a little bit of the recent history, and where you’re hoping to go in the near future?
04:35 Alex: Yeah, absolutely. So, TRU has been around since roughly 2014. It started initially at the arts and sciences campus at Hopkins and was focused primarily on parental leave for graduate students as well as to try and increase healthcare benefits, particularly making sure that all graduate students had access to dental care and to vision care. Since then, the union has sort of grown and sort of formalized. And right now, we’re currently in the midst of an ongoing recognition campaign trying to basically work through the National Labor Relations Board or NLRB to try and seek an official union election at Hopkins. So, we’re hoping to basically have a unit that will encompass all PhD students at the university. So, sort of regardless of what division or campus people are located at, which is about 3,000 PhD students altogether. And we’re currently in the midst of trying to build up our core of organizers, have a lot of conversations with other graduate students at the university about things that are working for them and things that aren’t, in the hope of then sort of staging to basically a card petition with the NLRB sometime over the next couple of years.
How to Become an Officially-Recognized Union at a University
05:44 Emily: Okay. And walk me through this because my university was not unionized at the time. There was not even a movement when I was there. So, you basically gain enough support from the people who would be part of the union on campus through this card campaign. What happens next? The NLRB is involved, but then how does the university ultimately recognize the union?
06:04 Alex: Sure. So, there are sort of two main pathways to get to an officially-recognized union at a university, especially for a private university. Either the university can voluntarily recognize you, say that enough graduate students support this, that we’re just basically going to acknowledge your presence and then sort of work towards a contract from there. Most universities don’t take that path because they’re sort of concerned about having to bargain with graduate students. So, what ends up typically happening is, and this was recently reaffirmed by the NLRB over the last year or so, but if one is trying to seek an election through the NLRB, what one does is you can submit a petition to the NLRB to basically arbitrate an election at your campus when you have signatures from approximately 30% or more of the bargaining unit. Most unions will aim for a higher number than that because you don’t want to sort of rely on a third of the people at the university to 1) be a reliable indicator of how much people want a union, or 2) basically, one typically expects to have a more difficult time in the actual in-person election, which is what we’ll follow if the NLRB accepts your petition.
07:14 Alex: Because typically when you’re just signing the initial petition, you can basically do that remotely. So, people can just sign a digital card. During the actual election, typically those are done in person, which means that it’s harder to turn people out. And there, you’re looking for basically a bare majority of the voters. So, ordinarily, people will aim for more like 50% of the entire bargaining unit when they submit a petition to NLRB, and then after that, an election follows. If the election is successful, then you would then sit down with the university administration and basically negotiate directly over a contract.
Winning an NLRB Election
07:48 Emily: Okay. So, if it’s gone through the NLRB for this like official card campaign, then the university has to recognize the union at that point. Is that right?
07:56 Alex: Yeah, that’s correct. If NLRB hosts an election and the sort of proposed union wins, then the university is obligated to negotiate in good faith. So, there are various mechanisms that then both the university and then the proposed union will use to sort of conduct negotiations. Typically, they’ll have like labor lawyers and/or sort of like corporate lawyers involved. And you’ll sort of haggle over the details. A really good example of what this looks like as ongoing right now is at MIT. They’ve just won their election earlier this year. They’re currently in the midst of negotiations which started sometime late April to the beginning of this month. Those are likely to extend for another several months after this.
08:39 Alex: So probably, they won’t have a contract ratified or least put up to a vote because after you’ve had their bargaining committee come up with a contract, you then send it back to the base to all of the membership, to see if people actually approve of the contract that’s been written. So, sometime, probably this fall, maybe this winter, MIT will finish negotiating a contract, will send it back to everyone to basically vote on, and then if a bare majority approves of the contract, then that will sort of be the first contract for MIT’s graduate workers.
Shift to Stipends Advocacy
09:10 Emily: Okay. Thank you so much for explaining that process to me. One other follow-up question. You said when the union at Hopkins was originally introduced as an idea, back in 2014, they had concerns about leave and about vision and dental insurance. But you mentioned that you’re now more focused on stipends. So, were those initial concerns like fulfilled in some way over the intervening years? And why are stipends the focus now?
09:36 Alex: Yeah, both great questions. Sort of to answer the first one, most of the things that TRU has been advocating for, eventually we were able to win. So, at this point, at least at the school of arts and sciences, vision and dental, they’re not perfect coverage. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s phenomenal, but they do have paid for health insurance, dental, and vision now, as well as parental leave at the Homewood campus. So, overall TRU has been relatively effective in terms of getting sort of these smaller asks dealt with, things that are relatively lower cost, and also things where Hopkins had sort of fallen behind many of its peers. One of the reasons this campaign on healthcare had been so successful is that, one, Hopkins is a world-renowned health provider and the hospital is literally attached to the university.
10:24 Alex: So, it was kind of a bad look that people weren’t getting the kind of healthcare coverage that they needed. But the other sort of major factor there is that other universities that Hopkins considers its peers had provided much better coverage than Hopkins was. That same sort of rationale is part of the reason why stipends have now come to the fore. If you look at Hopkins vis a vis some of its peers, one, of private universities, like private R1 universities, it has one of the lowest raw PhD stipends of almost any school. If you adjust for the local cost of living, it ranks basically in the bottom third regardless of division. So if you look at, you know, engineering, stipends versus medical students stipends versus like biomedical, I should say, biomedical PhD stipends, or social sciences, humanities stipends, more or less across the board, Hopkins ranks the bottom third.
11:16 Alex: The other sort of major reason why we’ve shifted to stipends, in addition to, again, this sort of increasing gap between Hopkins and its self-described peers, is that a lot of us have been hit very, very hard by the inflation post-pandemic. And many people were also affected financially by the time that they were trying to deal with the pandemic, whether that’s in terms of childcare, inability to use research funds that people had earmarked to go on research travel that couldn’t be deferred or delayed. In addition to basically just as soon as the pandemic was starting to change to the current moment we’re in, obviously the pandemic is not over, but we seem to have entered a new way of dealing with it from public health terms and in terms of the community. Since then, rents have skyrocketed, grocery prices skyrocketed. And because of that people, who used to feel a little more comfortable with their stipend here are really starting to feel pretty significant financial pressure.
12:16 Alex: So, the other reason that we really started to push for this at the school-wide level and university-wide level is because we’ve been hearing from many of our members that people are both feeling less able to pay their bills month to month, and are also becoming more and more financially precarious. Where if someone has an unexpected expense, like a major medical bill, or like last summer my car battery died and I had to replace all of my tires all at once. That thousand dollars was, was a pretty substantial hit for me. So, these are the kind of things that we’ve been concerned about, and this is why we’ve brought this to the administration. It’s something that really needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
12:54 Emily: And you’ve been speaking about you know, school-wide and university-wide initiatives, but I understand that you’ve also been working just within your department on advocacy. And I really was happy to hear the example earlier of some, I guess, some success with advancing the benefits that are offered at Hopkins. Not even necessarily through unionization, but just through bringing awareness to it. And Hopkins realizing, as you said, it’s falling behind its peer institutions. So, you know, advocacy can be successful even before unionization is totally in effect or even without that being in effect. So, not that that’s not also worthwhile, but that’s a long process and there can still be wins along the way. So, I want to hear also from you about what you’ve been doing, like in your department, specifically.
13:39 Alex: Yeah. And I hundred percent agree. Like, you know, obviously I am a card-carrying union member. I, you know, really want us to have an election to have a contract, but one thing that’s important for people to know is that sort of just the gradual growth of pressure that accompanies unionization, where you’re sort of talking with your peers, gathering together, working as a group, is often enough to get small wins. Those wins aren’t necessarily protected because you have a contract, right? And those wins are not necessarily of the degree or magnitude that one would hope for in a contract. But there is something to be said for just doing the work initially will get you somewhere and you can just get further than with unionization. So, I think it’s definitely sort of a both-and situation, not an either-or kind of situation.
14:26 Alex: In terms of what we’ve done specifically in our department. One thing that initially brought stipends to our attention even before inflation started spiraling even more out of control, is I’m part of an interdivisional working group that brings together representatives from the student government associations, the recognized ones at the university, as well as the union, to sort of talk together to share information and to make sure that everyone’s on the same page about what advocacy issues are pressing to the community. And also sort of how then to mobilize both institutional channels, talking directly to the administration and sort of like more grassroots advocacy-style channels, more militant-style organizing. So, we were having one of these conversations and realized that apparently the School of Medicine as a whole has a minimum stipend that at that point was approximately $34,900 a year. At that time, folks in my department were making $30,500.
15:23 Alex: So, we were a little bit confused and concerned about the fact that we seemed to be making $4,000 roughly less than our peers while working in the same school and, you know, being under the same umbrella. And everything we saw online was indicating at least that this should have been an across the board minimum. So, we went to our department and asked basically why this discrepancy had appeared, or why this was the case, and didn’t get phenomenally helpful answers. And so we went then to speak with the Dean of the school, Peter Espenshade, who works on basically like graduate student affairs and graduate student research at the School of Medicine. And eventually what sort of came out is that our stipends in particular were tied to the stipend of the school of arts and sciences for a series of sort of complicated and frankly not super compelling <laugh> historical reasons.
16:18 Alex: So, this kind of got us to think more about the fact that, one, not only are all graduate students at Hopkins being underpaid relative to the local cost of living, but also there are significant and often sort of inexplicable disparities between programs and departments at the university. There really is no good reason why social science and humanities students are paid less than hard science students at the school of arts and sciences, and why those students are then paid less than the biomedical science students and the engineers at this university. And then at the very sort of bottom of the economic food chain here, people at the School of Education and people at the School of Public Health have even lower stipends. And at the School of Public Health, some students aren’t even guaranteed stipends at all. In which case they have to basically perform hourly work.
17:06 Alex: So, part of what this advocacy looked like was, you know, going through institutional channels, sort of talking to both sympathetic faculty and our department chair and our DGS. Then sort of like going to Dean Espenshade, being then redirected to the School of Arts and Sciences, where we were able to basically lobby successfully both folks from my department, as well as other members of TRU and other folks at the School of Arts and Sciences to get all of our stipends increased to $33,000. So, it’s a substantial raise, $2,500, at least for my department. But it’s also still not close to enough. The estimated cost of living for Baltimore as of this previous December is over $38,000, which means that even after this raise, we’re looking at a $5,000 shortfall.
TRU Study Comparing Stipends Across Institutions
17:51 Emily: Yeah. So, you can pump your arms and say, “Okay, great! Like good job, partial win here, but like, let’s keep on going. Like, people are listening to us.” And yeah, that’s great. Okay, well, let’s talk more about this study that you did. So, I found you because of something that you shared on Twitter that got a ton of traction. So, I wanted to talk to you more about it.
18:12 Alex: Yeah. So, essentially what I and some other folks from the TRU data and resource committee have spent some time doing was, one, trying to find basically stipend figures for particularly biomedical science and social science and humanities programs at a few sort of select institutions. And then comparing those stipends with the cost of living estimated by the MIT Living Wage Calculator for a given county. And then what we did is basically to calculate the raw difference between those things, and then to calculate basically the percentage of the living wage that a stipend would cover in those areas. Some first major results, then we could talk more about method and why we did this this way and not some other set of ways. One, we found that only two schools actually did meet or exceed the local cost of living out of the set that we used. Out of our sample, only Brown and Princeton actually exceeded the cost of living. Every other institution, including big names like UPenn, Yale, MIT, and Cornell as well as Harvard, Columbia, and others, were falling anywhere from about, you know, 98-99%, so close to local cost of living, all the way down to closer to like three-fourths, like 75% of the local cost of living.
19:34 Alex: And basically, our goal here was to demonstrate that stipends, while they have risen and have been rising, one, are not keeping up with inflation. So, even though a lot of these schools have been getting somewhat regular raises, the raises have not been enough, especially in recent years to cover that inflation. And that sort of given that the MIT Living Wage Calculator is really only supposed to cover bare essentials, not sort of the comfortable lifestyle, not, you know, it explicitly says in a technical documentation that it doesn’t account any eating out, basically no savings, you know, no travel. And some of those things, at least travel, often graduate students are expected to pay for out of pocket if they need to do it for their own work. Unless they’re able to get an external grant or have access to enough research money to cover things in full, which is pretty rare.
20:27 Alex: Given all of that, it was also important for us to note that the MIT Living Wage Calculator data is supposed to be sort of a minimum standard of living that is not the poverty line. As we all know, the poverty line in the U.S. has fallen well below what is even reasonably livable in basically any part of the country. And so, this is an alternative measure, and graduate students are consistently getting paid less than that sort of bare minimum standard of living.
20:53 Emily: Yes. I also point people to the Living Wage Calculator, which is an incredible resource. It covers every county and every major metro area in the country. So, you can look up, basically depending on your family size, how much this sort of, again, just to pay for basic expenses, I’m not talking about poverty level, but just basic expenses, basic housing, basic food, basic transportation, healthcare, these kinds of things, what it would cost for a single adult. That’s what I usually reference for graduate students. But there’s also like if you have a number of children or if you have a partner, et cetera. I love referencing this, especially for prospective graduate students who haven’t yet moved to the city that they’re going to be attending and haven’t yet experienced what the costs are. This is one way to give them kind of a touch point.
21:36 Emily: But as you said, what I also very much try to emphasize to them, and I don’t want the listener to miss this, is this is only talking about necessary expenses. There’s no saving included in this calculation. There are no discretionary expenses included. It’s just to run a baseline lifestyle. And as you said, not even those numbers are being met at the institutions that you studied. I do want to sort of reiterate, because I think this was maybe missed on Twitter, but like you were only looking at, it sounded like maybe a dozen different institutions. Private institutions, R1 institutions, maybe all in the Northeast to Mid-Atlantic. Is that right?
22:11 Alex: Not just Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, but only a handful of schools for other regions.
22:16 Emily: Yeah, so like, and I just sort of know from experience that the situation is worse at other places outside of private universities, outside of R1 universities. So, even this bleak picture is sort of like the best picture of the data that probably you could have selected.
22:34 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude! These action items are for you if you recently switched or will soon switch onto non-W-2 fellowship income as a grad student, postdoc, or postbac and are not having income tax withheld from your stipend or salary. Action item #1: Fill out the Estimated Tax Worksheet on page 8 of IRS Form 1040-ES. This worksheet will estimate how much income tax you will owe in 2022 and tell you whether you are required to make manual tax payments on a quarterly basis. The next quarterly estimated tax due date is September 15, 2022. Action item #2: Whether you are required to make estimated tax payments or pay a lump sum at tax time, open a separate, named savings account for your future tax payments. Calculate the fraction of each paycheck that will ultimately go toward tax and set up an automated recurring transfer from your checking account to your tax savings account to prepare for that bill. This is what I call a system of self-withholding, and I suggest putting it in place starting with your very first fellowship paycheck so that you don’t get into a financial bind when the payment deadline arrives.
23:54 Emily: If you need some help with the Estimated Tax Worksheet or want to ask me a question, please consider joining my workshop, Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients. It explains every line of the worksheet and answers the common questions that PhD trainees have about estimated tax. The workshop includes 1.75 hours of video content, a spreadsheet, and invitations to at least one live Q&A call each quarter this tax year. If you want to purchase this workshop as an individual, go to PF for PhDs dot com slash Q E tax. Even better, recommend that your grad school, grad student association, postdoc office, etc. sponsor the workshop on behalf of yourself and your peers. I offer a discount on these bulk purchases. Please point the potential sponsor to PF for PhDs dot com slash sponsor Q E tax. Now back to our interview.
Resources for Comparing University Stipends
25:00 Emily: What I would love to talk more about right now is how you found the stipends. So, the Living Wage is very easy to work with, a calculator from MIT, but how did you find the stipends to compare it to at these different institutions?
25:13 Alex: Yeah, so it was not super easy. A lot of universities do not make their stipend data particularly public, which is one reason why we’ve also used data from your basically database of self-reported data, PhD Stipends, which is, you know, a great sort of way to get self-reported information about what people are making in different departments at different places. We found that when we were working with the administration to try and lobby for increased wages that self-reported data weren’t as compelling to them as having something where we could point to an official university communication. So, all the data that we’ve collected have been sourced directly from offer letters, from university websites, or from internal university correspondence. So, you know, announcements of raises, for example, that went out to a graduate student listserv.
26:04 Alex: This has its cost and benefits. On the bright side, what this means is that it’s very, very difficult or impossible for administrators or other folks who are sort of less willing to provide increased stipends to sort of just basically wave the results away as badly reported self-reported data, or as sort of potentially not being an accurate reflection of all the quote unquote benefits that accrue to a graduate student. On the flip side, it means that we were then very limited in the amount of data we were able to collect. We’re a small team, it’s about four or five of us who work on this. And all of us are obviously also full-time graduate students. So, this is kind of a spare hours what little free time we have kind of project.
26:51 Alex: And so, that’s part of the reason why, as you’d mentioned that we really limited ourselves to the schools that Hopkins like self-describes as its peer institutions, which means R1, private, mostly Northeast, right? Which also as you pointed out means that this data is looking at the schools that should in theory provide the best of the best in terms of stipends. And the data looks substantially worse if you start looking at schools that, and there are many of them, that pay closer to like $16,000 a year, in some cases, in large metro areas. So, things could be better <laugh>.
27:29 Emily: Yeah, I’m really glad you brought up, like, so my website, my database PhDStipends.com. I say mine, but I just put it up. People can use it how they want, they can enter what they want into it, because it’s, as you said, it’s all crowdsourced and self-reported. We have thought about different ways to sort of verify like what people are reporting, the way that you’ve done for your study. But as you said, it’s very labor-intensive, and you’re asking people to give up very personal information. In my case, to an anonymous website, which is like out there and what protections do they have, you know? So, I think it really does, these are like complimentary approaches, I think. Because PhD Stipends can give you kind of a starting point. And that’s all it’s really meant to be, is like the more people use it, the more people enter, the clearer the picture gets. Yeah, you’re going to have some people write in typos or like people who are clearly making things up, but it’s a starting point. And you’ve, you know, jumped off from that point and done much more in-depth verification, which is wonderful.
28:23 Emily: But as you said, the data set only get so big when you go that route because it takes so much willingness on the part of the participants to let you have access to this information and then for the volunteers to verify it. So, I love that approach you took, and I know there are some other people working, you know, with similar approaches at different universities and different fields around the country. It’s all great work. And I love it. And that’s why I wanted to have you on to talk about this, but yes, I totally can understand. Some people do use PhD Stipends for advocacy work, but I think it’s, as I was just saying, a starting point rather than like the end all be all of what the data can be.
Stipend vs. Living Wage Patterns
29:00 Emily: Are there any other patterns that you want to share with us when you were doing the study regarding the stipends versus living wage?
29:08 Alex: Sure. So, one other thing that we’ve tried to do, and this is still sort of in the early stages, we’ve only gotten a few schools’ data collected so far for this, but we’re also trying to compile some longitudinal data. So, the table at the beginning of the Twitter thread and things that I think, you know, PhD Stipends sort of attempts to do is basically primarily to give like a one year snapshot. Like this is kind of like where things were in this single year without sort of then trying to do the detailed work of trying to figure out exactly what that means when you start accounting for inflation or especially inflation and cost of living in the local area. But one thing that we’ve been trying to do with the data set is now to compile using sort of both either sort of synchronic pictures at different moments of what the MIT data look like, or using right now, we’ve just basically been using data from the consumer price index to look at inflation over time and then tracking the stipends backwards for about five to six years.
30:03 Alex: What we have been noticing is that for almost all these schools, if you look at the, at the four, five-year trend, the overall real wage is declined. So, not only is the situation now that stipends are below the local cost of living, but in fact, we were making more in real terms five years ago than we are now. So, a lot of schools have been sort of touting the fact that they have increased stipends or are trying to increase stipends either, you know, a couple years back, or even now in response to inflation, but we still haven’t even recouped the amount that we’ve lost over the last few years, let alone actually gotten to the point where graduate students are making a livable wage. So, that’s another major trend. This long-term decline is something that we want to do more research on and sort of see how consistent it is, and also try and assess this magnitude in a more systematic way.
Effect of Unionization on History of Stipends
30:53 Emily: Yes. Wow. I guess also another question that I have, and I don’t know if you’ve looked into this at all, is to see what effect unionization and unionization movements have had on that history of stipends, because I would guess that, at the point when a union contract is first ratified, there’s probably going to be a substantial jump in at least some of the stipends at these universities. Maybe they’ve been falling behind in recent years and that jump helps catch them up a little bit, but it may be these sort of not gradual changes, but very abrupt changes when certain outside circumstances like that occur.
31:29 Alex: Yeah. I mean, I think what I’ve noticed from schools that have recently gotten contracts or have been, you know, in the process of getting contracts for a few years is, typically, if you look at the year when the contract is ratified, even if it doesn’t bring them up into sort of like the absolute upper echelon of schools in terms of the pay given to graduate workers, in many cases, because there’s been a many-year delay that added to the pressure that led to the unionization campaign to begin with. A lot of those schools have a very substantial percentage raise. So, if you look at the stipend table that was on the Twitter thread, you’ll notice that Columbia is near the very bottom in terms of relation to local cost of living.
32:08 Alex: Columbia would be even further behind, like closer to, at the moment, humanities and social science programs there are paid about 75% of the cost of living for New York. Without the most recent raise, which was substantial, I think like a 10% raise or something along those lines, you’d be looking at closer to like 68%. So, it’s important to note, when sort of interpreting the effect of unionization, yeah, there are some schools like Brown. Brown is the best-paid program relative to cost of living in the country. And a big part of that is the fact that they have a very strong militant union that has done a lot of great work. But even for schools that you might turn around and say like, well, how is it then that Harvard and Columbia, which have unions, don’t rank higher? There, it’s just a factor of 1) that the cost of living in Boston and New York is so high, and 2) that they actually are getting raises that are outpacing the annual raise of other places, but because they were so far behind to begin with, those additional raises or that super added raise is only just bringing them sort of further out of the gutter, so to speak, not necessarily actually again, launching them into an above cost of living style wage.
33:18 Alex: So, those are the things I would sort of initially note. I guess the last thing I would say about this is that one other effect that we’ve seen that’s happened a lot in unionized schools that is really important is that wages tend to get standardized across the school. And what that actually means in practice is that the folks at the lowest end of the income scale get pulled up to the highest. I’ve heard concerns or rumors that graduate students are afraid that if a union contract passes that wages will “meet in the middle.” That has literally never happened in a graduate student unionization campaign. In all cases, what’s basically happened is, if schools of public health or humanities and social science students at the bottom end of the income scale, they get boosted either all the way up to where the hard science students are, or get boosted up to some arbitrarily set lower level. And we can talk more about the fact that hard science students are consistently paid more than humanities and social science students, and more than public health students. But regardless, the effect is raises for everybody, but really big raises for folks who are at the bottom.
Consideration of Non-Employee Stipends
34:23 Emily: Yeah. So good to hear. Very, very reassuring for anyone who has that concern, or like heard that rumor or anything. Something that has always interested me about these let’s say the stipends that universities claim that they pay their students, or like announcing, okay, everyone in this school is now going to be paid this baseline stipend, is that I believe it’s focused on people who have assistantships, usually. Because they are the employees of the university and that’s where the best and most consistent data comes from. But as you well know, there are many, many, many graduate students who are funded, not because of assistantships or employee positions, but through fellowships or training grants or other non-employee sources of funding. My understanding is that technically, if a union does come into place those people would not officially be part of the union when they have those types of positions, because they’re not employees, and unions are just for employees. But I think at some universities, they found a way to sort of include people who are non-employee graduate students in some of the benefits that may come about with a contract, like, you know, better health insurance, for example. Did you consider these non-employee stipends in your study at all? Or do you have any comments about how they might or might not be included in like these advocacy pushes?
35:43 Alex: Absolutely. So, it is a complicated question, sort of how external fellowships are factored into a bargaining unit effectively. Or how they would be folded or not folded into a filing union. One thing to keep in mind is that basically, if any of your revenue or any of your income is being given by the university, it doesn’t matter if you have an external fellowship, really. That seems to be the consensus that we’ve seen from previous cases. So, for a lot of training grants, especially at places like Hopkins, almost all graduate students are paid above the NRSA rate, which is basically the NIH training grant stipend level, which I think for this coming year is somewhere on the ballpark of $26,000, roughly.
36:27 Alex: At Hopkins, because most people on those grants are then paid a super added stipend on top of that to basically get them up to the School of Medicine level, we have a bunch of people who are on external money who actually would be a part of a final bargaining unit. And at least in our case, when we’re looking at School of Medicine stipends, they’re sort of equivalent across the board. There are places and there are some grants where that’s not the case, right? One of them is the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program. Depending on what institution you’re at and how much money that’s valued at, in many cases that will come out to above whatever the university’s pay is. So, in those cases, many times during NLRB elections, those folks have been excluded, and actually they were recently excluded in the MIT election.
37:18 Alex: One thing that’s important to keep in mind, as you already indicated though, is that if we’re able to push for higher stipends for everybody, right? Then ideally <laugh> we’ll be able to push things above the GRFP rate, and/or make sure to apply external pressure to the GRFP so that it pays better as well. And obviously, our benefits are not often given through the external fellowships. Things like the healthcare access to library resources, additional research funds that are not controlled by a granting agency but are coming from your department from your institution, are still things that we can lobby for. Another thing that we’ve been pushing for at the School of Medicine that’s sort of along the same lines is to provide relocation funds for folks who are moving from other states or overseas to Baltimore.
38:05 Alex: So, those types of benefits, even if we can’t necessarily include someone explicitly in a contract, those benefits that apply to all graduate students enrolled in the program would sort of directly accrue even to those who are not sort of an official part of the bargaining unit and therefore sort of attached directly to stipend benefits. So, these are other things to consider when we’re talking about a unionization contract, we’re talking about benefits as we’ve already sort of been indicating. Stipends are one indicator and are, I think, the most important indicator, but things like healthcare coverage, access to research money, relocation money, things like childcare support. These are all also really important aspects of thinking about what a graduate student needs to survive and also sort of what is and is not made available by their institutions.
Look-Back Formula for Voting
38:58 Emily: Would someone who is, at the moment, not considered an employee of the university be able to sign a union card or vote on a contract? I ask this because at other points in their career as a graduate student, they may be an employee, and it may, you know, very well affect them at that point. But maybe at the moment those things are happening they’re not an employee. How does that work out?
39:20 Alex: Yeah, that’s another complicated question. The NLRB clearly does not think first and foremost of graduate students when they’re coming up with their policies, but they do actually have a workaround for this. The NLRB has something called a look-back formula. So, if you’re a graduate student who goes on and off of external fellowships, for example. So, just as a personal note, right? This spring I’ve been off of department funding. I’ve been using money from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the School of Public Health. It’s internal to Hopkins, but it’s an external grant funded by the CDC. But for that period, I am not a W2 employee with Hopkins, right? When I’m teaching, I am. But when I’ve been on this fellowship and when I’ve been on, Hopkins provides to graduates in my department basically two years of what’s called fellowship funding, which essentially is just, you know, you’re paid without any TA or assistantship work requirements.
40:23 Alex: Obviously, we’re still working, right? We’re applying for grants, we’re still publishing papers, we’re going to conferences. We’re doing everything except for the teaching or assistantship stuff. So, I always find it a little funny that it’s called a fellowship as if it’s not work. We are actually still doing work, just different work, right? But the point being that, for folks who move on and off of different kinds of funding what the NLRB will say is like over the last, you know, two years or something, were you at any point being paid directly by the university? Especially if it was a W2 employee. And if the answer is yes during any of that period, you are eligible at that point to vote in the election. So, the other thing to, I guess, keep in mind along those lines is that, even if you’re technically receiving fellowship income from the university, so not from NSF or NIH or somewhere else, we’re pretty confident at this point, and again, the legal aspects of this are a little murky, but we’re pretty confident that for all those graduate students, they also count even if they’re not receiving a W2 and even if they’re not TAs or RAs in the same way that other people are. So, basically, if your paycheck is coming from the university, you can be pretty sure, or part of your paychecks coming from the university, you can be pretty sure you’d be included in the final bargaining unit.
41:40 Emily: It’s very interesting. I had not heard that update yet. So, I’m really glad that the NLRB has been examining the special case of graduate students to kind of figure out how to handle those. Because it is so common to switch on and off of external or internal or whatever, you know, employee, non-employee kind of statuses.
Best Practices for Advocacy
41:56 Emily: So, as like kind of takeaway messages for the listener, are there particular best practices that you have identified or put in place with respect to advocacy that you’d like to share with other graduate students, et cetera, who are trying to do the same on their campuses?
42:12 Alex: Yeah, I think one thing is, as we were talking about earlier, to be a little bit agnostic about sort of what approaches work. You know, you should try to talk to faculty, you should try to talk to the administration. Institutional channels sometimes will get the job done, right? However, that’s not always going to be the case. And especially when it’s something as dicey as stipends, where universities, many of them, I won’t say Hopkins is one, right? But many universities are relatively cash-strapped right now and are sort of deeply concerned about sort of their futures and how much money they have. And in situations like that, often, even if there is money out there to basically increase graduate student stipends or priorities need to be reshuffled at the level of the university budget, really the only way to do it is going to be talk to your colleagues. If you can, try to unionize and sort of work together.
43:00 Alex: I think the main thing that’s essential to both kinds of advocacy, whether you’re doing it within the institutional channels or outside of them, or some combination, is that graduate students really have to work together. You know, obviously faculty can be supportive, undergraduates can be supportive, administrators can be supportive, right? But ultimately, like our ability to get what we need as adults and as employees of these universities done is contingent on what kind of pressure we are able to bring to bear. And what data we’re able to bring to bear. And the data are only a starting point, right? They provide the talking points you need, they provide the evidence you need, they provide the ability to do the negotiations, right? But ultimately, we will succeed or fail collectively. And we will succeed or fail on the base of our ability to sort of band together to demand what we rightfully deserve.
43:48 Emily: Very strong message. Thank you.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
43:50 Emily: Alex, thank you so much for this incredible interview! It’s been wonderful to have you on. Glad to hear about all the wonderful work that you and your colleagues are doing. I’d like to finish up by asking you the question that I ask of all my guests, which is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? And it could be something that we’ve already touched on in the interview, or it could be something completely new.
44:12 Alex: I guess I would say to prospective students to, you know, choose wisely. Even a funded PhD does not mean that you’ll be really making the kind of money you’d be making without doing the PhD. So, you know, I think just having your eyes open about both what it means in terms of your financial future to get a PhD is important. And also, you know, also being aware that in some fields, a PhD will significantly improve your earnings potential and in others, it might not. And in some cases, it can even sort of be, frankly, a pathway to downward economic mobility. So, just think very carefully before doing a PhD.
44:53 Alex: For those who have already committed to it. And, you know, I don’t regret my PhD at all. I’ve found this a very intellectually rewarding experience and have really appreciated the chance I’ve had to both do my own research and to work with others, both on, you know history of medicine topics, but also on things like unionization. I’d say the big thing is join your union if there is one, and make sure again, to work with your colleagues. Figure out what people need to get through this degree. It’s a long slog, and it’s a very, very difficult job. But I’d say, you know, get together with your colleagues, make sure that you know, what you need and what they need, and do whatever you can to work together to achieve it.
45:33 Emily: Thank you so much, Alex, for joining me!
45:35 Alex: Thank you. That was really a pleasure!
45:42 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode! I have a gift for you! You know that final question I ask of all my guests regarding their best financial advice? I have collected short summaries of all the answers ever given on the podcast into a document that is updated with each new episode release. You can gain access to it by registering for my mailing list at PFforPhDs.com/advice/. Would you like to access transcripts or videos of each episode? I link the show notes for each episode from PFforPhDs.com/podcast/. See you in the next episode, and remember: You don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance… but it helps! The music is “Stages of Awakening” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing by Lourdes Bobbio and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.
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