On Being Poor in Grad School


Education is often described as an equalizing social force. Despite the fact that this is blatantly not true of undergraduate education, one might still think that more education is somehow more equalizing. Many people understand that financially stable graduate students are few and far between, but there are degrees of stability; and, unfortunately, students from the most disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds can suffer horribly in their pursuit of higher education.

Since the vast majority of universities are committed to lofty liberal ideals, you’d think that it would be easier to be poor as a graduate student, or that you’d be taken care of by higher-level university administrators, who possess a deep understanding of the tenets of social justice, at least on paper. To tell the truth, though, being poor in academia is actually pretty terrible.

It’s terrible to have to sit and listen to a fellow graduate student complain about a rare and elusive fellowship that allows her to do half the amount of teaching you do while receiving five times the salary. It’s terrible to receive student comments on your course evaluations like “she should not teach if she doesn’t have a smartphone.” It’s terrible to get sick constantly because you can’t afford to buy warm clothing or to heat your apartment and to then be told that “we don’t do this for the money” by the head of your department, who quite frankly doesn’t give a damn about whether you have enough money to support yourself or not.

Academia looks different in the eyes of winners than it does in the eyes of losers. Winners see a system that rewards merit and hard work, but losers are able to see hidden lines of power, cultural capital, and personal connections that are far more influential in the ultimate fate of a graduate student than individual merit. In academia, as in other societies, those with privilege are often blind to their privilege, and the ideologies of academia strongly discourage any discussion of this privilege and how it works.

Even after graduate school, personal merit plays very little role. You may get lucky and get a job during your final year of grad school; but, to be brutally honest, it’s not likely, no matter how accomplished you are. It’s therefore important to understand how poverty affects your life as a grad student and impedes your ability to succeed.

Before I go any farther, I want to clarify two points. First, I don’t want to tell anyone not to go to graduate school. If you want to go to class and do research and read books and write essays and teach at the college level and work with incredible and exceptional people, then by all means go to graduate school, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Second, I’m not complaining about my department or any of its students or professors or administrators. If you want to go into East Asian Studies, you should totally apply to the University of Pennsylvania, because we’ve got good people and excellent resources. What I’m writing is partially based on my experience, but it’s primarily a composite picture of the experiences of my friends and acquaintances from many different departments and universities across the United States.

What I hope to achieve through this essay is twofold: First, I want to give as accurate a picture as possible of the sort of severe difficulties that economically underprivileged students can suffer in graduate school; and second, I want to shame the universities that allow this sort of nonsense to happen.

Here are three things you need to keep in mind if you’re thinking about graduate school:


It’s difficult to give exact figures from what the annual stipend of a grad student in the humanities looks like, but a fair estimate is about $21,000. This average doesn’t mean much, however, since stipends range from less than $16,000 to more than $25,000, depending on the university, the department, the year, and the student. Some fellowships last five years, and some last four years or less, and some must be renewed from year to year. Competition for fellowship money is intense, departmental and university politics are always involved, and many graduate students receive no money at all.

Students not supported by fellowships have the option of teaching courses for money. In my experience, a per-class salary can be anywhere from $1,600 to $5,500 (before taxes), and competition for these courses is fierce, especially since graduate students are competing with new PhDs for work.

What this means is that, while it’s possible to earn a livable wage for a few years as a graduate student, it’s also entirely possible to spend several years very close to the poverty line, especially immediately before and after you earn your degree. As of 2012, the official poverty line in the United States is $11,170 for a single-person household and $15,130 for a dual-person household. With part-time adjunct salaries averaging $2,600 per course (before taxes), the paltry income you earn during and after graduate school might make the poverty line seem like an unattainable ideal.

Although there are guides to surviving in the world without much money, the truth is that being poor sucks. If you don’t believe me, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (or David Shipler’s The Working Poor, or Mark Rank’s One Nation, Underprivileged). There are no “tricks” to being poor, and there are often hidden costs. Furthermore, the debt you can accrue just for basics like groceries and health care can mess up your life for a long time, even if you do eventually manage to find a job.

One of the most trying aspects of not making any money as a graduate student is sitting in lectures and listening to tenured professors talk about Marxism and social justice. It’s almost as if they don’t realize that their jobs and salaries are built on the exploitation of poorly paid graduate students, adjunct lecturers, and other temporary employees (who make up an estimated 76% of the work force in American colleges and universities). The whole system of higher education, in which privilege is hidden by a tenaciously enforced illusion of meritocracy, is actually kind of terrible, and it’s even worse when the tenured professors in charge of graduate funding don’t seem to be aware of this.


Let’s say that, as a graduate student or a recent PhD, you are fortunate enough to make $20,000 a year. To an economically underprivileged undergraduate, whose costs of living are generally offset by financial aid, housing subsidies, and part-time jobs, this can seem like a lot of money. To an adult, a salary of less than $1,500 per month (after taxes) is severe, especially if part of that salary needs to be set aside for the expensive health insurance programs that universities require students and employees to carry (more on this later). Even more of this salary must be spent on job-related expenses, such as conference and research travel, for which graduate programs offer partial but nowhere near full subvention.

Since housing and food cost money, graduate students don’t have a great deal of disposable income, and expenses like clothing and books can become unaffordable luxuries. Home internet service and a smart phone data package might fall outside of your budget as well. If you’re a woman, you might not be able to afford birth control. It might be too expensive to take the bus or subway every day, and even the upfront cost of a bicycle can seem steep. Forget about having a car. When you’re a poor graduate student, social events held outside of school can become financial crises, and traveling to meet friends outside of your graduate school social circles becomes almost impossible.

If you’re 21 years old, being poor might seem cool and edgy, but penury looks completely different at 29, when all of your friends from high school and college have settled into careers. They have spacious apartments with furniture and windows and sunlight, or they might even own their own houses. They have pets and gym memberships. They take vacations abroad and post pictures of all the delicious food they eat on Facebook. They go to concerts and buy art, and they pursue interesting hobbies like bookbinding and horseback riding and collecting jazz records. They have flattering haircuts, and they wear nice clothing.

And you? You work well in excess forty hours a week, but you don’t even have your own office.


Another reason poverty seems more bearable when you’re a college student is that you’re still young and your body still works the way it’s supposed to. As you get older, however, not having any money begins to take a serious toll on your health. Not being able to afford heating your apartment during the winter has obvious consequences, as does not being able to afford shoes that you can wear when you exercise. When combined with chronic malnutrition, environmental factors such as exposure can also have distressing consequences. A weekly food and grocery allowance of less than $100 means that you will not often have the benefit of fresh fruit and vegetables, and you can quite literally starve while eating food that is terrible for you. If you’re jocularly thinking to yourself that graduate school might function as an effective diet, the truth is that, after several months of being unable to eat nutritious food, not only are you hungry all the time, but you also start gaining weight. Your immune system tanks, so you’re sick more often than not. You’re much more likely to catch a cold, your colds last longer, and they’re much more likely to develop into something serious. Anemia and diabetes can also become problems.

Compounding the health-related consequences of poverty are university student health insurance policies. Most universities require students to carry health insurance; and, at many universities, university bureaucracy renders it almost impossible for students to carry a cheaper plan than the student health insurance plan, which generally requires the university student health service to refer you to a limited list of outside providers before it will cover the cost of your treatment. If the student health service at your school won’t write you an official referral, you may have to pay for treatment on your own. This makes it difficult to seek a second opinion, especially if you’re attending school in a large expensive city far away from where you grew up and went to college.

I don’t want to make blanket statements about the quality of student health insurance, but getting a second opinion is important, especially when the student health service roulette wheel matches you with the wrong health care provider for your specific situation. Incorrect diagnoses happen all the time; and, if you can imagine the cost of something like surgery without the referral necessary for student health insurance coverage, you can start to get a picture of the health care burdens faced by graduate students. Also, as is the case with most insurance policies, you have to pay extra for vision and dental. This means that, if you destroy your eyes reading in your dark dusty carrel in a section of the library that has no windows, it’s a problem you have to pay for out of your own pocket.

For grad students suffering from mental health issues, student health services and insurance policies can be a nightmare, and the loss of both after graduation can be even worse. On an adjunct salary, mental health care is almost impossible to afford and can mean a change in medication, which I understand can be hell on earth for people with certain conditions.

Malnutrition is real, all sorts of terrible things can happen to your body, and mental health is important. These are all things to keep in mind when you consider the cost of graduate school.


Even if you get lucky and are fully funded at a livable wage during the entirety of grad school, and even if you are astronomically lucky enough to be hired into a tenure-track job after you get your PhD, you will see your peers and colleagues suffering. You will think to yourself that “he’s overweight because he’s lazy,” or “she wears ugly clothes because she’s too stupid to dress herself,” or “his kids are always sick because he’s a bad parent,” and you probably won’t think twice about what difference even a few thousand dollars can make when you’re all so close to poverty. When the shining star of your graduate department fails to be offered a tenure-track job, you will smugly think to yourself that “maybe she isn’t so good after all” without bothering to consider that, with fewer than two dozen tenure-track jobs on the market she’s entering (including the “open rank” jobs intended for senior scholars) and more than two hundred applicants for each job, luck plays an enormous part in who gets a job and who doesn’t.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, there’s still a pervasive idea that academia is a meritocracy. This notion functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, since people who are given more resources are generally able to be more productive. Winners continue to win, and losers continue to lose. Since resources in academia are so scare, the unfortunate truth is that any graduate student can become a loser at any given time for reasons that are completely arbitrary. People who win everything only to lose something for no good reason at a crucial moment (for many graduate students, this point generally comes when they are unable to secure a tenure-track job) and suddenly realize that the game is flawed tend to be understandably upset to have devoted years of their lives to supporting a system that, in the end, will not support them.

Responses to such outcries tend to betray a sense that, if someone didn’t achieve her goals, then she didn’t deserve to. To give an example, in response to a recent Slate article about the despair of investing one’s time and energy into a system that does not live up to its ideals, a certain academic blogger wrote that people who tell the truth about how academia works are “academia haters.” The author of the Slate article in particular “can’t manage [her] time well,” and is “egregiously ignorant,” a “lousy writer,” a “freakazoid,” a “despicable creature,” an “obnoxious loser before [she] even left high school,” and not “worthy to clean [my] toilet,” not to mention “a spoiled brat.” As charming as this blogger is, and as persuasive as the mindset she articulates can be, statistics concerning the academic job market truly are dire; and, in such situations, realism can be much more powerful than “positive thinking.”

I don’t want to say that only people who are independently wealthy should pursue a graduate degree, and I don’t want to say that you do not deserve a graduate degree if you cannot physically or mentally handle a year or two of poverty. The goals of higher education are well worth pursuing, and what you learn in graduate school will allow you to develop intellectual tools and practical skills that have the potential to be quite competitive on a broader job market. Furthermore, university resources can give even poor graduate students and adjunct professors fantastic opportunities for intellectual development and social change.

Still, before you decide to go to graduate school, it’s important to be realistic about financial matters and what the costs of grad school – and poverty – actually are. It’s important to understand that you are statistically unlikely to be able to support yourself completely during the entirety of grad school and its immediate aftermath, and it’s important that your family understand this as well. Careful planning and saving are necessary, as is a reliable exit (or hiatus) strategy. Although your professors and peers may discourage you from doing so, keep an eye on the world outside academia. Try to develop work experience before you go to grad school, and try to keep your work contacts fresh by networking and freelancing.

Academia is wonderful in many ways, but a system built on exploitation that allows such an enormous degree of poverty and income inequality is fundamentally broken. If you’re smart enough to go to graduate school, then you’re smart enough to arm yourself with knowledge of the realities of graduate school and to take the necessary precautions to ensure that the broken system does not break you.

Good luck!

3 thoughts on “On Being Poor in Grad School

  1. Even if you’re not planning on entering the academic job market after grad school, I can’t recommend Robert Peters’s Getting What You Came For highly enough. Even though the book was published back in 1997, I recently re-read large portions of it and found that it’s still extremely relevant. If you’re in grad school, or if you’re thinking about applying to grad school, or if you’ve been accepted to grad school and want to prepare yourself for what lies ahead, you should read this book. Seriously.

    Also, consider checking out the website The Professor Is In. There is a lot of information on the site, and not all of the advice applies to all students in all disciplines, and there are not a lot of warm fuzzies to be had, but when the author of the site says that she will tell you the truth about what you need to do to succeed in academia, she means it.

  2. Yeesh, this brings back memories. And I was one of the lucky ones who was living on an average of $20,000 a year.

    I remember apologizing to students for being late because I didn’t have the $10 to pay for an all-day parking spot, and the students expressing genuine surprise that I had to pay for parking.

    I remember when public health funding got cut and the price of my birth control pills went from $8 a month to $30 a month and I seriously wondered whether I could afford it.

    At one point I ended up in the hospital with food poisoning and even *with* insurance my bill came to around $2000, and it took me more than a year to pay it off.

    And I used to dismiss the idea that professors who were experts in Marxism needed to be more engaged with the economic inequalities right under their noses, but after listening to endless lectures on class struggle from the same people who wonder why you can’t afford to go to that academic conference, or hearing about a conference on *global poverty* that was held at a five-star resort…well, I’m not so dismissive anymore.

    I miss a lot of things about grad school and academia, but this, of course, is not one of them. My current job certainly isn’t perfect, but financial security–not wealth, just not having to count every dollar and worry constantly about being able to pay my bills or stay healthy–is not to be underrated. It breaks my heart that so many grad students and adjuncts don’t have access to basic things like a reasonable salary and affordable health care. Nobody does this for the money, and nobody expects to be rich–we just want to live a little further away from the edge of the poverty line.

    Also, “she should not each if she doesn’t have a smartphone”? Are you f–king kidding me?!!

  3. I hear ya! I was a graduate student in the UK (and this was in the days before student fees went up so steeply) and my fellowship was just about enough to cover my rent (in a room in a landlady’s house with no shower, a temperamental boiler and furniture that was forever falling apart), transport and very modest food bills. I did some marking of student papers and invigilating at exams for some extra cash … only to be told that as a non-EU student I was not allowed to work, so I never got paid for the work I had done (shouldn’t the university have known that before they used my services?). And then, when I tried to apply for post-doctoral fellowships, there were 490 candidates or so for each position…
    Unsurprisingly, I am no longer in academia. I do miss it at times – or rather, I miss the focused research and the discussions. But it’s not meritocracy, it is a lottery or a game of politics.
    And I have many friends (couples) who were both trying to get tenure-track positions and ended up living 10 or more years apart, in different countries, never mind different cities, and postponing having kids etc. because they kept having to move every 2 years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s