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!

Ico: Castle in the Mist

Title: Ico: Castle in the Mist
Japanese Title: イコ:霧の城 (Iko: Kiri no shiro)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 400

When people complain about sexism in video games, they’re not complaining just to start a fight or to prove that they’re on the right side of the social justice movement. The sexism in many games is not only unnecessary but also detracts from the player’s enjoyment of the game. For example, when I played the original Tomb Raider game for the Playstation, I remember being frustrated at Lara’s inability to navigate certain terrain and thinking this wouldn’t be a problem if she were wearing pants. A better example might be Metroid: Other M, in which your female player-character (a veteran soldier who has already saved the world multiple times) can’t use even the most insignificant of her abilities until given permission to do so by her male commanding officer in a gameplay paradigm that has to be one of the most frustrating I have ever encountered. This sort of sexism is dangerous precisely because it is so frustrating. Instead of hating the (male) developers who imposed such ridiculous limitations on the female protagonist, the player’s frustration at these limitations instead causes him to hate the female protagonist herself.

It is for this reason that I despise Ico: Castle in the Mist, a short puzzle platformer released for the Playstation 2 in 2004 that was received with almost universal acclaim. In this game, you are Ico, a boy with mysterious horns who is mysteriously dumped in a mysterious castle in which he mysteriously encounters a mysterious young woman named Yorda. As Ico, your job is to find your way out of the castle while simultaneously rescuing Yorda. Considering that Yorda (a) has lived in the castle for a very long time and (b) is magic, this shouldn’t be too difficult of a feat. Unfortunately, Yorda also (c) either can’t or won’t communicate with Ico and (d) is almost entirely passive. Ico quite literally must lug Yorda around like an inarticulate sack of meat, and the main challenge of the game is not for Ico to navigate his way through the castle but rather for Ico to bully and cajole Yorda over and around obstacles while she remains both vulnerable and inscrutable. If the player, as Ico, wanders off on his own for a moment, Yorda is besieged by shadow monsters that she will not attempt to ward off or escape in any way. Ico is a truly beautiful game that creates a hauntingly atmospheric experience through its graphics, music, and gameplay, but it is difficult to make it through the game’s roughly eight hour playtime without hurling obscenities at Yorda for being so useless. Sexism is thus built into the gameplay mechanics, and I remember thinking that Ico would have been a lot more fun if Yorda had actually done something instead of passively allowing herself to be rescued by a younger male hero.

When I heard that the novelization of Ico would be released in North America, I was really excited. I thought that Miyabe Miyuki, who writes about awesome female detectives and manages to create a strong yet believable female protagonist in The Book of Heroes, would be able to do something interesting with Yorda, or at least to make her more of a subject than an object. Thankfully, she succeeds – at least to an extent.

Like the game on which it’s based, Miyabe’s novelization is the story of Ico, a thirteen-year-old boy with horns who is exiled from his village and dumped at the Castle in the Mist by a group of soldiers. In the otherwise empty castle Ico finds Yorda, who is suspended in a hanging cage covered by thorns. Ico wakes Yorda and then extracts her from her cage, resolving to rescue her from her imprisonment in the castle. Yorda doesn’t speak Ico’s language and in any case doesn’t seem particularly interested in communicating with him, but her touch can open certain magical doors through which Ico needs to pass. Furthermore, Ico’s body is filled with light and energy whenever he holds Yorda’s hand, so he quickly develops an attachment to her.

As Ico and Yorda progress through the castle, Ico begins to see Yorda’s memories of her life before the castle was reduced to its current state. Through these memories, it becomes clear that Yorda’s mother, the queen of the castle, is the “daughter” of the Dark God. In ages past, Yorda’s mother used her power to keep outsiders away from her kingdom, mainly by turning them into stone. She also kept her own people within her country’s borders by means of an enchantment that kept their hearts and minds peaceful. Convinced that other nations coveted the beauty, wealth, and material prosperity of her kingdom, Yorda’s mother would hold a tournament every three years to bring the world’s mightiest warriors into her castle to compete for glory. The winner of these tournaments would teach the latest military technology to her soldiers – and then secretly be turned to stone. The tournament of Yorda’s sixteenth year brought a horned warrior, a servant of the Light God, to the tournament, and his interactions with Yorda led the kingdom to its current state of timeless abandonment. Ico’s job is thus to unravel the mysteries of the past in order to ascertain how to defeat the queen once and for all, after which he will presumably be able to escape with Yorda in tow.

Miyabe’s novel is divided into four parts. The first part details Ico’s life before he was taken to the castle and thereby provides information concerning the greater world in which the story takes place. The second part describes Ico’s adventures in the castle before Yorda begins communicating with him through her memories. The third part tells the history of the castle from Yorda’s perspective, and the fourth part follows Ico through his final confrontation with the evil queen. As Miyabe jokes in her introduction, her novelization isn’t meant to be a walkthrough for the game, and the first and third sections are almost entirely her own invention. Miyabe adds layers of depth to game’s characters and creates a handful of her own characters, who manage to be interesting and engaging despite only being onstage for small portions of the novel. Miyabe also renders the ending of the story slightly less ambiguous.

This is all well and good, but how does a puzzle platforming game translate into prose? Mainly, I suppose, in the way one might expect, though descriptive passages:

The thought put Ico at ease. Maybe if we can get down to those doors, we can get outside. The only problem was, there didn’t seem to be any way to get from the top of the bridge on the second floor down to the floor of the great hall. What stairs he could see went up to the ceiling, not down to the floor below, forming a sort of catwalk that seemed without purpose.

Besides such descriptions of setting, there is also a great deal of running, jumping, climbing, flailing at shadow monsters with a stick, and holding Yorda’s hand.

If the reader can successfully visualize what Miyabe is describing, then her descriptive passages, which form the bulk of the two sections from Ico’s perspective, create a sense of adventure and awe. If the reader is too engrossed in figuring out the mysteries of the castle to slow down and mentally picture the landscape Miyabe is describing, then these passages can come off as clunky and annoying. My sympathies tend to lie with the latter reader, especially if that reader has never played the game; trying to describe the visual aesthetics of the Castle in the Mist is like trying to describe an Escher painting. The game Ico is all about the atmosphere created by its visual and auditory elements, and a purely textual medium will never be able to capture that atmosphere, no matter how hard it tries.

What text can do, and what text can do well, is characterization, and it seems to me that the lion’s share of the game’s atmosphere is conveyed in the novel by Ico’s perceptions of and interactions with Yorda. Just as the castle is architecturally majestic and full of mysteries, Yorda is physically beautiful and conceals secrets upon secrets beneath her silent exterior. For example:

Ico glanced at her. She did not look sad or even frightened. Nor did she smile or seem engaged with the world around her at all. Though she was right next to him, and he could look directly into her face, he felt like she was standing on the other side of a veil.

Here’s another example:

The girl turned to him and to his surprise, she smiled faintly. She’s beautiful. He thought her smile looked like a flower in full bloom, swaying gently in a forest breeze, sending its petals out to drift on the wind. He could almost smell the flower’s perfume on her breath.

Here’s yet another example:

Filled with hope, Ico looked into Yorda’s eyes. He felt like he was looking into an hourglass, trying to pick through the grains of truth buried there long ago. He hadn’t found anything yet, but the warmth of Yorda’s hands in his told him that he was getting close.

Yorda is thus delicate and mysterious, and her main function as a character is to reflect the emotions Ico projects onto her. Because this novel is a work of young adult fiction, Ico is exceptionally pure of heart, and – perhaps as a result – Yorda is as well. What Ico is about, at its core, is the bravery of two children challenging the old, the impure, and the monstrous. For me, the main problem with Ico and Yorda is that, although purity of heart is inspiring, it is also somewhat boring. The evil queen is far more interesting. At a certain point I stopped caring about Ico and his youthful hope and good intentions and started waiting for the next appearance of the queen, who is the only halfway intelligent and rational character in the entire novel.

For example, unlike Ico’s caretakers, who tell him nothing, the queen respects her daughter enough to explain to her what she is doing and her motivation for doing it. The queen’s explanations are always pragmatic and hint at a lifetime of experience. The following passage, for example, is how the queen justifies to Yorda why the two of them never leave the castle:

“Beauty is a high and noble thing. Thus are men enchanted by it and seek it out. But those who desire you also desire our lands. I must keep you hidden so that you do not entice or enchant them – because, my dearest, while your beauty holds the power to command the actions of a few men, it does not bestow the ability to govern.

“It is the same for me. The land I govern is the most wealthy and beautiful of all the lands that divide this vast continent. They crave it, as they crave me. From their slavering jaws and their multifarious schemes have I escaped many times. All to protect myself and my beautiful domain, blessed by the Creator. You, who were born into the world as the lone daughter of the queen, have noble blood and noble beauty, thus must you bear my burdens.”

Judging from what happens in the rest of the novel (which I will not spoil), and judging from the way that Ico, his horned ancestor, and everyone in between has treated Yorda and her mother, the queen is not incorrect. Unfortunately, because the queen is a sexually mature and politically powerful older woman, she is EVIL and therefore cannot be reasoned with or redeemed but must be DEFEATED. The final battle between the queen and Ico is somewhat disappointing, as the queen is made to lay aside her primary weapons – her intelligence and wit – in order to fight boss-battle style with attacks that are easily deflected in a room filled with obstacles that deflect them.

The moral of the story seems to be that inarticulate yet delicately beautiful and innocent younger women are good (for men) and that brilliant and powerful mature women are EVIL (to men).

At least, that is the moral of the second and fourth sections of the novel, which are told from Ico’s perspective and closely follow the plot of the video game. The first and third sections are much more interesting and open-ended. The first section is, in my option, a superlatively excellent example of fantasy world building that establishes setting, mythology, history, and worldview through its characters instead of in spite of them. The third section, which is told from Yorda’s perspective, is an almost archetypal story of innocence awakening to experience as Yorda begins to question and investigate the world around while realizing the consequences of her own actions on the lives of others. By the end of the third section, Yorda has become a powerful queen in her own right…

…before we switch back to Ico’s perspective, in which Yorda is a helpless and naive young girl once more. Although this is jarring, it is also necessary. The game Ico is so deeply sexist that, in order for Miyabe to subvert this misogyny, she would have to abandon her goal of novelization. If Yorda were an active agent and not a passive victim, the events leading up to the final battle and the battle itself would not be possible. Good must triumph over evil in a decisive showdown; and, as everyone who has ever played a video game knows, such a task is the man’s job. This is why I complain about I sexism. Not only is it frustrating and unnecessary; it also tends to diminish from the overall quality of the work in which it appears.

Despite all this, Ico is a fun read. Miyabe is a good writer, and Smith has produced an excellent translation (as always). The plot and character conventions are fairly characteristic of mainstream young adult fiction, and I can imagine that younger readers would really enjoy this book, which is exactly the right length and complexity for the 7-12 demographic. It goes without saying that fans of the game will love the novelization, which does its very best to convey everything that was fun and intriguing about the original work. Fans of video games in general might also enjoy the book, which is an interesting experiment in adaptation. As for adult readers who are looking for archetypes represented in a deep and multilayered fantasy, however, I think there are much better books to spend an afternoon reading.