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The elephant in the room of academia: the salaries of graduate student-researchers

July 29, 2021
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By Simon Dubé

Lab researcher conducting an experiment Credit: Pixaby

Science is built on the backs of overworked and underpaid academics who have yet to defend their workers’ rights: graduate student-researchers.

It may come as a surprise, but I am actually using the term “student” quite liberally, since the work of those enrolled in research-intensive Master’s or PhD programs barely involves any traditional student activities (e.g., classes and exams). The life of graduate student-researchers is instead dedicated to conducting advanced research, applying for funding, making scientific presentations, and writing journal articles—i.e., all the typical activities of a researcher.

But it is convenient to call us “students: it blurs the line. It makes it easier to cheaply produce high-impact research and hide the fact that, as a society, we collectively accept that a significant portion of our scientific knowledge is produced by a group of highly educated, yet vulnerable individuals.

Depressed woman looking out the window Credit: Pixaby

Indeed, graduate student-researchers are in a state of mental health crisis.  A third of PhD students seek help for anxiety or depression related to their degree. This may partly be due the numerous cases of bullying, harassment, and discrimination that plague academia. But it is also due to interminable workweeks, crippling publication pressure, and the intense competition for poor job prospects. All of which is exacerbated by the fact that graduate student-researchers sacrifice their time and mental health for pennies on the dollar.

It is high time to address the elephant in the room of academia: the salaries of graduate student-researchers.

The elephant

Academia is like Wall Street, but without the money: research never sleeps. There is always another project, another publication, or another collaboration that graduate student-researchers must pursue to get ahead and perhaps, by some miracle, get that elusive tenure-track position. It is a race to the bottom; and it leaves everyone involved—from students to early career researchers—exhausted and uncompensated for their work.

A jar of pennies Credit: Pixaby

In Canada, the average salary of graduate student-researchers is $26,000 CAD/year. For the sake of argument, if we divide this amount into 40-hour weeks with 3 weeks off for vacations, that gives us an hourly rate of $13.27 CAD. As a reference point: the minimum wage in Canada ranges from  $11.45 to 16.00/hour depending on the province you work in. Oh but wait, you need to then subtract from this amount the tuition fees and living expenses—which may include moving to a new and expensive city—and you get a group of highly qualified people hardly making ends meet or downright indebted for years.

And let’s be honest, this is nowhere near the 50-to-80-hour weeks without vacations that many of my colleagues do on a regular basis, which would bring down that hourly rate to a more realistic $6.23-10.00 CAD.

Even more horrifying is the fact that this average salary is often contingent on receiving scholarships from academic institutions or funding agencies. And these scholarships are only won by a fraction of applicants, which is often composed of the privileged few who can afford to spend time on research and their application in the first place, as well as receive proper financial and academic support from their supervisors or institutions. The others must find alternative sources of income, such as: teaching, research assistantships, or other part-/full-time jobs to support themselves and/or their family during their degree(s), which takes time away from research—the main metric by which we assess the productivity and scholarly quality of graduate student-researchers.

It's a Catch-22. It’s a vicious circle that leaves many junior scholars unfunded, while sacrificing prime working years of their life. And the bottom line is this:

We should not have to win our salaries!

Yet, societies, academic institutions, and graduate student-researchers themselves have internalized that this is “normal.” And even when they are aware of the problem, graduate student-researchers are too tired, overworked, and underpaid to do anything about it.

Man working in front of a computer Credit: sogood languages

The devil’s advocates

For some reason, each time I discuss this matter with people, there always seems to be those who are hellbent on defending the status quo with the same four arguments: Graduate student-researchers 1) are students in training; 2) choose to pursue graduate studies out of interest and passion; 3) have access to scholarships; and 4) should self-care, take time off, and stop glorifying academic performance and over-productivity.

So, let me break these arguments down for you in the same order:

  • Graduate student-researchers in research-intensive programs are, first and foremost, researchers. That’s their work and that’s what is expected of them—receiving training does not change that. Several good employers pay their employees while they are training to perform their work.
  • Other professionals—such as doctors, lawyers, or engineers—also pursue interesting careers that they feel passionate about, which include paid residencies or internships. Would you tell them that their contribution to society is not worth a decent wage? No. So why would you say that to junior scientists?
  • Given that science is underfunded, there are not enough scholarships, and those that are available are both insufficient and often won by the privileged few. Moreover, a scholarship is a recognition; it should only supplement, not replace, a standard and well-deserved income.
  • It is easy to say, but harder to do—especially when you feel like the only way to make your degree(s) worth the sacrifices already made is to work yourself to the bone. So, keep your advice about self-care to yourself, and get out your check books.
Discouraged man in front of a computer Credit: Pixaby

The solution: pay us!

Moving forward, societies must fund science and academic institutions should ensure decent work conditions for graduate student-researchers. Together, we must also enforce basic wages that reflect the qualifications and contributions of these junior scientists.

Because ultimately, paying graduate student-researchers a decent salary is a matter of workers’ rights and human decency.

Let’s see what we could discover, if they did not have to worry about money.

A woman’s eye Credit: Pixaby

About the author

Photo of Simon Dubé

Simon Dubé is a PhD candidate in Psychology specializing in human sexuality, sextech, and Erobotics – the study of human-machine erotic interaction and co-evolution. His work also explores Space Sexology, and how we can integrate sex research into space programs. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Psychology at the Université de Montréal in 2016. He is a Student Representative of the "International Academy of Sex Research" and a General Co-Chair of the "International Congress on Love & Sex with Robots". His doctoral research is funded by the "Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Santé".


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