Apr 27, 2012, 04:19AM

Down to My Last Dime

Every grad student earns a minor in being poor.

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There’s $30 in my wallet to last me from now until my next graduate student stipend check. Have you ever tried to spend several days on $30 alone? Let’s just say it makes it very difficult to rationalize buying that artisanal cranberry walnut bread you always crave, even though you have to have it! New York City is absolutely the worst place to be without money. You feel suffocated, trapped. Technically you can’t go anywhere to clear your mind because even the subway costs $5 roundtrip. When you do have enough money, and I don’t even mean rich or like sub-rich, I’m talking like you’re okay, you don’t really think about the price of anything. A $5 glass of orange juice? Why not! $35 brunch? You only live once! But when you have to stretch out a small amount of cash, suddenly the MSRP of everyday life rears its ugly head.

People think the biggest challenge of pursuing a Ph.D. is the dissertation when it’s actually the six-year test of how well you deal with having no money and needing to produce utter brilliance at all times. Graduate school is this nebulous no-place where it’s not technically a job, but yet you’re not quite just a student either. The payoff for going to graduate school and having no money is a customizable, flexible schedule and highly elaborate note taking skills—it’s to lead a “life of the mind” where labor means ideas. But is it worth it?

The most important thing prospective graduate students should know is that we experience the sharpest salary jump of the professional fields. After six years of stealing sandwiches from roundtables and conferences and making $19,000 a year, you finally land a big fancy job as an Assistant Professor at Hot University with a salary of $75,000. $75,000! That’s kind of a large leap. But future intellectuals and critical theorists beware: when you sign up for graduate school you’re really signing up for six (or more if you’re slow!) years of ridiculous, intensified “poverty.” The day you get your financial package from Dream Graduate School, that $19,000 a year they’re offering sounds great because your only job so far has been to check books out of the library a couple hours a week. Plus, you’re 20! What bills do you have, anyway? But, once you’ve graduated college and been weaned off of your parents and become a real adult with real adult responsibilities, that $19,000 starts to get really old.

Much of my stipend has been devoured by high commuting costs. So recently I asked a dean if I could be reimbursed for those tickets. The response was, of course, that I’m the one who chose to live away from campus (despite the fact that my research is about New York, not where my school is) and that “as far as I’m aware” the graduate school does not fund commuting costs. I did choose to live in New York, and you know, I understand how the response is coming from a budgetary, administrative prospective from someone with a fist clinched tightly around a gilded pocketbook. So not only did the dean deliver that verdict from the perch of a $150,000+ salary, if not more, I got mad that the dean seemed to care very little about for my general well-being. And that’s when I realized that the machinery of graduate school—the deans, all the people who keep the place afloat—don’t really care about you. So then what do they care about? Why, making sure they keep getting that $150,000 pay check, of course!

Graduate students in the humanities are often highly devalued. No one likes to admit it but our sense of self is attached directly to how much money we have. Students in doctoral programs across the country compete with each other for small pots of money just to scrape by. Isn’t that ridiculous? This is why graduate education in the humanities, even with a package that is “fully funded,” is an impossibly classed affair. The irony, of course, is that the study of “class” as an important stratifying tool is de rigueur, even as the graduate funding system reproduces those stratifying elements receiving the critique.

At this rate I’m wondering who will be able to afford graduate school in the future. 


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