A question for grad students who think they are underpaid and overworked

September 22, 2010

I had been meaning to make this a post but the moment simply arose.

In response to this comment:

Our grad students get 27K annually, a formal hourly rate that is just a little over what our dishwasher gets ($11/hour). And they always work more than 40 hours a week. So as a “real job” grad school totally sucks.

I said:

You know, I’ve had a post or poll idea nagging at me for a while- might as well ask it here. How many people whining about grad student salaries have ever worked a real, low paying job? One with hard work, long hours and a view of the 40-50 something workers telling you that there might not be any significant change on the horizon.

What was your worst job, how old were you and how long did you stick it out? (no, parenthood not included!)

and this:

I should point out for the nonscientists that “dishwasher” in this context refers to someone hired to wash laboratory glassware so the grad students and scientific technicians don’t have to do it. Not some poor chump sweating his/her way through a shift in a cramped kitchen loading the dishwasher for a restaurant.

also, US Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. At 2080 hours per year (52 wks X 40 hrs) that works out to be $15K per year.

So how about it folks? What actual low-paying real jobs have you had? None of them worse than the conditions of being worked and paid like a graduate student?

No Responses Yet to “A question for grad students who think they are underpaid and overworked”

  1. 1. I think I got screwed in graduate school. I had to wash all of my own glassware AND do all of my own autoclaving.

    2. I remember the summer I worked 2 months as a 24/7 camp counselor and got paid a whopping $1000 for it. That job was pure mental hell.

    3. When does academic research go from fake job to real job? Once the PhD is earned? After the PostDoc? After Tenure? Never?


  2. CoR Says:

    27K???? Are you kidding? That’s more then our folks get. Is insurance included?


  3. bsci Says:

    Summer camp counselor as a teenager was definitely my lowest paying job. I once calculated my hourly wage using the real number of hours I was working and it came to 20-30 cents per hour (no tips). All in all, I liked the job as my primary assignment was to teach about whatever science topics interested campers from very diverse social and economic backgrounds. Where else could a 17-year-old regularly be put in front of a “class” of 2-40 students? That said, the few days they assigned me to an un-air-conditioned kitchen when they were short staffed strongly confirmed that I didn’t want to be a career dishwasher.

    As for grad school, even in the early 2000’s, my salary ranged from $20-25K. It was frugally livable (without a family to support). Is see the direct job comparison is a post-undergrad research assistant in a lab. I think they usually make around the same salary as grad students, and work closer to a 40h week, but they don’t get a degree out of the process (only experience and a letter of recommendation for more schooling or a different job). I like to think the degree is worth something.


  4. becca Says:

    Grad school is by far the most soul-crushing job I’ve ever had.

    Not the smelliest (changing diapers counts if it’s other people’s kids, right?).

    Not the most tedious (I did plenty of glass washing in labs).

    Not the most physically awkward, or difficult to reconcile with modesty (though there are gigs where you get paid a LOT less for taking your clothes off than one would think).

    Not the most time-consuming or lowest per hour wage (camp counselors are technically 23/7 when I did it- a state mandated hour off a day is *so* encouraging).

    Not the one with the lousiest benefits (actually, it’s got the only job with any benefits I’ve had).

    But it still sucks the worst.

    Firstly, because my standards have changed. My friends aren’t working retail, they’re lawyers. My cousins aren’t doing farmwork for the family farm, they’re out getting paid near 6 figures doing animal husbandry in California, or somehow making a living off of playing soccer. And what was a rather decent wage when I was fresh out of undergrad is incompatible with paying for daycare.

    But mostly because the work is so frustrating. When the science goes well, and you learn things, and you discover new things, and your advisor supports you, you can stomach ramen pretty easily.
    But when the science doesn’t go well, and you get stuck with a project that doesn’t excite you OR your advisor, and you aren’t discovering anything but merely trying to measure something well enough that it can be published like some kind of fizzycyst, and your advisor tells you you suck… well, then assholes who tell you how cushy you have it compared to people who do real jobs make you want to smack somebody.

    In other words, taken as a job it’s neither heaven nor hell. A bit of purgatory in more ways than one. Taken as a vocation, it can be heaven OR hell (sometimes both in the same week), and much depends on the people you work with and the science itself.


  5. FSP Says:

    When I thought about my salary as a grad student, I always counted the free tuition I was getting and felt lucky compared to my friends who were paying their way through grad school in fields other than science.

    Re. other jobs: http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2007/12/top-10-worst-jobs.html


  6. Neuro-conservative Says:

    DM — I’m calling you out on bogus Marxist grandstanding. Lifetime academic pay trajectory is lousy compared to what a talented person can earn straight out of BA (or with a short-term MA) in any number of fields.


  7. eleusis Says:

    I’m a grad student and I wish I was making $27K and had dish washers for the dirty work. Yeah, if you’re a grad student in those conditions, you really DON’T have any reason to bitch.


  8. Dr. O Says:

    I agree with CoR…I never got nearly that much as a grad student. In fact, I’m pretty sure the stipend my first year was around $12K, and most of the remaining time I was under $20K. I didn’t complain because I knew a lot of people in grad school that got nothing unless they TA’d and had to pay their own tuition.

    My worst, low-paying job was in college working at American Eagle for $5.50/hr. I hated the job, only got ~10 hours/week in shifts, and had to spend most of what I made to wear their clothes (a requirement of the job). The job totally sucked, and I think I netted less than $150 after a month of working…barely enough to cover my car insurance. Luckily, I found a “better” job (more dependable hours, but not much more money) at a nursery school, allowing me to barely manage expenditures that student loans wouldn’t cover. ;P


  9. eleusis Says:

    One of the commenters above brought up a good point, though. We always judge our conditions as good or bad relative to others. There’s an old psychological experiment where you’re given a scenario:

    You show up to work one day and discover that you got a 5% raise. Does that make you happy or sad?

    Then you find out that everyone else got a 10% raise. Now how do you feel?

    It’s not that gradate studies are the worst job imaginable. Certainly, many jobs are worse. It’s that we are all college educated, and we see so many of our friends enter the work force with four year degrees in business or whatever, and they start making $40K or $60K a year, and by the time we are graduating and moving on to a postdoc at NIH scale, they are making $60K to $80K. So we judge our conditions relative to them.

    We don’t judge our conditions relative to the 40 year old janitors cleaning our labs in the morning, making $10/h, and that’s as good as it’s ever going to get for them, because those aren’t our peers.

    However, I’ve had desk jobs before. Frankly, I hate the whole corporate environment (I love Office Space for how it mocks that environment). I couldn’t imagine a career in business. I’m glad where I am, where I get to think and use my brain. Some things you can’t put a price on, really.


  10. tideliar Says:

    He he, this old nugget.

    Bartender – $8/hr, 50+hrs a week trying to get back into college

    Bouncer – $15/hr, albeit for only 20-30hrs a week but the on the job challenges are slightly more significant…

    Nurse Asst. – $12/hr 70+hrs week, trying to get into and back into college.

    Lab tech – $12/hr 40-60hr/week after college (no benefits, no overtime pay, just got watch your hourly rate go down after 5PM)

    grad school at $16-20k with my tuition covered! That was fucking heaven compared to that shit.

    I suppose the worst really was my first couple of years as a postdoc >:)

    80+hrs week worked out at $7.50hr with no benefits


  11. Marcus Says:

    As said before, it’s not that graduate school is a bad job as compared to all possible jobs. In a very global sense all graduate students are doing relatively well.

    On the other hand, given that you’re gotten to the point where you have the opportunity to be a graduate student (finished college, did at least ok). Then there may be many other career options that pay MUCH better. I’d bet that of my old college buddies I make less than 95% of them.

    Mind you I have a more flexible schedule than most could dream of, and will hopefully eventually have pretty good job security (tenure).

    Perhaps financially speaking, graduate good is a good job, but a bad option (for some).


  12. Jim Thomerson Says:

    When I was in high school, I cowboyed for neighbors during round up for $5 per day, same as the [slur apparently referring to undocumented immigrants redacted-DM] (and proud of it!). As a senior, working for the department, I made $0.55 per hour. My fellowships/assistantships at the PhD candidate level were @ $3000 per year.

    Some years back, our BS engineers were hiring at higher salaries than made by our Full Professors in Engineering.


  13. kevin. Says:

    While you can always compare yourself to the other people you went to college with who earned 50-80K right out of school, I prefer to compare myself to the average person my age working at an average blue-collar job.

    During college, I worked in food service just in the summer making $5 an hour with people doing it as their only, full-time actual job. We worked our asses off 5 nights a week from 4-midnight, coming home smelling like smoke and grease, dead tired. I at least had college to look forward to at the end of the summer, not 40+ more years of the same dreaming of advancement into management.

    When I see people floating into lab for a few hours a day, spending their time doing go-knows-what while they’re here, it bothers the hell out of me. We should all know what an insanely good job this is and not take that for granted. The PI across the hall tries to remind people that the money we get paid could just as easily support a family of four on welfare. You should be able to come in everyday (or at least, averaged over the week or month), and feel like the government is getting their money’s worth.


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    I’m calling you out on bogus Marxist grandstanding. Lifetime academic pay trajectory is lousy compared to what a talented person can earn

    And you are, of course, in very good company with all this “yeah but compared to what I’m *worth* because I’m so damn smart….” caveat.

    I started this line of attack over at the Sb blog with the observation that we should tell undergrads (and pre-undergrads) that a life of (modern biomedical anyway) science is a paying gig after college. And it does *not* require that you do outside jobs to pay for it (I’m counting Teaching Assistantships; I did my TA duties and I feel it is relevant to the career so I do not view it as outside work).

    This morphed into the question about whether it is a good or bad job. Personally, I think that constantly baselining our expectations with the thought that the most attractive of our options is default, expected and “gee, we’re kinda envious of those doing better…what? someone is doing below my idea of baseline? What’s *his* problem…he must deserve it” is a whole lot of what is wrong with US public life at the moment.

    I asked the question the way I did because I think a whole lot of the whiny grad students (not all, becca, not all) come from your perspective and a whole lot of the non-whiny ones come from mine. I.e. that grad school is still a whole hell of a lot better than the one or six low paying real jobs that we had experienced even with the understanding it was only for a summer, or school year and we were destined for better things.

    My crappy, soul-sucking job experience is never far from my thoughts when I think my job sucks or that I am underpaid. Sure, I would like to be paid more, who wouldn’t? But there’s wishing for more and then there is knowing that you deserve more and there cannot possibly be anyone who is relatively screwed more than you. These latter have little sympathy from me.

    re becca- no, I am not saying that the life of a minimum wage worker is swell, nor that the pay of a graduate student is a fantastic career wage. All I am saying is that when you have a comparable financial (and soul sucking, frustrating and boss-belittling, coworker harassing) picture, I’ll take grad student over one heck of a lot of other jobs.


  15. icee Says:

    I worked for 6 years after high school, married very young, and supported my student husband before attending college/grad school.

    My first job as a buyer at a bookstore paid $5.25 and they usually had to hire much older people (more $) to do it. I was too naive to have asked for more at the time.

    My subsequent string of jobs (13 of them, mostly clerical) paid ~$7hr, but when I did massage therapy I made ~$10-60/hr. There were lots of drawbacks to that job though, and I ultimately left that career.

    I had to show up every day at all these jobs at 7:30 or 8 am, dressed nicely, smiling, and ready to serve various people. When I started undergrad, working in a lab for $6.50/hr, I was so grateful that the PI was even paying me that I was giddy.

    When we had a kid while my husband was in grad school we lived on ~$20K/year. The grad student stipend at the schools we’ve attended is definitely sufficient to support the prudent grad student (with no dependents). For those with dependents, large subsidized loans are available. Now I’m in grad school, he’s a postdoc/adjunct, we have 2 kids, and I feel fortunate that we are at an institution that pays us pretty well (me ~$27K, he ~$45K). We have to utilize subsidized loans to pay our bills, but at least we don’t qualify for WIC anymore. We can (mostly) show up to work whenever we want, do whatever we want, wear whatever we want, and take as much time as we need for the kids. The late nights working on the couch are worth the flexibility it affords us with the kids, and the mental stimulation of the work.

    I can tell you now that half of the grad students at my (non-prestigious) school couldn’t hack most of the real world jobs out there, and would be whining even more about those jobs than they do about grad school, because they couldn’t roll in at 10:30 and spend the day surfing the net. Maybe it’s different at a R1 institution, but I bet a number of folks who’ve gone straight from high school to college to grad school with lots of help from mom and dad might have trouble in the real world.

    That said, there’s lots of students who work their asses off and would be wildly successful in the typical job, and would get paid much better, but that’s not the path they chose.

    I agree with eleusis’ ideas about why grad students feel shafted, however, just because your college buddies are out doing grown-up jobs making money doesn’t entitle you to pity, as you chose to go to grad school. And you’re getting paid for it! At least you’re not a humanities student. My move from working stiff to academia made me so happy.

    I’ve done lots of different jobs, paid 25% of my income for crappy health insurance, and been so poor I couldn’t afford food (working 3 jobs at a time), and I have to say that grad school as an RA with a good advisor is a pretty great gig! No complaints here.


  16. BikeMonkey Says:

    icee, your story reminds me of..


  17. icee Says:

    In my above comment, when I refer to eleusis’ comment, I realized I sound like I’m talking to eleusis when I say “you”. I agree with eleusis, and the “your” is referring to whiny grad students who don’t agree with eleusis’ thoughts on perspective, it is not a rebuttal to eleusis. Sorry for not making that clear.


  18. icee Says:

    Bikemonkey, yes! The precipitating event for me deciding to attend college was when I had been working in the front office of a wood mill for 5 years and had become bored. I asked the boss if I could start working in the shop. Men who worked in the shop had made a career out of it, were eventually paid quite well, had to do some math, worked with cool equipment, and got to do interesting work (no college required). My boss laughed at me and said that he’d never employ a girl in the shop. Oh, also that he needed me “up front” too much to let me work in the shop. He acknowledged that I would be capable in the shop, but refused to let me do it. I started college the next semester.


  19. Jen Says:

    In between undergrad and my first stint in grad school, I worked as a customer service rep at United Parcel Service for $7.50/hr ($0.50 above minimum wage at the time). Since I like people, I thought customer service would be a good way to earn money for grad school. I hated every second of it. There is nothing worse than people berating you over the phone, telling you what a loser you are, because their driver is 5 minutes late with a pickup/delivery. Or the religious zealots who wanted to pray with me over the phone (had one guy who called every night at the same time because he knew I’d be the one to answer). Or the famous tv chef whom I adored – never missed one of his PBS shows – until he started cursing at me because his caviar order would surely be ruined by his late driver. One of my coworkers had been there for 20+ years, and I yearned to develop her zen-like ability to rise above it all and still provide good customer service. Nothing that I ever did as a high school teacher, grad student or (now) postdoc has ever been as bad as those 6 months.


  20. Jen Says:

    One more point – in my first year as a full-time high school science teacher in a public school, with a Masters degree, I made $2000 less annually than I did in my first year as a PhD student two years later.


  21. Dr. O Says:

    My crappy, soul-sucking job experience is never far from my thoughts when I think my job sucks or that I am underpaid.

    Ha, I actually think of my Office Space-type job the summer before I started grad school – well paid, but BOOOOORRRRRRing. I hated how little I got paid as a grad student, esp that first year, but I loved what I was doing (most of the time) and wouldn’t have gone back to that desk, data-entry job for any amount of money. I concentrated on the long term, not the short term, payoff…another problem with our country today – the immediate gratification button. I delayed marriage, family, and financial stability for most of my 20s, but it was worth it, to me. I still wish today I was making more money, even as a better-paid postdoc, but I think that’s the case for just about anyone, no matter how much money they make.


  22. Ria Says:

    Ultimately, any job will break down to two things: (1) the people with whom you work (or work for), and (2) satisfaction in the type of work being done. Everything else is gravy (salary, benefits, flex time, etc). If you have an unethical and abusive boss and feel trapped in the position you are in (due to temporal, economic, academic, or other considerations), your soul will be sucked out of you regardless of what compensation you receive for doing it. I would say that working retail (40+ hrs/week while going to college full time) was probably the most tedious job I have held in my life, but not the worst. The worst job was definitely graduate school…because of a boss who massaged data, engaged in verbal assault and sexual harassment, and displayed other forms of intellectual dishonesty. And given the lack of protections for students at the university in which I resided, I felt trapped in the position (or I could leave with no degree…in which case the awful PI won).


  23. BugDoc Says:

    The worst-paying (but certainly not the worst in general) job I had was working with several quadruplegic patients as a home assistant. I did this to earn extra money in college, as well as the usual lab monkey jobs that we have all had, washing dishes, making cesium preps, etc. I did not make that much as a grad student and lived in a very expensive city to boot. I bitched and moaned about a lot of things as a grad student, but never that I was “overworked”! I came to grad school because I loved science and I wanted to do science. I worked 60-70h/wk not because my adviser expected me to be there (although he did expect 14 h days/7 days per week since he was single and put in those hours himself), but because I enjoyed being in the lab. It was an amazing intellectual experience despite the stress. More importantly, I chose that lifestyle voluntarily – no one made me apply to grad school. If people are unhappy with it, choose something that makes you happy and pays more. Life’s too short to do something that makes you miserable.


  24. antipodean Says:

    27K a year. Fuck that’s not bad money for what’s an apprenticeship wage.

    Worst job 9hr as a security guard overnight in a place where the night manager in charge of about 15 staff (not me as an independent security firm) was actually paid less than that.

    The absolute worst job would have to be cutting flax on a hillside one day. That fucked me up.


  25. adagger Says:

    I haven’t quite understood why grad students get bent out of shape over their low pay and long hours (though I’m only a second year, so maybe I’m too new to understand…). I knew before I started that I’d be working long hours and being paid less than I might earn elsewhere, and weighed that into consideration before making the decision to stay in school.

    Ditto with the opportunity cost — I believe that even should I have to start all over in a totally different career path once I graduate, I’ll still be glad I got to spend a few years doing something I love and still have learned something valuable beyond the nitty-gritty lab skills. The process of earning the PhD is an end in and of itself, for me. If it wasn’t, if I thought that I would regret doing it if I couldn’t continue in research, then I’d be looking for another job.

    (I do work in a lab with really good interpersonal dynamics, headed by a Professor Awesome Moneybagsy Bigwig, so that certainly helps. But still, if I were working for some Professor Unpleasant Slavedriving Nitwit, I wouldn’t be thinking “they should pay me more to put up with this,” I’d be thinking “how quickly can I line up another job?”)

    (That was way off on a tangent, wasn’t it? Just call me The Derivative..)


  26. (another) former academic Says:

    I think Ria has got it exactly right. I suspect many of the ‘I’m not paid enough’ complaints from grad students are more precisely described as ‘I’m not paid enough to put up with this shit’ complaints.

    Things like an RA getting hurt doing field work – that the federal government is paying the university to do , but her medical treatment isn’t covered by workers comp because she is ‘a student’. Or being poor enough for subsidized housing but not eligible because you are ‘a student’. Or just generally being the personal serf of your PI.

    and before you call me entitled…

    $5.x an hour to tell elderly residents of the deep south that their air conditioner couldn’t be fixed until September, but would they like the mechanic to bring 50 lbs of laundry detergent with him for the low,low price of $29.99?

    The next summer, $5.x an hour to spend 8 hours on my feet dumping and washing mouse cages? I flirted with RSI, but was much, much happier (but i still wouldn’t want to have done it for more than a summer).


  27. On the contrary, I think I am grossly overpaid as a grad student. I’m paid a salary based on an assumed 20 hours per week, but the class I teach doesn’t require me to work nearly that much. Most weeks I squeak out 12 hours, tops.

    I did the calculations once, and when I divide my monthly salary by the actual (vs assumed) number of work hours per week x 4, I’m making $40+/hr. To be completely honest, I find that rather absurd. I’m not complaining, mind you.


  28. I should mention that the prof of the course budgets us 8 hours per week of prep work, which is where those missing hours come from, but I don’t need to do that much prep work. I’ve taught this class every quarter since I got here, and it is in my field anyway.

    My worst job was definitely fast food at $5.15/hr.


  29. ginger Says:

    Fast food and catering. Minimum wage, which was 3.80/h in the late 1980s in Canada. During college and in the summers until I was able to nail down a dishwashing job in the Bio Department stockroom and purveyed it into prep for the intro labs. Dishwashing for the stockroom was still pretty sweaty work, although not as filthy as washing up after a catering gig. (We were a small operation – we got to be cooks, servers and dishwashers.) It was much nicer prepping solutions and laying out equipment.

    Grad students in our system weren’t allowed to work more than 0.5 FTE, so although I technically made something comparable to that $27k per annum, I actually made a bit under $14K.

    I made much, much better money as a nurse, but it was depressing, back-breaking work (which, you know, is why I went to grad school) and I couldn’t deal with pick-up shifts while I was in school.


  30. James Davis Says:

    The difference to most grad students–I’d imagine–is that while there are worse jobs, those jobs didn’t require them to get 4 recommendations, great grades as an undergrad, take a few major tests, and write a series of essays. Given the difficulty and hoops one must jump through just to get considered for the job, you’d expect the pay and conditions to be better.


  31. (another) former academic Says:


    As you probably realize, you’re fortunate to TA for someone who understands that TA’ing requires preparation. Shortly before I TA’d ‘intro for majors and pre-meds’, the course organizers asked some senior TAs who’d been around for yonks how much time they spent prepping. They shrugged, said ‘dunno, an hour a week, maybe?’ and henceforth, that’s what was budgeted. An hour of prep/grading per week. For five discussions. Led by a brand-new TA, whose sub-specialty wasn’t covered in the course.

    If you feel bad about the extra time, ask your professor if you can do some guest lectures, and use that time to prep them. Actually, do that anyway, its pretty key experience.

    nb – It might be worth reading up on a bit of labour history. Rates for piece work were (are?) determined in a similar way to my TA story: stage a race between your top workers and then back-calculate from a ‘fair’ day’s wage assuming all workers can match the fastest observed work rate for an entire shift.


  32. skeptifem Says:

    A fair amount of actual dishwashers I knew weren’t here legally and worked for less than minimum wage as a result. Usually at more than one job.

    CNAs and lab techs make like 11$ an hour here. They put up with a lot, too.

    My worst job was at a tuxedo rental shop. The owner had these weird pictures of george w bush all over his office. He made a point of telling me to do things before I had been trained on how to complete them, I would say so and he would insist that I do it anyway, and then he would ridicule me for not doing it correctly. It was really weird and horrible. It only lasted a day or two- it was a temp gig, for prom season, when I mentioned I was looking for other work (because duh, I only had a job there for a month or two) the guy threw the money he owed me at me and told me I was a terrible person. He felt betrayed or something. There were a bunch of immigrant steamstresses who worked under him, and a single mom. I felt soooo bad for all of them. What an awful man.


  33. Neuro-conservative Says:

    And you are, of course, in very good company with all this “yeah but compared to what I’m *worth* because I’m so damn smart….” caveat.

    But there’s wishing for more and then there is knowing that you deserve more and there cannot possibly be anyone who is relatively screwed more than you.

    My, my DM — you managed to smuggle in so many assumptions that you ought to be reported to Customs.

    I am not saying that I am *worth* anything. I am saying that as you are informing students about grad school stipends, you should also inform them that lifetime earnings are substantially higher in many other fields. If they are talented and dedicated enough to be considered for graduate school, they can earn far, far more doing something else.

    There are, of course, other trade-offs in favor of the academic career. However, most 20 year-olds don’t have a clear perspective on any of this; just telling them one selected aspect is not doing them any favors.


  34. ecologist Says:

    Holy crap!!!

    Listen up, people. If you are worried about the peers you graduated with making more money than you, because they’re lawyers or … I don’t know, stockbrokers or something, YOU ARE IN THE WRONG JOB. What you get, along with your $27K a year, is the opportunity to do science. They don’t. If you don’t like doing science, find another line of work, because this one will drive you nuts real fast. If you like doing science, if you like it so much that you don’t want to do anything else, then you’re in the right place.


  35. Neuro-conservative Says:

    False dichotomy, ecologist.


  36. Neuro-conservativem, how about comparing what a new BS in my field can make *in my field* to what a grad student makes? In my field, the averages (stipend vs. new BS in my field) are within shouting distance of each other. For benefits: A “real job” usually brings better health benefits and retirement, while a stipend comes with tuition remission. Long term prospects: Raises and opportunities for rapid advancement are more likely in a “real job”, but there is a ceiling on how high/fast you can go without unusual circumstances or an advanced degree. You get a degree as a student (duh!).

    In my field, the average salary of a BS + 5-6 years of experience is a lot lower than that of a new PhD. Them again, in my field more than half of incoming grad students plan on a career in industry, because it pays better and has better hours than academia.


  37. FrauTech Says:

    Well it’s all about perspective right? I’m not a grad student, but I do work an office job and get grumpy about my pay often. I’m probably paid 20k a year less than other people with equal experience and education. Then when I’m driving in in the winter at 5am and see the security guard waiting for me I think, “well at least I have a nice office job, compared to him out there in the cold cold winter and hot hot summer.”

    That doesn’t negate grumpiness about my pay. I try to be thankful. I’m glad I have a nice cushy office job rather than something more physically demanding or customer service related. But it’s not easy. And when you have a bad boss, that can make things darned impossible. You think, why the hell am I even doing this? But for a grad student, you don’t have the advantage an office worker like me has or even a retail employee. Either of us can go find another job and be fine. Most grad students either have to tough it out, or they’ve “wasted” all that time.

    Also I find comparisons to “average salary” to be pretty misleading. I read the average starting salary of my crappy humanities degree, nationwide, is supposed to be 48k. I have no idea what these people are doing or where they are working but I still make nowhere near that, and probably shouldn’t hope to make that after I finish my engineering BS even with experience. The grad students at my university make about $2 an hour more than the undergrads, some have tuition covered some don’t. Yeah we’d all like to be Mother Theresa and be grateful we aren’t out in the summer heat picking strawberries but let’s face it, we all compare ourselves to those we see around us, whether fairly or unfairly.

    I guess I’d wonder…why the backlash against complaining grad students? Just because they aren’t starving and on the streets means they’re not allowed to complain?


  38. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Prodigal — I suppose your comparison works for a 20 year-old who has decided there is only one field (yours) that they could possibly be interested in. In that case, the long-term trajectory may well be superior with an advanced degree.

    On the other hand, I suspect that many intelligent young people have more than one narrowly-defined talent/interest.


  39. Namnezia Says:

    No matter how much you make, it’s never enough. For some perspective on the other end of the spectrum, go check this out:



  40. Katie Says:

    There is a lot of ridiculousness going on in this thread. To address a few issues:

    1) Just because you love science doesn’t mean you’ll be ok making barely enough to support yourself and your family even after having spent ~25 years in school. Add to the low pay the fact that many academic scientists don’t have “real” jobs (with things like retirement accounts) until they’re 30, and you’ve got a real problem. Sure I’m not in debt, but my earning potential is so much lower than my peers with debt that the economic balance is clearly in their favor.

    2) The peers of people with a BA, MA, or PhD are not blue collar/minimum wage workers, so using a blue collar/minimum wage worker’s life to show how much worse a grad student could have it is comparing apples to oranges. The correct comparison is to their true peers – most of whom are doctors, lawyers, and others earning a hell of a lot more, with benefits.

    I love science, and most days I like my job. But if I had known as a senior in college the crappy treatment I would receive in grad school and the crappy pay I would be getting for the rest of my life, I probably wouldn’t have chosen my current path. The system is broken, and until it’s fixed we’ll probably continue to lose some of our best talent – yet another leak in the pipeline.


  41. Isabel Says:

    I make half that much, but I only work half as much. Grad students should not work 40 hours!


  42. drugmonkey Says:

    2) The peers of people with a BA, MA, or PhD are not blue collar/minimum wage workers, so using a blue collar/minimum wage worker’s life to show how much worse a grad student could have it is comparing apples to oranges. The correct comparison is to their true peers – most of whom are doctors, lawyers, and others earning a hell of a lot more, with benefits.

    I would be very fascinated to hear why one of these is the “correct” comparison and the other is not. Particularly when we are discussing people who did not in fact choose to become a physician or a lawyer.


  43. Neuroconservative, I guess I don’t know what you are trying to say then. Are you saying that grad students are “overworked and underpaid” relative to their peers (but only high paid peers count)? If so, who are their peers? Most intelligent, educated people use many factors in choosing a career path. My sister with an MS and 10 years experience is making less than most new postdocs in my field in one of the most expensive cities in the US. She is a teacher in an urban public school, but could have easily been successful in some other higher paid career. Is she exploited? Stupid? She knew going in what the deal was, but likes teaching in spite of the low pay, wants to live in her current city, and accepts the consequences of those choices.

    When I was 21 (pre-WWW), I easily found out average salary vs. seniority and education level for my field, which I wanted to enter as a career. If some people are too lazy to do this even now when it is freely available via Google, that is their fault, not “the system’s”.


  44. Heavy Says:

    Worst job, building demolition in summer on crew consisting of all ex-cons except me.

    Got paid $17k per year in grad school and still contributed the max to my IRA. Was just happy to be making money.


  45. True peers??? Is this some kinda fucken joke????


  46. skeptifem Says:

    “The system is broken, and until it’s fixed we’ll probably continue to lose some of our best talent – yet another leak in the pipeline.”

    The myth of a pool of people that are talented at anything they do, but are only choosing careers based on money is ridiculous. Would these people be street clowns if that career paid the best? I have met doctors and lawyers that got into it because of family expectation and money rather than passion, and really, they aren’t worth attracting. It is actually really really bad, because some end up not really caring about patients or clients because their heart isn’t in it at all.

    The only reason that such a class of people exists is because of the oppression of other people. If education was freely distributed and there was class mobility no one would care too much about what a bunch of privileged guys want to do for careers.


  47. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Skeptifem et al. —

    Must there be such a stark, black-and-white dichotomy between angels motivated only by their PASSION FOR SCIENCE and evil moneygrubbers, who are probably even Republicans?

    Is it really that hard to imagine people with diverse interests and talents evaluating a range of options based on many factors, including remuneration?


  48. ginger Says:

    I kept my big trap shut for a whole day about the Passion for Science thing but I just – can’t – take it!

    As mentioned above, and elsewhere, I was a “floor nurse” – i.e. an RN who took care of medical-surgical patients in a large acute-care hospital. One of the settings I worked in had a pretty polarized relationship between nursing staff and management, and negotiations tended pretty reliably to break down and there would be labor actions – walkouts, slowdowns, strikes – and management actions – lockouts with hire of replacement workers – and lots of publicity. Every time, a middle manager would offer sanctimonious quotes to the press about how nurses didn’t care about nursing, much less about patients, and they were just greedy and lazy.

    Because, you see, a passion for one’s work must necessarily override one’s need for decent working conditions or even one’s desire to change a broken system that puts workers and other people at risk. Management trotted that out even when labor actions were about things like mandatory double shifts and patient-staff ratios – issues where the fundamental concern is the safety of the patient, not the need for a blissfully easy working environment.

    So I do NOT buy this crap where wanting a living wage, one that can support a family, betrays one’s selfish avarice and one’s total lack of Love For The Great Work. Bullshit. I’d take science over fast food or nursing any day of the week, because it’s great fun, and the kind of science I do is safe and clean and dry and nobody pukes on me. Having fun isn’t a good reason to compromise on basic labor negotiations.

    (Oh, and I feel the its-an-apprenticeship argument in the background. Dude. Apprenticeships are contract-bound, with concrete and enforceable obligations on both sides, with a clearly defined term of service and a termination date. It’s not a valid comparison, except that in the end an apprenticeship that doesn’t lead to independent master status might be as useless as being ABD.)


  49. I’m a grad student that gets $7K, free medical insurance, free tuition, and I only have to do research, not teach little asshole undergrads. I think when you factor all that in, my total compensation is close to $35k or so. Oh and we have a dishwashing service. I’m not bitching about the pay and I’ve worked so low wage jobs. Everyone is always going to want to make more money, if you don’t you’re fucking stupid. Many grad students have a difficult time factoring in costs of education that we don’t pay for into their compensation package.

    Busboy $5/hr
    Dishwasher (Lab and Restaurant) $6/hr
    Selling Christmas Trees $7/hour
    Working on commercial fishing/shrimping boats and at the dock $8/hr (This was the hardest most fucking backbreaking labor I have ever done)


  50. Yak's Hairbrush Says:

    Yeah, I’m under-paid. I’m a grad student making (after factoring in my tuition waiver and health care benefits, and before taxes) under $40,000/yr. ($20,000/semester). How much work do I do for the university? Well, I teach a lecture of ~180 students, each of whom is paying at least $1700 for the class. I have two other TAs working under me, making about the same amount.

    So, my students are collectively paying (more than) $300,000 for this class. Less than $60,000 goes to the folks teaching it. That’s under 20%.


  51. chemicalbilology Says:

    Being a restaurant server. Stuck it out for 2 years and luckily was only part time while in school, but damn it sucked. Slimy/greasy all the time, sore joints and muscles all the time, made me hate other people. Minimum wage and depending on tips at a breakfast place? Not good money. Lots of grandmas leaving you two quarters (even in the 21st century). My grad school stipend was the equivalent of $11K a year (7K/yr in UK pounds, 2000-2003) and I still had a WAY better life in grad school than being a waitress.


  52. tideliar Says:

    Fuck me. whining fuckers.

    If you’re that fucking unhappy then quit and go to Wall Street. Jeesus fuckin christ on a fuckin bike.

    Repeat after me:

    If you’re in science for the money you’re in the wrong fuckin job.

    and trust me grad students, it gets far fucking worse AFTER you graduate, so seriously you should quit now.


  53. Your angry advisor Says:

    All of you stop reading the internet and get back to work. Don’t you have a Western to finish before lab meeting?


  54. skeptifem Says:

    “Must there be such a stark, black-and-white dichotomy between angels motivated only by their PASSION FOR SCIENCE and evil moneygrubbers, who are probably even Republicans? ”

    Ask their patients.

    “I hate my patients, I wish they would just die”
    -unsatisfied in it for the prestige dr dude I worked under for 6 months

    Well, I am so glad that doctoring pays so well, or else that dude might be wasting his brainy brilliance somehwere else. In the medical field at least, you can tell who doesn’t really want to be here, and it screws things up really badly for the patients. It is really emotionally demanding work with a freakishly high ethical standard, it is very draining and painful for people who don’t want to do it. There are surveys out there about what a huge chunk of doctors don’t want to be doctors, but can’t exactly switch careers easily… I wish I had one on hand. Anyway, I wish those people would just leave. It makes my job a lot harder on top of the rest of the problems.

    I know that I am focusing on doctors a lot and I don’t know how much of it is applicable to other sciencey type careers, but yeah. The line is pretty stark when it comes down to who actually wants to do the work and who wants to feel good or have respect or money. Research coordinators who don’t care screw things up BADLY all the time too. That always sucks when the subjects are pediatric or special needs.

    You don’t get how important this is. Crappy law representation can scar lives in similar ways. I agree with the person who said this brand of jerk should just go to wallstreet.


  55. becca Says:

    “All I am saying is that when you have a comparable financial (and soul sucking, frustrating and boss-belittling, coworker harassing) picture, I’ll take grad student over one heck of a lot of other jobs.”
    Sure, when you control for all the shitty parts of a shitty situation, it’s a great situation!
    Actually, this made me think. I would rather be miserable doing science then equally miserable doing anything else. Does that mean: 1) I picked the right career path! OR 2) I have already such a fragile husk of my former self I’m actually unable to imagine not being miserable??

    “My crappy, soul-sucking job experience is never far from my thoughts when I think my job sucks or that I am underpaid. Sure, I would like to be paid more, who wouldn’t? But there’s wishing for more and then there is knowing that you deserve more and there cannot possibly be anyone who is relatively screwed more than you. These latter have little sympathy from me.”
    And then there is knowing you deserve more and KNOWING OTHER PEOPLE DO TO.

    Wearing a crappy, soul-sucking job experience as a badge of humility instead of a spur to action is a sign of complacent privilege. C’mon, DM. Even Colbert gets this one.
    Many workers do not have the option of getting-the-hell-outta-dodge and distancing themselves with condescendingly pity from THOSE people with THOSE jobs.

    Many workers are forced into demanding what they deserve and standing in SOLIDARITY (there, I said it) with other workers.

    Over on some thread, I think at Mikethemadbiologist, there was a commenter who said something to the effect of “don’t view government benefits as a last resort, that you would only use when in desperate need. They are *there* to be *used*. Tell people you use them. People need to know that NORMAL people are struggling. That respectable, hard working folks are having a hell of a time of it. That’s what some people need to see to understand the reality of ‘10% unemployment’ or ‘underwater mortgage’ or ‘the ‘wealth disparity in this country has been increasing for the past 40 years’ ”
    Full disclosure- I am a recipient of childcare subsidy from the state of Pa. Also federally subsidized student loans.

    (of course, I recognize that being comfortable approaching it this way, and not truly fearing any backlash, is itself a sign you probably haven’t had all that much socio-economic-status discrimination to start with).


  56. Pharm Sci Grad Says:

    Let’s see… I could have been paid twice the salary to work with my BS – and there were moments that could get depressing. Then I remember English majors here get paid less than $10000 to TA “full time” and I’m okay again. 🙂 Especially considering my TA worked out to WAY less than 20 hours a week… although that was only my first year (been an RA since). But as far as jobs go:

    4. Chemistry stockroom employee – most of that was soul-crushing only because you were expected to do so much bitch work for arrogent faculty, including cleaning out laboratories with unidentified substances eating away at the surfaces.
    3. Babysitting – worst hourly wage ever, though I seldom had very young children (i.e. no diaper changing, puking).
    2. Ice cream shop employee – scooping ice cream and wearing it home all down your arm/shirt isn’t much fun. Less than minimum wage (consider agricultural work?!) and I gave up eating ice cream for the longest time.

    But perhaps more of what you’re getting at…

    1. Wal-Mart… retail can be soul-crushing when you realize that how well you do or how educated you are has nothing to do with your pay rate. I worked with grandmothers who were stuck on second shift with no end to their working there in sight. That was the hardest part – I knew I was at least working on my HS diploma or BS, but they would be there making little money until they couldn’t work anymore. Talk about depressing…

    My main job: loading manure/soil/mulch into trucks at 40lbs a bag, walking outside in freezing cold weather to retrieve lay-a-way items from trailers covered in snow/ice, or unloading semi-trucks in July (80+F in the truck) – all for about minimum wage (plus the 10-25 cent raises you get each year).

    I did that for six years, including a few months after I got my BS in BioChem. So compared to that, I get paid really well in grad school, I don’t complain about it (plus I’ve gotten outside fellowship and raises from my boss) – but that only holds if you’re healthy and single.

    If I had a family or another major medical problem, between the salary and the health insurance, it very easily goes from plenty to not near enough. Like most of the country, I’m only one major medical crisis away from poverty (and yes, I have health insurance, but only major medical, coverage is capped, and I’ve got at least a 10% co-pay). So I know I’ve got a pretty good deal compared to most people, but does it make me a whiny grad student to wish I could have a family or better health insurance???


  57. Lab Rat Says:

    As a science PhD student in England I would be mostly likely looking at a stipend of £12k – which works out as approximately $19k – per year.

    On the other hand, I get free medical care (altho have to pay for drugs) and free tuition (covered by the stipend) and I don’t have to pay any taxes. That £12k a year goes straight into my account untouched.

    In my personal position I also pay very low rent, so I consider myself very well off, although I do find it hard to watch my contemporaries who went to the same university as me getting £27k already…

    Yes I love science. But I would love getting paid a little more to do it. No I do not consider myself hard-done-by (I consider myself fairly well off) but I wouldn’t mind earning a little more.

    And for all of the “WELL IF YOU WANT MORE MONEY GO TO THE CITY AND GET RICH!!” people – do you live in some kind of magical land where they hand out city jobs to anyone who asks? Over here in the UK we’re having this recession thing and it is insanely difficult to get *any* kind of job.

    I love science. I am excited about my PhD. But if someone came up to me and offered to pay me £25k to do a science in industry job I would jump at it.

    (Yes I did apply for jobs. No it didn’t work.)


  58. ginger Says:

    Sorry, I put up a “tl;dr” comment.

    More succinctly and less personally – it’s wise to think about who’s the principal beneficiary of your ideals. Whose benefit is served by inculcating grad students with the belief it’s traitorous to Science to ask for better pay (and/or better working conditions)?

    Asking for pay commensurate with education and with community living expenses is not “being in it for the money”. Choosing unsafe working conditions or a less-than-living wage may prove your dedication to your work, but it’s damn selfish and it serves principally to enforce the hierarchy.


  59. wizzard Says:

    Our grad students here at The-Great-Midwestern-University-Where-Nothing-Else-Matters-Except-Football (TGMUWNEMEF) get paid around $20k per year AND they have to wash their own dishes. A starting Postdoc gets around $27K, $32K if they are lucky.


  60. […] level above them is an upgrade in pay, academics is not a place to get rich. There’s been a discussion at DrugMonkey about grad student pay and relative comparisons, but that’s not what I want to talk about […]


  61. Katie Says:

    “2) The peers of people with a BA, MA, or PhD are not blue collar/minimum wage workers, so using a blue collar/minimum wage worker’s life to show how much worse a grad student could have it is comparing apples to oranges. The correct comparison is to their true peers – most of whom are doctors, lawyers, and others earning a hell of a lot more, with benefits.

    I would be very fascinated to hear why one of these is the “correct” comparison and the other is not. Particularly when we are discussing people who did not in fact choose to become a physician or a lawyer.”

    Because, when discussing job peers with regard to salaries, benefits, and conditions, it is more logical to compare careers which require similar levels of education and training. It is absolutely ridiculous to compare someone in a job such as trash collector, construction crew, etc, which one can get without even completing high school, to doctor, lawyer, professor, etc, which requires high school, college, an advanced degree, and then often some type of residency or postdoctoral training. Can you, DM, or CPP, seriously not see that comparing these two jobs types in any way is completely illogical? Do you really believe that people performing all of these types of jobs should be compensated in exactly the same way?

    Now that I think about it, though, as a grad student I actually got paid worse than anyone working a blue collar job because I wasn’t even making minimum wage (even including tuition).


  62. Carl Riedel Says:


    I’ve been lurking for some time now but wanted to comment on this topic. If I remember correctly, I made about $16,000/yr plus free tuition while pursuing my Master’s. I don’t really think that the question though is actual compensation. Most (all?) grad students don’t expect to make that for the rest of their careers. The issue, IMHO, is the hours worked. Yes the schedules were flexible but just how flexible can 80+ hours a week be? I might be in the vast minority but I really don’t think that any position (job, career, hobby) should take more than 50 or so hours a week. PIs that ask for more are asking for too much. Real life requires some level of balance. Passion only goes so far. Having OCD should not be a requirement for grad school or any post-doc type position.


  63. zygote Says:

    Safari company camp manager – $100 a month. 15+ hour days. fine for spoiled westerner (cooking and cleaning up after guests all day + cool animals), shitty for all my fellow employees who considered themselves lucky to even have a job.

    Grad school= a dream.


  64. L Mo Says:

    Pizza maker in a family owned business; payment = a place to live; age 11 to 12.

    As a new immigrant to North America I worked at my distant family’s pizza business from 4pm till 2 AM, in return I had a roof over my head, while the distant family members stayed at home, watched TV and ate way too much left over pizza.

    At age 13 helped my father clean offices at night because he was working 3 jobs so that we could have our own place and no longer slave for the pizza business relatives.

    With that perspective the $18k/year I made as a graduate student was luxury and the faculty salary I make today allows me to live comfortably and work a job that I love.

    To all the whiny grad students, post docs and similar…Get real!


  65. paul Says:

    I worked as a laboratory tech, 3rd shift for $11/hr, while finishing my Thesis.
    It was considerably more money than I was making as a grad student.
    And, despite the fact that the Lab Tech job required working with human fluids in the middle of the night for minimal pay, it still seemed like a paradise after the hell of grad school.

    Grad Students are expected to give up a lot, and you need to be really dedicated to make that happen. I saw two of my fellow grad students go through divorces during my time in grad school, and one female grad student was essentially kicked out of the lab after she became pregnant. For me, the turning point was when I was told I needed to choose between my family and my lab work.


  66. west side Says:

    You shouldn’t be complaining at all. I used to get paid about $15,000/year, and work about 16 hours a day a some hours in the weekends.


  67. Shala Deley Says:

    I still can not quite assume that I could often be one of those reading the important points found on this blog. My family and I are seriously thankful for the generosity and for presenting me the chance to pursue my personal chosen career path. Thanks for the important information I obtained from your blog.


  68. Li Says:

    $27K! Are you kidding me?! Where is this school? No one I know has had a stipend that large. I only get $8,000 per year *without tuition remission (Plus I’m being charged very expensive out-of-state tuition fees.), and no one is doing my dirty work. I have so much work to do that I often have to cut my sleep back to 2 or 3 hours per night. I started grad school in my 30’s, and I’ve never had a job in “the real world” that was anywhere near this stressful. I would love to make 27K per yr / $11 per hr! I don’t think it’s logical or fair to make generalized statements about THE graduate experience because not all graduate programs are the same – and apparently some are *radically different. And yes – I am ridiculously overworked and underpaid.


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