Gaming the Grad Stipend

It's time for programs to be honest about what their doctoral students need to support life's basic necessities, writes Nate Kreuter.

April 9, 2012

At some point in my graduate career I began to view the ongoing struggle between my stipend and my needs as a sort of game. One game in particular was the one wherein I refused to go to the grocery store until eating my cupboards bare, a waste-not/want-not way to delay paying for sustenance. It got weird from time to time. If you've ever tried this game, you know that the exercise essentially becomes a game of chicken played against one's own stomach, a challenge to see whether mind or body will balk first.

Perhaps the most ridiculous example of my financial stubbornness arrived in my second year of graduate school, when I decided that I would find a way around paying an entire month’s rent for the months of August (when the fall semester began mid-month) and May (when the spring semester ended mid-month).  My thinking, if not entirely rational, was at least clear.

At the time I didn't have summer funding through my graduate program. As a result, I fled the city of my grad program to places where I had free housing and some prospect of work for the summer months. The apartment complex that allowed me the flexibility of signing a 9-month lease, however, would not go so far as to accommodate my beginning and ending leases, as I wanted to, in the middle of a month. So, there were a few weeks in the beginning of August and at the end of May that I was trying to weasel out of paying rent. My solution, which seemed audacious then and seems foolish now, was to reduce my lease to 8 months, beginning it in September and ending it in April. But that left several weeks at the beginning and end of the semester with no home.

So I decided to move into my department’s grad student lounge. I knew going in what the consequences would be if I was caught. There was no rule against essentially living temporarily in the grad lounge (who would think of the need for such a rule?). Indeed, several famously able nappers regularly made use of the lounge’s couches during the day even as other students came and went. But I knew that taking up temporary residence in the lounge would at least cause an outcry. Or a rush on the real estate. Undoubtedly, lots of self-righteous e-mails about an individual colonizing a public, shared space would be lobbed onto the department listserv, and there would be a social penalty for commandeering the space, perhaps even a departmental penalty, of what sort I was unwilling to imagine.

My success or failure would depend upon my routines. I developed a simple theory — rare is the grad student (at least in English) who rises and comes to campus early. If I went to sleep on a couch after midnight and awoke by 6 each morning, no one would be the wiser. We had a microwave and a sink in the lounge, plenty for accommodating unappetizing but sustaining meals. I could shower at the gym, and stash enough clothes and supplies for the week in my car, which would need to be moved once or twice a day to avoid outlandishly expensive parking tickets.

And it worked. For 10 or so miserable nights I partook of fitful sleep on the musty couches in the grad lounge. Some unexplainable point of pride kept me from simply couch surfing between the homes of friends.  

By the end of the semester, when I had another 10 days or so of "homelessness" to work around, I had been assigned a study cubicle, which I shared with another grad student. The cubicles were so small that we were expressly forbidden by our department from meeting with students in them. Simply occupying the same, incredibly small space at the same time would have led to a de facto episode of sexual harassment. The cubicles were so small that I, a male of slightly below average height, could only stretch out across the floor of one if I did so diagonally. Nonetheless, that's exactly what I did.

With the permission of my cubicle mate, or "cubie," as we referred to each other, I transformed the space into living quarters. And by "transformed the space into living quarters" I mean that I dumped a foam pad and a sleeping bag inside. At night, before situating myself in a diagonal fetal position across the closet-sized space (not excellent for one's back, as it turns out), I shoved our one chair into the hallway, hoping it would still be around in the morning. The cubicles — and these are the sorts of details only learned the hard way — weren't air-conditioned, which in Texas in May was in and of itself a hardship.

Many grad students accumulate stories of a similar variety at one point or another. There is a more serious point here, though. I was able to play a prideful, self-invented game of asceticism because I had a stipend to work with.  Say what one might about how small graduate teaching or research stipends typically are, but at least I had one. More and more frequently though, I hear of graduate students financing their own courses of study, without support in the form of tuition waivers or university work.

At least at the Ph.D. level, no student should pay their own way. A combination of tuition waivers and university-provided work should make the expenses of attending graduate school a wash, or at least very nearly a wash. Graduate programs (with the exception perhaps of M.B.A. programs, law schools, and medical schools) aren’t much different from pyramid schemes, in my opinion, when they admit students to Ph.D. programs but then expect those students to finance the course of study. And students are naïve when they are willing to pay their own way through, given the bleak prospects of landing a job in many disciplines.

Often graduate programs are located in high-rent cities, and so even when support is provided, prospective grad students and responsible program administrators must ask themselves whether the stipends offered will realistically allow students to eke out enough for rent and grub. Beginning grad students have a responsibility to themselves to crunch the stipend versus cost of living numbers before beginning a program. Similarly, it is the responsibility of programs in all disciplines to offer stipends that, while necessarily modest, will nonetheless allow grad students to live, even if it means offering fewer total stipends (and not to admit more students than there are stipends).

Alternately, I estimate that some grad student lounges can accommodate upwards of 20 cots. It would be like grad student summer camp, with fewer care packages, less physical activity, and, well, less fun.  

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Nate Kreuter

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