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Grad students’ labor fuels grants awarded to the university, funding research, salaries and even construction projects. Despite serving as the university’s labor backstop, we are sorely undercompensated.
After passage of March’s CARES Act, we were excited to learn that more than $17 million was allocated to UC San Diego for direct student aid. Our students are struggling, and this funding can bring huge relief to many. Imagine our disappointment when UCSD cooked up a plan — without any input from students — to give only 10 percent to graduate students despite us being 20 percent of the student body and outnumbering undergraduates 3-to-1 on campus during the pandemic. Once again, we were forgotten.
Graduate students are critical to university function, and our work significantly impacts the prestige and success of an institution. While faculty lecture for undergraduate classes, we lead small group discussions and laboratory courses where direct learning takes place. Across departments, we are primary researchers, putting in countless hours collecting data, preparing manuscripts and presenting at conferences. Our labor fuels grants awarded to the university, funding research, salaries and even construction projects. Despite serving as the university’s labor backstop, we are sorely undercompensated.
Graduate students are commonly perceived as privileged, having wealthy parents or financial security to pursue further schooling; however, our reality is much different. Many graduate students are first-generation; most come from working families. A large proportion experience food insecurity and rent burden, and spend over 30 percent of their salary on housing. Salaries fluctuate based on teaching duties and departmental funding, sometimes just exceeding the threshold for public assistance during the school year then lost during summer. Many graduate students have children, taking up additional time and money. If we are lucky, we may receive tuition remission or a stipend barely meeting the $15/hour minimum wage, assuming — unrealistically — a 40-hour work week. CalGrants, Pell grants and subsidized loans are unavailable to those with bachelor’s degrees, and when we request help from elected officials, the message is clear: Undergraduate education is the priority. Graduate students must figure it ourselves.
On top of our responsibilities and financial burden, the power struggle between graduate students and mentors is unending. Unlike other fields, academia is an established hierarchy where mentors hold the keys to career progress — we rely on them for funding, project guidance and professional support. The pressures of research, teaching, parenting and maintaining relationships compound to create one of the greatest mental health crises in the nation. Graduate students are six times more likely to experience mental health disorders than the general population. According to UC San Diego Institutional Research, 33 percent of our peers report depressive symptoms, and nearly 40 percent of doctoral students experience depression.
The burden on graduate students has only increased during this pandemic. Alongside professors, we translated entire courses to online formats with only a few weeks’ notice while struggling to continue research as campus shut down. Remote work brings added anxiety — unreliable internet and technology, parenting duties and financial stresses. Supplemental income from part-time jobs is gone while a summer of unemployment awaits. When aid comes, we are either ineligible or receive significantly less due to restrictions on post-baccalaureate funding. Once campus reopens, we will return first to support core university operations and regain lost time on projects that define our career options.
In the coming months, as San Diego and California face budget cuts, we have one request of our legislators: Please consider graduate students in your policies. Expand the eligibility of COVID-19 related funding so we can benefit. Explicitly designate aid for graduate students proportional to our numbers on campus. Continue funding mental health resources and basic needs programs specifically for food, rent relief and childcare. Now more than ever, graduate students need your support as we continue the critical work of keeping our universities running, proving that our role in this institution has always been and continues to be essential.
Quynh Nguyen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an M.D.-Ph.D. student in biological sciences at UC San Diego and the legislative liaison for national affairs for the Graduate Student Association. Rachel Flanagan (email@example.com) is a Ph.D. student in mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC San Diego and the Graduate Student Association president.