We recently came across Jillian Kern’s detailed timeline of how graduate student stipends have changed at UNC.

Kern, a PhD student and teaching fellow in UNC’s Department of English and Comparative Literature, uses newspaper and university records to trace how the stipend has changed over the decades in relation to inflation. As she writes, “In 2023, a PhD student at UNC making the minimum stipend can expect to spend about 80% of their total stipend on rent if they pay the county median.”

We highly recommend perusing Kern’s entire report – it’s detailed, well-researched, and contains information that is useful to policymakers, potential and current graduate students, and those thinking about Chapel Hill’s future.

We reached out to Kern for an interview about her research and what she learned. The answers are below:

How did you come up with the idea to examine graduate student stipends at UNC?

The idea has been on my mind (and others’, I think) for the full four years I’ve been here. I have to give a GradCafe user some credit because for the past few years on the English chat board prior to my admission someone had been crowdsourcing stipend offerings from different English PhD programs.

I showed up at UNC in 2019 making comparisons based on that spreadsheet and many of my peers had no idea. That was when I realized how little transparency there is around this. You can’t even Google a program’s stipend usually; the program and university obviously know the numbers, but they never seem to appear publicly. You just know what’s in your offer letter.

Even between departments at UNC, folks above the minimum stipend sometimes have no idea how low pay is for students in other departments. (For the record, the minimum stipend that graduate students receive just went up to $20,000/year on January 1.)

At the same time, we were (and are) pleading for a cost-of-living adjustment, and we kept hearing that the university administration needed data or that they would “love to” help us but would need us to propose a budget source for the funds or document what impact it would have on us. Some of this is a bureaucratic way of saying no, of course, but it became apparent that some of the issue really was ignorance. Someone actually asked “What are graduate students even going to do with extra money?”, as though an increase would be luxury instead of the bare minimum needed to keep us sheltered and fed.

At first I wanted a way to demonstrate visually how much current costs of living were outpacing the minimum stipend, but I realized I couldn’t go back further than 2019. There were people in my department who’d been here during the last round of stipend negotiations, so that got me data back to 2015. Then I posted online asking around and someone said “I think that’s what 2013’s stipend was too” but no one knew anything prior to that. It was just this void of missing information. That bothered me – especially as a literary historian who normally works with the really distant past. I was like “It’s only ten years ago! There were computers around! This information about graduate student stipends cannot have disappeared!”

You’ve done so much archival research for this piece – can you talk a little bit about the process of how you pieced this all together?

I had been checking old chatboards and cached versions of university webpages for a while trying to answer the question about previous stipends and stipend increase sources and getting nowhere. Then it finally occurred to me that the same thing I do when I hit a brick wall in genealogy research might actually work here – if there’s no formal documentation of something that you know people must have been talking about at the time, you turn to the historical newspapers. UNC is a unique case because The Daily Tar Heel is such a strong work of student journalism with an extensive history, so there was a lot to work with.

At first, I was just looking for some numbers, any sense of where the stipend had been historically. But as I dug into the archives, it was pretty uncanny—I was looking at interviews with graduate students from 40 years before I was even born, before my grandma was even in high school, and they were saying they same things verbatim that we’d been expressing as UNC grad students in 2022.

That was really disheartening, honestly. I’m not sure what I was expecting – there’s this narrative that student stipends used to just be a “compliment” to the wealthy young men who went to grad school and that’s why they need to catch up now. But then in the 50s you have professors saying ‘Back in the day, stipends were just a compliment, but now they have to support students and their families.’ It’s not new.

The more I looked, the more it dawned on me how much none of this was new. There’s no way the university, as an institution, doesn’t realize the issues around graduate stipends, failure to match inflation over time, the need for grads to take on extra outside employment, the perennial question that we never seem to make any headway against of where stipend increases might come from in the budget. Graduate students here have been raising the issue of the unlivable stipend since the Silent Generation, but it’s never registering in institutional memory.

Since the institution appears unwilling or unable to store and build upon previous discussions, it felt important to make it available to the public memory. This way, at least, graduate students in the future can more easily see that we are repeating ourselves on a generational scale and build their advocacy on what came before instead of starting from scratch.

What advice would you give to graduate students at other schools who want to undertake this work?

There’s an experience common to most US grad students who speak out about the difficulty of living on their stipend – someone who got a PhD in the 90s and has a tenure-track job now tends to show up and say something like “Back in my day, we only got paid $10,000! And we thought it was fun eating ramen and trying to budget. Kids these days whine too much.”

If you’re in grad school, you’ve encountered this, and you know that the first step is to point out that inflation has happened and happened more than people tend to register, and that $10,000 stipend a few decades ago is the equivalent of a much higher amount now. So almost all of us know about the BLS inflation calculator. (Also, anyone who’s inclined to respond like that is very much invited to do some of this research work themselves before contributing.)

But inflation adjustment alone wasn’t capturing realities that we could feel in how much harder things had gotten, even just over the last four years. I started looking for rent numbers and housing concerns, as well—I knew where I had been living rent had gone up about 40% since 2019 and was eating a big hole in my already limited budget. This turned out to be the missing piece, and it’s probably the missing piece in changing standards of living and financial security for most people in the US. Rent inflation for everyone has exceeded goods-and-services inflation, and I’m confident it’s steeper than the US median in most college towns with their unique development trends and populations.

Step one for other grads is finding rent information. Not just housing broadly, which tends to include mortgages when almost none of us can afford to have a mortgage, but rent in particular. The American Community Survey has for the past few decades collected this information, so you should be able to look up regional rent numbers (and the closer you can get to your specific town, the better, because the county median may be different from a college town housed in that county). (Ed note: We recommend using Census Reporter for this, because it’s very easy to pull the data for your specific town.)

When they get to that point, they might be daunted by the skills needed to analyze the data. I’ve said before I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the graduate students most likely to be on the minimum stipend at their institutions are the ones who are trained in humanist analysis, not quantitative analysis.

In an ideal world, if you can get a graduate student from, say, the Econ or Stats department who already has relevant skills to help, this could be done much faster. But it’s hard to build that kind of solidarity with students paid higher than the minimum when we’re all so busy and overworked, so you might have to self-teach a little bit. I promise Excel is pretty easy to self-teach, and if you pair it with FRED (the Federal Reserve Economic Data) and the ACS data, you can produce a lot of regional data. I don’t care what your field is—I swear you can do this with the research skills you’ve learned and a little bit of time to read some very basic tutorials.

You write that “In 2023, a PhD student at UNC making the minimum stipend can expect to spend about 80% of their total stipend on rent if they pay the county median.” We’re curious how graduate students navigate housing here – it’s clearly untenable. What are people doing? (And is it changing the graduate population?)

I’m sure it’s changing the graduate population, although in this case I think the grad population has never been diverse, never gotten better in order for me to say access is getting worse again. Because the minimum stipend is also quite uncompetitive compared to other institutions, I’m sure we’re losing people with other offers who get admitted here.

People who aren’t from privileged backgrounds are probably not able to enroll at all, or end up withdrawing before they’re done because they can’t afford it anymore. While we’re here, younger, single grad students get roommates and split a two-bedroom apartment or even share a rented house with multiple roommates.

Most of us are in the kind of housing that has mold problems, neighborhood safety problems, roof leaks, etc. We all depend on the free leftover food in the department fridge after events a bit more than we would in an ideal world. And everyone on the minimum stipend gets extra job(s) to supplement and make things more livable.

I don’t actually think I know anyone in a department that pays the minimum stipend who doesn’t have at least two side gigs on top of the teaching work required as part of their funding: tutoring, extra teaching sections, working part-time at a local store, freelancing in editing, copywriting, etc. Most of my peers are working 60+ hours a week, and way less of that is on our research than our advisors would want.

If you have a partner and/or kids, things are even trickier. Most people I know in that position are commuting, some an hour each direction. Often via public transport if your household can’t afford multiple cars, and like I mentioned in my report, at the minimum stipend the odds of getting approved for a car loan are very low. There’s this socioeconomic status expectation for graduate students that if you are partnered, it’s probably with someone who has higher education qualifications and a relatively cushy white-collar job, and they should be able to support you/offset the stipend impact.

But if you weren’t always in that white-collar bracket, your partner might not be able to do that (or if they’re another grad student), and that’s when things get extra tough. It sucks to be partnered, in your 30s, and have to live with a roommate or roommates, but I know people who do it because we have to. And people take student loans and run up their credit cards. Unless you have family in the position to like, pay your rent and utilities and food. (We don’t. This is super rare. It’s more common that I meet grad students who are trying to send money home to support their families, not the other way around.)

Anything you want to add?

Some common responses when the stipend issue is raised center around the sentiment that “this isn’t forever – just deal with it for now and you’ll be out of these circumstances soon enough.” There are a few aspects of that sentiment that need corrected. The first is the underlying social contract that existed for a long time – theoretically, graduate students suffered slightly through grad school to get the promising faculty job at the end of the tunnel, where their time and labor paid off in the form of a highly paid, prestigious job doing what they love.

This just isn’t true for most graduate students anymore, especially in the fields that are more likely to be paid the minimum stipend. Tenured faculty have been being replaced more and more with contingent instructors or “adjuncts,” who are paid per course and paid very little. Realistically, that’s the outcome most of us in a PhD program right now are looking at. So there’s no payoff at the end to incentivize suffering now.

I also want to emphasize that every year of financial damage done to people at our stage of life compounds and affects our entire futures. For example, we can’t contribute to retirement funds at this salary (despite most of us being well past the age that financial advisors say it’s essential to start saving by), and most of us are accumulating debt that will continue to accumulate interest.

Even when there are ultimately stipend adjustments that bring things closer to livable, the year(s) of poverty proceeding that as grads try to get advocacy rolling and be heard have lasting implications – any savings that might have been scraped up get depleted, loans get taken that we’ll be stuck with even if the stipend is ultimately adjusted two years later. Credit score damage stays with you. That’s before you even get to the mental health impacts and delayed medical procedures. We all have cavities. Nobody can afford to go to the dentist. That’s going to have a permanent impact on us.

And then, finally, and this is key: the stipend issue is also a time to degree issue. Again, another non-coincidence is that the departments that pay the minimum stipend are also in fields with longer average times for PhD completion. I mentioned the multiple side gigs we’re working and all this self-teaching time with Excel and economics and navigating the archives to be able to do this advocacy. All that time is time taken away from my degree progress. When the stipend is unlivable, it forces us to take longer to complete the degree, which leaves us subject to those economic conditions for more years, and so on.

Any PhD program has ambitious expectations about how student time is supposed to be spent – theoretically I’m supposed to be teaching 10 hours a week and spending the rest of the time researching and writing my dissertation, with more research and conference travel in the summer. Instead, the hours we’re not teaching have to go toward being able to pay rent (or commuting), so inevitably it takes longer (often years longer!) to actually complete our degrees. Instead of building relevant professional qualifications at conferences, etc. in the summer, we’re working unrelated jobs trying to make it through 3 unpaid months. So when people express concern about the longer time-to-degree in some PhD fields, the first thing they should probably address is the disparity in stipends. And if students raise the stipend issue and are told we need to do our own research to justify cost-of-living adjustments and advocacy to raise awareness, those tasks are robbing time from our progress to degree too. (But hopefully this report can save future UNC grads a little bit of that time.)

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