My supervisor got his PhD in the 1970s while having two kids and a house. He spent 25k on the house. Everyone from that era, even the 80s or 90s, said that their degree was dirt cheap and they were very easily transiting from academia to work life post graduation.

Fast forward to the present day, my graduate wage is 25k/yr (most of which is spent on tuition) and the housing prices in my city are 70k-100k for tiny small apartment. Almost all the housing prices are rising due to speculation and price for even basic daily necessities such as food or even a hair cut is rising.

I am going to a conference but I can't go because the plane ticket alone cost $1000 dollar. Uploading a paper cost $100, an additional one cost $300. Registration $300. All the conference prices are rising and many students are frustrated but the conference organizer insist on places such as fancy resorts or islands. It feels like a hustle.

How do academia rationalize the reality that the cost of living has risen dramatically, yet graduate wages are stagnant, making the graduate degree nowadays a very costly and risky journey. How do academic advisors support students in these times when their students are all living around the poverty line, the same bright students who could easily make 100k-200k working as a programmer?

I sometimes wonder if the only reason I am admitted is that I am from a third world country and people assumed we are satisfied with less and unequal pay. Not unequal with respect to other graduate students, but unequal with respect to people who has citizenship with the same skill.

  • 9
    Usually, travelling costs of PhD students are covered by some form of funding. E.g., in my university, PhD students have a travelling fund from the PhD school and when this is finished, I pay from my research funds. Further, I'd say that now, at least in my university, PhD students are paid much better, compared to the cost of living, than I was when I did my PhD 20 or so years ago.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Sep 9 '19 at 7:15
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    @SanjayGupta That sounds like the rule set for some department-sponsored travel grant or the like. In most universities, advisors also have their own funds (or grants) from which they can reimburse their students for travel costs connected to conference participations. Perhaps your advisor ran out of such funds?
    – DCTLib
    Sep 9 '19 at 7:24
  • 4
    Housing prices in my country are not dramatically different now than they were in the 70s (if you adjust for inflation, fluctuations since then were on a magnitude of 20 %, we are currently at a high level). I sincerely doubt that anyone doing a PhD back then could afford buying a house (from their income), not the least because you wouldn't have been able to get financing from a bank without having a permanent position.
    – Roland
    Sep 9 '19 at 8:19
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    It's weird that your tuition comes from your wage. It's also weird that the costs associated with attending conferences also seem to come from your own pocket. As far as I've heard there are no graduate programs that make students pay for these things themselves.
    – Ben10
    Sep 9 '19 at 9:58
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    Uploading a paper cost $100, an additional one cost $300. — Huh? This looks a scam to me. (Not in the cynical philosophical sense that "all conferences are scams", but rather in the more focused sense that "legitimate conferences don't charge for uploading papers".)
    – JeffE
    Sep 9 '19 at 17:07

This might prove controversial but I'm going to reverse the question: why do PhD students accept being underpaid? As long as academic institutions find candidates willing to be underpaid, they have no reason to raise the wages. If the PhD students themselves don't defend their claim to a better compensation, who will?

In some countries PhD students are staff with a proper employment contract (I'm aware of at least Germany and France, probably others as well). The advantages of this system from the PhD student perspective are:

  • Access to health, pension and unemployment benefits in accordance with the country regulations
  • The PhD counts as a professional experience
  • The salary is usually indexed on some public employment salary scale
  • Symbolically improved social status, e.g. when being vetted for an apartment or a mortgage.

Obviously this option is more costly for the academic institutions, which means that they had to reduce the number of PhD students hired in order to increase the salary.

In France, the transition from student stipend to work contract happened at the beginning of the 2000s. The movement originated from the PhD students themselves and was driven by the Confédération des Étudiants Chercheurs (students researchers federation, later appropriately renamed as the Confédération des Jeunes Chercheurs, junior researchers federation). The central claim was that even if PhD students are researchers in training, they actually carry out productive research work, as illustrated by the fact that 50% of scientific publications have a PhD student as first author. Therefore legal cases were brought that their work qualifies as regular employment, and that the student stipend system was simply illegal according to labor laws. Institutions and funding bodies reluctantly complied over the next decade or so, for fear of legal challenges and/or bad publicity.

  • I like your answer, but I think it comes down to a question of power and politics. The supply/demand equation is not in the students' favor, so the only way they would be able to increase their salaries is through some sort of 'socialist' collective bargaining type of action. Unfortunately for the US though, that conflicts with the prevailing free-market capitalist culture.
    – Time4Tea
    Sep 9 '19 at 15:22
  • 3
    I got my PhD in France and I can sign everything I'm reading in this answer. However, here's a (sad?) tidbit - apparently some countries (the only specific example I've heard of is Spain) have reverted back from work contracts onto student stipends so apparently the system hasn't lasted at least in some places.
    – penelope
    Sep 9 '19 at 15:30
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    To "why do we accept being underpaid?": Even when you do unionise and try to fight for better conditions, you often end up with results like this en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_York_University_strike
    – llama
    Sep 9 '19 at 16:07
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    @penelope: from my (German) point of view, a scholarship of adequate size (i.e. correctly figuring social insurance costs) is better than an employment contract as the employment contract increases the power disparity / dependence between supervisor/employer and PhD student. To me the more disconcerting revertion is to look at PhD students as still being in training as opposed to fully qualified professionals doing an independent piece of work. This of course coincides with the lowest-level employee point of view. Sep 9 '19 at 16:31
  • 1
    @cbeleites from my (European; too many flavours collected at this point) point of view, some of the benefits that came from being a salaried employee were indispensable: I was able to draw on the French social security system in the last month of my PhD and a few months following, not feeling a pressing need to look for employment when three different medical professionals told me to rest up (very stressful PhD finish...). I have to admit I do not understand from your comment how a salary increases the disparity while a scholarship would not (assuming both are of adequate size).
    – penelope
    Sep 9 '19 at 17:11

Cost of living differs dramatically from city to city and country to country. So the problem you describe is not as uniformly present as your question suggests. The way the payment is organized (stipend versus salary, tax rules that apply, health insurance, etc. etc.) differs a lot from country to country and over time. Such changes could easily lead to a (hard to see) improvement of the situation of PhD students, instead of the deterioration you report.

However, it is generally true that as a PhD student you will earn less during their studies than if you started to work immediately. However, those with a PhD degree tend to get on average slightly better labor market outcomes (slightly higher pay, less unemployment, etc.).There is some indication that a PhD degree on average pays of in terms of life time income, but I don't think the advantage is large. Again, this differs a lot from discipline to discipline and country to country. Depending on the specific circumstances you could easily be one of the persons that would have earned more during their entire life without the PhD degree. So if you are doing this for the money, then it is not quite as bad as you describe, but there are probably better investments you could have made. However there are other advantages: For example, if you want a career at a university or a research position outside university, then a PhD degree is pretty much required. Those are the things that you "buy" by excepting the lower payment now. Whether or not that is a worthwhile "purchase" depends on the kind of jobs you want to pursue.


Following is a US only perspective.

In most fields, advisors have no control whatever over the conditions of either their grad students, nor the general economy. In a few scientific disciplines in which advisors hire their students, usually from grant monies, this can differ, but university policy may still put limits on what can be paid.

What an advisor may be able to do, is to try to make the length of the doctoral program as short as is feasible, getting people out more quickly. But, since scientific breakthroughs can't be scheduled, this is an aspirational policy only.

Universities may also be limited in what they are able to do, for complicated financial reasons. Legislators have not been especially generous in funding education in the US at any level (actually it is rotten). Funds are limited for most disciplines and the funds increase slowly if at all. But a certain number of grad students are needed to provide TAs to make the undergraduate education system work at all. The tradeoffs are difficult to manage. We could pay graduate students better if there were fewer of them. But then (a) you wouldn't be likely to get a slot in a grad program and (b) the undergrad program would also suffer. Hard choices and no effective way to overcome them.

But if you are in a doctoral program for any reason but love of the discipline and a burning desire to live your life there, then you are probably not in the right place. Money is seldom the main driver of those who seek PhDs.

As other here note, the living cost in many places in the US is insane. Near Stanford it is so expensive to live that it is difficult for the university to attract faculty, much less graduate students. But the value added by an education there is worth it for many. And note that it is also true that Stanford had something to do with creating the conditions that led to that cost of living by fostering the rise of major tech firms. This is one reason that young faculty can be (many places) judged primarily on their ability to attract grant money that keeps the whole system in (delicate) balance.

Long term (lifetime) if you want to make a difference, support spending public funds for education at all levels. The alternative is to guarantee a poorer future for everyone. An uneducated populace isn't an especially productive one.

  1. It's supply and demand setting wages, not socialism, not "living wage". As long as they get slaves, oops grad students, coming in at the bottom of the pyramid, why worry about the wages? If they need to raise wages, they will. If they don't, they won't. You already see this with postdocs or even grad students from field to field. Those where it is harder to attract students pay more. In general, engineering > science > humanities.

  2. Immigration. Massive amounts of imported grad students. Some departments of U.S. science and engineering are more than 50% non-native.

  3. Articles in APS and ACS about encouraging kids to do STEM, when hard science Ph.D.s struggle to get desirable jobs. Big lab profs are in the business of staffing grants. As long as they get the grant, they won't stop a project because the grads don't get hired.

  • One reason to worry about PhD pay is that paying below a living wage shuts out students who aren't from well-off families or are otherwise "nontraditional." This is already especially evident in the humanities. So if a program cares about attracting students to the field who aren't rich, white, traditional-age, and educationally privileged, then they need to care about what they pay people at the start of an academic career. Sep 9 '19 at 21:15

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