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I am asking on behalf of a friend who is in their second year of their PhD in the US. This month, without any notice or warning, their stipend is reduced by two-third (normal stipend is $2300, now is $725, which is way below minimum wage).

This had happened before but never at this extreme rate. In the past, the PI had reduced all PhD students' stipends by $100-200 for a few months due to lack of budgets (sometimes with notice, other times without notice). This month, my friend asked another PhD student in the same lab if their stipend was reduced and it turned out that the other PhD student's stipend was reduced by only $200 while my friend's was cut by almost $1600.

In the beginning of summer, the PI was not pleased with the direction of my friend's research idea and threatened that he would stop supporting their PhD if there is no better research idea or progress. However, in the most recent meeting with the PI (2 weeks ago), both were happy with the new research direction and the PI didn't mention the earlier threat anymore. My friend also just submitted a manuscript for another paper so they were very surprised (and sad, and anxious) about the sudden cut of stipend.

My friend emailed the PI and the associate director but hasn't gotten any reply. Who should my friend contact about their situation (department dean, program director, graduate director)? Is there any legal action they can take? They don't really want to escalate the situation but this is honestly unacceptable. They are also international student so they are not sure if legal action even is an option. If this continues, they plan to just take a few more courses in the Fall and graduate with a non-thesis master and go somewhere else. Is there anyway they can seek assistance from the school if the PI refuse to pay for tuition in the Fall?

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    Note that the "finance" tag is for the field of finance, not for student finances. I hope you apply it correctly. Otherwise it should be removed and perhaps replaced with a field specific tag.
    – Buffy
    Jul 2, 2023 at 19:51
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    "I am asking on behalf of a friend" - better that your friend asks themselves, otherwise we're playing a game of telephone about the circumstances here.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 3, 2023 at 13:45
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    The student must have a PhD contract. How much funding does it guarantee for how long and what does it say about notice periods?
    – Joooeey
    Jul 5, 2023 at 8:26

5 Answers 5

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The answer really depends on the school and what the student was offered during admission. These days, it is common for US universities to offer a guaranteed 5-year stipend, with the money staying constant. Now, the way advisors and/or departments get around it is by saying that the money will come from a combination of teaching and grant funds, then expect students to support themselves through teaching alone. That is, the guarantee is a guarantee that students will be offered a teaching spot, not a guarantee of string-free money to spend time on research. So it could very well be that your friend is being cut from the unrestricted salary money, not teaching money, and that they now have to teach. If that's the case, then it's time to learn Power Point and join the club.

Given that it's the start of the summer, another possibility is that your friend was promised semester funding, either from a TA or RA source, but no summer funding. Then what the advisor is doing is funding some students but not others during the summer with RAs. It's not common, but I've seen some labs in which grad students were expected to leave during the summer. Some went on extended vacations, others went to their parents' house to catch up with thesis writing, etc. international students be dammed (I was not an international student, but could not afford plane tickets anyway.)

More about the issue of advisors picking and choosing whom to give summer funding: there are good, bad, and ugly reasons to do this. Good reasons: when funding is limited, say the advisor only has enough for 1 summer stipend, they can choose to pay a student who is taking care of an experiment that needs year-long care, e.g. feeding animals, or they might prefer to fund their star student, someone who is about to finish and writing important papers, someone who takes extra tasks in the lab, e.g. equipment maintenance, etc. They might also prioritize students who have children. Bad reasons include pleasing students who threaten to leave if not paid the summer stipend, and the advisor deciding to give them the money instead of someone more deserving, or distributing the money equitably among students. Ugly reasons include the coward's way of dealing with problems, e.g. avoiding a confrontation with an underperforming student and instead cutting off his funding with the hopes he/she will go melt and go away. Note that international students are notoriously vulnerable to exploitation, as visa requirements require full-time student status. So it's just too easy for unscrupulous advisors to cut off international students from funding, as they are the ones who are not able to find part-time work outside of the university, and thus have no leverage.

Regardless of the reason, there is a real failure of communication from the advisor's side. I wonder how the advisor would take it if the admin cut HIS salary 2/3rds without notice, regardless of how justified the admin felt.

Now, if the advisor is cutting stipend money AND there are no opportunities for your friend to make money through a TA/RA job, then they should go to the director of graduate studies, the office of financial aid, etc. (whatever they are called at their institution) and plead their case. No department wants a reputation of being the place where grad students can be cut off from funding for arbitrary reasons (they do it all the time; they just try to avoid the reputation of doing that.)

Always keep in mind that if your friend is not making good academic progress, as determined by the advisor, all bets are off.

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    Off-topic comment: Admittedly, the usage of "then it's time to learn Power Point" as a metaphor for "start teaching" gives me a rather creepy feeling... ;-) Jul 3, 2023 at 2:31
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    My gut instinct on reading the question was 'how can this possibly be legal?' but seeing your explanation of a mix of grant and teaching funding gives a good explanation. However I would still expect that there are some department rules on how this is planned and communicated and no professor can just on their own adjust monthly funding without notice? So what OP describes still seems way off?
    – quarague
    Jul 3, 2023 at 9:10
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    It could also be an issue of summer funding. I added a note to the answer.
    – Cheery
    Jul 3, 2023 at 9:39
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Finance person here who handles payroll. The first thing you need to consider is that it could be a mistake. One of the crazy but common things we see is that people are paid incorrectly and never say anything, often for months. This is even true of faculty. Before assuming the worst, find a department administrator and ask who handles payroll. Finances and appointments are complex and mistakes happen, even at prestigious universities.

Second, in terms of legality, there may not be any minimum wage. Institutions of higher education individually determine if their students are employees or not. If your institution determines that students are trainees, there is no minimum wage to consider because some of the student activities are determined to be educational. You may be able to determine this by researching your school's financial policies.

Finally, in terms of school policy for lowering the salary, you should understand if you are admitted by the PI or the school. The department or school may have minimums that are guaranteed, and faculty are then restricted on who they can admit based on funding. However, if your school classifies grad students as trainees, no payment is required and is simply customary.

Find the department administrator and ask about the payroll. It is important not to blame people for the mistake. Most of these folks are overworked and get very little help. If it is an error, I'm sure they will be highly embarrassed and eager to fix it. Check your payroll every month and say something as soon as you see an error.

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This is school specific, but many schools have internal rules about what minimum stipends must be. This is a stipend not a wage though.

Unfortunately it is not unknown for professors to do stuff like this with complete disregard for what the university rules are.

As to point of contact, I'd try the graduate office / graduate director, try and find out what the rules for your school are. The admission letter may also be relevant.

Id very strongly advise looking for another advisor, as someone who pulls this kind of stunt is probably not someone you want to be working with. Being 3 years into the phd and the advisor having no money to pay you is going to be a bad situation

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    *Id very strongly advise looking for another advisor, as someone who pulls this kind of stunt is probably not someone you want to be working with. * This.
    – Cheery
    Jul 4, 2023 at 16:04
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Kind of adding to what @cheery.beach7701 said. If it is Summer specific, then a couple of legit scenarios come to mind.

The student is normally supported by TA/RA but in this specific scenario seems to be supported by RA (explains why PI can adjust salary). In that case:

  1. Non-Summer (previous cases) times when there was a salary adjustment. The PI adjusted their salary. Departments, even within the same school have different stipend requirements. These are the minimum requirements, for a lot of public schools (some of the ones I know) they can be even $1600 or $1800. Then some advisors while giving RA try to give more by topping it off maybe by 10-15% (Havent seen a more generous advisor yet). Since RA has no cap, your advisor can choose to give you whatever money (more, not less than that minimum amount) they want (the department might raise an eyebrow...). Now it seems he was doing that and when he doesn't have money he just takes away that leeway and sticks with the minimum (seems this school might have around $2100 as a minimum, judging form the post).
  2. Now this is all well and good, but all employments (including tenure track professorships, nontenure track is diff...) come with 9 months of employment. Hence that 3 months of summer, either Prof's want their students to go do internships or whatever they want (since otherwise they will have to pay them from their own pocket/grant, which they also use for their own salary at that time). A lot of Prof's dont want that, hence the extended holiday/internship encouragement etc. In some schools you can be supported by getting a summer TA with reduced course enrollment. And some profs if they ave grant will support you through RA.

In this case, it seems point 2 is at play if this is summer-specific. He probably doesnt have fund to pay for summer hence reduced pay. But some schools also cut you off from summer enrollment without a RA/TA in summer, hence maybe he is paying. Whatever it is, in my limited experience it always is crucial to talk to your PI about summer plans by January/february so you can plan internship etc.

Completely written from my conjecture. And I am an International Student myself. So with that perspective

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In terms on who to contact, in some cases each department has Director of Graduate Education (DOGE). They will be the best person to contact to better understand the policy if financial aid. These policies vary from school to school and lab to lab. If you don’t have a DOGE, dep chair will be another option. Just remember, in most cases, PI reserves the right to remove you from a research project (thus completely eliminate RA funding). They definitely have to meet minimum wage requirements irrespective of the department. So find out how many hours are they paying for, atleast you can threaten to look for other jobs.

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    You probably mean "PI reserves the right", not "PI restricts the right". But even more probably you just meant "PI has the sole right".
    – LSpice
    Jul 4, 2023 at 20:42
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    Yes :) thanks for the correction
    – Anuj
    Jul 4, 2023 at 21:23

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