2023 Survey Results: Graduate Student Income (guest post)


How do current graduate students in philosophy PhD programs perceive their financial situation?

In the following guest post, Carolyn Dicey Jennings (UC Merced) shares information about current graduate students and recent philosophy PhDs gleaned from the most recent Academic Philosophy Data & Analysis (APDA) survey.

(A version of this post first appeared at the APDA Blog.)


2023 Survey Results: Graduate Student Income
by Carolyn Dicey Jennings

The 2023 APDA Survey included the following new questions for current graduate students of philosophy PhD programs:

  • How satisfied are you in your financial situation? [very unsatisfied, unsatisfied, neutral, satisfied, very satisfied]
  • Please elaborate on your previous answer.
  • Including all sources (e.g. stipends, employment, gifts) what is your approximate annual income? (Please provide in US dollars or name the currency you are using.)
  • If you needed access to $1000 or its equivalent for emergency purposes, could you get it? [yes, no]

The mean annual income was $30,183 (n=288; median is $29,000). The mean satisfaction value was “neutral” (16% very unsatisfied, 24% unsatisfied, 19% neutral, 30% satisfied, 11% very satisfied). Satisfaction with one’s financial situation corresponded with income. Those who answered “very unsatisfied” had a mean income of $24,892, whereas those who answered “very satisfied” had a mean income of $38,086.

PhD graduates now in temporary academic jobs had a mean salary of $51,314 (n=149) and those in permanent academic jobs had a mean salary of $81,507 (n=364). The mean U.S. salary is $59,384.

Of those who also answered the question about emergency funds (n=319), 24% could not get access to $1000 or its equivalent for emergency purposes. In contrast, only 7% of graduates say they cannot get access to such funds (n=658). While the majority of Americans are reportedly in this position, comparative survey questions have asked specifically about access to cash or savings, not access to funds overall:

“All too many Americans continue to walk on thin ice, financially speaking, with fewer than half indicating they would pay an emergency expense of $1,000 or more from savings,” Bankrate Senior Economic Analyst Mark Hamrick says.

Here are some select comments from those graduate students who report being “very unsatisfied“:

The rent burden where I live can be anywhere from 70 percent to 95 percent of the total graduate student earnings. This is not acceptable.

I can barely afford to live as it is, and we have no pay whatever during the summer. It’s just not sustainable unless you are rich, have rich family, or are willing to rack up credit card debt or student loan debt.

I took out a lot of student loans. I did not finish my PhD in my five years of funding, my sixth year was competitive funding that I needed to apply for, and then it was necessary for me to find a full-time job before finishing my dissertation. I am in a lot of debt.

from those who report being “unsatisfied“:

The most significant drawback of pursuing graduate school in philosophy is the sacrifice to one’s finances. Setting aside the significant opportunity costs of obtaining a PhD, it is extremely difficult to build any savings in graduate school. This is particularly true in rent-burdened locations like San Diego, where cost of living has spiraled out of control–especially in the last three years. The response of universities has been, to my mind, inadequate. Adding to this the reality that it is no longer feasible to expect secure (if not well-paying) employment after graduate school, inadequate finances remain the primary reason why I would caution anyone from pursuing a PhD in Philosophy.

Our stipend is on the higher end for many programs yet I still struggle to afford daily necessities. It doesn’t help that we are often expected to pay up front for conference travel, etc. and wait to be reimbursed. I end up putting it on credit cards and having to pay interest which I can’t afford. We also need nicer clothes for professional events. I face casual disparaging comments about using an old laptop and students say things about how useful/helpful e.g. tablets are and suggest I get one as if I could afford to suddenly spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on new technology. Students pay annual fees to have personal websites. Socializing happens over drinks and expensive dinners so I miss out socially. We aren’t permitted to have outside employment yet I have a family to care for. I understand that many of these problems are common to many careers. But given philosophy’s interests in becoming more inclusive, it’s worth noting. Graduate students who come from wealthy backgrounds are at a significant advantage.

As a single person, my stipend allows me to make ends meet, living modestly. But 6+ years on a fixed income that is low (but just high enough to not qualify for benefits) produces a dearth of savings, right at the moment when you go on the market and are likely to need it most (i.e. to tide you over if you don’t get a reasonable job offer).

from those who are “neutral“:

I would feel serious financial stress if I didn’t have a partner outside if academia. Just a few thousand dollars more per year would make a huge diffence to our grad student’s financial security.

I am able to subsist with careful planning and supplementary summer work. I teach a lot for what I am paid and wish I could be compensated more. I am very aware that this arrangement has taken time away from my ability to research and publish more.

It is enough to live on, but not enough to escape frequent financial anxiety.

from those who report being “satisfied“:

The stipend is generous for a graduate program in this field, and the premiums for the insurance are included. However, if the stipend doesn’t increase with cost of living, it would be disastrous.

expensive cost of living in my city, but the stipend stretches fine for my needs. i also am coming from a place of financial privilege though (no undergrad debt, no dependents, no chronic illness), and if that were not true, i think the stipend would be much less sustainable

I get enough money during the spring and fall semesters, but not enough during the summer.

and from those who report being “very satisfied“:

I am independently wealthy.

I am fortunate to receive a high stipend from my program and have been able to secure additional funding opportunities through my university (e.g. fellowships, research funds). Having entered graduate school with no student loan debt and the financial support of my spouse and our extended family, and living very frugally, I have been able to save some money during graduate school.

My financial situation is based on a lot of money saved before starting my PhD.

Discussion welcome.

 

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Devin
Devin
1 month ago

Thank you for this!

One thing I do want to note though is that the Bankrate survey appears to be quite controversial among macroeconomics experts, and doesn’t line up with other data: https://twitter.com/besttrousers/status/1743659785822548451

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  Devin
1 month ago

Thank you! I hadn’t seen that but will be more cautious with that claim. From a more reputable source it looks like most Americans don’t have a “rainy day fund,” but that appears to be defined as typically covering three months of income, a much higher number: https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w17103/w17103.pdf If you find something more relevant let me know.

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Carolyn
1 month ago

I couldn’t tell, from reading that link (thank you for including it), whether having a rainy day fund meant “I have 3 months of expenses saved in the bank right now as cash that I can immediately withdraw” or if it meant “I have access to 3 months worth of expenses if you combine savings, investments, and retirement accounts from which I could draw.”

I’d imagine that far fewer people would have three months of expenses sitting around depreciating with inflation than they would as a mix of retirement funds, investments, and cash savings. Do you happen to know how rainy day funds are defined?

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
1 month ago

No, and I wish that I had done a bit more to explore these comparators prior to sending out the 2023 survey. I will try to look into it more before the next one to be sure that there is a relevant comparison.

Ryan
Ryan
1 month ago

The “Very Satisfied” comment of “I am independently wealthy.” 🤣

A faculty member
A faculty member
1 month ago

Thanks for posting this, and to the authors for collecting the data. But more than the average income, it would be more helpful to know the average difference between graduate students income and estimated cost of living in the relevant area. Could this be derived from the data you collected?

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  A faculty member
1 month ago

A little tricky but yes. The question would be what to use for cost of living. I played around with this using a publicly available index at some point but it didn’t have all the cities so I could only do a subset. If you find a good database with relevant information let me know. Of course: an index needs a base value. Could be federal poverty line, for example, or could drop the index and just use median income for that city. But worth thinking about what would best answer the question you have in mind, given what is available in terms of comparable information.

Simon
Simon
Reply to  Carolyn
1 month ago

I liked this paper‘s approach to measuring cost of living vs income in various cities

lu chen
lu chen
1 month ago

It would be clearly unkind and unhelpful if I were to advice graduate students with lower cost-of-living-adjusted stipends to live more frugally, not to compare, or to get external financial help. So I will not be making a point with this post. But just to share my experience *in case* it provides a perspective. I also acknowledge upfront my situation may not apply to many or most students.

In 2011, my friends and I were exchange student studying in Michigan for a year. Our stipend was 200 per month (for food) plus an additional 1k for the whole year. Dorms were provided at no cost. My friend and I ended up spend well within 200 per month, so there was never any need to use the additional 1k. In the end, we each used the 1k plus some monthly remainder to get great laptops.

In 2012, I joined an MA program in Wisconsin. My monthly stipend after tax is about 1k (I forgot the exact amount). It was the only program I applied and admitted so I had no idea about any other school’s. Again, I found it easy to save up enough to buy my international flight tickets.

Looking back, I realized that my friend and I were living very frugally, but we did not feel it at that time. We were simply spending all time in the library. We bought large packages of romaine hearts that covered all veggie needs, and shared cooking. During my MA period, it helped that I lived with landlord and another roommate. The landlord was grumpy kind but very helpful and ask for low rent, and we still keep close contact to this day. Again, I didn’t realize that my stipend was low and I was living frugally. I was not financially worried.

Again, my experience is not generalizable in any sense and I do not want to undermine anyone’s struggle. But I hope my sharing adds to the survey in which the only reported “very satisfied” people are “independently wealthy”.

youce
youce
Reply to  lu chen
11 days ago

wow, amazing!

Simon
Simon
1 month ago

The median salary for US college graduates is roughly 82k, significantly higher than overall median salary, and so people who choose to study philosophy at the graduate level are also experiencing a high opportunity cost

Last edited 1 month ago by Simon
Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  Simon
1 month ago

I am also interested in ROI for graduate school. A colleague sent me this resource that finds median income in the United States for a philosophy major is 41k for early career (younger than 27) and 71k for midcareer (35 to 45): https://www.newyorkfed.org/research/college-labor-market#–:explore:outcomes-by-major I would guess most graduate students have a philosophy major and are in the early career age range, so 41k would be a more appropriate comparison.

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  Carolyn
1 month ago

On the other hand, that resouce shows that 57% of philosophy majors get a graduate degree of some kind, and “median annual full-time earnings for humanities majors holding an advanced degree in any field were $87K,” which is higher than the median/average for philosophy PhDs. So there may be loss relative to having gotten some other advanced degree (e.g. in law).

Simon
Simon
Reply to  Carolyn
1 month ago

Really interesting data! Actually this data is reporting median salary for US college grads at 60k, compared to the BLS which is saying 82k. I’m not sure what is going on with the discrepancy, it’s possible 60k is the 2022 wages, but that wouldn’t explain everything. Regardless of the exact median salary, though, the data you link does suggest that philosophy majors earn somewhere between 10 and 20% less than the median salary for US college grads in general, so fair point that the opportunity cost of going to graduate school in philosophy is probably a bit lower for philosophy majors.

Last edited 1 month ago by Simon
Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  Simon
1 month ago

I think it is because 82k reflects all ages, but the other data looks at recent graduates only (1990 onward).

Simon
Simon
Reply to  Carolyn
1 month ago

Interesting, I guess the thing that you’d ultimately want to know is the median lifetime salary associated with each choice. But I guess recent grad data matches the data you have better, since that is also focused on earlier career salaries

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Simon
1 month ago

Does that matter, though? It would if it was hard to recruit enough students onto PhD programs, but that’s not obviously the case.

Simon
Simon
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

For example when philosophy majors are deciding whether to go to graduate school in philosophy, it would be important to consider not only the income they should expect to earn in that case, but also the income they could expect to earn as a philosophy major / college graduate who did not go to graduate school in philosophy. Opportunity costs are easy to overlook in these types of decisions. For example, the largest cost of going to college is usually the loss of wages while enrolled, rather than the tuition.

Recent graduate
Recent graduate
1 month ago

For reference, a 25yo on 30k is at 30th percentile overall and 34th percentile income for that age, while a 30yo is 25th percentile. I think the big determinants of whether such amounts are enough to live on are whether you have kids and whether it’s reasonable to expect childless grad students to live in a share house. If no kids and a share house, 30k seems like plenty. If yes kids and own place, clearly inadequate.

https://dqydj.com/income-percentile-by-age-calculator/

Ainsley
Ainsley
Reply to  Recent graduate
1 month ago

Hi, yes childless graduate student living with roommates, I pay around half of my paycheck (post-tax) to rent, so yeah that doesn’t feel like plenty.

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
1 month ago

Following up on one of the comments where the commenter lived frugally but did not necessarily conceive of themselves as doing so, it would be helpful to understand something of the socioeconomic background of the students answering these questions. In my grad program, there was a sudden and very welcome increase in our annual salary about halfway through my PhD. I found the grad student response across two related departments to vary wildly: those who were from backgrounds of comparatively more socioeconomic privilege had very different expectations for what ‘enough to live adequately on’ amounted to. I experienced their expectations for “barely adequate” as what I would have described as “living extremely well, as mildly wealthy people”. It can be hard to experience moving down the socioeconomic ladder, but at the same time, I think it is very important to also note how these are reasonable salaries in many of these areas, in terms of what other people working common jobs would earn. So, as a grad student, I was making about as much per year as someone working the checkout at a local drug store, or someone waiting tables at a not especially fancy restaurant, or someone working a fast food position. It is largely a difference in perspective to 1) know how to live well enough on that kind of income and 2) recognize how lucky one is to get that same pay for essentially doing one’s research and teaching interesting courses to undergrads, rather than the eight hour shifts that can be very soul sucking. Living with one other grad student at the time, making the same salary as me, we had a total household income that was actually just above average income for the area, even while many people in the program complained about how low their pay was. How grad students experienced this was shaped almost entirely on their expectations and experiences growing up in their SES range.

So I think one huge elephant in the professional room, which has not received nearly enough attention, is how one’s socioeconomic background plays into one’s experience (here, of grad student salary, but it affects a lot elsewhere as well). It can seem totally inadequate, if one has never had to live on a tight income before, while to another student from the lower 40% of the scale for SES status growing up, it can seem generous, like a lucky shot to make the same pay but for much more interesting and engaging work. I think telling students in general that they should steer clear of grad school because of tight funds is baking in a kind of presumption of higher SES background to the audience to whom you give the advice. For some people, grad school is a chance to live on as tight a budget as you would have been anyways, but also doing much more engaging and interesting work for that budget. I think we want to avoid a kind of socioeconomic condescension involved in saying, of salaries that often are similar to what many other non-academic jobs make in the starting <10 years, that they are unlivable.

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
Reply to  HK Andersen
1 month ago

Here is shorter way to say this: asking about satisfaction with grad funding doesn’t measure something similar across different grads, even in the same program. It measures the contrast between your prior SES-based expectations and your funding. So, among students in the same program with the same funding, lower childhood background SES would likely have higher satisfaction than higher childhood SES. Without controlling for this, or rephrasing the question, this question about satisfaction with funding is more about, what SES background are you from prior to grad school.

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  HK Andersen
1 month ago

These are great points. This could go in two directions: higher expectation leads to lower satisfaction or more external resources lead to higher satisfaction. I took a look and it looks more like the latter in this study. At least, when comparing self reported SES to satisfaction with graduate income, the same proportion in the “lower” SES bracket were very unsatisfied or unsatisfied as were in the “higher” SES bracket and neutral or satisfied (about a third were in each category). Here, for instance, is the proportion in each SES that gave the “very unsatisfied” response: 8% upper, 10% upper-middle, 12% middle, 26% lower-middle, 34% lower.

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  Carolyn
1 month ago

To add, as it is relevant to the comment above: when I looked at how satisfaction varied with international status (whether they were an international student) there is a small difference in response. For example, only 14% of international students are “very unsatisfied,” compared to 19% of domestic students. (I haven’t checked to see if this is statistically significant, but I am guessing not.)

ajkreider
ajkreider
1 month ago

Curious if there is any data on the % of grad students who supplemented their income with non-academic work – and whether that affected satisfaction levels (in either direction).

In my program, at least half of the students worked summer jobs outside of school.

Carolyn
Carolyn
Reply to  ajkreider
1 month ago

No, we didn’t ask that question.