Christy Thomas GRD ’16, a seventh-year music student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, has taken an extra job this year at the Center for Teaching and Learning to support herself as she finishes her dissertation — “a recipe,” she says, “for instant insanity.”
Thomas is one of 100 seventh-year graduate students, around 3.5 percent of the overall Graduate School population, who has had to adjust to significant pay cuts announced last year as part of a broader budgetary reshuffle that administrators describe as a necessary “restructuring” designed to accommodate sixth-year funding. For their first six years, graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, who on average take more than six years to complete their degrees, receive a fixed stipend of around $10,400 per semester to cover their living expenses. But graduate students who remain at Yale for a seventh year receive funding based solely on the number of hours they teach. Before the cuts, seventh-year students received stipend-level funding if they taught two courses per semester. But the new policy requires seventh-year students to take on an additional course to earn roughly the same level of funding. Only 6 percent of the seventh-year graduate students enrolled at GSAS have chosen to teach a third course this year.
Before the changes, which went into effect last fall, seventh-year students could earn around $10,000 each semester for teaching 15–20 hours per week. But now, students receive only $8,000 for the same time commitment, though they are permitted to take on additional hours in order to reach stipend-level funding.
The January 2015 announcement triggered a furious backlash from graduate student leaders who argued that seventh-year students would be left financially vulnerable as they hunted for work in the highly competitive academic job market. And now, 15 months after the University announced the cuts, those predictions appear to be coming true, as seventh-year students report exactly the logistical and financial hardships they expected would follow the funding adjustment.
“The seventh-year pay cut has definitely had a negative impact on students financially,” said Nicholas Vincent GRD ’17, public relations chair of the Graduate Student Assembly. “Students … may feel strapped into taking on the extra teaching in order to earn more money, but it often comes at the expense of completing their dissertations in a timely manner.”
But administrators say the pay cuts were a crucial part of a budgetary compromise that ensured humanities and social sciences sixth-year students would receive stipend-level funding. And according to Graduate School Dean of Strategic Initiatives Pamela Schirmeister, the University actually pays “substantially above market rate” for non-stipend teaching. Still, Schirmeister conceded that the changes have made life difficult for seventh-year students.
“I wouldn’t say [7th year students have] adjusted smoothly,” she said. “They are paid less than in the past, and we know that this can represent a financial hardship.”
Christie said she has enjoyed working at the Center for Teaching and Learning, but that the pay cuts have made her last year as a graduate student one of her worst.
“Given the financial pressures as well as the pressures to finish and get a job, this has been by far the most stressful year during my time at Yale,” she said.
Another seventh-year humanities student, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said the cuts forced him to teach a third course, creating mountains of grading that have weakened his dissertation and caused him unnecessary stress as he looks for a job.
“If you’re in your seventh year and you’re teaching, you’re almost definitely in the job market,” said Mark Rodgers GRD ’18, who chairs the Academics and Professional Development Committee of the GSA. “The problem with the pay cut is that in the year when you have the least time to devote to finding other resources of funding in addition to teaching, you most need to find those additional sources of funding.”
The funding changes — which also affect science graduate students who have already completed their teaching requirement, as well as master’s and professional students — provoked fierce backlash last spring from graduate student leaders who said the pay reduction would make living in New Haven unaffordable. In March 2015, the GSA called for the changes to be delayed by one year so that fifth-year students planning to stay at the University for another two years could plan their finances accordingly.
But Schirmeister defended the changes as a budgetary compromise that emerged from negotiations between students and administrators.
“In consultation with the GSA and the faculty, we determined that sixth-year funding was a top priority, and to make that possible, we had to reduce the rate at which students not on the financial aid package are paid to teach,” Schirmeister said.
But graduate students interviewed called that trade-off an unfair, punitive arrangement bound to jeopardize the financial stability of an already-vulnerable group.
“That’s a bit of a Faustian bargain that none of us was ever asked to agree to,” Rodgers said.
The student who requested anonymity said the new policy treats seventh-years as if they are “delinquent or inattentive,” despite the clear difficulty of finding work straight out of graduate school.
“There are simply not enough academic jobs out there to expect every doctoral candidate at Yale to get an academic job by his or her sixth year,” the student said. “The administration’s current policy refuses to acknowledge that reality.”
Nearly 3,000 students are currently enrolled in GSAS.