Forced to Work at Waffle Bus, Rice English Ph.D. Students Lodge Stipend Complaints

Categories: Education

Not sure the English Ph.D.s will be able to afford Lovett Hall anytime soon.
It seems that the teaching tellows at the University of Houston may have started something. While those English Department masters and Ph.D. students have begun a sit-in near Chancellor Renu Khator's office to force a discussion about their meager stipends -- the group's annual funds remain below the national poverty line -- certain English Ph.D. students at Rice have begun coalescing around a similar call.

According to a handful of students currently in Rice's program, the university has failed to keep their stipends pegged to a rising cost of living and has allowed the program to fall behind peer institutions in terms of compensation. As such, and much like their peers at UH, the current batch of Rice students are forced to go elsewhere for work, depriving both them and their students of the necessary hours to devote to scholarly study.

"We have to do whatever we can -- I'm not sure we could survive if we didn't," Lindsey Chappell, a second-year English Ph.D. student, told Hair Balls. "I know people who wait tables, who tutor. I know one student who now moonlights on The Waffle Bus."

Fortunately, and unlike at UH, Rice students are not forced to sign statements promising to forgo outside work. Still, the point of graduate school isn't to sling eggs to the latest customer or to learn how to properly flip a waffle iron before the batter crisps. The point of these graduate programs is to exist within the scholarly sphere, and to devote your entire energies to your scholastic pursuit.

Rice's Ph.D.s at least see a stipend above the poverty line, with nine-month incomes coming in at $16,000. However, as Seth Morton, a third-year student, points out, such intake falls $5,000-$10,000 short of those at peer institutions, and has likewise remained stagnant while Houston's cost of living continues to spike.

"The current rate will not allow us to compete -- even if we jump it to $20,000, we're still not competing with Ivy League programs," Morton told Hair Balls. "And it's hard, because the university is so public in lauding the strength of Rice endowment, and with the donor and gift-giving culture at Rice...Rice PR just released a report talking about how [the Centennial Campaign] is crossing the $950 million mark, so it's tough to understand how the university is so tight-pocketed when it comes down to a matter of few thousand dollars."

According to Morton, the programs currently house a little over 30 students, which would entail jumping their cumulative stipends by only a few hundred thousand dollars to put them on par with those at other programs.

However, as Dean of the School of Humanities Nicolas Shumway -- who, according to Morton, had declared rectifying the students' stipend situations the "first order of business" three years ago -- notes, Rice's stipends are meant to be supplemented by teaching incomes, which average approximately $5,000 per class.

"Let me say I want to raise the stipends. They're not where they should be, and I've been saying this for some time," Shumway told Hair Balls. "Teaching should be part of graduate training, but I don't think it's ethical to use [graduate students] as cheap labor. The reason Rice stipends are low is because we don't include teaching incomes in stipends."

Shumway pointed to additional certification programs in which the graduate students could receive supplemental funding. Chappell and Morton, however, both noted that they don't believe there are enough positions and courses available to suffice as additional income.

"These strategies aren't actually very possible -- they look great on paper but not on the ground," Chappell noted. " We need to teach. We need to put it on our CVs for the job market...but we don't currently teach enough."

As it is, the dean recently declared that he was raising the program's stipends to something more comparable to the finest programs in the nation. But instead of sending additional funds to the current crop of students, it's the next batch of first-year students -- the ones without the ability to supplement their income through teaching -- who will see the pay raise.

"Rice is rather generous on other ways," Shumway said. "We waive all tuition for grad students, and we have a very generous medical plan. We're nice to them in other ways. ... I don't think we have anything to be ashamed of here."

Of course, while current students are happy to hear that later students won't have to experience the current situation, such a promise doesn't alleviate present realities.

"There have really been no lines of communication between us and the dean's office, and we're left scrambling and confused," Morton says. "It's like we don't really have a voice in this, and we're not too sure what the next step is...There's a real sense of disappointment. Morale's really been affected by the news."

Chappell, for what it's worth, doesn't fault the dean for his recent announcement. She feels that the budgetary directives are coming from elsewhere, as they likely are. Still, due to the perceived lack of communication, a department-wide malaise has settled in.

"Frustration is a good word," she says. "We had lots of talks with the dean last year, and the original plan expressed was to give us all a raise, and that was sort of snatched away and doled out to our successors. Which is great, and we're happy things are changing, but for us we're worried how we're going to make ends meet."

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If the other instructors in the humanities program are not making 10.26 an hour, that is a false equivalence argument. Masters+ students are just as able to teach 101 Humanities courses, and often do, just to free up the tenured faculty to do research or to teach upper level classes. This is all about cheap labor, otherwise any instructor dipping into the well of the lower level classes would also only be making this amount. 


An English PhD is the last refuge for the precocious 8th grader who was told that he or she was a terrific writer, but who failed to demonstrate any tangible progress in anything other than grammar in the ensuing 8 years.

An English Masters student is the person who failed to reach that level of achievement.


With all respect given to the fact that their demonstrations are peaceful, these students are being ludicrous.  Now, I will admit that I am unfamiliar with the nature of an exclusivity clause barring these students from pursuing other income; however, the fact that they are unsatisfied with making $16,000 a year astounds me. I am currently pursuing my undergrad (2nd year) and work full time, supporting myself and paying my own way through school.  I would estimate that I make right around $16,500 a year and I make do.  To me, this simply comes off as entitlement.  Furthermore, this stinks of the Millennial (my generation's) mindset. I currently work two jobs, 50 hours a week, on top of school.  One is as a math tutor; the other, at a glorious fast food joint.  Do I sincerely enjoy kowtowing to managers who I can mentally run circles around?  Of course not.  However, I have learned a semblance of humility, budgeting, and many life skills through all of this.  Lofty ideals are great, but I'd much rather have my bread and butter be earned with my own two calloused hands after writing three term papers.


If you were wondering: the current $16,000 for 9-months-of-the-year Humanities Grad Stipend works out to $10.26 per hour (at 40 hours per week, which is about what most people spend it seems to me.) The Dean's idea that the university has an obligation not to treat us -- college graduates, good ones at that, usually with prestigious Master's degrees, continuing to learn and entrusted with the grading and teaching of Rice University students -- as cheap labor rings a little hollow. With all due respect, I think the work we do is worth more than $10.26/hr. That figure also means the summer research we all have to do to get through the program is entirely unpaid. Even just making the same pay rate a year-round thing would get us to $21,340, and would be a big improvement, but still leave us behind many comparable universities.

The Humanities' departments programs are designed such that at any one time there will be at most 150 funded graduate students in total (probably significantly less). Even at the high figure of 150 students, Improving our pay to $12/hr, 12 months per yer, would mean an additional $1,350,000 per year. That's a lot to add to the Humanities budget, yes. But Rice's endowment was $4.42 Billion as of June 30, 2012. The stipend increase would amount to 0.03% of the current endowment per year. I'm pretty sure they make a lot more than that in plain old interest every month.


@heygirlimhere It sounds like you are under the impression that these students didn't do exactly what you are doing while undergrads and are now at the graduate level not working in fast food (although it seems like some are due to their pay) but teaching college level courses. Most people unfamiliar with how graduate school works don't realize that teaching is a way to pay graduate students, however the majority of their time is spent working on research projects toward publication, taking classes themselves, and presenting at conferences. Whereas the faculty are largely paid based on their ability to publish students add to the prestige of the university through their published work without any compensation and only are paid through their work as teaching assistants and teaching fellows. I think it is unfortunate for anyone to be in a situation where they are working long hours only to be at or below the poverty line so I don't think your being in a difficult scenario makes them or others any less deserving of reasonable wages. 

One thing that is unfortunate about these recent events is the lack of attention given to the university wide issues of grad student stipends at UH and Rice. The lack of unity weakens bargaining and fails to address the fact that many programs at the universities are facing the same problem and have simply not been as vocal.  


@Christopher0us The work that you do is worth what someone is willing to pay you and what you are willing to accept. In this case, that appears to be $10.26/hour.

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