Saturday, February 28, 2009

Graduate Student Pay Oddities

Today I received, after much confusion and bureaucratic procedure, reimbursement for the expenses I incurred during my grand summer o’ fieldwork. During the course of my research I paid out-of-pocket for hotel rooms, gasoline, restaurant meals, and other things normally paid for by one’s employer in the course of working. There are two main reasons why it took 6 months for me to get reimbursed. The first is that I was fairly slow about submitting my accumulated receipts and so forth to the relevant University of Guelph financial staff.* However, the second reason relates to the larger issue of graduate student pay.

* I’d like to thank my advisor, Dr. Gregory, for streamlining this process in many ways, by rapidly acquiring the necessary forms and signatures and by simplifying some claims down from the more than 100 individual receipts I submitted. I can only assume the majority of the delay I encountered is caused by the deeper tunnels of university administration, and not by the people whose names I actually knew.

After I quit my PhD, I continued to receive pay from the University of Guelph, a rather odd situation. I didn’t notice the income for a while, because I had a number of other things on my mind, and when I did notice I figured this issue would resolve itself as soon as somebody at the university connected the dots. Not true. Eventually, my continuing pay without employment came to the attention of the departmental secretary in my old department, who contacted me and we had a very polite and quite pleasant conversation in which both of us became enlightened about the other’s situation. Seems I needed to pay back that money as soon as possible; fair enough, though it does seem odd that I should be penalized for the university’s mistake. I know I signed off on all the relevant forms at my end when I quit my PhD and resigned from the Teaching Assistant position I’d been prepared to assume for the fall. Oh well. The upshot of all this back-and-forth through obscure university departments (there are at least 3 separate departments at the University of Guelph with the word “finance” in their names) was that I wouldn’t get my summer reimbursement until I paid back the money.

This relates to the larger issue of grad student pay because this strange and annoying little episode is by no means atypical of my graduate student experience. At both Simon Fraser University, where I did my M.Sc, and at the University of Guelph, where I attempted a PhD, I had frequent issues regarding my salary, none of which were easy to sort out.

For most employed people, I think, income is usually pretty predictable. Except for those individuals who run their own businesses or are paid by commission, paycheques are probably rather consistent and predictable. If there is a problem with one’s pay, there is usually somebody with responsibility for such things that one can talk to. At medium or large corporations, and at government departments, this person usually has words like “human resources” or “payroll” in their title or job description. At smaller organizations, this role is usually performed by the business owner or senior manager. In any case, as an employee, it’s not your problem, you let this responsible person sort things out for you, and you don’t need to know the details of the money shuffling that goes on behind the scenes.

In contrast, as a graduate student at a university, at least in my experience, any problems with your pay are very much your problem, and you’ll get almost no help from anybody in sorting out these problems. My salary as a graduate student variously came from a mixture of my advisors’ operating grants, directly from the department as a Teaching Assistant, scholarships and bursaries from a range of organizations, and special grants awarded to my advisors. None of these money sources are simply bank accounts from which money is drawn and given to the student. All are complicated, have esoteric rules governing their use, and are administered by multiple people who may or may have ever previously talked to each other.

The weirdness and problems that result from these complex pay arrangements are exacerbated by the generally low pay a graduate student receives. Many university departments even have policies in place providing a ceiling on total pay that a graduate student may receive, not that I personally ever came anywhere close to these ceilings. I’m NOT going to rant about low grad pay, though, because this is (obviously) a more complex issue than a simple whine about income. Suffice to say for now that I acknowledge the trade-off from the advisor’s point of view, between attracting and retaining talented people, and being able to conduct research using funds not devoted to salaries.

I’m sure I could rant endlessly from the many anecdotes I’ve accumulated regarding unpleasant surprises and grad student pay. But I won’t, since I know some of my readers can themselves provide much more shocking and outrageous examples. Also, my experience is limited (directly) to Canadian biology departments at medium-to-large universities, and (indirectly) to science departments at American and British universities through conversations with other people. I am curious if similar difficulties are typical of other academic organisations or departments and in other countries.

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