By Tomasz Bakowski and Anusha Mookherjee
It is an exciting time at Stony Brook University. With the SUNY 2020 and Project 50 Forward initiatives coupled with the transformative Simons gift, Stony Brook is poised to grow by leaps and bounds. The current plans at Stony Brook are to increase the faculty by 250-300 people over the next few years.
As touched upon in the piece on graduate student housing, this massive expansion would also result in a large expansion of graduate student enrollment. But there remain many questions. We have already asked “Where will they live?” in our previous piece, but now we must ask and even more basic question: “How will they live?”
Graduate students have a mixed role—that of student and employee. During the length of their doctoral studies, which typically take between five to seven years, they depend on salaries or stipends to live and eat. When a graduate student first enrolls, they are guaranteed nine months of funding, which is paid directly by the Graduate School.
In return for the stipend support, and in addition to any classes or research they perform, graduate students serve as teaching assistants. After the first year, typically, a graduate student must find a professor or Principal Investigator (PI) who will fund them. As such, it is necessary that graduate students have a conversation with their prospective thesis adviser to guarantee that they have the funds to support them for the duration of their studies.
This money come directly from research grants awarded to professors and is administered by the Research Foundation, the SUNY organization responsible for administering grants. Students in the humanities often continue to be supported by teaching assistantships.
All graduate students are guaranteed a minimum level of funding support. This level was set at $15,145 for teaching assistants (TA) and research assistants (RA) for at least half a decade. Compared to other universities, both public and private in the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), Stony Brook ranked near the bottom of the bottom third in terms of minimum stipend support.
Only in January 2013 did the minimum finally increase to $17,145. This raise was automatically applied to all TAs by the Graduate School; however, the minimum increase only applied for new grants, resulting in an increase in pay only for new RAs. Graduate student RAs on already funded and budgeted grants were not guaranteed any increase.
The administration planned on continuing to increase the minimum stipend levels by $1000 per semester through the end of the 2014/2015 academic, up to a level of $20,145. An increase to that level would have increased Stony Brook’s ranking among AAU universities near the average from several years ago. Unfortunately, even this plan has not been followed through on by the administration, despite many promises made to the graduate student leadership.
Money budgeted for TA stipend increases was instead utilized to pay for mandatory faculty salary raises as negotiated by the United University Professions (UUP), the faculty union. Currently there is no concrete plan offered by the administration for when the minimum stipend increases will be reinstated.
Graduate salaries vary tremendously at the department level and even between labs in the same department, with differences of over $10,000 over the course of a year between students in the same department. Some students are paid better with individual departments and PIs offering salaries significantly higher than the required minimums; however, this is not guaranteed.
Many graduate students work for near the minimum, with many students in the social sciences and humanities being affected the most. This creates an extremely large disparity in the quality of graduate student life on campus, with some faring significantly better than others while performing similar work. Increasing the minimums would help to alleviate the economic disparity and hardship faced by hundreds of students.
The cost of living on Long Island is over 30 percent higher than the national average. Despite this, the graduate student stipends offered to many are still below those offered at many other research universities. This forces graduate students with stipends near the minimum levels to often live paycheck to paycheck, barely being able to afford housing and food. As the university continues its expansion, we must be wary of the costs of growth. Although increasing faculty hires by nearly 300 is a lofty goal, it is important to remember the costs attached to that goal. More faculty means more graduate students. This will only cause more pressure on an already cracked system that barely holds up students today.
The university should aim not just for quantity, but focus on increasing quality as well. Long term growth should be measured by not just numbers, but the productivity of the departments and ability to match higher institutions outside the lab.
Areas such as the cost of living and inflation, should be factored into the salaries given to students. Some have argued for stipends to be decreased or minimums reduced. The reasoning behind such an argument is twofold. First, if more students are willing to work for less to earn their doctorates, then they should be allowed to.
The incentive for faculty is that they are able to increase the quantity of students working for them for the same amount of money. Second, if students are paid less than the required minimum, they do not receive tuition waivers from the Graduate School because they are considered part-time graduate students. Therefore, it is argued that their should be no limits so as to not force students to pay for tuition as well.
Arguments for not raising, or worse, decreasing minimum stipend levels for graduate students are insincere. Minimum graduate student support levels serve multiple important purposes, and should only be increased. First, they allow graduate students to have a decent standard of living during their graduate studies, allowing them to focus on their research, rather than stress and worry over whether there is enough money to eat.
Second, increased graduate student support levels attract competitive, quality applicants. This would only benefit the university in the long run by creating a workforce capable of producing higher quality research and academic papers. Third, increased support levels change the financial incentive for departments and PIs by encouraging them to focus on quality of students rather than quantity. With finite resources, departments are forced to be more selective in those who they admit into their programs. This only benefits all parties involved as the students who enroll are more committed to their work, PIs gain a higher quality student pool, and the university increases its reputation for research excellence.
As the university grows and climbs in ranks as a research institution, it is vital to keep long term goals of growth in mind. Though in theory hiring hundreds of new faculty is an admirable and worthy endeavor, it must be done responsibly. The reality of the situation is more graduate students will be put into financial situations that will only take away from the quality of research and learning at Stony Brook University.
Tomasz Bakowski is a fifth year Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering. Former Speaker of the Senate and Vice President of the Graduate Student Organization. For his PhD work, he is working on better understanding the physics of DNA molecules under confinement on the nanometer-scale.