CMU Better fights for improved graduate student conditions

On March 14, the morning after spring break, students and staff at Carnegie Mellon were greeted by bright posters in red, green, and blue, with the headings asking “Do grad students deserve unlivable low wages?”, “Is some grad work worth 22K less than other grad work?”, and “Is our work worth 7.5% less than last year?” The posters had accompanying graphics of supporting statistics, and a QR code linked to a survey asking respondents to share their experiences with “CMU’s poverty wages.” On the same day, a twitter page called “CMU Grad Students Deserve Fair Pay,” @CMUBetter, started tweeting out the posters. The Tartan reached out to the students behind this campaign, and they agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity, identifying themselves as “CMU Better”: “members of the Carnegie Mellon graduate student community advocating for fair pay and dignified working conditions, including grad students from the School of Computer Science, College of Fine Arts, College of Engineering, [and] Dietrich College.”

The group started as a few students in the School of Computer Science who discussed the unique pressures of a graduate program. “From the start, our goals were to build community with other graduate students who may be feeling isolated or disaffected, by naming the structural issues we all face,” they said. They cited power imbalances in their advising relationships, a lack of work/life balance, financial insecurity, and medical care that does not cover basic needs, among other systemic issues.

They began speaking with members of the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA), the branch of student government that represents all graduate students, and alumni who previously held leadership roles to gather data. They also began doing casual walkthroughs to meet students from other departments to gather a better understanding of the graduate student experience across departments.

The group chose to highlight financial insecurity in their posters as it cuts across departments and individual experiences. “CMU administration often argues that it would be impossible to achieve pay parity across departments because of different funding structures such as grants, teaching stipends, et cetera,” they said. The group revealed that they wanted to gather student consensus around modest and reasonable requests like providing a living wage and accounting for yearly inflation. “We are outraged that our peers in Drama and Design are paid below the line — or not at all,” they said.

Provost Jim Garett announced on March 16 that Carnegie Mellon will institute a minimum stipend of $2,250 per month for all qualifying doctoral students and full coverage of health insurance premiums, among other benefits. However, the group pointed out that the update does not cover Masters students. They also highlighted that even doctoral students on the new minimum stipends with 12-month funding would only make $27,000, when the cost of living in Pittsburgh is about $24,658 (excluding health insurance) by Carnegie Mellon’s own estimate. “With inflation at more than 7 percent and increasing, this one-time change is only going to be less helpful over time. Students have a right to earn a living wage for their work,” they said. This is particularly true for students who have family obligations, chronic health conditions that result in large out-of-pocket expenses, or those funded for less than a year — living on the minimum stipends does not come close to financial stability.

“It is also important to realize that for many Ph.D. students, a Ph.D. is effectively our first job, often held for 5 years or more, where folks might otherwise be saving for their future,” they said. The group reasoned that at the very least, the post-tax minimum stipend should be more than the cost of living in Pittsburgh, and all stipends should be adjusted yearly for inflation. “The university continually highlights the excellent research, creative work, and teaching that graduate students do; meanwhile many graduate students sacrifice their future financial stability to come here.” The group added that students should be given benefits like parental leave, medical leave, dental insurance, and retirement contributions.

“CMU’s disconnected departmental structure leads graduate students to feel alone in their struggles or remain oblivious to the difficulties other graduate students in other departments face,” they revealed. The group also noted that many students reached out to them after the campaign, expressing their lack of awareness of the pay disparity between departments.

They added that several students shared stories about their experience at Carnegie Mellon that weren’t related to pay, such as feelings of depression, a culture of overwork, and struggles with abusive supervisors. The group shared some anonymized survey responses from consenting respondents with The Tartan. “Thank god food stamps and Medicare are around to pick up CMU's slack in not paying a living wage or providing benefits to its grad student employees,” wrote one student. “It's a significant struggle to offset rent hikes. Not to mention the massive increase in gasoline and food prices. My current MSE stipend just is not enough to live comfortably in Pittsburgh anymore,” wrote another student.

Another student shared, “In my program, grad students do not get paid at all. This means I have to work an outside job to make ends meet, plus take out more student loans to cover housing. This [has] negatively affected my health both physically and mentally, as I am severely overworked and overwhelmed.”

A graduate student from the School of Drama wrote that they are expected to be full-time students without receiving a stipend. “We teach for the school, we direct, design, and build all of the school's shows on top of a full class load. It's 12 hour days every day before homework. How are we supposed to sustain and support ourselves without any financial assistance? It's depressing and unsustainable,” shared the student.

The group said that some respondents cited their relatively privileged positions, such as having no dependents, dual income from a working partner, or parental support, as the only reasons they are able to participate in their programs, saying that this runs counter to Carnegie Mellon’s promised Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts. Additionally, they said that staff members and undergraduates also filled out their survey form with expressions of support, and that they are thinking about ways that graduate students can partner with staff and other members of the Carnegie Mellon community, many of whom have similar concerns about their own working conditions.

CMUBetter’s next steps include hearing about issues beyond low pay and incorporating them into their picture of the graduate student experience, as they understand that pay isn’t the only issue affecting people’s graduate work experience, and it’s not the only issue they want to address. “We want to raise awareness of the poor and disparate working conditions experienced by graduate students across CMU, build togetherness, and paint a more complete view of the graduate student condition here.”

This is the first part in a series of articles regarding graduate students and the benefits they receive as students of Carnegie Mellon.