Graduate students are playing an increasingly significant role in the academic workforce — but at Pittsburgh’s most prominent research universities, some say they are straining under insufficient wages that haven’t kept up with the rising cost of living.

At the University of Pittsburgh, graduate students can earn between $30,000 and $39,990 a year, depending on their job. Doctoral students at Carnegie Mellon University earn at least $30,000 a year for 12-month programs. The university does not publish information on its stipends for master’s students, but their pay has historically varied by department. 

While Pitt, and at least some departments at CMU, categorize the jobs as part-time work, graduate students must also juggle their academics and can be discouraged from taking outside jobs, policies show. To make ends meet, some students work other jobs, if they can, take on roommates and rely on the financial support of their partners, among other choices. 

In Pittsburgh, a single adult who works full time needs to make $43,957 a year to earn a living wage, according to an estimate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“Fair pay = emotional well-being,” reads a sign in a campus window at the University of Pittsburgh on Feb. 6, in Oakland. Pat Healy, a graduate student and union organizer at Pitt, said the faculty’s successful unionization has helped the union push among graduate students. There’s “a very high likelihood that any given grad at the university is going to have an advisor who is pro-union,” Healy said. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Jared Stonesifer, a spokesperson for Pitt, said the estimate is “misleading” when applied to graduate student stipends because it factors in health care and transportation costs the university covers. Removing those costs would bring the living wage to $31,202. 

“The University keeps a close eye on living costs in Pittsburgh, using multiple cost of living calculators and data sources, including from our own students,” Stonesifer said. He added that the university has increased the minimum stipend by 22% over the last two years. 

The career experience that graduate students receive through their work also represents a form of investment from the university, one researcher said. Stonesifer said that graduate students with 12-month appointments receive stipends, health insurance, tuition and fees valued at $62,109, at least, “and often much higher.”

Some graduate students at both universities are pushing for better pay and working conditions. Graduate students at Pitt have filed for, and are now awaiting, a union election with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, while several CMU students have hosted meetings this semester to build solidarity and discuss ways to improve working conditions.

The issue is not unique to Pittsburgh universities. Union campaigns have surged nationally among graduate students, with campaigns frequently achieving victories with large margins. There were 30 new collective bargaining units established for graduate and undergraduate students between 2022 and 2023, and on average, 91% of eligible students voted in favor of unionizing during that period, one study found.

Quinten Brown, left, executive administrator in the CMU’s Office of the Provost, talks to Amzi Jeffs, right, a post-doctoral fellow in mathematics at CMU, who delivers a petition on graduate student labor on Oct. 26, at the school’s Hunt Library in Oakland. Jeffs is part of the 1500 Now organizing committee pushing for better treatment and more compensation for working academics. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

That could bode well for the union drive at Pitt, which comes about five years after graduate students voted against unionization by a slim margin. “Now it feels like, well, clearly, it’s no longer a question as to whether or not we should have a union,” said longtime Pitt organizer Pat Healy. 

Spokesperson Peter Kerwin said CMU “has a long history of providing holistic support to our graduate students.” In recent years, CMU has increased its contribution to the student health insurance plan, created a fund to support professional development and launched a fellowship to mitigate financial burdens, Kerwin said.

Some graduate students feel financial strain

The growth of graduate student workers has been outpacing that of faculty nationally. Nearly 3,700 graduate students worked at CMU in fall 2022, having more than doubled over roughly two decades, data from the U.S. Department of Education shows. Pitt slightly increased its number of graduate assistants during that time, to about 2,000.

On average, teaching assistants at U.S. colleges, universities and professional schools earn $46,960 a year, according to 2023 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These students may teach recitation sections, mentor undergraduates, help students with laboratory work and assist faculty with research, among other roles. 

The increase in graduate student workers nationwide aligns with “a restructuring about teaching and research that has taken place over really half a century,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. 

For decades, universities have hired a growing share of adjuncts and professors with short-term contracts, which typically pay less. These positions can provide more flexibility to universities that are facing fluctuating enrollment numbers or are concerned about their financial futures — partially because of declines in state funding. 

Similarly, universities use graduate students for teaching and research work partly because it’s cheaper than hiring full-time, tenure-track faculty members and partly because it provides students with needed work experience, Herbert said. 

The potential savings have come with a cost for some working graduate students.   

Lacey Rzodkiewicz is a teaching assistant at Pitt, where she’s recently been helping her students prepare for their final exams while working on research for her dissertation. The doctoral student and union organizer estimated that about half her stipend goes toward rent, utilities and groceries.

While she could put away about $500 a month when she started at Pitt in 2019, she said she now finds herself breaking even because of increased living expenses. She and her partner have cut back on unnecessary expenses, including eating out and doing “all the fun stuff that you want to be doing when you live in a city,” she said.

“I feel, if I didn’t necessarily have that financial support from my partner as well, this would be a lot tighter of a budget, and it would be less cutting out of non-essentials and more cutting down to bare basics,” Rzodkiewicz said. 

From left, Philip Sink, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University, talks with Noelle Cremer, an MFA in costume production, after delivering demands on grad student labor to the provost on Oct. 26, in Oakland. “Coming together, forming a coalition is a way to achieve change on campus,” said Sink. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

At the campus next door, Philip Sink is facing a similar financial pinch. The doctoral student in philosophy came to CMU in 2020 and said his department had pointed to Pittsburgh’s comparatively low cost of living as a selling point. That was true for his first year and a half at the university, Sink said, but rent now takes up almost half of his $30,000 annual stipend.

Costs are “rising pretty steeply, and our wages are not rising with that,” Sink said. “And there’s no mechanism for our wages to rise.” 

Along with increasing the minimum stipend in recent years, Stonesifer said that Pitt has expanded its parental accommodation policy, allowed new graduate students to receive stipend advances before their first paycheck; and created additional roles dedicated to supporting graduate students, among other changes.

Universities are also providing mentorship and support to these students, which is a form of investment that is “not necessarily going to show up in a spreadsheet,” said R. Todd Benson, executive director of Harvard University’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education.

Regardless of their employment status, Benson said that universities “should be supporting them, engaging them, so that they have the conditions by which to do the best work they can.”

Union pushes grow nationwide

Across the country, graduate students are voting to unionize with overwhelming support. Last year, doctoral students at Duke University won by a 1,000-31 margin; graduate students at Syracuse University won by a 728-36 margin; and graduate students at the University of Alaska won by a 314-11 margin.

“We’re seeing a great labor resurgence, particularly among young people under 30, who are seeking now to be able to have input and a real voice in decision-making in the workplace,” said Herbert, of the national center.

Pay has been a core issue for the campaigns, and unions have sometimes been able to secure substantial wins in that area, Herbert said. After students at the University of California system ended their strike in December 2022, they gained raises as high as 80%.

Students at CMU have not announced plans to unionize, but efforts to improve their working conditions are ongoing, according to Sink. In September, students delivered a petition to the provost that urged the university to provide graduate students with a $1,500 payment that some faculty and staff received in June to offset inflation. 

CMU did not issue the payment, according to The Tartan student newspaper. 

Since then, Sink said organizers have “been talking with students incessantly, going around department to department, door to door.” The conversations are intended to bring more students into the fold and inform future demands to the university, he said. 

“Students don’t often get a sense of what the problems are in other departments,” he said. “It’s quite nice to see that, in general, students care a lot about the problems, even if they find themselves in a situation where they’re good with their department.”

This fall, organizers said their conversations with students revealed a desire for higher pay that tracks inflation and protections from workplace harassment, among other improvements. Organizers are hoping to achieve a $50,000 minimum stipend for graduate students, Sink said.

At Pitt, the last union election ended in defeat — by just 37 votes. The renewed push began in earnest in October, with a card-signing campaign to determine support for a union, and was partly driven by several recent administrative changes. 

Pitt’s School of Medicine is providing an annual stipend of $40,000 to doctoral students this academic year, which led some organizers to question why other graduate students are paid less, one said. And in August, Pitt announced a series of price hikes for graduate students on the university’s medical insurance plan, a move that came without warning. 

“I think a lot of grads very quickly realized that, without the protections of a legally recognized union, we were subject to whatever the administration wanted to decide about our working conditions,” said Alison Mahoney, a doctoral student and union organizer.

Pitt did not voluntarily recognize the union after the card-signing campaign, which means the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board must set a date for an election. That process could take months, according to Healy. While Healy is worried Pitt will try to stall the vote, they’ve noticed that their peers are more informed and less cautious about unions this time around.

“Looking at our last election, and looking at it in a plot of other grad unionizations around the country, it often felt like we were the last ones to lose,” Healy said.

This story was fact-checked by Elizabeth Szeto.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.