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The work was invigorating. It differed from the qualitative scholarship I generally compose, immersing me in surveys, consent forms, and mathematics. In its form, it resembled committee service or union organizing, not elaborating a new interpretation of a Henry Fielding novel.
There were some eye-catching results. The median English Ph.D. stipend at 69 top-ranked departments is a mere $25,000 per year. That falls below minimum wage in some states, assuming that graduate study is a 9-to-5 job. (That graduate candidates put in more than 40 hours per week conducting research, teaching and grading, and serving on committees is another widespread perception, harder to quantify.) Because this figure is the median, we must bear in mind that half of the top English Ph.D. programs in the country pay less than $25,000, a fact that should shame those with the power to raise stipends. The lowest English Ph.D. stipend I learned of among top universities was $16,000, paid by two doctoral programs, in Alabama and North Carolina.
Those numbers are based on a survey of the top 175 universities in the 2022 U.S. News & World Report national rankings, plus the City University of New York Graduate Center, a prestigious Ph.D.-granting center affiliated with multiple universities. Of those 175, 69 institutions offer a Ph.D. in English, guarantee funding for five or more years, and consented to have their stipend amounts published. (Three institutions that offer a funded English Ph.D. declined to make their data available.)
The raw numbers tell only half the story. Most of those 69 programs are located in densely populated cities or well-to-do suburbs, where the cost of living exceeds the national average. In my report and analysis, published on Thursday in the Modern Language Association’s online journal Profession, I take into account the local cost of living. I also break down the data by type of university (public or private), by region, and by endowment size. Using two cost-of-living calculators, I adjusted the stipends to match costs in the Boston area, where I live and work. While those tools are imperfect, they enable comparisons among universities.
The results were revealing. Although Yale outspends Washington University in St. Louis on English Ph.D. stipends in unadjusted dollars, the reverse is true once one adjusts for the costs of living in New Haven, Conn., versus St. Louis. My data suggest that if you are looking to maximize stipend dollars per local living cost, you should attend an English Ph.D. program in the South. Duke’s program tops the cost-of-living-adjusted list, paying the equivalent of nearly $50,000 per year in Boston dollars last year. Vanderbilt, Emory, Rice, and Southern Methodist all make the top 10. Columbia? No. 30. Stanford is No. 43.
Audio Special: Too Broke to Finish a Ph.D.
Discrepancies between the Stanfords and the Southern Methodists get at another factor that began to interest me. English Ph.D. stipends are not at all commensurate with institutional endowment, which, although of course not directly available to arts and sciences provosts as liquid funds, provides a convenient proxy for the institution’s wealth and spending capability. While the Ivies pay more, they do not pay nearly as much more as their 10- or 11-figure endowments would theoretically sustain. Conversely, some campuses are notably generous with English Ph.D. stipends relative to their modest endowments. Loyola Chicago, Fordham, and Brandeis, although outspent by the very wealthiest universities, nevertheless pay English Ph.D. stipends that represent a far larger proportion of their respective overall endowments. This implies that the wealthier universities could afford to do more. Much more.
Another finding of note was the gap, on average, between stipends at private and public institutions in unadjusted dollars. The gap is more than $6,500. All the Southern universities mentioned earlier are private. The impression that private institutions pay more for doctoral study is well justified by my data. But only in the aggregate: Some of the highest English Ph.D. stipends on offer in cost-of-living-adjusted dollars are going to doctoral candidates on the flagship campuses of public-university systems in Michigan and Tennessee.
At Boston College, where I direct the doctoral program in English, biology Ph.D. candidates outearn English Ph.D. candidates by $7,500 per year in the second through fifth years of study. Moreover, the higher stipend is guaranteed for six years to Ph.D.s in biology at Boston College but for only five years, at the lower rate, for those in English. In all, over the course of a six-year degree, biology Ph.D.s at BC stand to earn over $60,000 more than English Ph.D.s do at current pay rates. Math Ph.D. candidates at Boston College reported a stipend of $28,500 in 2020 on phdstipends.com, or $3,000 more than English Ph.D.s in the same year. A choice of discipline translates, in effect, into a choice of salary during the Ph.D. Yet by the time one has reached the stage of preparing applications for doctoral programs, it will not feel like a choice at all.
The point of these comparisons is not that biology and math Ph.D.s have it made. Their pay falls below the cost of living “at almost every institution and department in the United States.” The point is that everyone contributing full-time labor to the intellectual and social life of a university campus deserves a livable wage. Nor do English and biology Ph.D.s occupy non-intersecting parallel dimensions. Whatever discipline one studies, one must generally live on or near campus for the greater part of a decade. Rents are rising faster than ever in U.S. cities. Boston landlords do not adjust rent by discipline!
That’s because my research into stipend amounts initially had a narrow and instrumental purpose. An early version of the report was the centerpiece of my (successful) effort to argue for a raise for the English Ph.D.s at Boston College. Certain aspects of the document reflect that first purpose. Adjusting pay for cost of living is essential for a costly urban area like Boston-Brookline-Cambridge. I excluded competitive supplementary funding and summer funding, as our program offers little of either, and I wanted the comparisons to be apples to apples. A graph comparing stipend to institutional endowment is restricted to institutions with endowments of $3.5 billion or less, like Boston College at the time I began gathering data. (BC’s endowment has since surpassed that threshold.)
In the process of getting the numbers right, I became acquainted with directors of graduate studies, or DGSs, around the country. I found that many of them did not have an accurate grasp of where their programs stood relative to other campuses when it came to Ph.D. pay. Programs at the low end of the stipend pay range knew they were at the low end, but programs that paid better also thought they were among the worst in the nation. Without many opportunities to compare notes, DGSs operate in silos. That’s even true, in my experience, among DGSs in different divisions at a single institution. A pervasive pessimism about institutional support for doctoral education, or maybe for scholarly work in general, seemed to be preventing colleagues in some programs from realizing how much worse it could get.
Some of us even founded an impromptu DGS self-help group to exchange concerns and best practices. Because of the severe disconnect between the narrative of tenure-track employment as the solitary path to success in the discipline and the reality of the academic job “market,” directing a Ph.D. program in the humanities is work that feels different from teaching undergraduates on the one hand or running a department or college on the other hand. Undergraduates are aiming at many careers; members of a department have committed to one. This simplifies things. Graduate candidates exist somewhere in the uncomfortable gray zone in between these extremes. Advocating for them without either selling out their dreams or selling them an illusion requires delicate maneuvering at times. DGSs intrinsically understand this.
Perhaps simplicity is what appealed to me about inquiring into stipends in the first place. For all the intricacy of doctoral education, the stipend is a five-digit number. It is easy to absorb its meaning. I began my research from the premise that graduate candidates are workers as well as students, and that the stipend is their salary. My spreadsheets lead me to the conclusion that many (most) universities possess the wherewithal to pay doctoral candidates a higher salary in recognition of the different forms of value they bring to their time on campus. It can be the role of the program director to persuade higher-ups of that fact.