UCLA graduate students point to ongoing economic, structural challenges

This post was updated Sept. 27 at 10:34 p.m.

To pay for her medical expenses, Natalie Moncada could sometimes only afford to eat once a day for months living off of their $2700 monthly work stipend from UCLA.

The molecular, cellular and integrative physiology doctoral student said she still experiences symptoms from her medical condition and avoids going to the doctor or paying for medication because of the high costs. They said they have also accrued debt from medical bills.

“It’s not easy to be able to decide whether you want to eat one day or not or if you can afford it,” Moncada said. “Instead of having to worry about just doing my research and doing my work, I also have to worry about being able to survive.

Noor Nakhaei, a fourth-year computer science doctoral student and president of the Graduate Students Association, said financial insecurity drives people away from academia. The financial situation of graduate students was something Adam Moore, an associate professor in the Department of Geography, decided to survey among his department’s students after frequently hearing about graduate student experiences of struggling with finances.

Moore conducted a survey on graduate student financial precarity, as in struggling with loans, using food banks and working multiple jobs. According to the survey, 79% of students experienced financial uncertainty, 21% reported using food banks or free resources to eat and 36% said they relied on loans, family contributions, savings and debt from credit cards to pay bills.

Although doctoral students risk losing their stipends – monthly payments they receive for their work as researchers – if they have jobs outside of UCLA, 50% of respondents said they took on extra jobs to cover their costs of living, according to Moore’s survey.

UCLA spokesperson Katherine Alvarado said the university conducted a 2020 survey assessing the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on graduate student finances, graduate students’ expectations for job opportunities and their mental and physical health.

According to the survey from the Student Affairs Information and Research Office, students reported financial concerns from the pandemic, frustration about rent prices from UCLA Housing, job market uncertainty and negative mental health impacts.

In an emailed statement, Moore said although the survey respondents were only from the geography department, he believes the results illustrate experiences common in other UCLA graduate programs and plans to discuss these findings at upcoming department meetings.

Students who fail to receive sufficient grant or fellowship funding for their research turn to teaching in order to afford their cost of living, Nakhaei said.

“If you ask any graduate student, you’re constantly thinking, ‘How much money do I have left for the month?’” Nakhaei said. “’Can I afford to go on a vacation? Can I afford to go back and visit my family at some point?’”

Research compensation varies by department, Nakhaei said, adding that departments that secure more grant money can pay their graduate student researchers at higher pay grades.

Flavia Maria Lake, a geography graduate student, said low stipends and high costs of living for graduate student researchers disproportionately affect students belonging to underrepresented groups and harm UCLA’s commitment to equity.

“It funnels students into graduate programs who are already either wealthy or supported by their family and single, and it keeps out or disenfranchises people who are working class or first generation,” said Sucharita Kanjilal, an anthropology graduate student and international student from India.

Visa restrictions and housing also pose a unique challenge for many international students, Nakhaei said.

Academic departments hesitate to recruit and accept international students because their tuition costs more than students with residency in the United States, which depletes their funding, Kanjilal said. Although out-of-state and international students pay the same nonresident supplemental tuition fee their first year, out-of-state students can obtain California residency and waive their fee the second year, she added.

Her own department has stopped recruiting international students because of a lack of funding, Kanjilal said, adding that U.S. visa policies only permit her to work 20 hours a week. Because of these restrictions, Kanjilal said she cannot supplement her income beyond her teaching salary and spends much of her time applying for small grants.

Jessica Cattelino, an anthropology professor and chair of UCLA’s Academic Senate, said despite widespread awareness of these difficulties among administrators, there is a lack of knowledge on how to address structural issues exacerbating the economic challenges that graduate students face.

One of the roadblocks to improving graduate students’ financial situation is that the University of California lacks disposable funding compared to elite private universities, Cattelino said.

“I think people who are at UCLA and part of our academic life really appreciate the centrality of graduate students and graduate education,” Cattelino said. “I do think it can be more challenging to articulate that to legislators, the public, donors and undergraduate education.”

The Graduate Division is conducting an internal study this year on funding allocation, Cattelino said. The Graduate Council of the Academic Senate and Council on Planning and Budget will collaborate to review the report, she added.

“This is something that the Senate and the administration are actively trying to really get a grip on this year – trying to understand the system and structure better so that we can appreciate what needs to change and at what level,” Cattelino said.

Given these challenges, graduate student researchers and teaching assistants are now unionizing and continuing to gain momentum, Moncada said.

[Related: May Day Rally invites UC unions to educate UCLA community on labor issues]

Several unions – including Student Researchers United and United Auto Workers 2865 and 5810 – are negotiating their contracts with the UC and aiming for improved wages and benefits, said Nick Geiser, a physics and astronomy Ph.D. candidate and a member of SRU’s bargaining team. During this year’s contract negotiations, the SRU plans to demand an annual base salary of $54,000 for all doctoral student researchers and teachers for at least six years, he said.

Moncada, who is also a member of SRU’s bargaining team, said she feels empowered through organizing with SRU to advocate for her and others’ dignity in earning a living wage.

Kanjilal said she is hopeful that efforts to bargain will lead to increased equity for graduate students.

“It’s not true that there is no money for graduate students. It’s just a question of where that money is going and how that money is prioritized,” Kanjilal said. “It is very clear that teaching is not prioritized at the UC budget as much as it should be.”


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