Over the past month, a petition has been circulating asking the Obama administration to bring graduate student stipends back to their pre-1986 tax-exempt status. I urge you to not sign this petition, as it is misguided and damaging to our image. If you believe graduate student researchers are more valuable than their compensation, then demand more compensation, not a tax loophole.
First, the caveat: I can only speak for the STEM fields. In these fields, a combination of government, corporate, and university grants support research-track students in the lab and classroom. This compensation usually comes in the form of full tuition coverage and a stipend in the range of $1500-$2500 per month, and sometimes includes health coverage.
Our stipends put our yearly income at $18,000-$30,000/year. Compare this to a poverty threshold of $18,530 for a family of three, or $29,990 for a family of six. In computer science, you can double your income with a summer internship, placing you above the median 2009 household income. At first glance, it seems like we are reasonably compensated before we take into account the education, advising, networking, and travel opportunities our life decision has earned us.
Of course, the argument in the petition is more nuanced than one of unreasonable taxation. The petition speaks to the value of our “innovative, cutting-edge thinking” relative to “bankers, lobbyists, or hedge-fund managers.” The comparison is certainly timely, but sweeps under the rug other valuable fields, like Nursing or Carpentry. Both of these fields earn more than the median graduate student in STEM, but optimistically, we are in a position of higher upward mobility once we graduate.
Perhaps a better comparison is what we could earn if we had not chosen graduate studies. With a B.S. in Computer Science, my undergraduate colleagues at large technology firms and startups are earning 3-5x what I earn through my stipend. Am I more valuable as a researcher than I would be in their shoes? This seems like a good conversation to have.
This is a discussion one of relative value. In the absolute sense, graduate students in STEM are not poor, and should pay taxes in whatever tax bracket we fall. Perhaps we’re not compensated enough for what we provide to society. I would like to believe that STEM’s contribution to social and economic development is significant. If we’re seeing a dirth of STEM researchers and our value to society is high, the market failure should be supplemented by the government. Not in the form of yet another tax break, but as an increase in the number of stipends or the amount of compensation distributed per researcher.
STEM is under attack. We should elevate its image by discussing how valuable our work is, not by asking for pity. Demand what you are worth, but remember how lucky you are.